Fertilizing electronic creativity in Germany and across the planet for 25 years now, Michael Reinboth’s Compost Records has been doing things differently since day one.
This maverick musical spirit is very neatly encapsulated in an opulent anniversary vinyl box set 25 Compost Records. While discussing the possibility of writing a label feature for 5 Mag with fellow contributor Harold Heath, I made a somewhat outrageous claim:
“Compost is the most important electronic label of the last 25 years.”
“I would read that article,” replied Harold. So here it is.
There are many better-known labels out there. In fact, considering their longevity and output, I’m constantly surprised when I meet people in dance music who haven’t heard of Compost at all. The imprint moves on so quickly, from one musical breakthrough on toward the next one, that the mainstream never really has time to build a shrine to its successes. Constantly evolving and somewhat mysterious, it’s been easy for others to build entire careers by imitating one fleeting highlight of the Compost journey and pass it off as their own original sound, because by the time the carbon copy hits the stores, Compost has already moved on to something new.
This is the magical, seat-of-its-pants unpredictable beauty of Compost and it’s sub-labels.
If Defected is a house cat, Compost is a freakin’ snow leopard. From ’90s fusion breakbeats and nu-jazz, through to futuristic disco, avant garde electronica and melodic techno-infused house, Compost so often laid that sweet-smelling pile of manure from which entire genres grew, without even pausing for a sniff.
Now celebrating a quarter of a century behind the scenes, subtly pushing the boundaries of electronic music and offering up glimpses of magical possibility to the scene from out on its fringes, Compost’s humble founder and visionary Michael Reinboth told me, “If you want to run a label, do it for someone else’s sake.” So of course, I decided to embarrass him with my first interview question…
What’s your reaction to Compost being described (by me) as perhaps the world’s most influential electronic label over the last 25 years?
Oh, well, there are maybe other labels which should be honored like that. Bigger indie labels like Warp, Ninja Tune for example, smaller ones maybe, too. I would be delighted. If such a quote stands for the future jazz genre, for which we could qualify ourselves as a major force, I’d agree.
Reading an interview with you around release #100, you described the label as “a real compost of recycled elements and samples.” I feel that in the years since (and especially recently), Compost has acted as a fertilizer for the house and electronic scenes. Sometimes it feels like a single release from Compost can inspire a whole micro-genre around a particular sound, quirk or musical tangent. Is this something you’ve noticed happening? Was it a consideration when you came up with the label’s name?
Compost’s basic idea and development (including the label’s name) began during 1992-94, producing electronic music using computers and analog gear (first with sampling, Atari, SP12, later with the first Logic software, plus all kind of drum machines and library sounds), but bringing a human element. Sometimes it was samples, then some live elements and lot of programming. This mixture was always playing a distinctive role in the Compost sound. Making the old into new, but paying respect to the old (soul, jazz, etc.); being perhaps inspired by originals, or influenced by samples, but making it sound different; filtering, fertilizing, making it fresh, new, but keeping it human, warm, even if programmed.
We never wanted to sound like acid jazz, which was sounding odd and old, ’70s, retro. We wanted to sound fresh and looking to the future.
Almost all Compost acts in the beginning had great record collections and were DJing, so they had the musical history and knowledge. These techniques, of course, were not new. But, yes — the fertilizing, composting, recycling thing was and still is a major part of the sound. And that can always smell good.
I love vinyl, forever. I like streams — that’s cool and easy and affordable and the best modern way of consuming music or films. Everything else seems like, or was, a bullshit format to me.
Electronic music is constantly in danger of becoming uniform and homogenized. Often it feels like Compost releases throw something original and different into the mix, which gives other labels and artists a tonic to grow in new directions. Is constantly being “different” and moving your sound forward something that comes naturally to your A&R process, or is it part of a defined plan?
In the last 25 years the music has changed a lot, with retro hype, disco revivals, house style variations and minimal techno in between. I always felt and still think today that I keep myself young with that. Maybe it comes naturally, but it’s also a matter of experience and passion in music.
To be honest, I never ever wanted to get stuck in one style, one genre. I am kind of a freigeist [libertine] — very open minded, and that’s the most important thing for me, for the label and I guess for most of our artists, too.
Even Compost Black Label, as a kind of genre-like house label, has so many facets and sub-genres of house styles, which makes it different than house labels with a more narrow-minded output. And “narrow-minded” is not meant to be negative in this context. A few years ago I had a long discussion about that with Dixon, Roland Appel and Carl Craig over dinner together in Munich. I must admit they were more focused, following their house or techno roots, their belief and true passion for a particular style. I absolutely respect them for that, and I’m sure that their success came from an addiction to following their passion a long way. And their fans are getting what they expect. But that’s not really my temper, nature or disposition. My temperament is more diverse. Maybe that’s one little reason why we’ve lasted 25 years. Variety is more important to me — keeping it fresh. I like it when DJs are on a journey and free style.
How long were you thinking about starting a label before you did it, or was it that AFMB demo that made it happen?
I’ve been into music since 1980. I started DJing in my hometown, Hannover, where I was playing new wave, electro, early hip hop stuff, garage, Talking Heads, Devo, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Kurtis Blow and all that great stuff. At the same time I started writing about music and was working for a bunch of music magazines, including my own magazine called “Elaste.” In the mid- to late-’80s I started running my first parties and in 1990 I started my club night, “Into Somethin'” which went on every Friday night for 12 years. I’d compiled various compilations for major companies too, so I had a little experience.
Anyway, “Into Somethin'” was the initial push to found and run a label. We played all that exciting and new music, like crazy jazzy hybrids of hip hop, house, drum & bass, trip hop — weird and strange clubby music. Note that at that time — the early-’90s — commercial techno and hip hop was ruling the world, it was mainstream, so with “Into Somethin'” we played far different — very, very underground, deeper. Old groovy jazz, rare groove, funk in a mixture with these new hybrids of electronic music.
I was working over the idea of running a label for about three years when we booked Rainer Trüby as a guest DJ at “Into Somethin'” and he brought me a tape of AFMB. That was the impetus: “Hey, great…take this and start a label with it.” But the name “Compost” was born a year or two before — I carried that in my mind. The good thing was that a lot of frequent “Into Somethin'” guests (and fans) were musicians, studio engineers, upcoming DJs. So it became a hotbed for ideas, a breeding ground for turning demos into proper productions.
Running a label is 80% administration, paperwork, accounting. The other 20% is creativity, fun, success. I can promise the 20% is enough to give you the power, energy and strength. But you must be prepared to handle that 80%.
You must have learned a lot of lessons over the past 25 years of running your labels. If you could give one essential piece of advice to someone just starting a label, what would it be?
Oh yes, we’ve gone through nearly everything good and bad. It’s not easy avoiding traps in the music and distribution biz. My natural process was simply learning by doing. Perhaps that’s silly advice to newcomers, because it’s totally different these days to how it was in the ’90s. Social media hype and platforms like Bandcamp are making it much, much easier. If the music is good, it will find it’s own way to the fans anyway. But taking the next step — or playing the same games with the following release or artist — can be frustrating or even a disaster when it comes to losing interest, or dealing with management, bookers, royalty accounting, mechanicals, sampling lawsuits, publishing, touring, distributors who don’t pay you, contracts, overrides, offers to your artists from other labels…
The most important hint I can give to newcomers is that running a label (reaching more than 10 releases or several albums and/or artists) is 80% administration work, paperwork, accounting… It’s definitely a desk job, so you need to have good staff, good people, good tools, label software… I know of hundreds of top notch labels — really good music labels — which have fallen apart because of a lack of these.
The other 20% is creativity, fun, success, making a living, joy and satisfaction. And I can promise the 20% is enough to give you the power, energy and strength — first of all to survive, and secondly to handle the 80%. But you must be prepared to handle that 80%.
Looking back, I’ve made some mistakes business-wise, and there were a few signings or releases which I am not really proud of, but guess that’s an average spillover effect for a long term A&R gig. Some of our artists told me or said in interviews it was good that Michael Reinboth is not the main artist on the label, the figurehead, the frontman on stage, the one who’s playing peak time or prioritizing his own projects. If the label owner and A&R is the most prominent artist, it can be difficult, as examples like Mo Wax and dozens other labels have showed.
So a little advice: if you want to run a label, do it for someone else’s sake.
Let’s talk about Compost’s sublabels, and how/why they came into being.
Long stories, but I’ll try to make them short.
The first one was “Compose,” started nearly simultaneously with Compost and it was for house. Out main artist was DJ Linus from Munich. He was a friend, a good house DJ and the force behind it. The second was “Compute.” Only one 12″ exists from this label and what a superb one it is, by Blimp. In fact one track is part of our 25th anniversary box set, and Thomas Herb included it in his mixtape.
The idea was to start every sublabel with “Com-” because we were living in the so called “dot.com era.” Compost = future jazz, Compose = house, Compute = weird analogue electronica. But with the overwhelming success of Compost and next sublabel Jazzanova-Compost-Records (JCR), we were so busy that we had no time left to Compute (like Kraftwerk were sayin’ — ha ha!)
JCR was necessary, simply because I wanted Jazzanova’s first release “Fedimes Flight” and the three Jazzanova guys (two of whom were living in Munich) wanted to start their own imprint. So we decided to do it together. You can read little bit more background about JCR in the liner notes attached in the anniversary box set.
The fourth and fifth sublabels were “Compost Black Label” (2005) and “Drumpoet Community” (2006). Black Label was Tom Bioly’s idea, who later founded the great imprint Permanent Vacation. He was working for about four years at the Compost office and suggested we separate the straighter house stuff from the downbeat and jazzier freestyle of Compost. It was a good decision, because during that period the record shops, distributors, clubs, promotion and general awareness were dividing into two sections: house/techno/minimal on one hand, downbeat/soul/hip hop/jazz/rare groove/disco on the other. Fans of Les Gammas, Kyoto Jazz Massive, Brazilian music on “Glücklich,” “Future Sounds Of Jazz” or whatever, could neither afford nor may they like our house tools. And by that point the vinyl crisis was here and record shops couldn’t buy everything.
A year later in 2006 a true friend and music lover, Alex Dallas from Zurich, who was fed up with the music industry and had quit his label Straight Ahead, asked me if I’d be keen to start a new house label with him and his mate Ron Shiller (both also running the club Zukunft with Kalabrese and Lexx). They would do the A&R and we in Munich more the business, distribution, accounting and promotion-side of the label. I’ve known Alex since “Into Somethin'” and his taste and passion are awesome. So Drumpoet Community was born and is still going on to this day.
The next subsidiary label was “Compost Disco” (2010), simply born because I love disco and Benjamin Roeders’ amazing collage artwork was exclusively available, a wonderful conjunction for us.
Our latest sublabel is “Beat Art Department” (2015) for more hip hop, trap, soul. In between Compost Disco and Beat Art we were running the label “Derwin Recordings,” a joint venture and co-op with Alex Barck from Jazzanova and Christian Prommer, but that label is ad acta since Alex became busy again with Jazzanova/Sonar Kollektiv and Christian with producing dozens of other acts.
Then we have “Rumpelmusig,” which is a very successful collaboration with Kalabrese, in-house working similarly to Drumpoet, except that here Kalabrese is main artist on the label. We do these label co-ops only if we feel the right vibe, if we know the guys for a longer period and if we respect their attitude and their taste. We’ve never done such co-ops for commercial reasons.
Our next sublabel is coming for sure, but so far it’s a secret.
Once you’ve decided to start a new imprint for a certain sound or vibe, how much do you “steer” its sound and character? Do the labels tend to take on a life of their own once they’ve been running for a while? Have any of your labels surprised you in terms of how they have evolved musically versus your original concept for them?
Sometimes it is difficult to decide. Should that 12″ be on Compost, Compost Disco, Compost Black Label or another subsidiary? Or should we found a new one, ha ha! It’s a decision I share with my long term colleague, employee and co-A&R Thomas Herb, and of course with the artists. It’s more or less a decision sometimes made by instinct, feel, and sometimes it’s just good to have different ways of promotion, distribution and ways to reach certain fans. Even with external A&Rs like Drumpoet Community, they have their absolute freedom as well as their own connections, which cross-fertilize each other.
To answer your question a bit more precisely: nothing surprises me, the people I work with are open-minded like me and if they wanna stretch the musical boundaries of the label’s sound profile a bit, usually I’m happy with that.
The industry has changed drastically through Compost’s life. Was there ever a time when you felt like quitting?
Oh yes, 2001, 2002, 2003 ongoing to 2006 — hard times, when our main distributor and exporter went bankrupt. We lost so much money, it’s unbelievable that we survived. Hundreds of similar labels quit during that period.
It seems like the vinyl revival isn’t just a bubble — it’s here to stay. What does the medium mean to you, and to Compost? Would you have as much passion if the label had been forced to become completely digital?
I love vinyl, forever. I like streams — that’s cool and easy and affordable and the best modern way of consuming music or films. Everything else seems like, or was, a bullshit format to me. But yeah I do like the tape (cassette) too, because it’s my childhood media.
I am delighted that young kids and DJs are buying and playing vinyl: respect to them. But the vinyl revival is a bit of hype or a bubble, for several reasons:
1. There’s too much stuff out, too many edits, bootlegs, new stuff. Everybody is a DJ, everybody has a label, every artist wants their release on vinyl because it’s cool. So who’s going to buy all that?
2. A few years ago the majority of major labels reissued all the big names of pop, rock etc. on vinyl. They over-saturated the market. They’re clogged the pressing plants, they pushed it in vinyl stores, which have to pay the distributor for that, with the result that they could not order cooler underground vinyl. Again: Who’s going to buy all that?
3. Everything is available via Bandcamp, Discogs, mail-order services, homepages and stores — which is good — but who can buy, listen and/or play so much?
The cheap stream is the present and future in this turbulent economic reality. Vinyl had a buzz but it is more or less a bubble.
I don’t read Billboard, but our distributor’s sales manager said that worldwide vinyl sales in the last 12 month had a retracement breakdown of more than 30%. That’s a fact, and if another industry would have had such a slump, their lobby would impeach and deal with the politicians. But the music industry doesn’t have a lobby.
I have no animosity against a complete digitally label — fair enough, but it’s not for my label(s). I am coming from vinyl, I like to read credits or whatever on sleeves, I like the haptics and I like the sound. Up to 90% of all our releases are on vinyl.
They say a knowledge of history is a solid way to predict the future. With that in mind, I’d like to ask you to make a couple of predictions for the future of music (whether technological or cultural, it’s totally up to you), based on what you’ve seen so far.
I like these kinds of questions… I absolutely agree: with a knowledge of history it’s easier, because you know and feel then which styles are coming back. On the production side: what can be fused, what kind of ingredients you can put on your compost heap to fertilize a new happening or interesting mixture. But it also needs a young brain, a newcomer, maybe a greenhorn, a new breed enthusiast, to get an explosive, mindblowing mix.
There are so many facets and elements of musical styles or genres which can be fused. I’m sure we’ll face exciting new music like Afro Punk, Gabber Ambient, Balearic Rock, Indian music (sitar) in a Kruder & Dorfmeister vibe, Kraftwerk meets Jazz, Industrial Folk…
Culturally we have had a few thousand blends of genres and fusions, mainly via sampling or DJing in most obscure angle in the world.
But the future is to bring the original world music musicians and voices together face-to-face with the digital producers — and not by sampling. The new 5G gigabit technology seems to be a first step whereby a musician in Angola can play or sing — without any delay — live with a studio nerd or musician in Europe. That’s new!
Obviously it’s still abstract, but that would bring people closer together, people who’ve never had the chance to play or work together.
I was not a big fan of minimal, or a 5 hour DJ set of DJ tools, because there is often no room for patchwork or fusion, the same as with dense heavy metal where there is no room for finer, “thinner” moods and sounds. I was mentioning hybrids above — hybrid music it needs space, room for ideas, which implied room for other cultures, space for other frequencies and a knowledge of proper arrangements.
What’s next for Compost?
We signed Automat, a band from Berlin, comprised of merited musicians who’ve been working since the early-’80s, all of a similar age as mine: Jochen Arbeit (Einstuerzende Neubauten, Die Haut, Sprung Aus Den Wolken), Georg Huber (Sovetskoe Foto), Achim Faerber (Die Krupps, Philipp Boa & The Voodooclub, Project Pitchfork) and singer Tikiman (Rhythm & Sound, Maurizio, Basic Channel). Does that ooze with history? Their music is a kind of mixture of a deep Basic Channel sound but played 100% live, a bit On-U sound, a bit house and indie pop as well.
Rainer Trüby will do a new “Glücklich” compilation after 20 years. And new albums by C.O.W., Web Web and Stroeme are also in the pipeline.