Interview with Hugo de Graaf, label manager for Wildlife, Rub A Duck at Black Hole Recordings. Black Hole Recordings, founded in 1997, started with the release of Tiësto’s hailed “Magik” mix compilations. The instant success of the series made it possible to expand, and in 1998 Black Hole Recordings added two new labels to their imprint: “In Trance We Trust” and “Songbird”, which became the label of choice for Tiësto’s “In Search of Sunrise” series.
By 2001 another label was added to the roster: “Magik Muzik”. Initially used for Tiësto’s singles, the sub label expanded quickly and also released material from other artists. Throughout the early days of Black Hole Recordings, many now famous DJs and producers got their first opportunity to release a DJ mix compilation. Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren, DJ Montana, Cor Fijneman, Johan Gielen and Ton TB were amongst them, and up to this day a lot of new talent took the first steps in the industry on Black Hole Recordings.
Due to the success of series like “Space Age”, “Magik”, “In Trance We Trust” and most notably “In Search of Sunrise”, the star and reputation of the label rose quickly and the million-selling mix compilations from Tiesto turned Black Hole Recordings into one of the biggest independent electronic dance labels.
These achievements not only harvested important awards and nominations, but also created a wealth of opportunities. The two volumes of “Tiesto in Concert” and the album “Parade of the Athletes”, released after the successful performance of Tiesto during the 2004 Olympics in Athens, are the ultimate proof that Black Hole had reached heights never before seen in the industry. In 2002 the label made its catalogue available for download at Beatport.com. Eventually Black Hole Recordings started their own portal, and now sells digital downloads, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs and official merchandise.
Black Hole’s full catalogue is currently also available through almost fifty other well-known download portals. In 2009 the 100th release on Black Hole Recordings was announced. With all eyes on this milestone, it was clear that the label had matured into a major record company, with an extensive artist roster that represents multiple styles of modern electronic dance music. The new in-house labels like “Fris” and “Avanti” were quickly joined by imprints from the artists themselves: Mr Sam’s “Appia”, Richard Durand’s “Terminal 4”, Riley & Durrants “Electrik Playground” are all handled by Black Hole. Apart from trance, the audience can now enjoy releases that cover a big part of the electronic dance spectrum, since the Black Hole Recordings catalogue represents progressive house, tech trance, progressive and electro house. Nowadays, Black Hole Recordings looks after the releases of a wide variety of internationally acclaimed artists like Cosmic Gate BT, JES, Julie Thompson, Andy Duguid, Richard Durand; all acts with their own unique sound, style and audience. The label runs a dedicated YouTube channel, has a weekly podcast that airs in over 23 countries and recently launched a brand new app for smart phone users. After almost 15 years, Black Hole Recordings is still one of the biggest independent electronic dance labels; always on top of the game and true to its credo “Captivate, Communicate and Celebrate”!
Behind the Black Hole Recordings success story is Arny Bink who is nominated in the IDMA 2013 as “Best Record Label Executive” and his “army” of hard working passionate staff who enjoy bringing to the world the most amazing and exquisite tracks in a wide spectrum of EDM styles. To fully understand their contribution to your entertainment, you should try to imagine a big room club or an open air festival without any music, or your everyday life without hearing any tracks from your favorite style. The beginning and end of our entertainment is music, and the record industry personnel work constantly behind the scenes to ensure that there is a constant flow of amazing releases from gifted artists from all over the world.
I had the idea to contact and interview Hugo de Graaf who has worked for Black Hole for ten years. He is very passionate and dedicated to music. I’m glad that he accepted the challenge and you can read this very informative interview in the following lines. Actually, this is our second interview with after the video interview we did together for my Flux TV youth music magazine TV show, back in 2006 at the legendary Magik record shop in Breda. Hugo de Graaf, as label manager, handles the very successful imprints Rub A Duck and Wildlife which release bass and house music. Dimitri: Can we go back in time and ask how you ended up working at Black Hole recordings? Was this always your ideal work environment and secret aspiration to work for a record company?
Hugo: I have been working for the company for over ten years now; first as artist manager for Cor Fijneman, Ton T.B., Mark Norman, Phynn and others.
At the time I was already organising parties and doing some work for the company (helping out with release parties etc).
Growing up in Breda, I became friends with Cor Fijneman, Dazzle and the other DJ’s at The Spock. I was also working at the club as bartender, and later on I also DJ'ed there on Friday nights. It was always a dream to work in the music business, and before Black Hole I worked at Zyx Music. But when Tijs Verwest and Arny Bink asked me to work for Black Hole, I didn't hesitate for one second.
During these years, I have experienced some great things with the company, from big festivals to cool tours all around the world.
Dimitri: Can you give us a hint about your personal music preferences. For instance; tracks, DJ’s, producers, and events that shaped your music taste that in a way is reflected in the selection of the tracks you release on the labels you handle?
Hugo: I have a wide range of musical styles I love. I started out as an M.C. and break-dancer in the local scene, but I have also organised rock'n'roll parties in Breda with bands as Batmobile and Peter Pan Speedrock. I am a huge Motorhead fan, but I can enjoy a classic house party as well. At the moment I love the return of the good old house grooves with a slight garage touch. When it comes to house music, I am a huge fan of Fat Boy Slim, and I think the Disclosure guys are great. When I DJ’d back in the day, I loved to play breaks and therefore I feel blessed to be working with The Freestylers for my Rub A Duck label.
Dimitri: How did the idea come about to establish the bass music focused Rub a Duck record label? What does the name of the label mean exactly, and was it your idea to use Rub A Duck as a name?
Hugo: I was offered some really good tracks by MRK1 and we didn't have a label at that time at Black Hole Recordings to put these on. Dubstep was getting more popular at the time, so we decided to start a label for this kind of edgy music.
Since dubstep has its roots in reggae and dub, I looked for a nice symbol to reflect this. One of my friends came up with Rub A Duck, and I liked it immediately. Instead of the toasters in Jamaica saying Rub A Dub we stuck with Rub A Duck, and took the duck as a symbol for the label.
Dimitri: Rub A Duck started with heavy dubstep releases but as the time went by the label expanded into other styles and sounds. Is there a particular motto or music policy that governs Rub A Duck releases, and are there any musical boundaries of what you can release on it or not?
Hugo: From the start I wanted to have a slightly alternative sound to the label. I had in mind that with the music we could fill a huge stage at a big music festival, and that these styles could all fit together. In the beginning it was definitely a UK influenced label, but I am always looking for a cool balance for big names with young talent.
I don't like the term Indie, but in this case it might fit the label. We release dubstep, but also electro, drum n' bass and the lo-fi disco stuff, all with an edgy touch. I am trying to create a home for a nice family with cousins all over the world who want to have fun making music. Dimitri: The Freestylers have announced that they will release their new album on Rub A Duck. When can we expect this album to come out? Have you already checked any of its tracks and are you satisfied about how it sounds so far?
Hugo: The contracts are signed and we are extremely proud to have the guys on the label. The album is 99% finished when it comes to songs, and it sounds really good, it's really fresh but has the typical Freestylers sound.
The guys have made some heavy tracks and collaborated with many artists. I am sure everybody will be surprised in a good way. We plan to release the album before the summer. Dimitri: Its not just The Freestylers but also the young and upcoming Jelle Boon has released his first full length digital only LP on a Rub A Duck. How did you manage to discover and sign him for the label? Are you satisfied with the crowd reactions to that album?
Hugo: Jelle sent me a demo more than a year ago, and I was surprised how talented he already was at his young age. He has a unique sound which cannot be easy for the audience, but I prefer a unique sound before any generic sound anytime. The response to the album so far has been great and I strongly believe he has a great future ahead of him. Jelle is a smart lad and his music is heavy!!
Dimitri: We notice that there is wealth of new bass talents in India like Sound Avtar, who composes bass heavy tracks combined with cinematic melodies and complex sound textures. Can you give us your thoughts about the bass scene in India and if Rub A Duck will expose more talent from there?
Hugo: Sound Avtar is extremely talented and has a great ear when it comes to a unique sound, since India has their own scene totally, they are influenced by the UK and US sound, but still keep their original and very musical style.
Sound Avtar is definitely one of the bigger names out there; he just won the MyFavAward for best Drum’ bass/dubstep.
Other names we have signed are Sickflip and Phoenyx, both part of the same bass crew of Sound Avtar. India has got their totally unique musical climate and I think there's unlimited potential over there. Dimitri: What kind of releases should we should expect to get on Rub A Duck soon which we should wait for with big anticipation?
Hugo: We recently released Nothing by Skreamin Colours and I think this release is pretty huge. Skreamin Colours is a collaboration between Kouncilhouse, Ashley Slater and Knightfreak and features Scarlett Quinn and Peredur Ap Gwynedd from Pendulum. I've signed a release by O.Crow called 8Bit Robot, which has got the potential to become a very huge release. Finally, we've planned two new EP's by Damn You Mongolians, heavy Drum 'n' Bass and dubstep stuff!
Of course the first single by Freestylers is on its way and we've planned a nice compilation "Bass In Ya Face” with all the latest Rub A Duck releases.
Dimitri: The second label you take care of is ‘Wildlife’. When did this label start and why did you decide to resurrect it with frequent releases?
Hugo: Wildlife is in fact one of the oldest labels from Black Hole Recordings and had great releases back in the day from Jaimy & Kenny D, DJ Debra and Tony Thomas. Last year I'd been offered some cool house tracks by Jess-E, so we discussed then that I would take over the A&R for this label to resurrect it, since there's huge potential within this genre. We are also re-releasing all the classic tunes we'd never released digitally.
Dimitri: The label to be very open-minded so far seems as tracks from various subgenres like deep house, tech house, progressive house or even commercial uplifting house are released. Is there a particular music policy/guidelines about what you can release on Wildlife??
Hugo: With Wildlife we try to bring back that good old house feeling, from the Chicago house grooves to the early UK uplifting vocal house sound. I think warm is the key for this label, and that could go from deep house to uplifting house, as long as it sounds "housey" I guess. We want women on the dance floor with this label!
Dimitri: Wildlife also stands out with its very clever artwork, usually portraying some cool animals. Are you responsible for deciding the artwork and do you believe that even in the digital age, artwork is important or relevant to the digital music consumer. Can it be a decisive factor in buying an mp3 or CD or not? Which artwork from Black Hole recordings can you pick as the best and why?
Hugo: Branding is always important for every brand, with Wildlife we have always used wildlife to be on the artwork, and we try to continue that with every release.
It's always important to have outstanding artwork to stand out on the digital stores, but I strongly believe it should always be the music that should be the decisive factor for a DJ or fan to buy the music. In reality it might not always be the case, but it's good to stay positive about this. Within this age people don't want to have to the music, they want access to music, that’s a big difference to us back in the days visiting record stores and spending hours to listen to 12inches to discover that great record.
Dimitri: Would you like to pinpoint the artists that are closely affiliated with Wildlife who we will see more tracks from on your label soon?
Hugo: At this moment we have released a lot of superb release from Jess-E and Chadash Cort. I think these two have a different sound but at the same time are really Wildlife artists. I also would like to release more from Monobrother D and Brett Gould, both extremely talented and have their unique cool sounds. Dimitri: How many hours do you spend checking out demos and is there any advice that you would like to offer to those who are intending to send a demo soon? The do’s and don’ts of sending out a demo…
Hugo: I spend several hours a week listening to demos and searching the net for cool new talent. A definitely don't is to send a demo to several record companies and not take the time to send a mail separately to each A&R but including all email addresses in the mail. I won't even open it.
Please include a nice biography and links to homepages, Facebook etc. It's difficult to tell why we pick a release or not, but it comes down to the quality of the production and the song.
Dimitri: Black Hole Recordings has its own official radio show weekly broadcasting in various locations all over the world. Did you expect the radio show to be so successful, and do you consider this radio show to be a vital and very important tool for promotion?
Hugo: This week we've broadcasted the 250th episode and it a nice a cool direct tool to promote our new releases. Over the years we've built quite a fan base and all the stations that are broadcasting the show are very happy with it.
Every once in a while we get a new request and I think at this moment we broadcast the show almost worldwide. I must say with our host Didier Red we have a great person to announce the tracks and new releases. It's now also broadcast on Spotify. Dimitri: Are you 100% satisfied with Black Hole Recordings presence within internet (Brand new web site, facebook page, interactivity with fans through twitter, YouTube music videos) and is there any ground for further development and expansion in this field?
Hugo: There's always room to improve and I think everybody needs to look for new possibilities at every angle of promotion, so do we. But then again, I think we are doing great and with our newest tool; the Spotify App, we are doing quite well! Dimitri: Do you believe that record labels should try to get inside the playlist of well known radio shows like Tiësto’s Club Life or Armin’s ASOT? Have you noticed as label that the inclusion in those shows of certain tracks has helped to sell more and get more requests to license them for compilations?
Hugo: These shows are definitely important for labels like ours, it's not a seal of approval but it definitely helps to push the releases. But then again, both Armin as well as Tiesto receive so many releases each week it's hard for them to always pick the best of the best.
Dimitri: Next question is about those who still aspire to get involved with the record music industry and particularly EDM. Do you recommend them to contact an established record label or do you advise them to start their own small label which can become really huge after a while if it is successful?
Hugo: It's hard nowadays, but I think with the tools you can use there's always room for passionate people to release good music. There are many companies who can take out the difficult stuff for small labels like distribution, but when it comes to signing good artists or releasing good music I think if you are passionate about it, be prepared to work hard and in the end it will be appreciated. Dimitri: On a personal level, in the past you had a release that was a collaboration with Cor Fijneman and even included your vocals too. Are you intending to carry on with more personal productions in the future?
Hugo: Creating music is an artistic process and like the artwork I create it has to come to me. At this point I don't have any plans to do so, but you never know!
Dimitri: Last question is if you can share with us your most unforgettable experience within Black Hole Recordings office? It can be a funny story or a serious incident.
Hugo: I think Cor Fijneman and Mark Norman opening Trance Energy 2006 during the 80 Days Around The World tour was pretty cool. They opened the main stage with the theme song and that has my vocals on it. That was pretty awesome to hear at such a huge venue.
I must say the tours to Miami, Ibiza, Hong Kong and Brazil with the guys are pretty awesome too; some of those stories are not suitable for young readers so I will keep them to ourselves
Many thanks to Hugo de Graaf for finding the time to respond to this interview with such detailed and informative answers.
Many thanks to Mark, Jeroen, Arny and the rest of the Black Hole recordings crew for their support through the years.
Many thanks to Paul Aldridge at 1mix Radio for proofing the interview.
Interview was written and conducted by Dimitri Kechagias, Music Journalist/Radio/DJ