With a long running standing in the scene, WOLF music have been guilty of bringing to prominence some of the household names we know and love so dearly today. Started back in ‘09 the label has house music in its DNA, and can boast names like Medlar, Fritz Wentink, Moomin, Bicep and Session Victim on its stellar release roster. With this marking their tenth year and the fiftieth release we spoke to Matt to see what makes them tick, how on earth anyone can manage to establish and maintain yourself for this long - and everything in between. Credit to Matt @ WOLF for the words.
10 Years of WOLF, so first things first, and take this any angle you want but how have things changed over those years?
10 years is a long time in music and also on a personal level. A lot has changed in the scene and so have we. We’ve become a lot more efficient in how WOLF is run as we have a lot of experience now. We have our processes in place and we know what needs to get done. Those things that initially took a lot of time, now we make rapid decisions as we’ve seen how it plays out. Also as the label grows and the artists get more recognition there is a bigger platform to work from - with scale comes opportunities and in some ways things can get easier.
After 10 years in the game we aren’t riding the hype wave anymore - but that’s all part of a label’s lifecycle. You just need to be aware of that and make decisions that reflect it. As long as we feel we are still contributing to the scene we love and helping push it forward we are happy.
In terms of the scene itself - well, I would say WOLF001 was released at the back end of the disco / nu disco second wave. Everyone seemed to have an edit to push and all people wanted to hear / buy was disco driven. There was some amazing music released in that time and it was a lot fun to be part of that. Then 90s house dominated, followed by what was loosely called deep house, then techno, then outsider house (or whatever it’s termed). In all these sounds there is something that fits with WOLF so we have remained relevant in that way, but our core relevance is underground house culture, or what you could call the real house culture. That can be deep, from any era, it can be techno, and it can be disco. The underground house culture is where Stu and I met and that is what initially drew us together to run the label. We had the same reference points, the same ideals of what quality was, and the same ambitions for where we wanted to take WOLF. The intention was always to release music from the full spectrum of underground house music and to celebrate the culture that originated in the soul and disco era and is still alive and kicking in 2019. If what we put out happens to be on-trend then that happens, but it’s not how we plan our releases. We simply put out what we like - new, old, sampled - it’s all house and we’ve had 10 years of minor hits and near misses!
Way back in the day when you first started out, how did you go about finding tracks for the first couple of releases? And how did this change, if at all as you grew and grew?
The first release came about through my connections at Mr Bongo. I had arranged to license ‘Dancing In Outer Space’ before WOLF existed. It started with the intention to release a nu-disco version of the track and WOLF was sort of created for that purpose. Stu and I then picked the Revenge as the remixer (legend for agreeing) and we went from there. Greymatter, Medlar and KRL were also Mr Bongo connections and crucial to us - from that tight core team we had all we needed to grow the label. The plan was to work with a close team of in-house producers with whom we could develop a unique sound with. I always liked those labels that had their own thing going on, and I never understood a label that signed whatever was hot at the time. Anyone with funds can do that, but to build your own sound, that's what excited me. Also, those guys are our close friends so we've had a great time putting out their music and DJing around the world with them.
They became the core of WOLF and later we invited others in to expand the sound. We’ve stuck to that ideal over the 10 years - you’ll notice we tend to release multiple EPs and albums from a tight grouping of artists. We work really closely with artists, often we are involved in the development of a release (when asked / required). We want WOLF to be a platform where an artist can develop their sound and feel like part of a team. Of course there is always new blood coming into the label - you need to do that to stay relevant and to keep pushing things forward - but we don’t follow trends or hype, we work with people we respect and those we can see potential in.
Check out the Premiere of Medlar - Novanta:
What is the best way to go about A&R in your opinion? How do you keep an eye out for up and coming producers?
A&R is about being willing to dedicate the time to finding new music and also a gut feeling for the potential of a release / artist. We both work in music so are constantly exposed to new (and old) stuff on a daily basis. Stu works at a distributors so can access things way before they are even released to the public. He also has a good measure on what is selling and can read the pulse of the market. My job also enables me to get a read on what is selling as we have a record store and a thriving ecommerce operation. What is selling is only one part of the process though. If you did A&R just on sales figures you would only be following trends and not breaking new ground.
Our process for discovery tends to be from one of the following methods. We have long-term relationships with many artists so they will send us their latest projects. We get sent a lot of demos (more than we can listen to). We have trusted people who give us a tip off about an artist that we then follow up. We discover someone via a mix, on a record, on Spotify, etc - and we reach out to them.
You’re just about to release your 50th record. How does this sound compare to your first releases? Do you think it’s important to keep a consistent tone over time or morph into something new?
This is our 50th record on the mainline WOLF singles label, but we have actually put out closer to 80 releases if you include our sub-labels, special editions, and the 5 albums we’ve released. That’s a lot of music so of course our sound has evolved across that breadth of work, but the core of the WOLF sound / vibe remains the same. WOLF is a reflection of Stu and my tastes - if we are in agreement and it works we release it. If it doesn’t tick those boxes it doesn’t go out on WOLF. WOLF is where Stu and my tastes overlap, and fortunately that’s a regular occurrence. The consistency is clear if you reference the culture we are inspired by (CONT BELOW).
How important are visuals and branding for a successful release? Do you think people can be turned off by something which doesn’t quite sit well with the tone of the music?
Vital. We have worked with amazingly talented visual artists over the 10 years. We tend to work with them for long periods of time and they have helped direct the way we present the label. That goes from the product itself, to the website, the merch, the videos - all aspects. Our aesthetic is easily identifiable and I feel it is a big part of the appeal. It always has to evolve, but it also always has to fit the musical direction we take. Also, if you’re building a brand and releasing music you have a duty of care to all involved to give every aspect your full attention. There are many cultural references displayed in the way we package WOLF - visual clues are what demonstrates you are part of the culture before someone has had a chance to listen to the music. It all has to marry up or there is a disconnect.
Taking music out of the equation - what are the top marketing considerations for a successful release? Is it getting the release played out by DJs? Getting a buzz on Soundcloud/ Youtube/Spotify? Getting featured in mixes or in blogs etc? Or putting on nights to promote?
A little bit of everything mentioned, and more too. However, in the ten years of WOLF I can tell you that there is no guaranteed formula. There’s things you need to do as good marketing hygiene, but if a record is really going to sell there is a bit of magic in the process. One of the key selling tools is to sit high in the top sellers charts in record shops (online too) - but how do you get there in the first place?! Can’t answer that with any exact science and I am a marketer by profession. Spotify playlist inclusion is also an important tool to keeping revenue coming in, but again it’s a lottery. You can get your music to the editors, but inclusion is down to a human decision. You just gotta play the game, ride your luck - when it happens great, but don’t expect a sure shot. If anyone says they have a formula it’s bollocks - successful releases need to tick the right boxes and have some luck. Taking it to the next level requires skill and experience, but we aren’t looking for cross-over with WOLF, we just want those people who will be into the release to be able to access it.
How important is it to get a release on wax, both for an artist and the label itself? Do you think digital only releases will cut it in the future or rate that all labels should be firing up for a vinyl release if they haven’t already?
If vinyl has an emotional connection with you - press vinyl. If it doesn’t, then don’t put yourself through it. However people want to consume their music is cool with me - there’s many ways to support an artist these days. Vinyl is a format for a certain type of buyer and whilst there is demand we will continue to try and press everything we do on vinyl. I am not personally interested in digital only because I like to make physical products, but that’s just me. Some artists share that perspective and will gravitate to us as a result. Vinyl takes knowledge to create (well), and it creates financial pressure to sell - if you’re willing to do what it takes to do it then go for it. A whack release will not sell on vinyl or digital - so that is always the starting point whatever you choose to do.
Labels are notoriously tricky to make work long term, were there any moments when you’ve almost kicked it in or has it been all plain sailing?
We deliberately set-up WOLF to be as independent from our personal financial circumstances as possible. We don’t take profit from the label - we reinvest almost all of what we make. We both have careers that pay the bills and that allows WOLF to be a pure pleasure project. Of course there have been times when we have needed to raise funds to keep the wheels turning, but that has been through choice not necessity. If we made decisions about what we release and that decision impacted our ability to pay our mortgages then we would have had to take decisions that maybe we don’t like from a creative perspective. We have removed that pressure.
There have been many moments in the past 10 years which have been stressful - you are dealing with someone’s art and that is something we take as a serious responsibility. Luckily Stu and me have personalities that work well together and we’ve always found a way through any issues. 10 years in we've remained close friends who still are passionate about what WOLF is all about
What are the top things you wish you think maybe you could of done differently or had known prior to starting up? Is there something you wish you could of told your 10 years younger self knowing what you know now?
Nah - the journey is more important than the outcome. Learning and growing is a big part why you do these sort of projects and the best way to learn is by making mistakes (cliche but true). Also if you know how the game ends, all the fun of playing it is removed. We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time!
Thanks to Matt at WOLF music for such a great insight into the inner workings of one of our favourite labels, we hope you enjoyed his insight and words, don’t sleep on what’s coming in their 10th year!