Musician records tunes in bedroom. Musician finds distributor to give them to the world. Musician earns cash.
It’s the so-called disruptive business model of our age. Apparently, nobody needs labels anymore. Going cap in hand to a record company is a waste of time in the era of internet metamorphosis.
All of this is a familiar cycle to Daniel Miller. He’s been through the DIY revolution before – and he didn’t need iTunes to navigate it, either.
Thirty-four years ago, Rough Trade agreed to stock the debut release from Miller’s own bedroom musical experiment, The Normal. The synth-heavy sound of TVOD/Warm Leatherette was a cult hit.
It carried The Normal’s name, but Miller’s mark: Mute. Without realising it, the now-hugely successful businessman had set into motion one of the world’s most treasured independent record companies.
“I just wanted to put out my own music; I didn’t want to start a record label,” he tells Music Week. “We really were at the forefront of what so many people are doing now – making records in their bedrooms and releasing them online.”
Just as well for cultural enrichment’s sake that Mute blossomed. Alongside a string of cultish boundary pushers over the years, Miller’s label has boasted notable commercial successes, from Depeche Mode to Goldfrapp, Erasure, Moby and Nick Cave.
Even these household names have never crept away from their identity or verve for creative experimentation; a hallmark of acts on Mute through the ages. It’s not only visionary artists that Mute has given to the world; its own imprints such as Novamute, Rhythm King and Liberation Technologies have allowed the label to nurture and distribute acts even further away from mainstream chart normalcy, and become all the more loved for it.
A deep-set cornerstone of Mute is the independent nature of the company. Born from one man’s adoration of electronic music, the firm remained fully owned by Miller for 24 years until 2002, when EMI swooped for the company in a £23m deal. Miller continued to manage the business during this time, and licensed the Mute name back as a fully independent company in 2010.
Miller’s exemplary leadership is to be honoured at the second AIM Awards in London on October 29, where he will pick up the Pioneer gong in front of his independent label peers.
You didn’t start off wanting to create your own label; you just wanted to send out your music. Do you worry when people in a similar boat today say: “I don’t need a record label”?
I do ask myself that question. I sent out five promo copies for our promo single: Record Mirror, Melody Maker, NME, Sounds and John Peel. That was it. I did no marketing at all. People heard it, liked it and bought it. It was really simple. It doesn’t seem to work quite that way anymore.
What makes a prospective signing for Mute?
It’s about how you hit it off with artists and how you relate to them. We offer a very creative space, where people can create without too much pressure and with as much record company interference as they want. We’ve come together with very unique artists for over 30 years. Both creatively and commercially, those relationships have worked.
Once you tasted commercial success with Depeche Mode, was it hard not to want it again very quickly; to let sales ambitions colour the pioneering ethos of Mute?
It’s great to have a band who express themselves creatively and yet are commercially successful. It can happen, but I never want to force it. Artists need to live from the records they make and record companies need to live from the records they sell. Would I like to have another band who are as successful as Depeche Mode? Of course – but their success was generated without any creative compromise. That’s what’s important.
Your artists are currently on streaming sites like Spotify. Will there come a point where you have to review the worth of the model?
Yes. I think there’s a lot of anecdotal rubbish spoken about streaming services, like people saying: “They are the new radio,” when they’re clearly not. Radio doesn’t let you keep tracks.
There are a lot of open questions about sale, rental, sharing and streaming of tracks [online] that I don’t think people know the answer to yet. In principal, streaming services seem like a really good idea to me, if they can reach critical mass. I do get concerned that smaller artists maybe aren’t benefitting proportionally or properly. At the moment it’s pretty hard for an artist to know how much they get when somebody streams their track. That’s currently tricky for people to understand. There needs to be clarification on how that works.
Do you feel a shared kinship with the independent community? You’ve had a relationship with EMI for a number of years – has that altered your perspective in the indies versus majors debate?
The first phase of our independence was about 25 years long and I was pretty militant in my anti-major views. Even then we worked with certain majors overseas for distribution.
It was important to have that distinction, particularly when major labels started wanting to be ‘indie’. With Britpop in the Nineties, the type of music that would normally be found on an independent label was kind of outpriced by majors and that happens from time to time. Mute isn’t an ‘indie’ label – we’re an independent label and they are two different things in my mind. Independent is a way of working and an attitude that a major will never have.
I ended up selling to a major, which I think surprised a lot of people and to a certain extent surprised me. But the situation as it was then, with the people that were working [at EMI] made it potentially a very good prospect – not just financially, but in terms of developing Mute. Emmanuel de Buretel [ex-EMI president of continental Europe] who was my friend, had some brilliant ideas some of which never came to fruition because he left.
What did you learn from that experience?
I learnt a lot about major labels. I learnt that they’re not evil. Well, they’re not completely evil. There were some really good people at EMI who were in it because they love music.
As time goes on and the industry gets more clique-y, the people still here are people who love music and want to spread the word. EMI went through a lot of changes in the eight years I was with them. In the end, it felt appropriate for both parties that I should move on and become independent again.
Does AIM help bring the independent community closer together?
What I’ve always admired about AIM is that historically, there have been lots of short-lived equivalents in the independent world. There were lots of experimental organisations to bring labels together. The nature of the people involved in AIM are independently-minded people; the sort who naturally don’t necessarily want to join organisations or work together. AIM has brought those disparate parties together to have more power as a collective. I think that’s a really good thing.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt as a music industry executive since the days of setting a label up out of love?
Well that’s right: I really was doing whatever I was doing for the love of it. And I’ve learnt that if you don’t have that passion or love, you shouldn’t be doing it, especially today.
I’ve tried to not learn too much and become too cynical – although obviously I have. I’ve tried not to repeat mistakes – although obviously I have. As time’s gone on, one has to become much more conscious of budgets because the potential spend is very high and the potential to sell is very low. I’ve become more prudent and more focused.
What have been your proudest moments since Mute was founded?
A proud moment is when you work towards something with an artist and you achieve it. It’s not necessarily to do with sales; it’s to do with an audience responding to what you’re working on. That can be when a band goes from playing to 50 people in a pub to 200 people in a small club; for me that’s always a really great moment.
It might be that or Depeche Mode playing the [Rose Bowl] Stadium to 80,000 people without a guitarist or a drummer – which everyone said was impossible. Changing people’s perceptions and opening their minds to music which six months before they would have rejected completely; that’s a great feeling.
What are your ambitions for the future?
It’s kind of like nothing changes. I want to put out great records, work with artists over a long period of time, help them develop and make sure Mute can continue to do that. I would say I don’t have any big ambitions – but I suppose that’s a big ambition in itself these days.