Since the late '70s, London's Mute Records has been a bastion of independent music and culture. The label, an early home to industrial/new wave torchbearers like Fad Gadget and Depeche Mode, remains a guiding light, challenging the ethos and aesthetic of the major labels, despite its purchase by EMI. Recently, we linked up Mute founder Daniel Miller with Adult.'s Adam Lee Miller, proprietor of Detroit's Ersatz Audio imprint (once home to Mute-inspired acts like Magas and Tamion 12-inch), for a cross-continental chat about labels then and now, and how to keep the indie dream alive.
Adam Lee Miller: The first thing that I'm interested in talking about is the fact that you had no master plan with starting Mute.
Daniel Miller: I just wanted to put out a single ["T.V.O.D." b/w "Warm Leatherette" by Miller's band, The Normal]. And I didn't think anybody would like it. I thought I would just go back to doing something else. But the record was very well received, which was shocking to me... I put my address on the record's sleeve for whatever reason–I suppose I hoped to get fan mail or whatever–but what I got were demo tapes, which shocked me. I thought, "Fucking hell. People think I'm a real record label." It suddenly dawned on me that there was a possibility that I could become a record label... Then I met Frank [Tovey a.k.a. Fad Gadget] and heard his demos and we got on really well... So I guess that was the point at which I said, "I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna take the plunge." My definition of starting a label is putting someone else's record out, really, and having responsibility for someone else's career.
XLR8R: Adam, did you feel that responsibility to other artists on Ersatz Audio?
ALM: I did, but I had quite a few problems where I felt like a lot of people weren't putting the same amount of work back into what I was doing, and that wasn't a good thing mentally.
DM: That's a very frustrating experience. I've had that as well, at times, and at that point you think that maybe it's time to part company.
XLR8R: Do artists feel there's more of an onus to promote themselves now than back then?
DM: In those days, the opportunities to do promotion were much more limited than they are now. In the UK, there were four weekly music papers–Sounds, Melody Maker, NME, and Record Mirror... Definitely artists understand that if you make a commitment to their careers, and they want success, they're gonna have to do some promotion. There's so much noise out there, that if you're gonna poke your head above, you've gotta do more than just put out a great record.
ALM: I'm curious, coming from the way I've done things in the past' never really talked to bands about the importance of touring–I just sort of assumed they knew it...
DM: Well, we sign two types of artists in that sense: One, we sign bands who already are a band, and they go out and play; and we sign those who aren't a band. Goldfrapp, for instance, wasn't a band. When we started working with them, they'd never done a gig. They weren't a live band, so we had to construct that and nobody really knew if it was gonna work or not. We don't put in our contract [that] you have to play live, but what's really important to me when I sign an artist is that the expectations are shared. Like, we don't sign a band who do pure noise and want to be on [BBC] Radio One. Like Liars, for instance. I'm not saying they make pure noise–they put out great records–[but] I don't expect them to phone me up and say, "How come we're not on the A-list of Radio One?" We all understand where we're going with this.
ALM: How important is it to have a good PR team? Because sometimes I think it really just comes down to hype or a hit, especially with MySpace now. When [Mute band] Depeche Mode played the Rose Bowl [in 1988], was that just building on a momentum or was there a big PR team in place as well?
DM: "PR team" is a bit of an over-glorious word... We had a press person doing press, but we didn't say, "In six months' time we want to be playing the Rose Bowl." It was quite a big risk to do that, but one that was doable and worth taking. But I think it was just the explosion of the band in California, really. People were shocked that an electronic band that hardly anybody had heard of, really, would play to 70,000 people.
XLR8R: Still, does it come down to hype? And can you control that?
DM: There's a band we tried to sign recently. There was a flurry of interest in October, and we were making really good progress with them doing the deal. Then they put a seven-inch out, which got picked up by Radio One, got played on one show, and the deal went out of control. We gave it up because it went way beyond where we thought it should be. Believe me, the thing I hate most is the deal process–with the early signings on Mute, we had no contracts. [In this instance], the deal process took longer than the hype.
ALM: I think a lot of people immediately start blaming–or are afraid of–the MP3, and I don't think that's the problem... It's the speed of everything.
DM: You have a band that's done some good demos in their home studio, and before you know it, they're being offered half a million pounds. If they're not a good band, then take the money I say [laughs]. But if they're good and they're serious about having a career and wanting to develop artistically, it can be disastrous! Pressures to deliver certain things really early on are totally counterintuitive to doing the right thing for artistic development and natural growth.
XLR8R: How has Mute maintained such a good track record for developing artists' careers?
DM: I think it's just giving people time. Not unlimited time [laughs], but there's a natural instinct [for us] to want to push to the envelope, to experiment as much as possible, and to encourage people to be original and not be tempted to follow any fashion or trend–and just working with the right artists who can actually do that.
XLR8R: What do you think is the key to maintaining an independent spirit with regards to owning and operating a label?
DM: Well, I sold Mute to EMI about five years ago but I think that the spirit of Mute hasn't changed. The way we operate obviously changes because the marketing changes, but in the sense that we think and act independently–I think it's a state of mind that you have to preserve above anything else. And the deal that I did with EMI was designed to preserve that state of mind as much as any deal can. It's hard to define what that is really. There are no two independent labels that are the same, or that have the same ethos or aesthetic, and that's what's great about it. All major labels have basically the same ethos, aesthetic, and goals. I think it's all about the people who run it, doing what they want to do within the constraints of the market in general.
ALM: I think there are two different independent mindsets. One is sort of the shy kid in the back of the class that just doesn't want anyone to bother him, and wants to be left alone to do his weird drawings, and doesn't want anything to do with the world. And that's partly why Ersatz Audio was not a big label... I can't sit there and do the bookkeeping and the things that didn't work for me. Over the years things got more complicated and, being an artist as well, those things started affecting my clarity of vision. That's why we went with Thrill Jockey [who currently handles Adult.], because they had very much the same sort of [outlook]. It's like in this book This Band Could Be Your Life, it talks about how Black Flag wanted to create a tour route that was parallel to the mainstream tour circuit but didn't interfere with it, and that's sort of my independent spirit. Then the other independent spirit is "We're gonna have hits, and we're gonna say 'Fuck you' to the majors or even infiltrate [the mainstream] and put our ideas in it–and we're gonna change culture in a bigger way.'" I think both parts are important. And I think that's what Mute did–me being 15 in Indianapolis, hearing Depeche Mode on the radio, and going, "What is this?!"