SAM BURTON - LABELS MANAGER/A&R (MILLENNIUM DISTRIBUTION)
Interview by Rick Thorne. Photo by Brian Bartholomew
From Murder Dog Vol 9 #2 (2002)
If someone comes to you with a record, what can Millennium do to take
it to the next level?
It's pretty simple. Basically there's a couple of ways to do it. Either people press up the records themselves and come and drop them off to me - all the key independent stores have got accounts with us as well as chain stores like HMV - so it goes out in that week's sales and it's sold over the phones, sold out of vans. Basically they go to the shops, play them the track, 'how many do you want?', bish-bosh, it's on the shelf. Next thing kids are buyin' it, you're hearing it all over the pirate radios, the big deejays have usually picked up on it before that anyway. The other way is a pressing and distribution (P&D) deal where maybe if the kid hasn't got no money themselves and they just made a little tune at home or in a friend's studio or something, and I think it's good enough to do something with, then we will front the money to press it up for them, distribute it for them. Obviously after they've sold out, it gets broken down and we take our costs back for like manufacturing and artwork and all that kind of stuff. And then they get their return per unit, which is agreed beforehand between us and the artist. But it's still their label so it's not like I'm signing the record to one of our labels, 'coz we have got our own labels as well, I'm setting up a label for them. It's their's even though we're taking care of it for them. Any press, artists or whatever records they wanna put on that label, that's their decision. It's all good. I'm just managing the label for them, they've just got the distribution taken care of. Obviously signing the record for someone's totally different.
Give an example of how Millennium has helped blow up a track.
With DJ Luck and MC Neat, initially it was a three-track EP which sold about 15,000 on the underground. This is 12-inch singles, pure vinyl. The buzz created from that was massive. There's three tracks, the main track ‘Little Bit Of Luck' was obviously gonna be the first single. We had majors ringin' up left, right and centre. The managers of the company got together and decided that they had enough capital to do it on a budget themselves and see how far we could take it ourselves. Done a budget video down Hackney, it was cheap shit basically, like a few grand video, but it got a bit of support from someone on TV. The track itself was always a massive underground track, clubs and pirate radio had always caned it, and specialist radio shows like Dreem Teem on Radio One, DJ EZ on Kiss FM, they had always supported the track. So from there the managers said 'let's have a go ourselves'. Obviously the buzz was nowhere near as if a major had come in to do it but still we got away with it. Because it was such a big track the radio support was there, it was given tracklisting on Kiss FM, Radio One, Capital, all of them, and it went top ten. I think it stayed in the top 20 for something like 18 weeks. We ended up selling over 250,000 copies.
Was that through a deal with Universal?
That was a distribution deal, they was our mainstream distributors. Like I said, Millennium holds key accounts with underground shops and like a couple of chain stores, but to chart something major you have to be in every chain store. Then with the other two tracks off that first EP we got three top ten hits. Obviously after that there was more of a budget to do better videos, have more promotion.
Is that group putting out an album?
They was only signed to this label for the three tracks on the EP. Now after you’ve made two underground kids top ten hits three times in a row, all the majors were throwin’ stupid offers at them which we couldn’t compete with. So obviously Universal, who we were with at the time as the distributor, saw that as a good bet and I think it was a half a million pound deal they got in the end. But, which I always love, they then went on to release records with Universal, the first one went to number 12, and the second release went to 30 something. So us as underground boys got ‘em three consecutive top ten hits and the majors couldn’t even manage to get ‘em in the top ten. You can draw your own conclusions from that! The second single release they had with Universal was a load of shit. They done a massive video in Miami, spent loads of money on it, made it look all pretty like an R n’ B video or something, and no one cared about it. They just thought ‘right, we’re pop stars now so we don’t have to worry about the underground, just go straight to the mainstream’. Obviously, if you’re an underground act that should be your priority. That’s where you’re tested. If it’s not happening, fuck it, go and do another one. But when the majors are involved they don’t think as people from the street would think and that’s an important part of our scene. The clubs and the pirate radio, that’s what drives this scene, that’s how the kids hear the music day in, day out. So just to think ‘oh we’re bigger than that now’ they paid the price.
So you’ve got to concentrate on your core audience?
I think this scene, no matter how big you get you can’t ignore where you come from. I was reading an interview with MC Viper who’s doin’ a track with Jameson, the ‘Urban Hero’ thing, and he was cussin’ people like Craig David and Mis-Teeq who basically use the underground network to get their name, to get signed up by majors and then fuck it off. Start sayin’ ‘ah, garage is dead, too much trouble in the garage industry, guns’ and all shit like that, and just use it as a step up to get to the R n’ B or wherever the fuck they wanna go on and do. Which I think is a fair point, ‘coz if you’re in it you’re in it, like So Solid, regardless of whether you call the music garage or underground or whatever label it’s given, to me it is like U.K. street music, don’t ignore it. Don’t use it to get big and then turn round and say ‘no I’m doin’ this now, I’m doin’ R n’ B now’, which is fuckin’ American music anyway. ‘Coz it’s U.K., that’s what’s made it, that’s what’s made them so why then once you’re at a level turn round and ignore that?
Once an artist puts their track on a white label what’s the next move?
Usually what you find is the kids who’d made it go out and press 500 or so and run round the shops themselves. They run around London, there’s independent stores all over the place and they can just go in, leave it sale or return. Come back in a month and usually within a few weeks if certain people have picked up on it and it's gettin' a lot of attention then you go right, I must get this dealt with properly. There’s a lot of them that just sit there, no one gives a shit about but that’s all part of the scene. The garage scene is U.K.-wide but as far as pressing up a few hundred yourself and runnin’ around the shops, it’s always predominantly London ‘coz there's so many shops in London. Down here you got about 50 shops and if you wanna go in the suburbs as well there’s shops left, right and centre.
What’s the next step after that?
It all depends on the track. When there’s a buzz on something, getting between five and ten thousand sales is really the kind of figures you’re lookin’ at.
What can the artist expect to get back from selling five to ten thousand 12-inch singles?
Say you’re selling them at £3 a piece (roughly $5), so that’s £3000 back on every thousand. Your costs out of that, even if it’s as much as 50p (roughly 75 cents) per vinyl, you can work out the mathematics there. There’s a nice mark-up in there. It’s very rare for someone to run around and sell them kind of figures out the back of their car though. Usually by then someone like myself would’ve got involved and taken care of it for them.
People say drum n’ bass died out. Do you think garage is here to stay?
People say drum n’ bass died out. The media spotlight shifted from the drum n’ bass to like the speed garage, the U.K. garage, like ’96, ’97, about this kind of time. Drum n’ bass never died, drum n’ bass has come back stronger this year than probably it’s ever been. Shy FX has just had a one single deal for about a 100 something grand. So drum n’ bass never died anyway in my books. It went worldwide, maybe it wasn’t as big in the U.K. as it was initially but the boys were flyin’ out to Canada, Japan, Australia, all over Europe, constantly. As a weekly routine. So how’s that dead? It’s bigger, they took it worldwide, it’s there now, it’s a global thing. And I can see it happening with the garage as well but I don’t think that it will be the same because I think that this kind of two-step, not so much the crew stuff, but the kind of nice vocally stuff is the new pop music. It’s got a much more commercial side to it which is accessible, which your mum and dad don’t mind listening to on their way to work in the morning, it’s not offensive. Jungle was always offensive. It was fuckin’ fast, it had sick basslines, it had loads of ragga that all the middle-aged white people didn’t know what the fuck they was talkin’ about, so it was never gonna be as crossover as what you can make garage.
What are some of the different styles of garage?
There’s all different styles. There’s the 4 to the floor style which is like a house beat, a house format, which is massive again. People like EZ are playin’ it, they’ve always played it but now all the kids love it again. But this time it’s got that beat, but with dirty, more jungley orientated basslines behind it, which is perfect for the emcees, for these crews to just spit the lyrics all over all day long. And then of course there’s the more poppy Mis-Teeq kind of vocally, girl stuff which is commercially accessible. Then there’s the crews. Last year, it was all about the crews. Heartless Crew have been around for ages but last year saw the rise massively of So Solid and Pay As U Go. They’re the three main contenders as far as crews. Heartless, who are more of like a soundbwoy orientation if you like, more about the old Jamaican, they’ve got more of that about them the way they do their shows. And obviously So Solid are doin’ their thing, there’s loads of them. And then the Pay As U Go Cartel in my eyes out the three are probably the most lyrically talented.
What other acts are you working with at the moment?
Wiley from Pay As U Go has got his own independent label that I help him with, which is Wiley Cat Recordings, he’s got this thing about the old Thundercats cartoons and that. We distribute that for him, he’s had the single out, it’s done really well, it’s gettin’ a bit of major interest at the moment. But his attitude is he couldn’t give a fuck about the majors, he’d rather just do it himself, in the end maybe get a deal for an album or something. So we’ve been workin’ on that with him. Also he’s part of the Roll Deep thing. They’ve had a release out on Solid City, which also put out ‘Know We’, which is the biggest Pay As U Go track to date. The Roll Deep track was called ‘Terrible’ which has been massive on the underground and there’s a new one called ‘Bounce’ which everyone’s buzzin’ about at the moment. ‘Coz I deejay for the crew as well, everyone’s been gettin’ on my case about it, all the majors.
What sort of racial mix do you see in the garage scene over here?
Everything and anything. Obviously some clubs are more predominantly black, certain clubs are more predominantly white. Like if you was at the Cosa Nostra last Saturday I’m sure the crowd in there was predominantly black ‘coz the Cosa Nostra’s in Hackney. But if you were out in Essex at Epping Forest Country Club there’s still a mixture but it’s predominantly white. When they do the big events at Alexandra Palace like 10,000 people events, obviously there’s everything in there.
Do you think garage could take off worldwide?
DJ Zinc is a big figure to accidently come into the garage scene with his ‘138’ track which was a slow breakbeat track off his album. For people like that, because the jungle’s so big, that opened the market abroad for the breakbeat side of the garage. We was exporting that pretty well, not massive figures but it was there. It was doin’ some units in America, Japan, Australia. There’s a few countries in Europe like Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland and they’re building up, they’re bubblin’. Obviously not as big as it is in the U.K. because it hasn’t got to that extreme yet. There's a guy in Canada, I get an email once a week and they got a scene over there that they're pushin'. That side of it where the jungle's been with people like Zinc, Brockie and that, who are now making breakbeat garage, it's gonna go there because of their name. As well though, with the likes of So Solid and Pay As U Go, because of the obvious similarities between the way they look and the way they act and emcee-based tracks, hopefully the U.S. will pick up on that 'coz there's a big similarity with hip-hop.