Filed under: Interview
He’s the Canadian renowned for his 3 and 4 deck sets but isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a vinyl purist. It is of course Revolver label boss Jeff Milligan and as this rather verbose interview attests when he is not touring the world or kicking back in his adopted home of Berlin he is more than happy to spin a yarn or two about the world of techno.
Interview by Nick Lawrence (HigherFrequency)
HRFQ : Nowadays there is an overload of new labels coming out. Is there any difference between starting up a label now compared to when you started Revolver in 1999?
Jeff Milligan : I think that there is a massive difference in starting a label back in 1999, compared to 2007. Almost a decade of internet and other technological innovation and development has passed. The end of the nineties was essentially the end of the outboard studio as a laptop revolution took hold and the budget to record music dropped. The tools and resources to promote and release music have also improved and developed exponentially in just the past few years. And of course, it goes without saying, that digital distribution has changed the way we look at music and it’s ownership. Record labels don’t have to invest very much money in releasing a record anymore. Overhead has almost disappeared in comparison to a decade ago as there is way less risk in the failure of a non-physical product as the market goes digital.
The only drawback is that labels have now become far more numerous and the market is flooded with a load of craptop techno so it’s harder for the great records to outshine the hundreds of mediocre ones. No different than the past one could argue, but there were more records released in the world in the past 24 hours than there are minutes in the day to devote to searching for, or listening to new stuff. It used to be, that a labels exclusivity would fuel it’s popularity and sales would increase naturally over time, as the catalog grows, but funny, now there seems to be as many one hit labels as there are artists. I actually think that record labels are going to become less and less about the business of releasing music, and will take on some other primary purpose because it’s only going to become easier for artists to simply release records on their own. All a record label really does is provide infrastructure for an artist to get his/her music into the world and I think most artists are starting to develop the capacity to manage this personally. The power of record labels will continue to decrease and will slowly evolve into some other primary business service that they provide for the artist.
HRFQ : So how do you go about making Revolver different from the rest to make sure it doesn’t just disappear?
Jeff Milligan : At the risk of being arrogant, I think that we are different. We had a lot of incredibly well known artists that started on RevolverCanada. The problem is that time forgets, and none of the new minimal fans are aware of our history. I am quite the optimist in that i do believe that the whole electronic music industry is about to enter a renaissance of sorts. Everyone complains about how boring and empty all the new “five minute minimal” has gotten and that can be blamed on all the hype and bandwagoning on one hand, and on the other hand, the vinyl distributors can be blamed as well. For the past few years, vinyl is obviously in decline and therefore, the risk of putting out stranger records has increased the risk. All this pressure to make the ultimate dancefloor showdown on vinyl has cheapened music so much. For example, where has ambient gone? Where has experimental music gone?!!! It has all but disappeared all because of financial risk. Well screw $$$! It’s outrageous that artists have had to pidgeon-hole themsleves so much, just so they can please their distributors and keep on putting out vinyl. I personally believe that vinyl sales will go into exponential decline soon and will lead the way for a “musical” renaissance where the artist can do what they want to a much larger degree because there is far less risk of loss with a digital release. That being said, our plan with RevolverCanada is to continue to buck the trends and get weirder. When we put out our first Akufen record, our distributor at the time thought it was a mistake, saying that the record didn’t fit into a genre and that it would make the record hard to sell. haha.
HRFQ : Back in the day you were working will Richie Hawtin at Plus 8, what do you make of Minus’ current popularity?
Jeff Milligan : Well i must first clarify that we didn’t work together much. I did a DJ project for +8/Definitive a decade ago, but i was never working for +8. The crew I was a part of in Toronto were the people who were promoting +8/Minus parties and Richie and I played together many times, but that’s as far as we worked together. Nowadays, every five minutes someone is praising or shitting on Minus cause they are the benchmark of the minimal labels so everyone either wants to tear a strip off them or suck their dicks (except Magda’s of course ;)), nevertheless, all this press space about Minus everywhere I look could be used for stuff that isn’t getting attention. Nonetheless I have a few viewpoints about Minus’ success.
I’m a big supporter of the label and Richie Hawtin was a major influence for myself and others from Montreal to Detroit back in the day and still is. In Canada we have very deep roots in minimal techno, spanning well over a decade so we can brag and say we are quite seasoned and educated towards the genre. I think this can be somewhat due to Richie Hawtin and his affiliations and the early exposure he afforded this music to us locally as he was a primary instrument for this music’s popularity, especially back home in Canada, way before the global minimal explosion. But many of the artists that sprang from this nineties generation of techno were making the more stripped for stripped sake style of “minimal” a decade ago and are somewhere new now, artistically speaking, and certainly don’t fit into the cookie cutter framework of today’s rehashed incarnation of minimal.
Minus has been around for a really long time, much longer than many minimal labels so they have some seniority and influence. Their releases sound much different in style than the minimal techno that eventually emerged from Montreal or Toronto as Minus is much more of a Detroit label as far as style, affiliations and influences, than it is a Canadian one. Most other notable Canadian producers tended to create more sampledelic, melodic styles that are much more musically sophisticated. Ironically, most of the producers were dramatically influenced by +8’s early years. Because Minus records are pretty simple to copy, they have the blessing and curse of being the most popular and accessible sound, the one that all the bandwagoners are trying to sound like, and doing so with some relative success. The genre has been cheapened a lot, but it’s not Minus’ fault. Minimal techno is prime time on a Saturday night now in most cities in the world and there’s no reason that the people who believed in this music can’t live off it. There are some good records on the label and some that aren’t my thing, like any other label, nonetheless i’m a supporter since day one.
The underground music scene is a fragile and naive place where strong business minded artists can rule easily. I don’t mean to trivialize, but in my opinion the main reason for Minus’ popularity is due to the elaborate campaign behind the continued brand development of Minus, and not so much because of the records themselves. Minus is a really strong brand, like CocaCola. When you are this huge you can put out incredible records that define the music of the future or crap in a paper bag, light it on fire, proclaim it’s the best thing since peanut butter, because it doesn’t matter. Most people will buy it and think it’s the best either way. And play the record enough, and eventually it makes it into everyone’s heads, whether it’s good or not. People have little time to scrutinize what they believe is the status quo’s consensus on what is considered the best product.
Maybe throwing Starbuck’s or whatever big corporation in there is a negative association, but I’m just trying to make the point that there is little difference between the decision making effort of someone buying broccoli to someone buying music. There are some extremely intelligent music fans out there but a large % of the people who go to a club worked in an office or a bank all week and they want to spend time on weekends relaxing and letting loose, not being an informed music afficianado. By no means am I trying to draw the comparison of Minus to Starbuck’s, I’m just saying that any label could release a brilliant record, or a crap record, but anything with massive promotion will at the very least be marginally successful. $ and promotion can make blue the new red, black the new white and Minus have lots of money to put into promotion, running a tight, well-oiled business. Richie Hawtin has made Plastikman/+8/Minus coffee mugs, mouse pads, slipmats, stickers and t-shirts. Over a decade of merchandising. There must be at least 100,000 Plastikman slipmats on turntables all over the planet and I think I have personally slipped a record on at least 1000 of them.
Point being that there are hundreds of labels, artists and DJs worldwide that are releasing amazing stuff that gets little to no attention because they lack the branding or spin since they aren’t business savvy… or are unfashionable… socially retarded… don’t have a publicity machine behind them, or lack a good photographer. I mean, everyone heard of Thomas Edison but no one heard of Nikola Tesla. Any successful brand will be copied, cheapened and disposed of. Eventually there will be backlash against minimal from the audience, not just the industry, and the criticisms won’t be incorrect when they call this genre empty, simple, unmusical and boring as it’s becoming moreso every day. Sadly, the artists who were doing the really innovative stuff, will suffer the same unfounded criticisms. What will be really interesting is to see the musical direction that labels (not just Minus) take after the minimal hype is all dried up.
HRFQ : Reading through your technical rider for gigs you request that the DJ booth be on the dancefloor instead of raised above. How important is it for you to connect with the audience during a set?
Jeff Milligan : I think it’s of paramount importance to give the audience and next generation of aspiring musician and DJs the tools to enable them to take this artform some steps forward. I truly believe that half the reason that many DJ booths are elevated in the air is because many of the big superstars aren’t actually very talented and don’t want their audience to know the difference. The audience should be able to see the DJ perform so they better understand mixing and how the music is composed and created. It’s fascinating to watch something done well that you don’t know anything about, so I think it’s a better value for everyone when the DJ is on the same level as the audience. I have always used this example…
You wouldn’t want to go to a rock concert and see all the performers, guitartists, drummers etc., behind a wall, three stories in the air so u can only see their heads. I think that the audience should be trainspotters. Trainspotters always have a bad name but that really should be a thing of the past. It’s good when the audience can see what record is playing, go to the shop later and go buy it. This only helps educate the audience about the music they listen to, gives a voice to the consumer as much as to the DJ and helps this little electronic music micro-economy we all survive on to flourish. I also think that a close physical connection to the audience is important so you can feel the energy of the party. As hippy crap as it may sound, it’s true. I often pick one person on the dancefloor and use them as my guinea pig and compass for the sets direction.
HRFQ : Do you keep these technological advancements in mind when producing tracks for the dancefloor, or asking your label’s artists to create tracks?
Jeff Milligan : Of course I keep technological advancements in mind because at the core of what we do, is technology itself or it wouldn’t be called techno. 😉 As for asking the artists to keep these things in mind, no, definately not. I am 100% hands off any artists creative process. If I like it, I like it, if I don’t, I don’t. I could never ask an artist to change anything, unless of course they directly ask me for advice or opinions.
HRFQ : You are renowned for your 3 and 4 deck mixing, surely now you must be tempted to switch to laptop so you can move up to even more decks at once…
Jeff Milligan : Of course! I have been using a laptop and Serato SL since it was beta. The problem is that the scratch amp only accomodates 2 turntables so i have to rely on playing half vinyl/half digital. Once Serato SL can handle 4 decks, I will be happy to say goodbye to vinyl. Goodbye paper, goodbye gasoline, goodbye oil, goodbye airline overweight charges. I always shock people when i discuss my hatred for vinyl, i mean, i love vinyl’s tangibility, but the medium is simply unnecessary now. A few years ago, i could accept an argument to the contrary due to some computing limitations and stability issues, but not today. A record will always be way more reliable than a digital system of course, but playing vinyl also has some limitations that few DJs discuss since so many people are caught in this “save vinyl” group think. Playing digitally gives you more tools to use that you don’t have with a regular, predetermined vinyl record. Generally, if something is cut on vinyl, I play it on vinyl. I use Serato SL for rarities, digital exclusives, studio production, re-edits and other projects that I don’t have access to on vinyl. I don’t think that SeratoSL/FS etc., are a replacement for records, they are simply performance enhancers. I look forward to the day when all equipment is transparent in purpose… when the Technics 1210 is viewed simply as an elaborate, spinning 12″ diameter ultra-fine and precise tuning knob to be used as a standard instrument in a variety of studio purposes for the control, performance and fine tuning of any music parameter. And when the mixer is viewed in reality and philosophically as a MIDI controller, the best design for a MIDI controller is more obvious than most people think cause it’s all under our noses in the already existing DJ set up. I think that in the near future, wav’s, mp3’s etc. will be replaced with higher bit rate, multi-tracked recordings where the DJ can choose to play a track but decide they don’t want to play one or a group of channels of it so they simply mute just that one element of the original compsition. The line will continue to blur between DJ as playback and DJ as musician once all music is given the flexibility to be manipulated in a more modular and non-linear way.
HRFQ : You recently signed Japanese artist Mitsuaki Komamura to Revolver and the latest release features a remix from Akiko Kiyama. What is your attraction to Japanese music?
Jeff Milligan : Over the past few years I have been afforded the opportunity to visit Japan very often. I have forged strong friendships and come to understand the way of thinking of the producers in Japan and have watched them evolve and develop. I think there is some remarkable talent in Japan that simply does not get the exposure it deserves. I think that the primary reason that Japanese electronic music isn’t as big an influence in electronic music is only because of the obvious issues that Japan has with barriers of distance and language to most of the electronic music world. The Japanese certainly have a big disadvantage over European’s or American’s regarding the electronic music business. As in keeping with the original philosophy of Revolver Canada, we focus on underexposed music scenes, like Canada had in the early years of the label. Japanese artists have a bizarre talent for combining humour and melancholy in a much more sincere way than most. I also think that one of the most advanced DJ cultures for mixing and other DJ techniques are unparalleled in Japan and the DJ booths are the best in the world.
HRFQ : On top of the Japanese artists you have even produced some ringtones for Japanese release. Was that just for a bit of fun or something you take as seriously as the rest of your music?
Jeff Milligan : I take making ringtones as seriously as I do designing music. It’s fun to do ringtones because they are mini-compositions and because they have certain limitations which makes it a challenge. I think the ringtone industry is quite primitive in many ways. The idea of a ringtone to most people is simply a low quality excerpt from some favourite song of theirs. I think that a ringtone has a set of criterias to consider. A ringtone needs to be loud enough to be heard yet subtle. When writing ringtones it’s important to consider frequency range of the phone itself. Since the world is filled with all kinds of rhythms, it’s important to cut different delays and reverbs so certain frequencies and sounds will stand out over others, depending on what is going on in the ambient environment around. I bet my ringtones alert more people than some bad, general MIDI sounding version of some Black Eyed Peas song or Crazy Frog. I have a bunch of new ringtones coming out on r.fm soon incidentally.
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