Phoenix Music is Canada’s flagship house label, a love letter to the genre amidst a changing landscape. Founded as recently as 2013, its roots stretch back further to a simpler time: the 1990’s, when electronic music was exponentially harder to produce. Label manager Andy Reid started off more as a journalist than a businessman, documenting Toronto’s ever growing house scene as it evolved to celebrate not only four-on-the-floor, but the myriad of sub genres that bloomed around it. Keen house-heads may recognize the name Nocturnal: it grew from a music magazine to the multimedia group that houses Phoenix Music and its artists.
Reid, in running both Phoenix and Nocturnal, has almost three decades of experience in the industry as an A&R, musician, and CEO. It was only right to try and snag an interview with him during his visit to LA earlier in the month:
LE: Detail your background with Phoenix Music and how you got started with it, as well as its initial launch.
AR: I started DJing in ’92 when classic house was still new, and my first in was through starting an online magazine called Nocturnal which ran for about 15 years. After that, well, it’s funny – people weren’t advertising online much. It was really difficult to get google ads, I had pretty large numbers an it still wasn’t good enough. I had no way to generate revenue off the press side of things in a way where I could sustain a business. But with so many DJ connections built, a record label was the natural progression based on where I was sitting in the industry.
Phoenix is actually my second label, the first I had a partner with called “44 and Filth.” We were getting up and going but my partner wanted to focus more on producing. So, we mutually agreed to stop and then I created something that was solely mine, something I could control and run to pursue that side of the business. Hence Phoenix, a sort of “rising of the ashes”. Conceived in 2012, our first release came out in January 2013. Five years ago, which doesn’t seem like it was that long ago.
I see that Phoenix Music is designated under Nocturnal Multimedia, and from what I gather you’re the head of both?
Nocturnal’s been my legacy business. It’s that old boring business structure thing where I had an existing company and I wasn’t going to set up a new one. I do consulting and artist management with Nocturnal, as well as the label. I’ve done label management but nothing where I was a partner in. Phoenix is mine, where I’m solely the creative director.
And it’s been based out of Toronto the whole time?
Yup! Left briefly for university but that’s it. Which is great because Toronto’s house scene is vibrant, it’s one of the few cities that adopted the early house scene. A lot of DJs from the east coast were heading there very early on, DJ Sneak for example. In Canada we have much more of a tie with Europe and the UK, so we get a lot of British DJs coming through: Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold, all the ones doing things a bit differently, they were performing early on in Toronto.
The internet was just starting to become a thing, which is mind boggling – but when I first heard a house record it was like listening to a radio show on a 3 A.M. college station. You couldn’t go online to find all the crazy raves that were happening, I only knew because my best friend in high school was a DJ used to play house and hip hop. I was 15, borrowed his turn table and records, and it was instant: “Oh my god, what is this music.” It makes sense that I liked it because I was really into British electronic driven pop: Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and New Order. It was a matter of chance that my friends’ cousin was into it as well. It spilled over. The second I touched a record to a turntable I was hooked. It’s crazy to think 30 years later I’m still involved in this happy accident.
What defines Toronto’s house scene from others?
I think the biggest identifier is that the people who are into the music are very knowledgeable, in that they have a wider scope and a deeper appreciation for a lot of styles. In talking to a lot of international DJs friends, they always feel they can play THEIR music. They don’t have to bend their sounds or play “the hits” to have a good reaction, they just play. There’s a response because the base is open minded – it’s not just “I need to hear this”. There’s a lot of freedom to be creative.
I find in the US it’s harder to pursue that in general. A lot of the Europeans ask me what’s the difference and it’s tough because if you’re not the genre, then you’re not the genre. The market doesn’t work that way. In North America in general, as much as we have that in Toronto, there are similar sounds you have to play, where the majority of stuff is happening. The difference is that we have a lot of the niche stuff. That’s not happening on the regular, whereas in Europe a lot of the scenes are huge and you have much more variety. England, Netherlands, Germany – there’s this scope of big things in the genre.
Since you’ve been in the game since the early 90s, did you notice any of the breakbeat and IDM elements from UKs jungle scene in Toronto at that time?
At the same time as the house scene was growing, we had the biggest drum and bass scene outside of England in the world. As well as what was coming out of Chicago and LA, that funky techno tribe collective in the late 90s early 2000s was massive. It all links back to the diversity, there was a happy hardcore scene in the late 90’s and that’s where the depth came in. The parties wouldn’t be one sound. The big raves had rooms with prog trance, others with drum and bass– they’d all coexist in the same space.
I feel very fortunate to have come up through that – again, being involved with everything. There were only four big promoters and I was a resident for three of them. It gave me access to see a lot of different acts, a bunch of different music that you wouldn’t normally focus on. The education roots from being much more accepting to different types of electronic music, and not just this narrow-minded thing. You’re always going to get that because when you’re young you tend to fixate. But a lot of people running things now, we were all coming up at the same time. We’re at that age now, so on the decision-making side, it’s all more prevalent because of how we came into the music scene.
Every time Phoenix is brought up my colleagues are quick to mention Todd Terry.
Todd Terry is one of the early figures of New York house. I’m very fortunate in knowing him since around ’98. We met in Miami at WMC, a conference that was very much used to be how ADE is now: an industry driven event where everyone is in one spot. Todd played in Toronto numerous times at that point, he actually knew my online magazine since we were the only outlet in Toronto covering the scene. My main competitor was focused more on the social side, but being a DJ I was naturally focused on the music. I was interviewing artists, reviewing music, covering the charts, things of that nature. I was lucky because he was familiar with us when we met. I mean, the 2nd house record I ever bought was a Todd Terry record.
A full year later in Miami again, literally he shouted at me from across the street and ran over four lanes of traffic to come say hello. That always struck me, because it’s like: “You are Todd Terry. I’m just some kid in Toronto with a website.” That’s the kind of person Todd is, a genuine person.
Over the years seeing each other off and on we became friends. When it came to branching out to do music, I had an idea about working with him. I literally just asked him to take a chance on me and do what we’ve been doing. Because of our long friendship, he said yes. I didn’t set out to build a relationship or anything – I have the utmost respect for him as a musician. He’s a big influence on me and getting to know him on a personal level was just awesome as it is. Full marks to him, he took a chance and it’s working out so far. We started out to just do one year, but it’s been five now and we’re still going.
How has 2018 treated Phoenix? Any upcoming plans in 2019?
Every year we do a best of the year release, so we’ll have that again. We had some big records in 2018, three of our remixes for Todd’s legacy stuff we’re absolutely massive. Re-Tide’s remix of “Keep on Jumping” came out in January went number 2 overall on Traxsource. Sunny Wharton’s remix of “Something Going On” went number 2 overall. Our biggest record was David Penn’s of “Babarabatiri” remix which went number 1 overall, 2 on Beatport house, 11 overall on Beatport. It’s one of those things that catapulted us up the chain in terms of brand awareness. We had a good reputation across the scene with the hardcore tastemakers. But the strategy I went for was to build a very strong connection to all of the influential DJs that played the kind of music we did.
I feel like there’s a lot of value in that. That’s what sustains you for a long period of time. You need to be a destination label for these guys that sets the tone for what more people are listening too. You have to be charting your records consistently, which is how you get bigger artists to work with you. Easy to say, harder to do. But a lot of it is relationship building. You have to have music that is up to that level. That’s where rely on my decades of experience to know that I can hear music that speaks to those kinds of people. I feel like I’m one of those types of people.
The mantra I have in signing: I don’t sign anything to labels that I wouldn’t play myself. It’s somewhat self-indulgent but it’s kind of why we have the reputation and catalog that we have. We don’t really chase what’s trendy, we’ve always been looking for things that speak to that hardcore fan of house music who really appreciates where it came from to where it is now. Hopefully other people have similar tastes! So far so good.
Are there a lot of other people doing that?
I think so. We’re fortunate in that we carved out a definite position within the community. We’ve proven ourselves, and we’ve proved we can have a big record and know what to do with it. For people starting labels. You need a reason for them to want to be on with you. The obvious one is that you can pay them a heap of money and if that’s their interest, they’ll probably do it. But it’s not real and you probably won’t get their best work either. They’re not doing because they want to do it, it’s just a paycheck. The best results are the ones that want to do it, genuinely. If you make money, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world.
It’s funny because David Penn’s remix for example, he didn’t even want to do that remix. It’s one of his favorite tracks ever and he was apprehensive in that, “can I do something to this, because I love the original?” To make it different or better. I almost had to convince him to “just do you!” and it’ll be great. Because his take on house on this record is a no-brainer. To me, this record with his spin on it would be great. And then the first demo he sent back was basically the release. I was like “this is done.” I sent to Todd and his team and it was done deal. When we sent it out to Traxsource guys, we got a great reception as well. Three days, boom: Number 1. And then Beatport picked up on it with their hype chart. It was great.
I’d imagine, as a label manager, often times you find yourself approaching an artist thinking they’re all confident in their work. A lot of the job is to be confident in your own abilities to recognize “this needs to be heard” and to pursue that.
It’s challenging. The stuff we work with, there’s no formula. Sure there are a few objective things in terms of quality, but in terms of creativity and musical direction it’s completely subjective. The people that think you just do A, B, and C to be successful are wrong. It’s a leap of faith, almost every time. Sometimes it’s good but it’s just the wrong time. On the business side things ebb and flow, old things become new again. Finding the right thing at the right time can be the difference between doing okay and having massive success.
For example, Omi’s “Cheerleader” remix – that came out 5 years before it was the hit that it was. And it did nothing. It was a dead record before they freshened it up and then it was a smash. If you listen to the original, it’s not that different. It’s the right thing at the wrong time. Years later, it blows up.
There is an element of luck. The standard is that you have to be of quality – but just because it doesn’t do well at the time, it might just be the wrong time. When you have something you think will do well and it doesn’t, you can’t let that deter you from sticking with your ears. I think everyone in the business has been in that situation. “This song will be great and do awesome,” and it’s a complete failure.
It comes down to perseverance in a way.
Perseverance is a huge, huge part of it. And it’s tough because this is how you make your living, when you have a record that doesn’t do well, as a small indie label, those swings are important. You can’t float by on failure, you need to be able to move on to the next. You can’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows.
Always learn and evolve, try new things. If you’re going to make it as a label, trust in your ear – but hope that your ear speaks to people. If not, well it’s not for everyone. There is some inherent born ability to judge things in a way that speaks to people, to a consumer. At the end of the day it’s consumed.
It’s kind of poetic, looking back at the horrible times but being like, “we got through it” and moving on to the next.
The funny thing is that with our 5-year anniversary compilation, that was the first chance I had that moment to reminisce and look back at all the things we done with the label. I was talking to people in Amsterdam about this: you’re always so in it and focused on the current and next thing. You don’t really take that time to look back at what you did. Only in putting together that album was I like “oh wow, we had some really good music over the years.”
And there’s a couple things now, like we’re doing new mixes that came out early in the life cycle of the label where we forgot “oh, this is a really good record.” There’s actually a real sense of pride, like we’ve come a long way. Very short lived, and then on to the next thing.
Music, being a temporal form of art; it feels like when you listen to a certain song five years after an artist releases more stuff, it’s kind of like a different song. There’s a lot of new perspectives that comes with and without the context of release.
Absolutely. And a lot of artists are like “yeah I hate everything old” or “I wasn’t as good technically”, and other times you’re like “man I really liked what I was doing back then.” There’s that same process. In reaching out to all our artists for the old stuff, we had that reaction from them. It’s cool. A lot of people in the business are always so forward thinking, you never look back.
Any plugs you’d like to mention?
We have a bunch more releases before 2019: Dirty Secretz, Asle, Stereosoulz – some really strong markets this year. 2019 have some amazing stuff lined up, going to be working with new artists like Tough Love. More David Penn and Todd Terry remixes. More Angelo Ferreri. A lot of our core artists, James Bradshaw, even myself doing stuff potentially. We’re going to have an amazing line up of material.
2019 is a focus on an extension of the brand and label. We’ll be launching a podcast for the label an starting a branded event side of things are all on the forecast. For me, I really wanted to get the label firmly established and running before tackling more things. Now that we have the cache for a branded event makes sense – we’re sort of known at that level, that’s the next step for us.
We’ve compiled a trove of Phoenix Music releases over on Label Engine’s Spotify, which you can find here. Make sure to check out Phoenix Music on all of their social media sites (Soundcloud, Twitter, Facebook) as well as on Beatport and Traxsource to support the label in their endeavors.