What’s a Bad Techno Label?

words: St. James Infirmary

The bane of existence for any DJ is to be stuck in the record shop or online shop, band camp or a soup of some megalord mp3 site, wading through garbage release after garbage release.. -As if the place had already been picked clean by someone with a huge music budget and they stole all the gold on release day. So you go in there with your 10 bucks of tip money you got from washing lipstick off of cups in the back of [insert subsistence survival job here], and you suddenly realize the odds of you finding anything dope are stacked way against you.. And it’s not because some jerk has a hold bin the size of Aunt Doris after she visited the lil’ debbie snack cake factory that one time.. There’s no excuse for that in a digital age. What is weighing you down, mostly, is the sea of terrible labels that have been plaguing our poor DJs and bringing down the quality of music on the whole for the last 20+ years.

The job of the DJ has never been more important than any other time in the history of Techno and electronic music.

Yeah, you could say that bad music has existed since the dawn of time and bad labels have always existed, but it was a lot easier to wade through when the record store owners were the selectors of the scene and had a finger on the pulse of what actually flew in the clubs/raves/ renegades around their town. Now their job is your job, and you’ve got people doing re-releases of re-releases, dry humping anything that could make 50 cents for their label and about 5 cents for their artists. On top of that, you have artists who are self releasing, bless their hearts, and a good deal of the time their labels are borderline dodgy at best cause.. Surprise, they’re musicians, not A&R heads and they make it harder to find their music because the releases they put out aren’t 100% “quality you can trust.™” So you, as the lowly DJ wait a week to cop some tracks cause, these days this is a chore more than a joy, and you start to realize there’s 3-400 releases with some pushing close to 50 tracks per release. Meanwhile, paranoia is telling you you have to listen to each of them..  ‘Cause what if that one track is fire?

What is a DJ to do? It’s probably time to make a clean cut, and filter the bullshit with a high threshold right off the bat. The best way to do that, in your author’s humble opinion, is to be somewhat of an ass when it comes to the labels you trust and keep good company with. Odds are, if the label is pumping out good music, it will start attracting dope artists and become a school of thought on your chosen genre. And when the label’s not doing that, you may be forgiven if you have to drop them for the good of your collection and for the good of your audience.. because, if nobody else’s out there setting a precedent to maintain a level of quality in the music in the scene, that job falls squarely on the shoulders of the DJ. As such, the job of the DJ has never been more important than any other time in the history of Techno and electronic music.

So from the short of it, what’s a bad label?

  • bad quality art
  • poorly mixed music.
  • unoriginal ideas
  • has no historical context
  • just tries to fit in
  • isn’t exciting
  • has inconsistent talent
  • puts out poor quality product
  • is not artistic

Bad quality art.. This should be an easy one. But it’s not. One man’s epitome of a pinkies out version of high class is another’s ‘meh..’ Another person’s attempt at being original is another person’s cheeseball drivel that makes you throw up in your mouth a little bit. The worst part is that a lot of the people who put these releases out have a scant idea about what a formal visual arts education means, since they’re just ravers or DJs who have a passion and dedication to music. That’s cool and all, but the art is a dead giveaway.. Here’s why.

If little attention is paid to the art then there’s a good chance the rest of the release has been given very little thought as well .. if something’s wrong here, something is definitely ‘rotten in Denmark’ with the release, and it’s highly suspect. “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” isn’t something that applies to the music world, unfortunately, and if you’re going to be investing your hard earned buck fifty, it would best be into a label that cared to make a well rounded release.

Actual artwork done for a rap album a la Spinal Tap

What goes into a good EP/single/album cover? Hopefully you’ve been doing this for a good number of years and seen some album covers in the dollar bins to let you know what bullshit smells like. If not, here’s a good set of pointers:

Good materials used. Possibly original die cuts, good quality sleeves, layers of ideas in the artwork, good composition interacting with functional elements.. an interesting new idea in art you’ve not seen before.. Easy to read in the dark.. You know, all the bases covered for a great release. Bonus if there’s different art for each single and packaging thoroughly well designed for CD, Vinyl and MP3. Big ups to the release if they actually got it professionally done and it’s not some piece of amateur photoshopped trash. 

If all that still doesn’t mean anything to you.. A good coffee table book of album cover art should be purchased at once so you can at least school yourself on the aesthetics of album and package design.

Poorly Mixed Music

Oh damn.. If you can’t hear it, then it isn’t worth your time. The worst of the worst label heads will send their stuff to homeboy who’s been messing with mastering plug ins or some online mastering tool they upload their tracks to and they call it done. Sometimes the casualty of the loudness war is that the track is super quiet and you have to max out your gains on your track while mixing. Other times, it’s just an over compressed brick. In Mp3-landia you can easily see bricked up waveforms on the website you’re downloading from and this is your cue to move along. In music, dynamics is the key and mastering, despite what people think that means, doesn’t mean, “Make my track laoud nao!”

In traditional terms, mastering used to mean make the tracks fit together on a release or a compilation so there’s no wild fluctuations in loudness between each song, or to assure that the tracks were well balanced on a release. You do need to look at a release this way as well.. But in the sense that mastering for clubs and other DJ environments, this means finding a way for the track sit with the current set of releases to date. For the most part, this means dynamics, range, clarity, and not too much gain control work for a DJ, lest the next record come in, the DJ forgets that it’s cranked way too heavy and it takes everyone’s head off clean at the shoulders.


Unoriginal ideas

Hopefully you’ve been a DJ for a good long while in order to spot the people ‘˜faking the funk’ by being ‘generic’. This should go inherently hand in hand with being a DJ and masterful selector. I suppose this takes a bit of time to develop this kind of ear, but what’s easier to spot is when you can hear some label directly copying some other label’s verve and aesthetic. And they are essentially just regurgitating whatever the current status quo may be.. At some point, you gotta ask yourself, is this label saying anything new? If not, I regret to inform you it’s time to drop this label out of your life and cry softly to yourself about the decline of techno music in the western world.

In a sense, techno is really about honoring it’s own and taking existing ideas within it’s genre, expounding upon them, creating inventions based on the principles laid down before..

Has no historical context

This is the one that bugs me about DJs a lot. Young does and bucks, without any knowledge of the context of the music, just latch onto whatever seems to be ill (or more likely something that merely seems exciting.. the word ‘ill’ and the feelings associated in music of the last 40 years are unfortunately on the decline in techno) . This is cool and can seem super original but it’s often a 180 from the existing records in your collection and it’s really hard to mix. Yes, it’s conceptually bold but it comes off as a 1 hit wonder and while it’s good to embrace change, completely breaking from history is doing a disservice to what came before. It’s a fine line you have to walk as a label and as a DJ.. One to challenge the envelope but also not to break down convention so you aren’t actually apart of the music you represent. In a sense being original is to represent a continuity of ideas and to build on what came before instead of saying this is how it is and who we are and we don’t care what you think…

This might be the case for a lot of other genres.. But it isn’t necessarily a techno idea. Where some people try out new ideas like a kid in the candy store and say, “I WANNA DO THAT TOOO!” That’s not to say that techno shouldn’t try create anything new, but that’s also to say that it shouldn’t necessarily throw the baby out with the bathwater when making something new. Techno holds back and builds upon its own influences, ignoring all fads (or is wise enough to know what a fad is).. In a sense, techno is really about honoring it’s own and taking existing ideas within it’s genre, expounding upon them, creating inventions based on the principles laid down before.. And sometimes those ideas become genres in their own right.. Historically speaking, this concept has been proven sound and techno is the main stem upon which lots of other ideas have come from. To know the previous ideas within the techno genre and know what has come before helps build the genre and makes it stronger, and with that knowledge, it helps to avoid repeating clichés. A label should know this, as much as the DJ should know this, as much as the listener and dancer should know this.

Just tries to fit in

So yes, it’s about respecting what came before but what if it’s just a label there just to be a label. Good job. Thank you for your continued interest in techno and not actually saying/doing anything whatsoever.

In my opinion a techno label’s gotta do something remarkable. Be about a certain principle.. So and so label is about making sludgey dub techno, with a soulful twist… or so and so label is really all about techno artists from Kuala Lumpur and it’s a real interesting take on classic Detroit Techno. Or at least represent some sort of style that the other labels are lacking. Maybe something the A&R is hearing that people are missing out on.. Or this label’s making a name for itself because it’s constantly breaking new and dope artists; it’s become a one to watch because those artists it discovered start doing amazing things. That’s some exciting shit, man. As a DJ, that should get your blood pumping when you see a new release by that label. This is that soap opera style discography, -buck toothed nerd-dom that DJs pour over, live for and talk about while crouching and grunting shoulder to shoulder flicking over track after track (those who are not with us, are against us!).

Good music has to be good music. Trying to sell music based on dropping name recognition alone hurts the artist, hurts the label, hurts the music and hurts the faith of the DJ that has come to look to your label as a source for the ill shit..

Isn’t Exciting

It’s those labels that put out dreary release after dreary release that really tend to get on a DJ’s nerves. The cultivated grim and sullen flat line that rarely ever changes from release after release.. The label knows what they like and it doesn’t matter if nobody else does.. So here’s 30 tracks of the same monotonous music. You, as a DJ come up on a label expecting to hear something nice and it’s that same track you heard last time. In fact, your collection already has 10-20 of similar sounding tracks from the same label.. (?) so I guess it’s pass on this release. That’s not exciting to see, that’s boring. In fact, as a DJ, it helps your audience tune you out. If you’re an A&R and you’re not growing as a label and being dynamic or actively helping the scene mine for gold, your purpose as a label is irrelevant.

Has inconsistent talent.

A troubling thing for a label is that it has to remain in business despite the whims and talent ability of your roster of artists. Hopefully, you’re a passionate label owner you’ve already donated loads of time, effort/ pints of bodily fluids to your cause to scrape out every dollar out of your releases to continue your passion. Unfortunately that might mean starving whenever you can’t release a good quality track and your favorite artist you signed in advance just dumped a load of manure in your ear holes. For you, dearest label owner of high moral principal, I give you my full respect.. For those other people who release anything regardless of what it is, just because it is [insert hot shit producer name here], you are not helping.

Why? For one, good music has to be good music. Trying to sell music based on dropping name recognition alone hurts the artist, hurts the label, hurts the music and hurts the faith of the DJ that has come to look to your label as a source for the ill shit. Having a reputation as being a label that consistently puts out top tracks seemingly out of nowhere on a regular basis is nothing short of magical and will create a strong following that makes the label on par with legendary status.. People will buy your label merch for outrageous prices because you can’t keep up with the demand so you have to up the price of your swag just because you can’t be bothered. Every release will be talked about by the DJs for decades long after.. So as you can see, having a good label that has a dope rep is crucial for the development as a label and becomes a pillar for which the music is to stand on. If you let shit slide as a label and put out pointless music, people will go wild in the forums drinking and passing around the haterade.


Puts out poor quality product.

This has got to be something that kills every DJ. As a DJ, you’re paying for good music, you should have it one some nice format you like that is sturdy and trouble free. In fact, you kind of have a want to buy another copy and frame it, but you don’t cause..hell, having and playing with doubles is really cool! In the past there’s been some things that have really told me this or that label just did not give a damn.

  • Releasing a CD album on CDR with paper mailing label so it won’t fit in the car stereo and it can easily be wiped on your computer.
  • The vinyl copy you purchased and had a fat delivery charge took too long to get to you and when it arrived, the disc was paper thin and looked more like a set of 3 flexidiscs stacked on top of each other than an actual slab of wax that was meant for playing and touring with. To really sweeten the deal, the vinyl came with no art.. Or even a cardboard sleeve whatsoever it was just a paper insert with the name looseley labeled onto the paper. The label itself.. And I mean for the namesake alone the very thing that should be synonymous with who you are. The label itself looked like trash. No custom printing.. Another infamous mailing label.. And even the mastering initials are from someplace you never ever heard of.
  • The MP3 you received did not come with embedded or extra artwork. The ID3 tags were not filled out at all. And there’s no higher resolution available other than the lowest quality mp3 compression. None of this .wav or happy remarks in the notes section of the ID3 tags giving props or some sort of fun cryptic message to the beings from Ixion that inspired the artist. You know, making it personal.
  • The DVD you got about the documentary based on their little hole in the wall scene got corrupted and just refused to play despite the fact that you handled it with kid gloves from day one. It was as if the lasers used to read the disc were actually writing into the foil. :? ‘˜I’m not even sure that’s possible’ you say to yourself.

These are only a few examples of the bullshit that has gone on in order to cut corners.  I understand music doesn’t sell like it use to and physical copies are brutal to turn around, but you owe it to your history as a label to have some physical media that can outlast you.. Some sort of presence that will appreciate in value over time. Often times the only thing left of you and your dreams is the physical media you leave behind. If you’re a label I would think that it would be best to try to best to have your legacy remembered with high quality goods.

Is not artistic.

What the hell does that mean? Thanks to Dadaism and Postmodernism, not a hell of a lot (I kid, I kid). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any labels that dare to dream and look to foster producers who are fearless in their hearts in their creative endeavors. DJing and being a label share one thing in common, curation. In a sense, a label is a gallery in which to set a tone for DJ/collectors to buy their collections and those collections help the DJ say something about themselves as a person. In turn, those DJs take people through their collections and show them things and bring out the nuances of their collections by displaying them together nicely.

If I must say, the critical point in all this is the label/gallery who is the tastemaker, the place where heads come to know new artists and come to respect what the label has to say based on who gets in. In many ways, successful labels have become turning points for the genre simply because the label has built that foundation for the scene in which ideas are to move forward. If the label is not doing that, then what the hell is the point? To make money? That’s a vapid quest that has no place in Techno music, period. If I may paraphrase Virgin Records founder Richard Branson: ‘A businesses should strive to make a profit to stay in business, not to be in business to make a profit.’

So what have we learned here today my fellow DJs? We learned that the DJ is not the end all be all consumer in the music industry and it’s not about you.. So please check your ego back in the cloak room and it’s ok if you forget to pick it up.. Coatchecker, Mandy will be happy to sell it on the black market in a couple months after searching it’s pockets for groundscore. Labels have a pivotal role in the scene and their importance cannot be understated. Their role is to provide a school of thought where heads can come together and build upon the history of techno music, to seek out talented artists, winnow the wheat from the chaff and give it to the public in a solid and reliable format that can span the decades.. Something that when it is finally handed to the collector or the collector’s public it can be fully appreciated as some of the best music ever to lay waste to a dancefloor or some head’s college dorm. As a DJ, If your labels you listen to are not trying to do that and it’s painfully obvious.. Drop them. Don’t look back. This decision will help you advance the genre with taste, quality and maybe even help a few producers from being shafted by sketch labels. Discerning collectors who only collect the best will continue to get the best if they always expect the best and expect more from their sources.

[The superfluous attitude and swearing of St. James Infirmary
are of his own opinion and to express that this wasn’t written by AI. -Ed]