Real Talk: Anja Schneider

Having recently left her Mobilee home, the German artist explains why we too should value creativity over commercialism.
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Anja Schneider recently left mobilee, the label she founded over 12 years ago.

It was big news, to say the least. Schneider had enjoyed great success as a head of a widely acclaimed and leading house and techno label with a discography that featured key records by the likes of Sebo K and Pan-Pot, to name just a few. Add to this the booking agency of the same name, and the move would appear a little strange; stepping down and going it alone was not the most obvious move. The underlying reasons behind the move remained unclear, although a follow-up announcement that told us to expect "the most personal project" of her career revealed all we needed to know: Schneider wanted to hit the reset button. And so she did.

Yet that was only scratching the surface. In our conversations, Schneider explains how she was no longer happy. The construct of mobilee meant that she lost a connection with music; in effect, the day-to-day business realities of running the company she started had disconnected her from the very thing that inspired her to do so in the first place. The unfortunate truth is that this is a problem that many of us must face: is it possible to be truly creative while pursuing commercial ambitions? In this month's Real Talk, Schneider looks back on her decision to give her thoughts on this enduring question.

In the beginning, it’s all about the music. The simple joy of playing and discovering tunes and sharing them with others. I would like to think we all got into this for the one simple reason: a passion for music. But with techno becoming more and more business-orientated, holding onto these original ideals is both a battle and a balancing act.

For me personally, all this came to a head in June directly after I’d returned from Off Week in Barcelona. After 12 years of running my label mobilee, I knew things had run their course. I can’t say anything was necessarily wrong, I just knew I wasn’t happy. It’s a bit like a marriage or a long-term relationship, whereby you go in different directions and this happened with Ralf Kollmann, mobilee’s label manager, and I. We just wanted different things.

When you start a label, you’re doing it purely for the love and because you believe in the music you’re releasing. You’re not thinking about it from a big picture business point of view. We were lucky; we had success early and got hyped during the wave of minimal techno sweeping through Berlin in the mid-2000s. Of course, when you’re experiencing success for the first time, you start to do really crazy things like get a huge office, hire people, and work on bigger ideas and get really deep into it. To see our baby evolve was fantastic, of course; but going into business more and the inevitable focus on "growth" that comes with it affects your creativity and complicates the relationships around you. Suddenly you have to feed the monster.

While the label begun in 2005, we got more serious in 2007 when we started our DJ agency. It’s a difficult setup. You have a close relationship with an artist and you take care of them, so they naturally become like a family member. Then, of course, you say to them: "Ok I invest in you, so I have to earn from you." It becomes a profit situation and then the friendship changes suddenly. Maybe you don’t feel it right away, but there is always a shift. In reality, if an artist makes an album, you always need to do a tour to ensure you make a profit. Getting a return on your investment is always in the back of your mind and despite the otherwise strong connection you might have with this artist, this leads to the friendship always being on a knife edge. When you begin it’s totally fun and you naïvely think it’s as simple as just collaborating with one another, but it’s rarely that simple.

Once you commit to renting an office and hiring staff, fiscal concerns play a role in just about every decision you make as a label owner, just so you can stay afloat on a month-by-month basis. Even if you got into this for the love of essentially "underground" techno and house, suddenly you’re starting to care about whether one of your label’s releases charts, as it’s good for the brand and helps profits. If you’re running label showcases, then these are crucial for generating profits or even making up for any deficit lost through releases. Also, as an artist, you always want to get behind every release on your label and to personally identify with them, but it’s very difficult when you’ve got a schedule of two EPs per month and a business plan you need to stick to.

"....the deeper you become involved in this business, the further you get away from music."

When you start a label the day to day administration tasks take over. And the deeper you become involved in this business, the further you get away from music. You kill this creativity directly when you bring an A&R in to sign music or even an assistant who downloads your music. I never went this far and I’m thankful for always keeping this direct contact with the music, but it’s certainly commonplace.

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Another major motivating factor behind my decision to leave mobilee was the desire to make my own decisions, rather than always thinking of the collective and teamwork. Sitting in a room and debating whether a flyer artwork should be this color or that and generally always thinking of the brand; quite honestly, I got weary of this.

Maybe it’s a symptom of being 20 years in this business that after a point, you just want to go your own way and make your own decisions. Once you reach this point for yourself, you know you need to move on. For me, I knew I couldn’t carry on with my artistic identity in this way and still feel like my output was authentic. It was absolutely not working anymore. The whole point of starting on this musical path had been lost and I needed to rediscover my passion again.

This is a discussion I’m having more and more with my DJ colleagues about this chance to go back to our roots in a way. Sometimes they’ll have gone through unsuccessful experiences with managers or consultants that’s led them to fire everyone and just do everything themselves. Of course, you make mistakes, just the same as you do when you’re running a label, but this sense of control and freedom connects you back to the basic reason you started out on this path in the first place. With my new label Sous Music, I can tell you I’m already feeling a renewed sense of passion and vigor. I’m excited by the new possibilities the future holds. And equally nervous about the uncertainty of it all. It’s a scary, wonderful feeling.

The big question once I decided to leave, was then a very simple one: how? When you’re making such a huge step to move on from a label you’ve built, it’s only natural to seek advice. I’m not the first person to have done this; there are other well-known artists who have done this before and of course I sought advice. The general consensus was you need to take some time out and reflect on everything.

The recent events in my career have left me to reflect on how difficult it is to make these collectives really work for a sustained period of time. There was this period throughout the 2000s when we were all growing and it seemed that these collectives or "label buddies" were the only way to reach success. But they always ended up a bit one-dimensional. If you look at all the collectives and label families that had early success, most of them don’t exist in their original constellations anymore; they essentially ran over themselves, leaving some artists with a bitter taste in their mouths.

It’s only natural that as an artist when your career grows, you’ll want to headline and define yourself as an individual and interpret the sound of the label in your own unique way. Rather than following in the same musical vein as the boss, they want to take inspiration while also putting their own take on it. For us at mobilee, having artists express themselves individually worked out in the beginning; but after a while, the concept starts to fall apart because you can no longer define your brand.

Additionally, if you’re a smaller artist in the crew, you don’t want to be playing before the label head every time either. So that’s why there can be this underlying frustration within the crew and you can see why things become difficult.

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Of course, I don’t want to underplay the value of being part of these collectives, especially in the early stages of an artist’s career when you’re establishing yourself. They can offer a significant advantage in terms of getting attention from promoters and building a fanbase. But long term, they’re harder to sustain as the drive to stand out from the crowd is an inbuilt thing for us artists and we always want this individuality and creative freedom.

Making a decision to carve out an artistic identity separate from your collective is one thing, but getting the public to accept it and recognizes it is quite another. Chances are your average raver still thinks of a number of well-known artists that left their crews and will be still recognized and associated with them. I have no doubt I’ll be correcting mobilee mentions for years to come.

It’s not just the public who get confused though: the importance of being clearly definable to promoters for the sake of consistent gig bookings cannot be understated. At the moment I’m in a transitional phase, whereby it’s difficult for both promoters and colleagues to get me. They think, "OK, there’s a huge change," but they don’t know what form this takes. Until you have something like an album out or a big statement piece in some respect, there is nothing out there that allows them to place you.

My decision to leave my home label wasn’t business or financial; it was personal, so it’s quite difficult for your agent or manager to communicate that to promoters. It’s definitely a process that takes time. For example, my manager has told me some clubs are not sure if they can book me and are wondering if I have changed my style. On the other hand, when I would like to get artists on board for my own party, or even recruit them to release on my new label Sous Music, they’re like "errr…." I’m certain that some of these artists I really adore and love, who would never ever release on mobilee, are now not sure whether I'm doing the same with Sous.

In a sense when artists such as myself and others step away from a brand that’s been so intrinsically connected with our identities, we’re wiping the slate clean and trying to define ourselves from scratch again. But of course, we know this will take a lot of time. The advice I received when I made the decision to split said that it would take five years to be recognised separate to the old identity.

Just for the record: I’m not suddenly changing from a techno/house artist to a drum & bass artist. If I was going to do this, I would have gone under a new name. I’m still Anja Schneider and I’m not having aliases, unlike other artists.

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All this talk of artistic individuality and the preservation of creativity is of course extremely important. But just the same as people in conventional jobs, making enough money to support yourself and your family in the long term, is always on our minds. It’s easy to look at social media and think we live the party lifestyle all week (OK, some may be lucky to do this), but for most of us, it’s a constant hustle to stay up there. Even if your career is going great, you still feel vulnerable. And of course, there will always be times you take gigs you know won’t be so great because you need the money. As we know, DJ careers don’t last forever, which means there is this constant drive to make the most out of them.

You could easily argue that as a female we even have a shorter career span and more pressure to make the most of it while we can. All the boys are really cool when they have their 50th birthday and they’re called "Papa," but of course for us it’s quite difficult as no one wants to see a 50-year-old woman behind the decks. This won’t be changing in our lifetimes, either. The young will always be the new cool.

This is why it’s so important to think of a life after music and dare I say it—gulp—have a fallback option should things not go your way. I’m lucky I come from a radio and media background which begun quite a bit before I started DJing and still do that today, with one of the main broadcasters here in Berlin, so I have a bit of a safety net.

You definitely need to be always thinking of the future and have a back-up. That said, all this overemphasis on money and business can become very consuming, whereby you’re starting new businesses and constantly thinking of how to make your money work for you and to always grow it. I was never very good in these areas, but I’ve seen it with others. Suddenly instead of using your creativity to create new music, you’re using it to make more money. Each to their own of course, but it seems to be moving away from the original reason we all begun: that connection and passion for music.

I guess the basic question remains: can you be creative while having commercial ambitions? Of course. Creativity can be driven for many reasons, commercial being one of them. There are countless examples of this. The danger is going to deep into all of this. If I’ve learned one lesson from the last few months it’s that business plans and the constant talk of "the brand" marks the death of creativity. When you follow this path, you get bogged down in the banality of business and concerns about money. You will also inevitably start to compare your label with that other label, or how many people your party got, compared with that other party, all fuelled by a fear you won’t be able to pay your employees' health insurance next month. When it gets to this point, despite what your chart position might say, you’ve gone off track and the real point of all of this has been lost.

Anja Schneider’s album SoMe is out on Sous Music on November 3. Pre-order.