Former iDJ editor Matt Annniss discusses the trials and tribulations involved in putting together his first compilation album
We probably use the words "needs no introduction" far too often as it is, but in the case of Matt Anniss it's true… as a former editor of this very title (and a regular contributor to this day), his name should be familiar to most iDJ readers by now!
But then it should be familiar to anyone with an interest in dance/electronic music anyway – even those who've just stumbled across iDJ for the very first time. Because when he's not earning a living as a jobbing music journalist and working DJ, Matt's also the author of Join The Future: Bleep Techno & The Birth Of British Bass Music – one of the best-selling and most talked-about books on our culture in recent years.
Chronicling the birth of the 'bleep' sound in northern England in the late 80s and the impact and influence that bleep had on electronic music worldwide, Join The Future – which is brought to you by Velocity Press, headed up by former Knowledge editor Colin Steven – is an incredible achievement. Yes, Matt's a mate, but this is genuinely a book to sit alongside the likes of Energy Flash, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life and Adventures In Wonderland on the shelf marked "essential reading for anyone with even the remotest interest in dance music and club culture".
And now the book's been followed up with a compilation album of the same name, curated – of course – by Mr Anniss himself. The first release on JD Twitch's new compilations label Cease & Desist, the 10-track album (or 12-track album, if you buy it digitally) features a mix of seminal classics and obscure gems from the likes of Nightmares On Wax, Ital Rockers, Nexus 21, Cabaret Voltaire and Unique 3, and serves as the perfect introduction to the bleep sound.
We got Matt on the phone to find out how the process of putting the album together worked out for him…
Congratulations on what is quite a remarkable achievement. Have you been pleased with the reaction to the book?
"Astonished, would be the word! I think I've come across one negative write-up, on GoodReads… apart from that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And as a writer, you never really know whether what you've done is any good until people read it and give you feedback, so yeah it's been great.
"And most importantly, it's great that the stories of the people featured in the book, the people who created the bleep n' bass sound, are now out there. That was really the main reason for doing it: it felt like these people had been airbrushed out of history, and they needed some credit for what they did."
I know you started work on the book several years ago, so at what stage in that process did the idea of the compilation album come up?
"The idea for the compilation actually came about before the book. Back in 2014, I wrote an article about bleep for Resident Advisor, and off the back of that I started thinking, 'There's more of a story to be told here'. The article had only really scratched the surface, and the sound itself had been overlooked for some years. So I thought there was room to do a compilation.
"The original idea was to do a compilation and bundle it with an extended booklet. At the time I was having conversations with JD Twitch about bleep anyway, and he suggested something similar as well, so we approached a fairly well-known label and they were quite keen for a bit, but in the end they didn't take up the option. So after that setback I refocused on the book.
"Then during the five years I was working on the book there were a few more false starts – another label expressed an interest, then suddenly stopped returning my emails – until the publication date of the book was confirmed. At which point Keith [JD Twitch] said, 'Sod it, let's do it ourselves! You put it together, I'll fund it and let's get it out there."
So putting the compilation together was a joint venture between the two of you?
"Yeah, Keith sort of steered me in terms of explaining the licensing process and so on. But the agreement we had was that, because he has various labels to run and was busy DJing every weekend, he basically said, 'I'm happy to put it out, but you'll have to do the work.'
"I came up with a potential tracklist quite early on, because I already had a pretty good idea what tracks should be on there, although there were a few 'either/or'-type situations, in which case we'd go with the one Keith thought was strongest. And then I had to speak to people to get the licences.
"I'd thought that should be fairly easy… and in many cases it was, because I already had a relationship with the artists involved. But it still took a lot longer than I'd expected."
So was that quite a steep learning curve? Because you and I have compiled CDs before – we did all those iDJ covermounts back in the day – but we never had to get involved in the finer points of licensing…
"Fairly, yes. Keith explained to me quite early on what type of contract we could offer, in terms of an advance and so on – which is quite low these days, because most labels don't have a lot of money. And then the second part is what percentage royalty rate you offer, and then there are things like do you get streaming rights or do the labels retain those, and so on? That's where the negotiation part comes in.
"The bigger labels that we had to deal with, they were perfectly fine with us doing it but for them it's small potatoes – the licensing deals they're interested in these days are things like TV sync and computer game soundtracks. Someone coming along and saying 'We can give you X amount advance' isn't necessarily that attractive to them. But there are other techniques you can use… if you have a relationship with the artist, you can say to them 'Okay, I'm going to speak to the licensing people at your record label, but here's what we're trying to do', and get them onside that way.
"Because that was a big driver, for me: I wanted to get certain tracks and certain people on there that I thought were important. Not all the tracks are integral to the early part of the story, but there were certain people that had to be on there – there was always going to be a Unique 3 track on there, and I always wanted the Unique 3 & The Mad Musician track Only The Beginning because it was the A-side to The Theme. And obviously I had to have Tuff Little Unit's Join The Future on there because I'd borrowed their title!
"It can be a frustrating process – if you want something badly and someone says 'no' it can be quite irritating. For them it's just a business decision, because they don't have the same emotional attachment to the project as you do, whereas obviously when it's you doing it and it's your first compilation, you really want it to be as good as it can possibly be."
So what you ended up with was a 10-track album (or a 12-track album, digitally) – how much crossover was there with your original wishlist?
"I'd say about 90 per cent in terms of the people I wanted on there, but not necessarily with the precise track I first thought of. The only artist/act I really think should have been on there in some form but aren't, are LFO. That's a tricky one, because their early material is very well known: LFO is an incredible record but it sold 120,000 copies so it's an easy one to get hold of. Whereas we were trying to strike a balance between telling the story properly and providing an introduction to the sound, and at the same time wanting to have material on the album that wasn't as well known or had been overlooked.
"So for example, the first track that I licensed was DJ Martin & DJ Homes' remix of Man Machine's Animal. Ed Stratton of Man Machine is better known nowadays as being the king of sample packs with Time & Space, and he was happy for us to license the track, but he'd completely forgotten the remix existed, because of course it wasn't his original version. So they said, 'You're welcome to do it, but we don't have any DATs or masters.' So we had to remaster it from vinyl.
"And then, I won't name names, but some artists wouldn't let us have the particular track we wanted, so we'd have to go back to them with alternative suggestions."
Which again is something that compiling those cover CDs would have prepared you for! But then you also ran the Bedmo Disco label for some years: did that experience also prove useful when putting together this album?
"A little bit, I suppose… it gave me some knowledge of how that side of the industry works, although Bedmo Disco was more about either original material or, ahem, 'cheeky' re-edits, so it wasn't really the same thing! But I think, if you work in or around the music industry in any way – whether it's being a music writer or working in a record shop or just knowing people who run labels – it gives you a rough idea of what might be commercially viable.
"Because although you want the record to be as good as it can be, you also have to make sure that you're putting out a product that people actually want to buy. And that's not just about the music, it's also about how it's presented and what you get with it, like free downloads or whatever. We looked at doing printed inner sleeves, for instance, but that all adds to the production costs, and ultimately you have to be able to sell it to the distributors at a certain price, so that they can make their end on it and the consumer can still buy it at a reasonable price. Because a lot of people will buy a double album that costs £22 or £25, but if you're asking £30 you're going to struggle."
Has being confronted with those financial realities changed your perspective on anything else?
"It's certainly given me a newfound respect for people who specialise in licensing. There are a few people out there who specialise in this stuff – people you can hire to track down the rights for ultra-obscure recordings – and I went to some of them for advice. So that's how I learned, for instance, that you can track people down using the PRS's artist database. I didn't know that was a thing at all, but it's how we managed to find some of the artists whose tracks we licensed."
I'm nerdy enough that when I'm in the record shop, there are certain compilers I'll look out for – if I see a compilation put together by Ian Dewhirst, for instance, I'll buy it! Can you see yourself going down that route and compiling more albums in the future?
"I'd love to be given that opportunity, for sure! I'm not sure it will necessarily happen but isn't it every nerd's dream, to be able to present X style of music as you see it, for people to enjoy?"
Kind of like DJing, really, just without the flashing lights…
"Well, yeah. But I think if you're into music generally – whether you're a DJ or not – you want people to think that you know what you're talking about and have a good knowledge of music. Whether people think that about me or not, I don't know, but that's what you want! It's really a kind of arrogance, in a way – thinking you've got good taste and wanting to share that good taste with people.
"And of course the downside to that is there were one or two tracks that I really wanted to have on the album, because I think they're brilliant slept-on gems, but then the people involved, for whatever reason, just didn't return my calls or answer my emails. That can be frustrating, but now the album's out there, maybe we'll get 'em for the follow-up, eh?"
Speaking of which… bleep is only one of your strange musical obsessions! I've also known you, over the years, get very nerdy and passionate about ambient music, and about nu-jazz, for instance. So could you see yourself embarking on a Join The Future-like project in those areas?
"Well… the publishers of Join The Future do have first refusal on any other music book I write, and now the book's sold well they're quite keen for me to do another. We're not yet at a stage where I can say much about it, except that it's not in any of those specific areas you mentioned. But yeah, if another book does happen then potentially I'd love to do another compilation to go with it."
"Something else I'd like to do is put together a compilation of unreleased bleep tracks, whether it's a CD or a series of EPs or whatever, because there are quite a lot of them mentioned in the book."
So a Join The Future: The Lost Tapes kinda thing?
"Yeah, kind of, because there are a lot of them out there! Some of them we wouldn't ever be able to release, because they only ever existed on a crappy C60 and the sound quality just isn't there. But then there are other producers out there who've literally got suitcases full of old DATs sitting in their lofts, so if we were allowed to go through those I'm pretty sure we'd turn up some gold!"
Most of these tracks, of course, come from a time when sample clearance wasn't the well-oiled machine it is today. Was there a mechanism in place to ensure there were no uncleared samples in these tracks that could bite you in the arse further down the line?
"That's actually a really good question… and no, is the short answer! Obviously if something had a really obvious Kraftwerk sample or something we'd have to avoid it. But then these tracks are 30 years old, so we kind of went with the theory that if there haven't been any issues so far…"
We're talking today because this is effectively your first proper compilation. If someone's reading this who's got the opportunity to do their first compilation, what advice would you give them?
"First of all – it's not anywhere near as hard as you think! The big thing is having the finance to do it, but even then it might not cost as much as you think, depending of course on what it is you're trying to do and who you're dealing with.
"Generally speaking, though, I'd say if you think you've got a good idea for a compilation, do it! Some labels are very open to ideas, so there are people out there who'll listen, but equally if you want to set up a label and do it yourself, that's not as hard as you might think, either. You can easily find dummy contracts online, for instance – although knowing how much money and what royalties to offer can be trickier, because that's sensitive commercial information that people don't always want to talk about.
"But if you think you've got the finances to do it, then I'd say go for it! Because it's a very rewarding thing to do: when you get positive feedback from people you've always admired, people you think make great music, that's a great feeling. And if it's someone you think has perhaps been a bit overlooked, and then you see people getting into their music again, and you see them seeing that… that's a massive buzz."
"My other advice though would be, be prepared for things to drag on longer than you think! Putting this album together took about 11-12 months, and that's actually pretty quick – I had a head start because I'd already been speaking to people about the book. But you've still got to track people down, and you've still got to wait for them to get back to you – especially bearing in mind that with an album like Join The Future, some of them might not have had anything to do with music for 25 years. Y'know, maybe some guy made a great bleep track back in 1989, but these days he's busy running a successful plumbing business or something! So sometimes things can take a while."
Last question… when you were writing the book and putting the album together, do you think it helped that you're actually from Sheffield, the "home" of bleep, yourself?
"Erm… well, I think being a Yorkshireman with a chip on my shoulder helped when I was writing the book, yes! That's really what spurred me on. And obviously having a relationship with the artists through the book helped when we were doing the compilation, but I don't know about being from Sheffield particularly.
"I mean, if I wouldn't try and do a bassline compilation for instance: that comes from Sheffield, too, but I just don't have those connections. What really helped with Join The Future was that I'm basically a massive nerd about this music and I'd spent time getting to know the people involved. So there might be someone out there who IS a massive nerd about bassline, for instance… they could do something similar and they wouldn't have to be from the city. Like the cliché says: it's not were you're from, it's where you're at!"
Words: Russell Deeks
Join The Future is out now on Cease & Desist. The book of the same name, published by Velocity Press, is also out now.
More info: www.jointhefuture.net