How do you keep a record label and events brand going for over a quarter of a century? We asked two guys that have done it…
There's a famous clip of an early Rolling Stones interview, where Mick Jagger is asked “Will you still be going this in five years' time?” and he says something along the lines of, “I dunno, we've been doing it two years now and I never thought we'd be going it this long, to be honest”.
Much the same applies in dance music. If you could rewind the clock to the early days of house and techno, the idea that a house label could end up ever getting called an 'institution' would have been laughable. Those involved might have suspected they'd end up in an institution, but not being one!
And yet here we are in 2021 and Rotherham-based hard house label Tidy Trax, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020 (or rather didn't, because of the pandemic), certainly ticks all the boxes required to be granted “institution” status, from the way they've branched out as a brand to embrace multiple facets of the industry, to the legions of adoring fans that have stuck with 'em regardless of the vagaries of musical fashion and trends.
Tidy are, in one way, proof that sticking to your guns and building a clear, easily definable 'brand identity' can work wonders. Yet on the other hand, they're also about moving with the times. They've recently launched their own music production academy Tidy Pro, for instance, while they've also been releasing tracks and mixes, and getting DJ support, from a host of current house, tech-house and techno artists that you might not expect – the likes of Patrick Topping, Nicole Moudaber, Charlotte De Witte, Eats Everything, Max Chapman and Josh Butler, to name but a few. All of which will be celebrated at the postponed 25th Anniversary Tidy Weekender, which takes place at Pontins, Prestatyn in July.
So what's the secret of their success? Call us prosaic, but we thought a good place to start figuring that out would be to phone them up and ask them…
What I really want to talk about today is just how you've survived so long. Because I always respected Tidy for how the label stuck to its guns and carried on putting out classic-style hard house even after the sound fell somewhat out of favour. But the same time, you've recently embraced a new wave of techno and tech-house artists, as evidenced by your list of recent signings. So how much of your success is due to sticking to your guns, and how much is due to moving with the times and adapting?
Amadeus Mozart: “I think it's a mixture of both, Andy, wouldn't you say?”
Andy Pickles: “I think so, yes. I've always said you've got to be genuine or you'll get found out, so Tidy right from day one, it was always about never taking ourselves too seriously, it was about quality and how we presented our events, our sleeves, and our music. So it was always about staying true to what we believe in.
“But it's also always been about adapting, because if you look at the history, we started out with Tidy Trax, a pure hard house label; then there was Tidy Two, which embraced the hard trance sound, and then there was the Untidy label which was that chunkier, dirtier, slower hard house sound that you get on the Untidy Dubs EPs.
“That really broadened our appeal, which brings me back to your original point: we've always tried to move with the times. And now we've started commissioning remixes from some of the prominent names on the more tech-house side of things, and this last weekend we've had Radio 1 playing our tracks again! So as Amadeus said, it's a blend of the two.”
AM: “Also, coming back to what Andy says about being true to ourselves… we never set this label with any great plan in mind. We weren't trying to take over the world, it was just an outlet for me and Andy's music. And though we might not have been 'current' in, say, 2008, we were very current in 1998, so much so that everyone wanted an Untidy Dubs remix – big acts like Erasure and Donna Summer were knocking on our door for remixes.
“So like everything in life, you start from nowhere, and the best thing in this industry, and in fact in most industries, is the climb. It's exciting: you're nowhere, you strive for success, you get success. Then you fall off the edge of a cliff and no-one wants to look at you, and then everything comes back round again. That's the natural progression of music. For us, that meant we did very well in the late 90s and early 00s, but then that generation of fans moved: they went hold on, this is a bit hard and fast for me now, I'm gonna go for something a bit softer. And then the landscape changed completely in the second half of the 00s, thanks to downloads and file-sharing, so our wilderness years were round about 2007-2011, when I think the whole industry didn't know where to turn.
“So I think your core statement is correct: we've stayed where we are, other people have moved. I get people coming up to me and saying 'I can't believe Tidy's still going, that's great!' and I'm thinking, 'Hang on, you're the one that went away and came back, we've stayed where we are!'. I think if we'd tried to be something we weren't, like if we suddenly started commissioning a load of dubstep remixes or something, we've have lost our identity and floundered. But we stuck to our guns, as you say: we knew people would come back because that's what happens. You have your clubbing years, then you get married and have kids and go to garden centres and all the rest of it, and then you come back later on.”
So it's a case of adapting, but without forgetting who you are and where you've come from, is that the gist of it?
AP: “Yeah. And as I said, we've always tried to be forward-thinking – I mean, we were one of the first labels to have an online store, back in 1996-97, and by 2001 that was quite big, we were selling lots of labels' vinyl. And then we launched our download store, Tidy Digital, long before iTunes caught on, and we also had a thing called The Addict, which was a Facebook, 18 months before Facebook, in 2004. It was kind of a messageboard taken to the next level, where you could upload photos and stuff – basically similar to the early days of Facebook, we were perhaps just a bit too early with it.
"And we were doing Tidy TV long before YouTube came along, too! So I think we've always liked to move with the times.”
The last time we did a big Tidy Trax feature was the 10th anniversary, I think, and we delved into the label's history then. So we're not gonna dwell too much on the brand's links to a certain cartoon rabbit, because that story's been told, but just remind us briefly about how the Tidy empire was born…
AP: “The foundation for everything came from The Music Factory, which in the simplest of terms is a recording studio set up in 1983 in Parkgate, Rotherham. My Dad bought the studio when it went bankrupt so he could get in there and record his tunes – he was an electrician by trade. That was the starting point, and from there was started Music Factory Mastermix: that was a DJ subscription service, and that's how I met Amo, because he was submitting DJ mixes for us to put out.
“From that label, Mastermix, came Jive Bunny. Then in the 90s, it was through The Music Factory that we set up Tidy Trax, and that was my Dad saying, 'Rather than trying to licence your stuff to the majors' – because we and Amo were signed to London Records at the time – 'why don't you just set up your own label?'.
“So Tidy Trax was born in 1995, as a subsidiary of The Music Factory, and these days I've gone back full circle, I'm now chairman of The Music Factory. So all things still exist: the Music Factory still exists, Mastermix still exists, and also in 1992 we launched Pure Energy, which is our music-for-fitness business, supplying music to the gym and aerobics industry.”
Has that been another factor in your success – having multiple revenue streams?
AP: “Yeah, very much so. As business people, we've always kept ourselves quite broad. Amo has a core skills set as a creative director and graphic designer, I spun off to the left and set up a careers advice company working in the education sector, which I'm still involved with. So yes, 100 per cent. If we'd been just DJs or just running a record label, it might have been difficult to make it through the tough times. So yes: Tidy's always stood on its own two feet but we've always had other business interests.”
AM: “It ties back in to the first question about longevity: we've both always done other things, and I think Andy's right, if we were just the Tidy Boys, we might not have lasted as long as we have. But I'm also a graphic designer, Andy's got his things, so we don't need to… there have been times in Tidy's history when we didn't rely on it as an income, put it that way. In the early days Music Factory funded it, so we weren't burning our own cash at that point, and then when we did start burning our cash later on, we had something to fall back on – so if we did an event that lost money, for instance, that wasn't life and death because we had other careers.”
Is there a psychological advantage, too – does going off and doing other stuff stop 'being the Tidy Boys' from getting too Groundhog Day-ish?
AM: “Well, Tidy's going to be on my gravestone, trust me… I can't escape it. Even in 2006, when I left Music Factory and set up my own creative agency… I won't say it haunts me, but it's always there! And even when Andy's off doing his education thing, there's always someone comes up to him and says 'Weren't you in The Tidy Boys?'!
“We can't escape being The Tidy Boys and we can't escape Tidy. It's in our blood – and to be fair, we always said if we stopped enjoying it we'd stop doing it, and we're still enjoying ourselves! It's a business, but it's a business we enjoy, not something we do to make a living that we're sort of mildly interested in… it's a lot more than that, it's about having fun, it's about taking the piss out of ourselves. It's our escapism.”
AP: “Exactly. Even though I'm a company chairman and a chief executive and all that serious stuff, a big part of my identity is, yes, Jive Bunny, and also I'm a Tidy Boy. You do sort of forget that this is not normal, for most folks – the ability to be able to do what we go, go out and play records to thousands of people and go all over the world… that's never stopped being a 'wow' thing for me.
“So Tidy's a big part of our identity. But we're also realistic. A few years ago, we got to the point as DJs where we said let's take a step back from this now, so we retired from touring – hard house was getting a bit tired, we were getting tired, so we stepped back from going out DJing every weekend and just did the gigs we wanted to do. That's another way we kept that balance.”
Okay, that's enough about the past – now let's talk about the present and the future a bit more. What are we looking at schedule-wise, currently – one a week, one a month?
AM: “'It's one a week at the moment because we've got four labels. Tidy Trax, Tidy Two, Untidy and now we're bringing back Tidy White as well. So that's four labels for four styles of our music, and right now we're putting out a release a week. But we had a meeting the other day, and we might have to make it two a week because our schedule's already full right up to August! I don't think, since 2001, we've ever had so much good music backed up as releases.”
“We also put out a Tidy Boys Annual last year, which I think has provoked people to go back in the studio, because since then we've had new tracks through from people like BK, Paul Maddox and Guyver. We've had Ingo do a new track, Colin Barrett… all the people that moved from hard house over into house and techno are coming back, and also some of today's big names in house and techno, like Eats Everything or Patrick Topping, they all grew up with hard house, so when they go in the studio, they love the nostalgia.
“So the two are meeting. We've got new talent, we've got our old producers making modern music, and we've also got the current producers looking back and wanting to reflect that Tidy sound.”
One thing I've noticed with the tech-house phenomenon in recent years… quite a lot of it doesn't half sound like that point round about 94-96 where hardbag and nu-NRG were just turning into hard house. Have you noticed the same thing?
AM: “Absolutely. Everything comes back around, and that Untidy Dubs sound in particular, which we had a lot of success with back in the day, definitely seems to be coming back in. One thing that worked in our favour was that in the mid-2000s, hard house got too hard and too dirty: everyone was playing 155bpm records at +10, and I think the speed and the darkness drove a lot of people away. Whereas hard house was built on the foundation of slow, groovy music with melody and vocals, and it was a wide range.”
Indeed: I remember how Tony De Vit would start with Masters At Work and Todd Terry records and work his way up to 180mph industrial German techno…
AM: “Exactly! And Tony De Vit's sets: that's very much what the Tidy sound was based on. That's why we've got four labels, for four styles of music. So the music is in a very healthy place right now: we've got lots of releases lined up, producers are back on form and we've got new talent coming through again as well.”
Which brings us nicely to the Tidy Pro academy, so tell us about that…
AP: “That was spawned from my work in education and online learning. From a Tidy perspective, we wanted to take the expertise that we've developed over the years – BK, Lee Haslam who's back with us full-time as general manager now, ourselves – and give other people the chance to participate in different sorts of courses. So Tidy Pro offers a full 12-week production course with the likes of BK, and then we do nice little masterclasses as well.
“The idea was to encourage and develop new talent that's coming through, because we always need new talent for our events and our record labels: as much as we support the guys that have grown up with us, like Andy Farley, Anne Savage and so on, we do also want to bring the new talent through. And that's a lot easier to do if they've got the production skills in place. Yes, it's about 'putting something back' and all that, but it's also a business decision, because we need that talent coming through as an events company and as a record label.”
And you've got the 25th Anniversary Weekender coming up as well…
AM: “Yeah, that was obviously meant to happen last year but we're doing it this year instead. We've done about 24 Weekenders in total and Prestatyn is kind of the Weekender's spiritual home, so we had it all planned for 2020 and then coronavirus happened. But luckily Pontins could give us the same dates, so 9-11 July we're back there. And hopefully all the social distancing will be finished with by then, too.
“So we've been quite lucky with that. And as I was saying to someone only this morning, it's probably the only place in clubland you can go back to and it'll be exactly the same as it was, the same DJs playing the same music to much the same people in the same room! There are a lot of retro events around, and a lot of them do capture that old skool vibe, but they're not in the exact same venue, with the same 1973 wooden floors!
“Nothing ever changes at Pontins, and that's the beautiful thing about going back to Prestatyn: if you're now 42 and want to relive being 22, we can take you back there. Even the smells are the same, it's like being Doctor Who and getting into the Tardis. Cream can't do that: if they want to do something like this, they have to build a pretend Nation in a tent!”
Does that make it all the more important that the sound itself and the DJ line-up have moved with the times, so that you don't end up being seen just as a heritage brand?
AM: “Well, don't forget this is our 25th birthday, so it's a bit different: this one's definitely going to be nostalgic, because it's kind of difficult not to talk about your past on your birthday! But we've got some more events lined up for later on in the year that'll be more about pushing new talent. There are some younger/newer names on the bill for Prestatyn, but mostly this one will, unashamedly, be about looking back.”
Fair enough! But in terms of overall brand strategy, is it important to avoid the heritage tag – to at least have some new names onboard as well, to have that duality?
AP: “Yeah. I mean, we could… as a label it's easy to get caught up in looking back, and obviously there's a big place in the market for brands like Retro and the like. With Tidy, hopefully we can strike that balance – lean on the old but bring through the new as well.
“Last week was a perfect example, we were getting played on Danny Howard and Pete Tong. Danny called us “the legendary Tidy Trax” but what he was actually playing was a Sorley remix of Untidy Dubs, so you can see the two things coming together right there.”
That's covered most of the ground I wanted to ask about, but is there anything you wanted to discuss that we haven't touched on?
AM: “Well, we've covered the music, the events and Tidy Pro which are the main things. But I guess I should maybe also mention that we do have an events strategy in place going forward. If you'd asked me a year or two years ago, I'd have said events were quite a risky strategy for us, because with a slightly older fanbase, getting them out of the house can be difficult! But if the coronavirus pandemic has any upside to it at all, I think it has left people wanting to get out there and have a good time again, so we're now putting together tours and events for the next two years.”
So you're pretty optimistic right now, generally?
AM: “Yeah, we are. One thing we didn't do, with covid, was sit there and mope – we knew there'd be a boom coming later. And of course a lot of dance music businesses have gone under, these past 12 months, but it comes back to one of your earlier questions: if we were just Tidy Trax, if we were just an events brand and record label, this could have been a very different year for us. But because Andy in particular is the entrepreneur that he is, we have other income to fall back on.”
Well, listen: iDJ knows all about what it is to be an independent dance music brand that was launched in the 90s and is still going 20+ years later, and what that takes, so congrats on the anniversary! Just one last thing – l left my lens cap in your booth at Escape Into The Park in 2004, don't suppose it's turned up at all?
AM: “Funnily enough, I think Andy found that in his bag this morning, didn't you?”
AP: “I did indeed. I'll pop it in the post!”
Words: Russell Deeks
The 25th Anniversary Tidy Weekender takes place at Pontins, Prestatyn on 9-11 July