A record label’s story is essentially told through its releases and if a label can be said to possess a personality, then it comes from the music and the associations we confer upon it. But the true story of every label is the story of the people behind it: the drivers for the direction and fate of a record label are very much human. Behind every house music record label are people; sometimes working alone, sometimes part of a team, people who just love this music so much they want to be involved in the raw creation and dissemination of it. Because although there are many interesting revenue streams in our ever-evolving industry it’s safe to say that the majority of underground house record labels haven’t been started as a sound investment for the future or as a source for a college fund: they’re generally running on fumes, on love.
UK label WOLF Music Recordings was set up by Matt Neale and Stu Clark in 2009 and have since released music from artists including Medlar, Frits Wentick, Francis Inferno Orchestra, Ron Basejam, Bicep, Session Victim, KRL, Greymatter and more. Their label has managed to stay afloat for over a decade whilst remaining committed to their particular vision of underground house. Matt and Stu take up their story:
“We’re a pair of music obsessives from the South Coast of England, now in London. We’ve been friends for many years, DJing bought us together, and then 10 years or so ago we decided to start a record label together. We’ve put out around about 80 records via WOLF if you include sub-labels and albums. We are of course multi-millionaires as a result…”
Aside from the huge financial rewards, can you tell us why you run a record label?
The why is more important than the how for sure – you can learn how to do it, but if you’re not in it for the right reason you won’t last long. If you truly have a passion for music and want to contribute to the culture, a label is a great vehicle for that. That vehicle is metaphorical, but if it was an actual vehicle it would be the type that costs you an arm and a leg to get anywhere.
As DJs, we recognized how important a signifier of substance and quality a label could be — they can act as a rallying point for those who share a similar passion for a certain sound, scene, and ethos. There are labels that have their own distinct identity and cultural weight — West End, Underground Resistance, Sound Signature, Strata East, Blue Note, for example. That’s what we admire, and we strive to cultivate that with how we run WOLF. In return, it allows us to represent art that inspires us and provides a creative outlet and platform for those artists we believe in. Over such a long period of time, it gets in your blood, it becomes part of your personal identity, so much so that no longer running it would feel like losing part of yourself. We both still get a kick from releasing records, and if artists are still willing to release with us, and people are still buying/listening, there is no real reason to stop.
What’s the best thing about running WOLF then?
Having an outlet for untethered creative expression is so valuable. Everyone should have something they do that is not from a position of compromise. It really is an honor to be representing the catalogue we have amassed over time. You get to meet fascinating people, you get to travel, DJ at parties you would yourself like to attend, and you get that rush from seeing a song turned into a record. And… if you are lucky enough to make sales, there is a great pleasure in seeing others buying into it.
And what’s the worst thing?
When a record doesn’t sell as many copies as you feel it deserves to – there is a sense of letting down the artist when that happens. It’s not really in your control, and you can’t let the fear of that stop you from putting out what you believe in. Naturally, things don’t always go to plan, but you can’t enjoy the ups without the downs – you need that polarity to be able to recognize just how lucky you are when it does go to plan. As there’s two of us and we work well together, any challenge can be faced without too much stress. We’ve certainly been tight on the finances at times, but that’s House – if you’re looking to make money, you’re looking in the wrong direction.
If WOLF Music Recordings were a person, what would that person be like and why?
The type of person that would bore you to tears talking about obscure disco and dub mixes.
If you could plot the life of WOLF Music Recordings on a graph, what would it look like?
Quick to hit a peak (our first 10 or so releases pretty much all sold out and we had to repress fast to keep up with the demand), then gradually it slows to a steady level and stays consistent over a long period of time. This industry is geared towards hype – labels and artists become the next wave to ride and everyone wants to be associated with that or take a piece for themselves. Then when you’re not shiny new anymore the hype dies off and you’re left with those who are into what you do for the same reason you do it. That’s the sweet spot – we would rather get recognition from those who get it, than those who want to appear to be getting it. Can’t fake the feeling.
Can you pick out a couple of key releases from the label?
They all played their part in the story of WOLF. Of course, the first release set us off on a trajectory that set up the next few years for us. It did really well commercially and put us on the radar of artists we wanted to work with. In terms of musical direction, WOLF started off blending house and disco on the EPs – house and disco are inseparable – but then we felt a need to represent more original music that was less sample-based. It didn’t mean any less enthusiasm for disco; we have an edits label which acts as the outlet for that itch if it needs to be scratched. WOLF mirrors our tastes and where our heads are at during the time period – so it does see changes in direction. If you only listen to one type of music, you’re doing it wrong.
WOLFEP008 [a four-tracker from Medlar, Greymatter, KRL and Chicago Damn] saw us working with a design team that helped us cement our visual identity going forward, and that raised the bar. We have been very lucky with the caliber of designers we have worked with over the years.
Many of the artists on the label are close friends of ours, so anytime we release their music that feels good on a personal level.
We recently put out Lea Lisa’s EP on the label (WOLFEP054), and thanks to Lea we had the honor of having a Kerri Chandler remix on the package. Kerri is an artist that both of us have been long-time fans of, and it doesn’t get much better than seeing his name associated with ours.
To still be able to release music that we believe in and to not be ruled by commerciality after 10 years is a great privilege. The label has grown with us, it has weathered all types of situational changes in that period. Having longevity and having a body of work that has in some way connected with people all over the world is something that makes us proud.
Do you have a “dream project” you’d like to have on the label in an ideal world?
There is always a wealth of artists we would love to work with – the list there is endless. The need to keep pushing things forward is paramount to us. But a dream project would be to present an artist who didn’t get their dues at the time but was undeniably important for what came next. The web has no doubt limited the opportunity for that as everything is available and mostly documented, but I’m sure there are still stories to be told and amazing music waiting to be rediscovered.
And what are your hopes for the label for the future?
As long as we both enjoy running it, we are happy to continue to do so. We want to keep bringing new artists through; that is a lofty enough ambition to have.
Where do you see WOLF Music’s place in the larger world of dance music and DJ culture?
That’s not for us to judge; we will leave that one for the larger world to decide upon. Hopefully time will be kind to us …