It’s a rough time out there for the music industry. You need to be offering something truly unique and covetable in order to sell music. With the download capabilities proliferating everywhere, why does anyone need to actually purchase a tangible physical recording, either in CD or Vinyl format? This is something that Max Mackee and his partners considered carefully before starting their label blackmaps. There needs to be a package. An attractive object or just something that begs to be owned as well as great music. I sat down with Max Mackee and asked him what the ethos behind this increasingly talked about new label was…
Fraser Cooke: In these tough times for the music industry, you’ve gone about setting up a label. Not exactly the easiest choice right now. But you guys have a philosophy that extends beyond music. Can you explain what the component philosophy is behind blackmaps?
Max Mackee: It’s not the easiest thing to sum up in one. As you said, the music industry is struggling, music sales are down. On the other hand, over the last couple of years there have been technological and other advances which labels and artists might use to their benefit and deliver music in more interesting ways. It’s happened to an extent, but we seemed to have arrived at a state in which people are inundated and overwhelmed with the music that’s available, whether it’s free or paid for and our attention span for music has significantly reduced. The “value” in the music experience has been lost somewhere in this abyss. I mean, I like to get things for free but sometimes it’s nice to actually pay for something you truly value and savor it. With blackmaps we're trying to re-inject some of the value that's been lost in the music “experience”. Music is exceptional, a truly valuable experience and we try to reflect that in what we release. I suppose that’s the underlying ethos of blackmaps.
FC: Well, I think it’s human nature to be excited by things that have a bigger context, not just the sound alone but the look, the image, the philosophy… it’s the lifestyle that’s behind it that makes something more than just “whatever”, throwaway. With the new technology there’s no reason that you can’t have that but I guess there’s been a distraction of sorts. There was a lot less “noise” going on. When I was working at Mo Wax, you simply had to buy vinyl or CD’s. They were the only options. So with Mo Wax, James Lavelle was intent on offering a strong identity. A graphic language, which was not really new of course, you can go all the way back to Blue Note and so many others. I don’t think it really changes.
MM: Obviously the market has changed quite a bit but I agree, the basic principles haven’t changed. Personally, I think there are a lot more “opportunities” in the music industry nowadays. At a very basic level, it’s a lot easier to make music and release it. As a result there’s a lot more music out there, a lot more “noise”, and harder to translate the “opportunities” into actually connecting in a meaningful way with listeners. Not many people have adapted to this new environment to create a sustainable business model. You mentioned Mo Wax, one of the labels that have inspired us and there are other labels like Rough Trade and Warp. These are all labels that succeeded in communicating a strong identity with quality music. There aren’t many independent labels I can think of which have succeeded to deliver that on a global scale over the last five years. We're looking to communicate our own identity through every aspect of our releases, and an underlying reason to that is to try to re-inject some value into the music experience. The music has to be something unique and outstanding but so does delivery.
FC: I guess the only one that I can think of is Ed Banger. They’ve created a lifestyle and I think people feel they are buying into something more than just the music. I think what they offer is more poppy than say Mo Wax was or what little you guys have done so far, but they are the best I’ve seen of late.
MM: I agree. Ed Banger has been very successful in that.
FC: So can you talk about some of the artists and projects from blackmaps? Do you feel that there is a blackmaps sound and would you like to establish a look and feel?
MM: Well, blackmaps launched in September 2009 with a project called “Anna & the Witch’s Bottle”. Anna is a limited edition illustrated book, a dark fairy tale released with exclusive sound recordings inspired by the book. There are four artists involved in the Anna series: Geoff Cox, a film director who wrote the story, Rohan Daniel Eason, the illustrator who works in fashion and music, Martin Roman Rebelski, a member of the Doves who recorded the music for the project, and Scot Bendall from La Boca. We’ve just released the Bad Debt EP by Hiss Golden Messenger, a Californian songwriter. Just a voice and guitar, timeless songs. To be honest, the blackmaps sound is different for each artist. If there is a constant, its an approach or a way of thinking rather than a style.
With the visual aspect, I don't think we're going for just one look and feel. It may be something that develops over time, but at this stage it’s just an ethos we bring to each project. It’s hard to decide on a style when you’re still trying to get your head around the possibilities and projects for the label. There are so many interesting new ways to deliver music. The look and feel for the Anna series will be very particular to Rohan`s illustrations in the book, of an Aubrey Beardsley vibe. That look and feel is not going to be right for other projects. Also the artists we work with will have strong ideas on how they want their music to be delivered, we want to support that as much as possible. blackmaps is supposed to be a forum where we help artists achieve their artistic vision.
The label is currently curating everything from illustrated books to art installations, releasing “classic” songwriters to more avant-garde electronic music. I’m not sure uniformity is possible. The attention to detail and quality of content and delivery is what we hope will come through. I do hope that one day we can find an art director to work with to help add a visual constant through each project.
FC: So how did the team behind the label come together?
MM: Stuart Souter is an old friend of mine from university days. He A&R’d for Warp Records for maybe four or five years. For a long time we’ve talked about doing something together and then blackmaps happened. Tim Allen is our other partner, who used to run a music label and now works as a music lawyer. Tom Davies has recently joined as label manager.
FC: It’s a London and Tokyo Label then?
MM: Yes, it makes sense for the label to be based in London and Tokyo. I’m based in Tokyo and Stu and Tim are based in London. I suppose also that one of the things that we liked about Mo Wax was the London-Tokyo connection. Mo Wax worked with a lot of Japanese artists and there was a lot of exclusive product for the Japanese market and products became really collectable. Its an interesting angle. The other thing that makes Japan attractive is the intense appreciation for design and collectable artifacts.
FC: Yes many brands need to create special products just for Japan as the consumer is so detail oriented and informed.
MM: Yes, and the other thing that Japan is, I think, is its the second largest music market in the world after the US. On every level, it’s important we develop blackmaps here as well as the UK. There are some artists we really want to work with here in design, film, and music.
FC: We DJ together a fair bit and you are playing quite frequently. How does that side of your experience play into the label knowing that it’s not all dance music?
MM: I think the fact that we DJ shows we have a true love for music, we’ve focused on it for quite a long time. As DJs were always looking and digging around for new music. But, when we DJ we're usually playing dance music. blackmaps is certainly not a dance music label, although we do have plans to release more beat driven music. So its not about understanding the dance floor or anything like that. The connection is more our love for music, the experience, and trying to communicate that through the label. I don't think we want to limit ourselves at blackmaps to any one genre of music. If its something we believe in, we want to be releasing it. There are some pretty amazing “dubstep” artists, so it might end up being about “understanding the dance floor” one day…
FC: So what can we expect from blackmaps in the future?
MM: Timeless, unique music, regardless of genre. Beyond that private press literature, experimental film and more. Early next year were releasing an album by Outshine Family, ‘Galeria de la Luz’, a project led by Matthew Liam Nicholson. We’ll also be releasing Hiss Golden Messenger’s second EP, a fuller, more studio-based sound compared to the Bad Debt EP just released. Also we have a new album lined up from The Berg Sans Nipple called ‘Build with Erosion’, which really sounds like nothing else out there. I’m excited to see how its received. Sounds like a gamelan orchestra jamming with Liquid Liquid. On the print side, the second book in the Anna series, ‘Anna & the Juniper Dog’ is coming out early 2011. The Anna project is exciting because there are so many possibilities with it, the obvious one being translating it into moving image. There’s also been some talk of working with Martin on a gallery installation and, after the ‘Anna’ reading at Barbican over the summer, it would be nice to do something again in that sphere soon. It feels like the possibilities are endless, the only limit is time.
Amongst the team at blackmaps, we feel like we have quite a lot of music and business experience to offer. And at a time when it’s getting harder and harder for artists to make a living from music alone, especially from music they truly believe in, we see blackmaps as a forum where we can help advise artists on using rights in a creative way and help them succeed in their careers working on they projects they believe in.
FC: Well it sounds pretty exciting. Best of luck.