Ahead of last week’s Independent Label Market, we sent a list of questions to a bunch of label heads on the current state of play in the industry. Among them was Loefah, Swamp81 boss and more recently co-founder of School Records. Not so keen to fill out the questionnaire, we caught up with him on the phone, and what began as a routine Q&A on the running of Swamp81 quickly unraveled into a more detailed look behind the scenes at one of the UK’s most important bass music labels.
So, rather than limit the interview to the few choice quotes from last Friday’s label feature, we’ve decided to publish the whole thing. From the label’s breakthrough single “Footcrab” to a mooted collaboration with Trilogy Tapes, Loefah talks label business, releasing on vinyl and what’s so special about books.
So, we’re here to talk shop. What’s the most rewarding thing about running Swamp81?
Just the life of the music after it’s been put out, who plays it, how it’s played, where it’s played, how it’s received, all that kind of thing, the stuff you have no control over. You pick a tune, you think it’s dope, you master it and manufacture it as well as you can and you put it out there but then it’s up to the people who buy it and listen to it and dance to it. It’s an interesting journey.
How’s that panned out with releases that you’ve been involved in?
I started doing Swamp as a more traditionalist dubstep label, but then I sort of moved away from it with the “Footcrab” tune by Addison Groove. It was quite new at the time and everyone I knew who heard it was kind of umming and ahhing about it. They were like “yeah it’s cool but where would you put it, blah blah blah”. And I remember just thinking “that tune is dope and I love it and I want to put it out” and at that time I was making a conscious effort to not play dubstep.
I really thought that although I was running a label maybe it was time to get a job, but then I brought that out – and I thought that Swamp would be quite a niche label just bringing out a couple of releases a year, 500 press or whatever – and it went mad. It was great, it had a life of its own and it enabled me to do what I can with Swamp – it was like a clean sheet of paper and after that you can go where you want.
Was there something specific you wanted to achieve with Swamp after “Footcrab”?
The thing that we’ve got at Swamp – we didn’t always have it, but we’ve kind of evolved into it and it was definitely something I was looking to do – was to have a stalwart set of four or five producers who were on the label. That sort of thing comes from the records I would buy like Metalheadz and before them Reinforced who had certain producers and it’d be like that’s ‘the firm’.
You do have your own identity and you do push it but you also have a combined identity under the Swamp umbrella. I think that’s where a label comes in handy and everyone works with each other and bounces ideas off each other. It’s like-minded people, doing like-minded things but in their own way. That’s what I think the sort of role of a label is more about – having a clear and unified direction I suppose.
Do you work closely with your ‘firm’?
Every year between us we all talk about what’s the direction, where’s we think the sound is going, what’s interesting, what’s not interesting, there’s always a dialogue open. That’s the vibe anyway.
Swamp81 is basically vinyl-only – have you never been tempted to use the internet more?
We’ve never really been about it, we’ve never really been about pushing any kind of press, no print media or anything. I suppose I’m quite old school now so I work in an old school way. The tunes are heard in the clubs, people like what’s going on, word of mouth, it’s said on the radio, somebody says it on the mic at raves, “this is coming out, it’s vinyl-only, Swamp81”, it hits the shops, people who buy records regularly know, those who don’t don’t but it doesn’t really matter because there’s only so many records to buy.
I’m running a label called School with Jan Francis and Katie Thiebaud – she’s the label manager at Swamp and we’re three-way partners on that one – and one of the reasons I did that was so that I did work in new ways, because I didn’t want to just do Swamp “2”. So with that label we’re definitely looking at different digital options, we released a single digitally. It’s just a different way.
Is it tough to balance the books when you’re releasing vinyl-only?
I don’t pay myself from Swamp, so we keep money going in, but you spend loads of money on everything and we press vinyl in probably the most expensive way possible – 180g vinyl, artwork where we’ll often use mad printing techniques like reverse board, spot-varnish, gatefold, lots of double packs and our mastering engineer is not cheap either – but the thing is, all these things are worth it, it’s all about putting out a quality product. With balancing the books, they balance, but a record label is part of a bigger thing. The artist gets paid, the people who work for the label get paid and there’s money to go into the next release so it’s alright.
Have you noticed more people buying records in recent months?
No, it hasn’t really registered, but our vinyl sales have always been quite good. It makes sense to me that vinyl is doing well though, because I feel it’s like the audio version of a book. A book is about as… I mean it’s not even analogue is it… it’s about as basic as you can get, it’s ancient, but it’s not going anywhere. People like books and there’s a reason why people like books. You can read something on an iPad and people will do that, but they’ll also still read a book. It’s like CD’s, who gives a fuck? They scratch really easily and the artworks not big enough to be happy about. I don’t think vinyl is going anywhere and I think people are realizing it.
Swamp’s got a lot of young fans too who are also into vinyl, right?
Definitely, I mean I’ve seen that definitely in the last three years really doing Swamp, where kids, literally first year at university students were coming up to me being like “yeah I bought a record player so I could play Swamp records” and they’re just really getting into it and they’re going to charity shops. I mean I love it, I’m a geek for that shit.
Do you still buy records regularly yourself?
Yeah man, but it’s in a different way now. I buy more as a collector than as a DJ, but I love it, I can’t get enough of it. I buy a shit load of MP3’s every week as well. I mean I love them both. I don’t feel like I’ve fully got a tune until I’ve got it on vinyl and on my iTunes.
What have you got coming up on Swamp?
Next up is a Boddika double pack, which will be Swamp26, and after that we have the Zed Bias album – it’s like a 12 tracker and that will be released digitally actually and 4 piece vinyl, so that will be out later in the year and after that we’ve got a FaltyDL 12” which is more DJ friendly than the ‘Mean Streets’ stuff, but it’s still very much his style of breaks and his crazy vibe.
Me and Will [Bankhead, Trilogy Tapes] might actually be doing a tape for this Swamp81 vs. Trilogy Tapes, me on one side, him on the other, so we’re trying to get that sorted. That gets us to the end of the year I think.
Finally, if you could sign anyone to Swamp, who would it be?
Honestly, it would be Artwork – Arthur from Magnetic Man. It really is! I know that sounds like you probably wanted a better answer, but I’m not even joking, seriously I want to get a 12” off him.
He’s completely sick and he’s done some mad stuff in the past under all sorts of different aliases and he’s such a dope producer. I just think he would do something wicked for Swamp. If I could get anyone I think it would be him.
Any parting words of wisdom for someone looking to start their own label?
Know why you’re doing it. Ask yourself why. If you can answer that question, pow, do it, do it to death, love it, enjoy it. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, don’t do it.
Loefah released his first material in five years as part of The Vinyl Factory and Independent Label Market’s Vinyl For Syria special edition release series. CLick here for more info.