Interview: Ben Watt on the Dark Euro Sound, the Business of Dance Music and the Future of Mixes
Ben Watt has had one of the more unusual journeys in the annals of DJ success. As one half of pop act Everything But The Girl, he had much more mainstream fame (and likely more fortune, too) than almost anyone could achieve in club-land. But as the duo followed its muse toward electronic elements in the late 1990s, Watt found his way to the turntables.
A few years later, his Lazy Dog club nights in London were the toast of true-house aficionados. His subsequent label, Buzzin' Fly, created a shiny, electronic version of house music that moved beyond the genre's disco and Latin anchors without turning its back on them. A Buzzin' Fly record could be played by a trancey, progressive house spinner on a Saturday night and by a deep house don on a Sunday afternoon. The label put out early music from Justin Martin ("Sad Piano," a modern classic) and even released a track that featured Terence Trent D'Arby ("A Stronger Man").
After having been sidelined by illness that took him out of touring for nearly a year (it also helped to put Buzzin' Fly output on hiatus for 2009), Watt is regrouping with a mini-tour of the United States -- he'll be at Ecco in Hollywood Wednesday -- and a new slate of releases, including a Buzzin' Fly mix-CD of his own. We recently interviewed him.
LA Weekly: What inspired you to come back to the U.S. for a tour?
Ben Watt: I had a very bad year last year. I was sidelined by sinusitis. I was canceling dates, falling out with my agent, and upsetting promoters. I played two or three dates at the Winter Music Conference in March.
So you have a new booking agent?
No. I worked with Kim Benjamin for about eight years. She did some of the international licensing for Buzzin' Fly. We agreed to call it a day amicably at the end of last year. I thought, "I'm going to need another agent." One day I read through all the old contracts and I said, "This isn't so difficult." I have an assistant. It's not like I do absolutely everything.
You're putting out an album by your wife, Tracey Thorn. Has she gone house?
Buzzin' Fly has a smaller imprint, Strange Feeling, that I started two years ago. It's much more indie based. We put out Figurines and Tiger City and the Unbending Trees. Tracey was getting discontented with the machinations of major labels. I mean Virgin/EMI bares no resemblance to the label we signed to in the mid-1990s. The album an organic, ballad- and folk-oriented record. She wanted to do it with less pressure. She's not touring. Live is not something she does anymore. She wanted to do this imaginatively, without the one-size-fits-all experience you get with the majors.
Will there be dance remixes?
Possibly. It is a beautiful record. She wants to get it out to her core fans. It's not like there's rampant ambition involved. I've been getting back into remixing this year. I did a remix for Empire of the Sun in the summer. I just did something for Bent, who have a best-of [album] coming out. I don't think I would do one of Tracey's tracks though. It's too close.
How has Buzzin' Fly endured the trends in contemporary dance music, from minimal techno to nu electro and beyond?
We have a place and a sound and a look and a reputation, I guess. It's never been a label that has slavishly followed the latest dance-floor moves. At the same time we keep an eye on what's happening. And there has been a move lately back into a deeper, more soulful, Afro-Latin territory, which suits the mood of the label a little more. There's flexibility and fluidity to being on an independent label. We're quite nimble. We never plan more than two or three releases ahead.
How have you dealt with the demise of vinyl among DJs?
We still make a small run of vinyl for people who love artifacts. There is still a small audience for that in the same way there's still an audience for northern soul 7-inches [records]. It's a minority interest. We are just as active marketing to outlets like Beatport and Juno Download. It's different formats for different folks. We lose a little money on the vinyl, but it's a cross subsidy with promotion.
Digital is your core business now?
The business of making dance music is not very similar to rock-oriented indie labels. There's a different set of rules. People want your music as soon as they can get it, and it has a short tail. You have to monetize your releases even at a digital level. The idea of giving way free content in dance music is different. Most tracks these days are dead after three months. That's a business model that's very different than rock, where you can have a three or four month marketing campaign, drip feed a few downloads, and have a full digital package floating out there for six months. It's a longer campaign when you can mix free and purchased content.
I've always said that the dance music community was way ahead of file sharing in terms of exchanging mixtapes and 12-inch promos before there was digital.
Yes, of course that ghetto culture of free exchange and bartering is the backbone of dance music and always has been. I do think you will find that the market is split between people who do want stuff for free and will hunt it down on sites like RapidShare. Having said that, evidence will suggest there is another crowd who like going to the trusted stores and are prepared to pay a dollar, a dollar-fifty, for a high-quality version of a hot track. It's a mixed model at the moment.
Do you ever do online mixes, podcasts?
I do a weekly radio show that goes out on Kiss [100 radio] in the UK. We webcast and syndicate, and we actually pay a webcast license because I'm old school in that way. I know there is a massive webcast culture out there used to free music that doesn't regard copyright.