View from an Independent Label #1: Tru Thoughts
We sit down with head of A&R and founder of Tru Thoughts records, Robert Luis, for a chat about the world of being an independent label
Formed in 1999 in Brighton, Tru Thoughts has become one of the most stellar left field independent labels around. Focusing on the electronic and the jazz, they've brought a modern twist to classic genres and in the making brought those genres to a whole new audience. Acts of theirs such as Anchorsong, Quantic and Belleruche have all recently set the tongues of the electronica world alight.
Tru Thoughts started, or partially started out, as a night in Brighton didn't it? How important is making a physical presence for an independent label?
It made a huge impact as we had a platform to promote our artists. Our first club night was called Phonic Hoop and this is where we had Bonobo’s debut live set and had Quantic Djing regularly. It was a great place to test out music being released on the label and showed that the music we supported was enjoyed by real people and fans. It gave us confidence about our music. We were not reliant on other promoters booking our artists. It also was a great social place for our artists to hang out and hear each others music, which at the start of Tru Thoughts was a really important aspect of us pushing the music on the label. I felt like we were all in this together (not in the David Cameron sense but in all of us actually working hard).
I would really recommend anyone starting a label or any artist to have a night going on. Even if it is just a place that holds 30 people it is a good way to connect with the real world rather than be too reliant on online presence and YouTube or web hits.
You have a massive range of genres on your books, is diversity important for you?
The label reflects my personal tastes and also my view that A&R’s should try and support artists on their musical journeys. When Quantic went Tropical and Nostalgia 77 went Jazz this was not at my request but their personal musical vision. I have loved working with Zed Bias recently, he has pushed me to up my knowledge on a few different genres and taken Tru Thoughts into a world that I have always loved and played out DJ wise but not quite had the music to release. Wrongtom with his 80’s Dancehall influenced album has also brought us to some new DJ’s and new challenges. My own taste in music has always been all over the place so it is natural to reflect that on the label.
Do you see yourselves as an independent label, what does that mean for you, how does it differentiate you from the rest?
I am proud of being an independent label. It gives us an opportunity to react quicker and also have fun with the music and releases. We do not really have accountants to answer to. For example when we signed Wrongtom we told him we would have to release his album on CD only with maybe a 7” to go with it. When he heard the album and then saw the artwork from legendary Greensleeves designer Tony McDermott we decided we had to release the album on vinyl. It was not a business decision but something we felt just had to be done as a record label.
There is no conscious choice to differentiate from other indies, we try and do what feels right for us. I do not feel we are rivals with other indies. I feel the more indie labels that are run well out there, the better. Ninja Tune is the template for me on how balancing creativity with sales can be done. I love that Swamp 81 do their vinyl only thing and labels like Daptone, Shogun Audio, Eglo, One Handed Music and many more all have their own unique styles just by releasing quality music.
Will the Universal/EMI merger (if it happens) affect you? If so in what way?
We are distributed by EMI in the USA so there may be a direct impact with that. I do have concerns that too much of the music industry is controlled by too few people. I think that if this happens, music will get even worse for the most part on major labels. I wonder if Portishead, Roni Size, The Sex Pistols, Soul II Soul or Radiohead would have got signed to a major label if the music industry only had a few major labels like today.
The major labels will need cash cows and creativity does not work in that environment. Maybe this is likely to create the next Hip Hop, Punk or Drum & Bass genres which will take everyone by surprise and the majors are likely to be too slow and fat to pick up on it and all the indies will clean up....well that’s what I hope anyway. Either way I am sure independent labels will continue doing what they have been doing since the music industry started, ie finding and supporting the great creative artists and genres that majors then sign and water down and earn millions from. That is just the way the industry is and there is no point getting too concerned about it. I like the new Nas album and the new Frank Ocean album and they deserve to do well whether they are on a major or not. The Universal/EMI merger may mean even more artists from the Brit School will get signed rather than a great band or artist who has not been to “stage school” and been trained to talk to Philip Schofield or Fearne Cotton. This is a little sad.
Part of the reason independent artists and labels have such great music is because they are hungry so maybe the EMI / Universal deal will not impact the indies that much.
You've done some interesting tactic of getting people involved, the £1 compilation springs to mind. What other methods have you used to bring in new crowds and why is doing new things important for you?
We have for many years included the CD version of the album with all our LP releases. We did a big sold out party at Koko in London last year which was great to have our artists on one stage. We have done a few collaborative releases with Serato which sold out in days. As an indie we have to really hustle to get people to pay attention to what we do.
You've seen relatively major success recently from the likes of Bonobo and Quantic, relatively leftfield artists. What has made your artists successful?
Both Bonobo and Quantic are hugely talented artists so the music is of a great standard and they both have a unique sound. Hard work is a key factor too. It is no coincidence that the artists that sell the most on Tru Thoughts all work very hard on top of making their music. There is also an element of good timing and good fortune of releasing music that captures people at the right moment.