We chat to the Paper crew about their return from the dead and their newfound love of cinema
When a group of Manchester-based friends got together to launch Paper Recordings in the autumn of 1994, none of them could have predicted that it would be still going over two decades later. Yet earlier this month, the iconic British label notched up its 200th release - a remarkable achievement in anyone’s book.
"It was all downhill from our first record!" laughs Ben Davis, co-founder of the label alongside Pete Jenkinson, Miles Hollway and Elliot Eastwick, among others. "I think we started exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. A year or two later, there were quite a lot of other UK house labels about, but they didn’t seem to have quite the same cache. We had the profile thanks to Miles and Elliot, who were pioneering a new kind of UK house sound through their DJ residency at Hard Times in Leeds, and got off to a flier".
Paper’s first 12-inch, Salt City Orchestra’s The Book - a collaboration between Hollway, Eastwick and fellow Manchester producer Si Bradshaw - sold by the bucketload. Over the decade that followed, the label established itself as one of the UK’s leading exponents of quality house music. But the label got into financial difficulties, and by the time its celebratory 100th release - a ‘greatest hits’ collection entitled The Sound Of Paper Recordings - hit record stores in 2003, Paper was teetering on the brink of extinction.
"We made all the classic mistakes," Davis says. "The label did well, and we spent the money as it came in. We didn’t pay enough attention to accounting, or to MCPS, and then record sales started declining. It was unsustainable. We should have seen it coming much earlier, but we were also running out of juice creatively. When an MCPS bill came in, for £70,000 or something similarly massive, it was like ‘Oh, right, that’s that then’."
Paper is dead - long live Paper!
Except that wasn’t the end of the Paper Recordings story. For the next five years, Davis and Jenkinson worked behind the scenes to pay off the debt. Eventually, and somewhat remarkably, they did - and in 2008, Paper returned. Fittingly, it was with a set of remixes of the label’s infamous debut release.
"We just thought we might as well put them out, as we had them hanging around," Davis says. "After that, Matt Playford and Daco sent us a load of tracks. We liked them, so we released them. It just gathered pace from there. To be honest, not a lot of thought went into it to begin with. To be honest, at that time I was struggling a bit for things to do. I’d been trying a few other things, and nothing had panned out. I kept drifting back to the label".
Davis clearly made the right choice. Over the last few years, Paper ‘Mk 2’ has built up a quietly impressive catalogue. Key to this has been Davis and Jenkinson’s desire to work with a new generation of artists, most of whom know little about the label’s storied past. "I think Daco has been pivotal, and the first Proviant Audio album was a big moment," Davis says. "Leon Sweet, Richard Seaborne and 2 Billion Beats have all been part of our development as a label."
Davis has played his own part musically, too, not just by releasing some fine music as Flash Atkins, but also via his A&R skills. He’s made the label more eclectic in outlook, putting out material that draws as much on disco, boogie and Balearica as much as deep, soulful and tech-tinged house. "We’re not interested in harking back constantly," he says. "I know people do, and that’s because they’re nostalgic about the era. Actually, if you listen to a lot of the 90s material, most of it hasn’t aged well. I think the music we’re putting out now is much better."
While nostalgia isn’t the name of the game, there’s a neat nod to the past on Paper’s 200th release, the V/A Look Forward And Back EP: a fresh contribution to the cause from one-time label legends Crazy P. "They were well up for it when I asked them," Davis enthuses. "Since it was the 200th release, we needed something special. Getting Jim, Chris and Danielle involved is our wink to the old days. I was really excited to get Steve Cobby on there, too - it’s his first release on Paper, and he’s been around a long time, but he’s still making futuristic dance music. The final track is by yours truly, but I couldn’t not put myself in the frame."
He chuckles, before turning his attention to the future. "I think you can almost think too much about the future," he says. "One thing we are definitely looking at doing is more compilations. Our Trash The Wax comps have gone well, so we’re starting a new series called Project Fear. Who says dance music can’t be political, eh?"
Davis and Jenkinson - the latter described by Davis as "the brains of the operation" - have also set up Paper Vision Films. "Because we’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve also been looking for other challenges," Davis says. "To us, film-making is something totally different - fresh, exciting and a real challenge. Learning to make documentaries has been a full-on learning curve."
The duo’s first feature-length movie is a documentary chronicling the rise of Norwegian dance music. Northern Disco Lights recently had its world premiere in Bergen, and comes to the UK for the first time on 5 November at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, as part of the Doc ‘N’ Roll film festival. Further screenings will follow before it makes it to streaming and digital download platforms, alongside an accompanying soundtrack compilation, around Easter next year.
"There seems to be a real appetite for it," Davis enthuses. "I think we’ve hit a nerve. The idea is that people who aren’t experts on Norway or dance music can watch it. Northern Disco Lights is a film about club culture, but hopefully it exceeds that remit. It’s about friends, countryside, scenery and a nation’s sense of self."
Words: Matt Anniss
Look Forward And Back is out now on Paper Recordings
Tags: Paper Recordings, paperecordings, Ben Davis, Pete Jenkinson, Miles Hollway, Elliott Eastwick, Salt City Orchestra, Crazy P, Flash Atkins, 2 Billion Beats, Daco, Proviant Audio, Leon Sweet, Richard Seaborne, Steve Cobby, Northern Disco Lights, Doc N Roll, Rich Mix