INTERVIEW WITH GLITTERBEAT CO-FOUNDER CHRIS ECKMAN
Cannes, 4th June 2018
This article was first published in Midem blog. It is part of a series of interviews ahead of Midem 2018’s Global Indie Voices sessions, in association with IMPALA.
“When it comes to the artistic side of things, you should not play it safe” – Interview with Chris Eckman
A four-times WOMEX label award winner, Glitterbeat is an independent record label that specialises in vibrant global sounds and can pride itself of shining a bright light on artists that are both culturally committed and resolutely contemporary.
In 2017, Glitterbeat launched a sub-label, tak:til, to create a highly selective label imprint that specialises in contemporary (mostly) instrumental music.
midemblog: Could you introduce the label and tell us more about who you are?
Chris Eckman: We started Glitterbeat exactly 5 years ago, we released our first record at the end of march 2013. The idea of a record label came out of projects that my partner Peter Weber and myself were conducting in West Africa, and more specifically in Mali. I had worked there as a musician, did consistent travelling and became quite compelled with the music and especially by a band called Tamikrest. We ended up bringing them to a label called Glitterhouse. We started an imprint of the label called Glitterbeat for music like Tamikrest and within a year, we pursued that idea of a sub-label and started Glitterbeat as a company of its own. We are based both in Germany and in Slovenia. The day-to-day artist relations and marketing aspects are based in Slovenia while finance and the warehouse are in Germany.
And were did the idea to launch tak:til as a sub-label of Glitterbeat come from?
It’s something that I think we even had in mind when we started. Both Peter and I have a great love for instrumental music. It’s always something we kept a bit on the side although we signed instrumental acts to Glitterbeat such as Bixiga 70 from Brazil or Sonido Gallo Negro from Mexico. So we had an element of that already in the Glitterbeat roster. I think it’s an opportunity for us to curate and put ourselves into a whole different sphere of music. At least we can do this now and we are one year into this tak :til experiment. Our idea at this point is still to maintain some sort of synchronicity with the Glitterbeat sound. We are looking for artists that have some kind of relationship in their instrumental music, a link to traditional music, to ethnic music, yet develop something very modern at the same time.
We are looking for people that are sort of having their hands in two different baskets. And so far it’s been working out quite well! Sirom is a really fantastic group. I came upon them via Silvij who work in the Glitterbeat ofice in Ljubljana. Once I saw them live, I became quite convinced that this was an act that could take its music outside of Slovenia. I am sure everybody agreed with me at that point: they are quite unique indeed. It was clear it was not a band that would be competing with Beyonce on the charts but, on the other hand, it is something that is really crossing borders. There’s not a lot of other groups like Sirom. There are in fact no other Sirom’s around, I think you can honestly say it. This combination of individuals and instruments, is very pure and very unique.
Would you say that Glitterbeat has a clear desire to distance itself from the classic pop rock? Is the label in some way genre-specific?
The very simple answer is yes. It comes from the very roots of what Glitterbeat is all about. I ended up in Mali in 2006, mainly because I had spent my life making music mainly in the indie and Americana scenes as a musician and a record producer, and I had – I think in some way – reached the end of the line. It had become too genre-ified. There were too many codes, too many rules. It felt like it was missing being free and endanger-some. Not everything, but a lot of things had become being put in very clear boxes. And this was losing interest for me. I was looking for musical adventures and that’s how I ended up in West Africa. I had listened to African music since the early 80s but the idea of going there and experiencing it first hand was the key. That proved to be the roots of Glitterbeat.
It’s an experiment, an enterprise that we are doing to look at music in a much broader way and in a very truly international way.
We are looking at local music scenes all over the world and trying to interact with some. But at the same time, it’s a label interested in very distinct things and other genres. World music is very present but that’s another genre we are not interested in. We are simply looking for contemporary artists from other places than say London, Berlin, Paris, New York or Milano. We are simply looking for very exciting and relevant contemporary artists. They can be from the middle of the Sahara desert like Tamikrest, or they could be from Sao Polo like Bixiga 70 or from Istanbul like Gaye Su Akyol. This is what’s driving us. We don’t look at it from an ethno-musicology stand point. We are just looking at it as contemporary music.
You are most definitely developing your own image. 5 years is a short time frame but what would you say are your biggest achievements, compared to the expectation you may have had when you started?
Sheer survival at this point ! The fact we still exist after five years is the achievement itself! This is a very though business, as everyone knows at this point in time. And to venture on the edges of the mainstream music business like we are making it even trickier.
What became very clear to me is that the areas of indie music and of americana music I have been involved in were already at the edges. And what you realise very quickly when you release music from the likes of Baba Zula is that you are even further at the edges. With that comes an adjustment of what sales expectations can be, you have to adjust how you scale the size of your company.
We had releases that sold more than 20 000 copies, which is not bad but we have also had releases that sold far less than that. So we have to be careful and we have to scale very carefully. Survival is an achievement in this regard.
The other achievement for me is a very personal one: it has been an incredible experience to be surrounded by such amazing artists and to be a part of helping them out. Putting music out to the world is something I never thought would be so satisfying to me.
We never started that label to make a lot of money. As I said, we are lucky to survive. We are really driven by the excitement of the music we are dealing with. I can honestly say that we have a team of dedicated people working every day with a lot of enthusiasm for the music that we are releasing and that is something that is very satisfying.
What’s the next step? How would like to see this develop?
Our dream is to see the artists we are working with move towards the very centre of the music conversations. And I think that’s happening already a bit. Not because of us necessarily but because of the general movement amongst a lot of gatekeepers and curators and because of the power of the music itself. There’s a lot of African artists that are now collaborating with American hip hop artists for example.
In the digital world, there is so much cross-collaborations and cross-talks going on that it will start knocking down some of these walls. Genres like world music will become a lot less protective and a lot less riddled with clichés. Eventually, we will live in a world in which there is ONLY contemporary music. We are not 5 years ago from that but the way things are accelerating, we will see it happen and I think that’s the future. It won’t necessarily come from the likes of Glitterbeat but from other new ventures. It’s happening already in South Africa but you also have places like Accra in Ghana that are full of projects. You see more and more African labels that manage to reach into the international market. This will really start to change the dynamic and it will probably make the whole thing much healthier.
What would you tell someone who wants to start a record label today?
I remember when my partner Peter first talked about record labels in general. He asked me if we should start one and I told him that this was an idea we should not walk away from but probably run away from! It’s hard to be super encouraging because if I look back at the past five years and even the years before – when the idea of starting a label started to crystalize with us – the amount of work that it takes and the financial risk that goes with it is really a lot.
The key aspect I have learned is that, when it comes to the artistic side of things, you should not play it safe. A group like Sirom is a really good example. If someone asks you what is the type of band that could get an international agent and start touring, what is the type of band that could their record get nominated for international awards such as the IMPALA album of the year award, I would not include a band like Sirom on that list. They do not have that generic profile of what works in the music business.
That’s the key, you have to dream, you have to see things in a more open and dynamic way, you have to believe that there are people who really want to listen to intelligent music. Our experiment has confirmed that those things are true. Taking risks, taking chances and believing in your choices are qualities rather than stuff corresponding to and ticking pre-existing boxes.
This is not only about making the process more interesting for us but also a pretty decent business approach. We live in an era where you have access to everything on streaming platforms like Spotify. How do we differentiate? How do we dig into that? In order to keep your head above the melee, you require something very unique and very compelling.
If you were to introduce your label by giving away five records, five records that would best summarise the label, which ones would that be?
It’s a tricky question, because even if we have only been around for 5 years, our work is similar to a conversation, we release a record then think of the next release in terms of how it relates to the previous one. We think about this all the time, it is not a static idea. Because of that, the very definition of the label, even amongst us internally seems to change all the time. So I would say look a tour 2018 releases because in some way this summarises what we think of the label as of right now.
A Glitterbeat Spotify playlist – featuring
Tamikrest – “that was our second album, our biggest success, the one that gave use a license to continue”
Ammar 808 – “it comes out of a project we released last year that’s called BARGOU 08 that broke up, but that’s a very exciting, more electronic-based project with three different singers from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. It is very much at the edge of the future of where this kind of music is going, a combination of music and very traditional layers”
Sirom – “a project that encapsulates what we are trying to do on Tak :til”)
Noura Mint Seymali – “she’s is someone we discovered through Bandcamp, she was releasing some very demo-ish recordings in Mauritania. A lot of it takes some adjustements for the Western ears to get around it but we have also had really strong success with that. More or less, a lot of other labels would not have touched that record so it shows again that you have to take your chances!”
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