On an evening at the end of September 2017, I caught up with Martín Miguel, asking him about Better Listen Records and his DJ career. In this first half of the interview, Martín told me why he started Better Listen, what distinguishes Better Listen from other disco and house labels, some of his insights into the DC party scene, thoughts he has on cultural appropriation in music and what disco has become, and more. Read what Martín had to say about Better Listen Records below and stay tuned for the second half of the interview that focuses on his DJ career.
Why did you start Better Listen?
I had been running a blog here in DC called The Dance Party Chronicles (DPC) with my buddy Rashad. Last January, I got in touch with Mike W who runs Kolour LTD. [DPC] had done a couple of reviews of their records and [Mike W] wanted to do a guest mix for us and have me write a feature on Kolour LTD because he liked my writing style. We ended up becoming good friends and in one of our regular chats, he said, “Hey, you’d be really good at running your own label.” And it was something that I’d already considered since we’d been in the booking and promotion game for a while in addition to writing about music and [running a label] would be another contribution to music I could make. I told him that I’d love to, but had no idea how to pull it off, so he showed me the ropes. He put me in touch and cosigned me with his distributor for a deal. He also coached me through signing the first couple of releases. Ultimately the first release was a guy that I knew about — I had the first record he put out, but I didn’t know him personally. Mike introduced me [to the artist], had his own vision on what I should do with [the release], and that became The Last Trip To Gandahar [release].
Nice! And “Bartz Groove” off that is doing really well.
It’s funny because it’s always hard to read what the biggest track on release is going to be. I thought “Over Paradise” was going to be the big track. We had a lot of issues mixing and mastering that record, and when I sent it around to blogs for premieres, everyone wanted “Bartz Groove,” so I thought that was going to be the big track and I put it in the A1 slot.
I take a different approach than some labels do with track placement on a record. A lot of labels may place the bona fide, big hit as A1, no matter what the vibe of that track is. I like to approach each EP as mini album — I do want A1 to be a good first listen, but I find it anti-climactic if the biggest song is A1 because then it’s all downhill from there. So I tend to put the biggest song on B1, also because it’s the side with the artwork and I kind of like the aesthetic of that.
“I like to approach each EP as mini album … I find it anti-climactic if the biggest song is A1 because then it’s all downhill from there. So I tend to put the biggest song on B1 …”
The motivation [for starting Better Listen] was that I had thought about [starting a record label], and then I finally had someone who was willing to show me how to do it. It does seem daunting if you don’t know how to pull it off, especially with vinyl. So it was perfect timing thing for me on that end.
From interviewing and speaking off the record with other label heads, I take it that labels can be a money pit. Does pressing vinyl make losses more substantial?
I lucked out because of my distributor, Prime Direct Distribution in London. I had the first two releases, Last Trip To Gandahar’s EP and Ponty Mython’s EP, signed before I talked with Prime. I had a product to show rather than just an idea and they offered me a good deal. I had a gut feeling that the first release was going to flop, but it sold out in a week from distribution. Selling out from distribution is different from selling out in total. The stores can still have stock. And from your bottom line financially, the distributor being out of stock is all that matters because that means you sold it and it’s [on to the] stores.
So I lucked out. I had a really good selling first release. The second release — Ponty Mython — sold OK, but not as well as I had hoped. The third release, Cody Currie’sBeer Machine EP, is the biggest release to this day. I sold well enough with the [first] three releases that [everyone was pleased].
I’m incredibly fortunate to have sold this well out of the gate, to have a distributor willing to take a chance on me based on that.
What do you credit with the success? Having quality releases, did you have a lot local support, or were there other factors at play?
I think a lot of my non-DJ friends and family bought the first release, which helped that along. Local support, especially from the beginning, was very solid. Now I have local guys who always hit me up to buy the record direct or find out when it’s being stocked locally and some who buy off of Juno. I know because of the frequency of my releases, I can’t expect everyone to buy each release. Something I need to do a better job of is marketing the label locally outside of DJs in this kind of music.
So the first release [succeeded because of] the “first release effect.” The third release was hyped — Cody Currie has an enormous underground following on YouTube. I signed him before he even had a record out. I had heard a track of his in a mix in August 2016. It was on an upcoming release on a label called Pusic out of Austria. They don’t put out a lot — they’re super heady guys, some of the first to release tracks by Max Graef and Fouk, way before those dudes really blew up. Pusic doesn’t release as much as other labels, but they have a nose for talent. So Currie had this record coming out on Pusic, and as soon as I heard the track, I hit him up and managed to sign three tracks, and we finished the EP a little later on. I knew [Cody Currie’s EP] was going to be a big release. His style of music is not necessarily going to be super sustainable because there are a lot of people emulating that sound of combining samples with certain synth sounds in the vein of Fouk or Max Graef. But [Currie] does [that style] so well that I knew it would be a sure shot. And I lucked out — [Currie’s release] has sold [a lot of physical] copies and it’s selling really well digitally too. And he just did an EP on Razor-N-Tape — I introduced Razor-N-Tape to his music from a promo I sent in January. But yea, he’s blowing up … I probably won’t be able to do another release with him at this point.
Going full-circle on your question, the [Beer Machine EP] was super hyped up — it was exactly the rebound I needed after the second release. And I fuckin’ love the second release, and I’m a grumpy old man about it — to this day, I’m still like, “Nah, people just didn’t get it. People didn’t appreciate what it was.” But it might not have been the most accessible release musically for the crowd.
What distinguishes Better Listen from other house and disco labels?
Coming up with the name for the label was such a process. Branding is everything now. I think the music is good and the quality of music has gotten better — no discredit to the earlier releases. But branding is everything. The name is a component of [the branding]. I was very lucky because I randomly came up with the inverted logo so that the logo read “Better Listen” or “Listen Better” when the record is spinning. [The logo] looks official, so even if you didn’t know anything about Better Listen, you’d think, “This looks like a legit label.” And that’s what I wanted — I wanted something that looked official and I always had the idea to have the pattern fill on the B-side and have the pattern fill the logo as well, so I wanted an empty typeface for that reason.
“Branding is everything now.”
So I’d say partly what distinguishes me is the branding. There are people here in DC who tell me that they don’t even play the type of music I release, but they buy every record. And something with the physical medium that I really wanted is having the records look good — if you don’t know anything about a label, you still might check it out if it looks cool. I definitely had influences in that regard — Heist Recordings, Detroit Swindle’s record label, has this super sleek branding …. They’ve changed it up a bit and it’s departed from the more minimalistic approach they had before, but I really liked that and how every release was parallel in design but also [slightly] different. So the branding is something that is important in distinguishing the label.
In terms of sound, if you really think about the sound that the label is pushing now, it’s not original in the sense that Kolour LTD, Sleazy Beats, Razor-N-Tape with their reserve label, Heist early on, and other labels that were pushing this deep disco sound. Ultimately my [music] is influenced by the older Sleazy Beats Black Ops releases and —
No, that’s Whiskey Disco. And Whiskey Disco is more of a disco edit label. I play a lot of edits, but it’s kind of this partition where you have edits — and we could get into a whole argument about the legitimacy of different approaches to doing edits — and then you have house labels that might use some samples, but they’re operating on a different level. I think that Better Listen sits right between those two … some of the [music] you could call edits [rather than] sample-based originals … but that was really my intent for the label: to bridge the gap. You could play disco originals or disco edits, mix in a Better Listen track, and that could help you mix into a house track. At the end of the day, we make these records for DJs to use in clubs — they’re tools. As much as I want people to listen to the music casually, I very much want the utility of it.
“At the end of the day, we make these records for DJs to use in clubs — they’re tools. As much as I want people to listen to the music casually, I very much want the utility of it.”
Do you have an ultimate goal for Better Listen?
I don’t necessarily. Certain labels take a linear approach, where they’ll say, “we’ll start small and aggressively pursue larger artists.” For me, one of the things that people look to the label for is our knack for finding new talent. Last Trip To Gandahar, that was his first record; Cody Currie, that was his second record; Dorsi Plantar, that was his second record; Ethyène, that was his third or fourth; Ari Bald, the one that I put out back in August, that was his first record. It’s pretty dope to be able to do the first record with someone. For instance, the Ari Bald one, that was the #1 selling house release on Juno for ten days, out of all house genres. To be able to sign a new artist and do that is pretty dope; I take pride in that because I’m finding something that other people aren’t up on yet. It’s kind of that crate-digger mentality.
It’s interesting because I don’t want music to be a competition — it shouldn’t be. If you’re taking the right approach to it, you can have something to contribute. Mathematically it is a competition because they’re charting our releases against each other, sales matter, and we’re competing for the same costumers and for the same bookings potentially. So I like that Better Listen has a reputation for cradle snatching. But I also like that the more established producers that I’m choosing to work with are headier picks. Ponty Mython is very much a producer’s producer — he makes some weird shit, and it’s very technically great and layered. But he’s not a super hyped-up producer — he’s a really heady, respected guy. Same with Thatmanmonkz — he’s been around for a minute, he’s one of my favorite producers. They’re tenured, well-respected guys.
“It’s interesting because I don’t want music to be a competition — it shouldn’t be. If you’re taking the right approach to it, you can have something to contribute. Mathematically it is a competition because they’re charting our releases against each other, sales matter, and we’re competing for the same costumers and for the same bookings potentially. So I like that Better Listen has a reputation for cradle snatching.”
It seems that with the Thatmanmonkz EP that’s coming out in two weeks, I’m turning a corner where I’m still receiving a lot of demos from newbies, which I like. I like parsing through that and being able to find new stuff. But I’m starting to get demos from people who influenced me, without me soliciting it — that’s really special to have their respect and be on their radar. I kind of want Better Listen to continue cradle snatching, but now that I’ve paid my dues, to start bringing in some of those vets, not necessarily to elevate the music — I already feel that the quality of music is high —, but to bring in some different listeners. From an A&R standpoint, that’s what I want.
I do plan on continuing the sound obviously — it’s the entire ethos of the label. But from a non-musical standpoint, I think something that I really want to get better at is to have a presence locally. At this point, I do the monthly party at ESL (Eighteenth Street Lounge), and I’ve been pretty aggressive with booking the guests that I can for that — I try to bring in people that are either on the label or closely affiliated with the label by either sound or relationship. We do the bi-monthly at Flash that kind of mimics that format when I can. But at the end of the day, it’s very hard to reach people outside of the “scene” when you’re promoting [these parties].
So I’m trying to figure out ways to gain a following outside of the dedicated DJ scene here in DC. Because I do think there’s appeal. I think that people who go to Otherfeels, DIY house shows, and other [similar parties] would fuck with the things that I do. I think that people who are generally into creative and independent DC stuff would get behind it, but it just takes time. And I’m still figuring that out.
I’m not a publicist by trade. I’m going to keep grinding at it, hopefully through being more aggressive and consistent with the events, I can reach a better crowd locally. Internationally, [Better Listen] grows itself. We did the release party for the last record in Stockholm.
“… something that I really want to get better at is to have a presence locally … I’m trying to figure out ways to gain a following outside of the dedicated DJ scene here in DC. Because I do think there’s appeal.”
Were you there?
Yea, I was out there. It was dope. I never thought be playing internationally within a year of the label [starting]. I played in Stockholm and then in a club in Coppenhagen called Jolene. Those things are essential. Tomorrow night in Stockholm, there’s a Better Listen branded party that I have no part of. But Cody Currie who produced the third record and Ari Bald who booked the sixth record are playing together at the same club. It’s cool that my branding can get these guys booked now.
But you want it here too …
Yea, I want it here too. I’ve been able to provide a landing spot here in DC for my artists so far, but I want to expand on it more. I didn’t start the label to get better bookings for myself — it’s nice that it’s happening, but it’s really just a bonus.
Well yea, let me know if you find that golden answer on how to bring people outside of the DC scene to parties.
[Laughing] Well it’s a mythical scene, right?
And anytime there’s a failed party in DC, we say, “Our scene is so small.” And that’s such fucking cop-out because everyone in DC likes to drink alcohol, and there are hundreds of thousands of people here. Just by sample size, we shouldn’t be struggling this bad. I think it’s just that we’re so insular in our community and approaches. And a lot of the times it comes down to selfishness. We live in a time where everyone is selfish with their time. But it’s important to build relationships outside of just attending events. We all have friends who are not DJs and I think it’s really draining on them if the only thing they hear from us is, “Can you come out to my event?” We really need to spend time with people and have real interactions. There’s more to respect than just asking them to come see you do your thing. You have to be really present. Go to your friend’s art show without the ulterior motive. It’s important to give and be present without expecting the community to provide for you.
“We all have friends who are not DJs and I think it’s really draining on them if the only thing they hear from us is, ‘Can you come out to my event?’ We really need to spend time with people and have real interactions. It’s important to give and be present without expecting the community to provide for you.”
I love that — that’s a really good point.
What else is on the horizon for Better Listen?
[Martín edited his answer to this question in January 2018 to provide updated label release information]
At this point we’re doing a Better Listen release every eight or nine weeks, and it’s slowly killing me because it’s a never-ending promotion train and it’s a one-man show essentially. My buddy Joseph helps me with event flyer designs and stuff like that, and I outsource the illustration work for the records. But hooking up all the premieres and the background marketing is all me. So it’s a lot of work. Then the label has some sublabel action, which the future of is still to be determined. And a special release or two coming up as well for 2018.
Anyways, we just dropped BLR009, which is the debut EP from a young, London-based producer named Joe Corti. And it’s selling well (or at least I think it is). We’ll be repressing our sold out releases for the spring (BLR003, 006 and 008), and then headed back to Scandinavia for BLR010. That’s all I will reveal at the moment.
It’s really hard for me to have a gauge on who’s buying which of my records. I try to talk to the DJs who I assume would be buying them, and sometimes they say, “Yea, I have every record.” But sometimes, they’ll be like, “I have two of them.” I’m interested in who of name is buying my records. For instance, I found out that Detroit Swindle has a few Better Listen records. They’re huge tastemakers for this type of music, so finding out that they own some records from my label is dope. I didn’t think that I was on their radar. I recently found out Juan Maclean dropped BLR003 on a Mixmag stream as well. Getting that sort of nod from the bigger acts is a sweet form of validation.
Anything else you want to let our readers know about Better Listen?
Not in particular, though I will say that it’s difficult with sample-based material and the demographics of people who are producing it these days. 90% of the music that we sample is black music, and for that reason, I think it’s important to have a very critical stance as to what’s going on within cultural appropriation in music and also at greater lengths within our society. Up to this point, all of my artists have been European guys, and it’s not by choice …. It’s a point of frustration for me — not because I don’t like those guys or they’re not making good music —
“90% of the music that we sample is black music, and for that reason, I think it’s important to have a very critical stance as to what’s going on within cultural appropriation in music and also at greater lengths within our society.”
They’re too many straight, white DJs out there …
Yea! But it honestly feels like I’ve failed a little bit because up to this point, I haven’t even been able to sign a white American guy to put out a record with. Never mind a black, Latino, female, or trans artist. I had this conversation with my friend Monica in Brooklyn maybe six months ago or so where she asked me why I haven’t signed any [artists] like that yet, and I have to say, it’s not from lack of trying.
It’s this weird shift I’ve noticed, especially in the disco scene. Techno has done such a better job of promoting and encouraging diversity within their ranks, both producers and DJs. But disco has been retrospectively so masculinized.
“… disco has been retrospectively so masculinized.”
“[Disco’s] very chauvinistic, misogynistic at times — it’s such a departure from where the music actually came from.”
Almost all the disco DJs and guys making disco edits and disco house, aside from a few gay crews like Honey Soundsystem and locally TNX [plus] a few others, are white straight guys. It goes along with the aesthetics of some of the releases too. [When] some people now think “disco,” and they’re thinking of glorious women with their tits and shit. It’s very chauvinistic, misogynistic at times — it’s such a departure from where the music actually came from.
I guess where I’m going with this is I really do try to stay cognizant of where the music came from, and I wish I could do a better job of encouraging that kind of diversity to come back in this type of music — I’ve yet to find a successful way. I think the disco and disco-leaning house scene as a whole is failing really badly at having any kind of diversity in the ranks of their producers or DJs.