Why Everyone Should Think Before Signing To A Label

Berlin producer House Of Black Lanterns explains why he’s self-releasing, after a decade of trying to make a label deal work.

In the 2001 documentary Scratch, DJ Shadow sits in the basement of Rare Records in Sacramento, California, surrounded by mountains of vinyl, and recounts an unspoken truth to director Doug Pray: “You're looking through all these records and it's like a big pile of broken dreams in a way,” he says. “Almost none of these artists still have a career, so you kinda have to respect that. If you're making records you're sort of adding to this pile, whether you want to admit it or not.”

It's a feeling Dylan Richards shares. “There's not many people that make music professionally for any [long] duration of time,” says the British producer and DJ, who records vivid dance music as House of Black Lanterns, speaking over the phone from his Berlin home. “A big part of that is a disillusion with the industry.”

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In early November, Richards self-released his third album You Were Telling Me of Mountains, a sprawling, cinematic piece that brings to mind both drum & bass pioneer Goldie's seminal 1995 album Timeless and the synth-heavy soundtrack to the modern noir movie Drive. It is the first release Richards has put out without the support of a label, and the decision to do so was a direct result of his own disillusions with the industry.

A self-described “art school dropout,” Richards began his career in the late 1990s as a deft DJ and remixer under the name Zilla. A series of sought-after conceptual mixes earned him a commission to compile a mix of the Warp Records back catalogue in 2004, under the title Watch And Repeat Play, alongside his friend, and early supporter, Lex Records' Buddy Peace. In 2009, Zilla made way for a new alias, King Cannibal, alongside a four-album deal with Ninja Tune that included a debut of brutal dancefloor riddims, Let The Night Roar, and another catalogue compilation, 2010's The Way of The Ninja. However, a second studio album for the label proved an insurmountable hurdle as communication between artist and label seemingly broke down.

“I couldn't get any sense of what they actually wanted from me,” Richards reflects. “No material or idea seemed to be met positively.” Frustrated by the lack of forward momentum, and feeling trapped in a negative tangle, Richards submitted an album he knew wasn’t ready and the label ended up releasing him from the contract. The experience left the producer shaken and doubtful of his abilities.

When contacted for a comment, Ninja Tune explained that their decision to release Richards was motivated by “the source of our greatest strength: we only release music we love. And very occasionally that represents a bit of a problem.” While they claim to have searched for a “positive way to continue their investment” with Richards, they ultimately felt that “his musical journey was heading in a direction that might be better served by another home.” Ninja Tune say they remain proud of the King Cannibal material and “wish him every success in the future.”

In 2013, Richards relocated to Berlin and signed a new two-album deal with Houndstooth, a label attached to London nightclubbing institution Fabric. He renamed himself House of Black Lanterns, as a way to escape the memories attached to the King Cannibal alias. Later that year he released Kill The Lights, an album that began life during his Ninja Tune deal and hid the earlier brutal aspects of his work beneath texture and space. As 2014 began, Richards set about defining the parameters for a prospective third album. Kill The Lights had included a couple of “footwork not footwork” tracks, music inspired by the Chicago genre but removed from it by distance and experience, which were chosen as a stylistic focus. “The idea was for the album to be fixed around one aesthetic, not a genre but a bpm at least,” he explains. Tapping into his early love of jungle and drum & bass, Richards settled on 160/170 bpm and, with the agreement of the label, began writing an album that could be “bigger than just dance or club music.”

In the spring of 2014, Richards sent Houndstooth half an album but received no feedback. The radio silence unnerved him. “Once you're in the writing process, I've found most relationships with labels to be fairly contact free,” he tells me, “and that's what I've struggled with: wanting a label to be hands on.”

According to Richards, when Houndstooth finally got back they told him that, after consulting journalists and other colleagues, the agreed upon style for the album was no longer seen as relevant and thus not viable. For the first feedback to be so dismissive of Richards' vision was the final blow. “I went back and questioned their lack of feedback and they apologised,” he says, “but that can't make up for this sense of broken trust. It's important to speak up and tell anyone working that way how short sighted it is.”

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Reached by email, Houndstooth explained that while Richards left the label following the disagreements, they are still in contact: “We love Dylan’s music and we’re currently in negotiation with him for a track for a forthcoming compilation.”

“A relationship with a label should be accommodating but also give you something to push against, so you can try new things.”—House Of Black Lanterns

The problems Richards has faced are intrinsic to the relationship between an artist and their label, though they aren't often made public. He says he's yet to decipher the inner A&R (artist & repertoire) workings of a label. “It seems to be listening out for things they like, signing that, and that's where it ends,” he tells me. “First albums rarely make money back for a new artist, it's about building momentum. I always try to get people onboard for the second album because I want it to be something bigger. It needs to be a collaborative process.”

“I don't make music to make money,” he continues. “A relationship with a label should be accommodating but also give you something to push against, so you can try new things.” I ask if part of what he has faced is perhaps down to being difficult? “I think there’s a lot about the artistic process that is about being difficult sometimes. Pushing back means you're having a conversation. Otherwise it's like any abusive relationship—you need to kill it.”

After self-releasing his album, Richards says he found himself in a stronger-than-ever position. After we hung up, he signed a contract for You Were Telling Me of Mountains to be released on vinyl by a new label, FRNTR. Whether or not this leads to another attempt at a second album with the same label remains to be seen. For now, Richards is glad to see his artistic vision fulfilled, and wants to share his experience as a cautionary tale of sorts for others. “The dynamic of a relationship is not something a contract can guarantee, much like you don't truly know someone until you live with them,” he concludes. “In the music industry the lines are always blurred between where friendship ends and business starts.”

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Why Everyone Should Think Before Signing To A Label