Kevin McKay give us a deeper understanding on running a label

Words by: Ian Carnegie
Posted: 18/3/15 9:22
Interview with DJ, Producer & Glasgow Underground Boss Kevin McKay

With over two decades in the business Glasgow’s Kevin McKay has cemented himself as one of the most multifaceted music moguls in the business. A reputable artist in his own right, McKay has released on Exploited, Noir and OFF Recordings, as well as remixed Jori Hulkonnen, Larry Heard, Romanthony, Cassio and Vince Watson. The Scotsman has also been integral in the rise of many electronic music superstars by even discovering the likes of Grum and Mylo.

McKay also demands commendable respect for running record labels, the first of which was Muzique Tropique – a label that garnered regular support from the likes of Danny Tenaglia, Roger Sanchez, Deep Dish and Andy Weatherall throughout the 90s. Glasgow Underground was equally fruitful, providing a platform for names like Romanthony, DJ Q, Mateo & Matos and Harri, as well as releasing 38 albums and over 100 singles.

After a hiatus McKay revived Glasgow Underground in 2011 and since then its discography has featured Dixon, Gerd, Oliver Dollar, Mosca, Ejeca, Jimmy Edgar, Andrés and many more, whilst also supporting emerging Glaswegian talents such as Mia Dora, Mash, Those Beats and Illyus & Barrientos. I Voice got in touch to pick his brains and find out about the year ahead.

I love working in music so I’m always looking for new opportunities to keep my business going. I also get bored easily so testing myself is important to staying happy...You’re always been a man of many duties such as DJing and producing music yourself whilst also looking after labels and artists. How do you manage all of this together?
I’m not sure to be honest. I don’t have a set routine for each of the things I do, I just do what needs to be done. The main reason I do it is because I think it’s a real challenge to try and be good at all these things. I love working in music so I’m always looking for new opportunities to keep my business going. I also get bored easily so testing myself is important to staying happy. That said, I didn’t always do everything you list above. In the beginning I was just a DJ. Then came making tracks and – only when I couldn’t find anyone to release the music I was making – did I set up a label and it’s only in the last few years when label and publishing revenues have dwindled that I’ve started signing acts for management.

A lot has changed since the 90s. How would you compare running a label now in comparison to then? Can you identify any particular examples of this since reviving Glasgow Underground?
In some ways everything has changed and in other ways it’s very much the same. Musically speaking the job is the same: you get music from artists and either release it as is or work with them until its ready for release. And business wise you still need to sell enough music to pay your costs and your artists and leave you enough for wages and an income.

Vinyl Market

In terms of products, it’s also very similar. We still release vinyl & CD (although not for every release) so parts of what do are very similar to what we did in the 90s. That said, on the vinyl side we sell a lot less for a lot more money than we did back then (a big tune in the 90s would sell 10,000-50,000 units whereas if you’re doing 1,000+ just now, that’s amazing and there aren’t many single releases selling over 2,000 units). Breakeven for us is around 200 units so unless something will create that demand, we tend not to do it. Because people buy records for £8-9 now breakeven is a lot less than it was (the costs haven’t really changed). In the 90s when the average 12” price was £4-5 you had to sell around 700-800 otherwise it was pointless.

A lot of labels opt for higher frequency of releases and – of course – what suffers is the care and attention you can give to each release. It’s a really tricky balance and one that has lead to even more disposability in a genre like dance music that was already disposable!..What has changed is how the digital market has affected “record label” behaviour (by “record label” I mean anyone putting digital music out – and that is a lot more than it used to be when you had to pay £500 plus to get your music on vinyl). In the 90s there was a maximum amount of music one label could release into the marketplace. Shops just couldn’t stock more than 1 record every 2-6 weeks (depending on the popularity of the releases) without them having to send back your current releases to be able to buy your new ones (kinda self defeating!)

Nowadays your record is alive in the digital stores for a week. When I say alive I mean it has a chance of getting some visibility (banners and other marketing). After that, unless you’ve garnered some decent DJ support and you get tastemakers charting your release and driving sales to it, it’s pretty much dead. You will get some label fans and artist fans checking it out but the drop-off in sales is pretty sharp. This has meant that some labels are on a 52 releases a year schedule. Some – who specialise in more than one genre and have the clout to command respect in each genre – can do more. It has meant that a lot of labels opt for higher frequency of releases and – of course – what suffers is the care and attention you can give to each release. It’s a really tricky balance and one that has lead to even more disposability in a genre like dance music that was already disposable!

That said, I’m not one of these people who bang on about the past like it was some glorious time for music. I love the business as much as I did in the 90s and I love putting music out now. It feels just as exhilarating as it ever did.

Nowadays every DJ has his own music project and - if they can't find a label to release it - their own "record label". It's created an incredible amount of noise and so - more than ever - people stick to names they know when it comes to their music purchases...In terms of the business side, is definitely tougher. The recorded music market is worth a fraction of what it used to be and there are more artists than ever fighting for a share of a very crowded market. In the 90s the market was pretty receptive to new music so - as long as your music was good - all you needed was the money and the balls to press up your own records and sell them. Also, in terms of exposure, there weren't so many labels so it was easier to get the attention of the media and because there were only a handful of magazines where DJs and music fans could find out about new music it was relatively easy to promote your music.

Nowadays every DJ has his own music project and - if they can't find a label to release it - their own "record label". It's created an incredible amount of noise and so - more than ever - people stick to names they know when it comes to their music purchases. As a result it takes much longer for a new act to win consumers trust and become an established “brand”. 

In terms of the money side, it's definitely possible to make money selling just digital dance music. For most people, selling big on Beatport will be the key to that. That store accounts for the lion's share of all sales to DJs. It might seem impenetrable to some but it doesn't take much to break the Top 100 of the genre charts - something that is possible with maybe 70+ sales in one week. If your tracks are doing that then you could expect to maybe sell 300 plus over the life of the tune. The money you get back works out about roughly £1 per sale. From that you have to deduct something for the songwriter, a payment for the marketing you get on Beatport and – if you don’t have a direct deal with Beatport – a payment to your distributor so you end up with somewhere between 70-90p per sale.

Then it’s just a matter of simple maths. How much does your business need to survive? If its just you, working from home then maybe £25,000 profit would do? You’ll need to factor in paying the artists and – if you’re getting tracks for free to release – normally that means giving them 50% of what you get so you’ll need to turn over £50,000. Assuming you’ll make some money from iTunes and all the other stores and some licensing to compilations labels like Ministry of Sound, Defected & Toolroom you could rely on 50% Beatport sales, 30% from other stores and 20% from licensing and other income (stuff like PPL and maybe you want to think about looking after the publishing too since the money from the records sales is so low!) you’ll need to sell around 30,000 tracks to be in the right ballpark. Over a year that means 20 releases doing an average of 1500 units (over all the tracks on the release). It means you need to be consistently hitting the Beatport charts or have a few huge records on the store (Andre Crom told me that some of the tracks on OFF generate over 10,000 euros each).

You’ve relocated from Glasgow to London haven’t you? What prompted this change and how has this affected your work and lifestyle?
I have. When I was running Breastfed in 2005 there came a point when I was struggling to do everything from Glasgow. In terms of what I achieved with Mylo, I could do what some people call the most difficult bit – the development (or selling the first 20,000 albums as it was then) – from Glasgow. It was not hugely different to what I’d done previously with artists like Romanthony on Glasgow Underground.  However, once I started putting singles in the charts, I was getting on the plane to London twice a week for meetings with our radio plugger, our club promo and our press officer. It felt like to really drive all these elements of a campaign; I had to be close to all the people who were working Mylo’s music. Also, as his records became more successful, all the major labels wanted to partner up with Breastfed to take the project to the next level. We signed a joint venture agreement with Sony and Royksopp’s manager – also based in London – started managing Mylo so moving here seemed the most sensible thing.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard when I was setting up my label was that you should always hire people that are better than you. They are the ones that will challenge you and come up with the ideas that will make your business better than you ever could on your own...You’ve discovered some brilliant artists throughout your career. What are the standout qualities that make you want to work closely with a promising artist?
Thanks! I’m glad you think so. I’m not sure it’s easy to describe exactly what the artists have that makes me want to work with them. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard when I was setting up my label was that you should always hire people that are better than you. They are the ones that will challenge you and come up with the ideas that will make your business better than you ever could on your own.

I guess – because I make dance music as well – the same applies to the artists I want to work with. When I hear something and I think, “Right, wow, that’s amazing. I could never do that,” that artist has my attention. Then I start to look at what they do and see how consistent it is; can they amaze me on a regular basis. Finally I think about where I can take them. There isn’t much point in working with someone who wants to stay niche so they have to have ambitions of having their music heard by a wide audience. If they satisfy all of those conditions then its worth me talking to them and finding out if we’re going to work well together.

To give you an example, with Grum one of the first tracks of his I heard was “Heartbeats”. It has a brilliant sample in it. And not just brilliant because its unusual – even though it is that – it’s mainly clever because of the way Grum took a tiny bit of someone else’s record, repeated it and changed the pitch of the copied section and turned it into this big hooky chorus that owes nothing to the original sampled record. He has the same ear for a sample that Thomas Bangalter has. After Romanthony came back from the “One More Time” session he described how Thomas had cut up the samples that became the backing track and how he did it – taking two chords from different sections of the same song to make a brand new hook.

That’s the same ability that Grum showed on “Heartbeats” and – to my mind – that’s a special talent. That wasn’t what swayed it though. It was when Sarah – his manager – sent over “Runaway”. For those that don’t know it, “Runaway” is a brilliant disco record – all super-cool bass progressions and funky chords topped off with this soaring, heart-pumping Moog solo that makes you grin like mad on the dancefloor. Anyone who had the talent to make a brilliant sample record and also a fantastic piece of 100% original programmed dance music like “Runaway” was worth a long-term album contract in my book.

Illyus & Barrientos

On that topic how did you begin working with Illyus & Barrientos?
I’d been following the fantastic synthglasgow.com blog for a while – mainly because if a dance act is happening in Glasgow, it’s likely that they’ll be on there. Colin who runs the blog has a great ear for new talent. He’d posted a lot about Barrientos and raved about his “Sky EP” that he released late summer 2011. There was an ambient track on that EP that I loved (and I later re-released on GU) but it wasn’t until I heard a mix he did for the same blog in March 2012 that I wanted to work with him.

Most DJ mixes at the time were just jammed-packed with deep house and his EP was that style that so that’s kind of what I was expecting. But Ivan’s mix had everything from Atjazz and Loco Dice to Steve Rachmad, Vince Watson & Joris Voorn. I liked how varied his taste was and – after chatting to him – he made it clear that he wanted to make a variety of dance music. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out but I took a chance and asked him to remix Romanthony’s “Bring U Up”. Roman’s songs are quite difficult to remix well; there isn’t a huge variety of melody in his vocal lines but rhythm is very important so you have to come up with a backing track that his hook-driven but leaves enough room for Roman’s voice on top.

Ivan’s did an amazing job. He took a song that was basically an up-tempo funk jam and turned it into this Crystal Waters-esque garage anthem...Ivan’s did an amazing job. He took a song that was basically an up-tempo funk jam and turned it into this Crystal Waters-esque garage anthem. I tried him out on a couple more remixes and then started to A&R a full release of his. Over the next few months we put together an EP. Ivan is basically an ideas factory and some of his early tunes had almost three tunes in one so as well as mixing and mastering his release, I also was getting heavily involved at a track level.

Around the same time Rob from Mia Dora introduced me to a friend of his, Illyus. He was making brilliant vibey house and releasing on labels like Seven Music and Morris Audio. I asked him to remix one of my tracks (“Ease Your Pain” released on Stefano Ritteri’s Congaloid label) and his did a really cool deep mix with these amazing drums. We got talking and I found out his background in R&B, turntablism and how he grew up making beats on an MPC. I’d heard from a few people that he was a wicked DJ (and have since witnessed this myself) and I thought that Illyus could easily do the kind of things I was doing on Ivan’s records and – on top of that – add a whole other dimension to his sound.

I did some music writing for a while when I was setting up Muzique Tropique and one of the people I interviewed was Masters At Work. It struck me that Ivan & Illyus has similar musical backgrounds to Kenny Dope and Louie Vega and I thought that between them, the strengths they had would make a similar killer partnership. I remember having to ask them both about 10 times if they would hook up and make some music together. I think they thought I was a bit mad for going on about it but eventually they got together for a studio session. I remember Ivan playing me the result (“Do Anything You Wanna”) at my house in the December before it was released. The minute I heard it I was like, “YESSSSSS! These guys are going to smash it up!”

Glasgow Underground 97:07 - Get it from Beatport

Can you enlighten us on what is in store this year for Glasgow Underground? Aren’t you working on a Romanthony project?
We recently started a partnership with Toolroom Records where they are releasing our compilation albums. The next one up is “Glasgow Underground Miami 2015” where I’ve asked producers on the label and friends of mine to make me some Miami-influenced jams. There are some great tracks on there from the likes of Metodi Hristov, Joeski and Daniel Trim plus a few cheeky remixes and edits of my own. In terms of singles, we have productions from artists like Stefano Ritteri, Oxia, Olivier Giacamotto, Mosca, Mia Dora, Sabb and – of course – Illyus & Barrientos incoming.

And you are right, we are finally releasing an anthology of all of Romanthony’s best work split into classic club, underground and remix selections. The album will be lead with a cover version of “Too Long”, the song he recorded first with Daft Punk, which comes with remixes from Detroit Swindle, Doctor Dru and Christian Nielsen.

What about yourself? Any releases we should know about?
I have a couple of remixes coming on Glasgow Underground, one for a classic Touche record by Dope Dogs (Orlando Voorn) called “Keep House Unda’Ground” and one for Solaris HeightsTogether”. I’ve also just started a production partnership with an amazing engineer/producer called Andy MacDougall who records as Polarised and – along with Matt Smallwood – has a remix of DJ Tim and DJ Misjah’s classic “Access” in the Beatport Techno top 20 at the moment.

Glasgow Underground Miami 2015

Out now on Beatport

Glasgow Underground Online

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