Photo by Theresa Legler
Much like pimpin’, running a small independent record label ain’t easy. That is, if it’s not merely a digital endeavour involving hastily mastered Bandcamp releases with dodgy artwork, but rather a labour of love with an unflinching dedication to releasing quality music on elaborately packaged vinyl. More often than not operating on hand-to–mouth budgets, these labels have a rather tenuous position in the music industry. To keep them going and growing where possible, the self-sacrificing mavericks who helm them give them their all – time, money, blood, sweat and tears.
One such character who, for meagre material returns, puts his whole life behind his passion is Günter Stöppel, aka DJ Scientist, head honcho of Berlin-via-Munich imprint Equinox Records. Following his musical instincts and artistic vision, he has helped the label build an international reputation of amalgamating outstanding urban electronic music with exceptional artwork.
In light of its 50th vinyl release, which the label will reach with the 3LP compilation “Counter Future” at the end of the month, I caught up with Stöppel to talk about the history of Equinox, his commitment to releasing vinyl, label management and the upcoming compilation album.
In addition to the interview, he was kind enough to offer a free download of Andreikelos’ “Beautiful Mountain of Algos” as well as two flexi-disc copies of Geste's “P.I.N.N. Electronics”, which you have the chance to win by entering a little competition. Both can be found at the bottom of this post.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of your Equinox imprint. What impelled you to start a label back in 2002?
Starting a label was a natural progression from being a DJ and from being involved in a music scene in which “vinyl culture” has always been an important part. I basically just wanted to release records myself and started the label together with a friend of mine who was part of the label for the first 2 or 3 years. In late 2002 we already had a first vinyl release on the Equinox sublabel Audiac. So yes, Equinox Records was founded in 2002, the art concept was created throughout 2003 and the first release came out in 2004. At the end of last year we started our anniversary celebrations and already announced the “Counter Future” anniversary project, which was originally planned to be released a bit earlier.
What do you enjoy most about running a label, and what is the hardest part of it in your opinion?
I think I am basically a person who enjoys to make things happen and usually I am involved in the whole process of a release, from hearing the first demos, checking the music during mixing and mastering, supplying artwork and finally releasing and promoting it. I really enjoy the process of managing and at the same time still being involved in the creative process more or less.
The part that I don’t enjoy is most of the promotion and press related things – a work which has became more and more difficult throughout the years due to the increase of releases on the market. And as most of the music on Equinox is done by relatively unknown artists it’s difficult to get into magazines, etc.. Therefore, I basically outsorce promotion and have it done by an agency.
It’s also hard and time consuming to keep up with social media, to update the website, but second label manager, Dimitris, is helping a lot regarding these and other things.
Can you name some personal highlights from the label’s history? Any particularly memorable moments, rewarding experiences?
Well, I guess there have been quite a few. As I am also an artist and musician myself I would like to pick the time period that I worked with Ceschi Ramos and produced the album “One Man Band Broke Up” which came out in 2010. It’s been a memorable and very creative period in which I really enjoyed making music. Additionally, the album was well received by the fans when it came out – which has definitely been a rewarding experience.
As I am involved in the process of each release quite much, it’s also a quite important reward to receive a final product from the pressing plant. To me - if the final product looks and sounds good – it’s a big relief and makes the rest of the work a lot easier. Hearing music on vinyl and holding a freshly printed cover in hands is always a surprising and exciting thing – it always feels like you listen to the songs for the first time.
I suppose there must have been a few downs as well. Is there anything that you would you do differently if you could start all over again?
Well, first of all, there’s quite a variety of problems that can occur for a release. I have had some releases on the label where the whole process ran very smoothly, but I have also had a releases where there have been problems and a few where there have been differences with the artist too. A „downer” could be if you have put a lot of work and also money into an album that is not so well received in the end.
Also, the closure of our distribution Hausmusik a couple of years ago was definitely a bad experience. Not so long after, the insolvency of Pinnacle, a big distribution in the UK, that our second distributor Kudos worked with, was quite frustrating too. The most downing part of these experiences is that you just see a whole industry collapsing and noone really knows what to do about it – and it’s basically been collapsing for 10 years, haha.
But, to be completely honest, Equinox has never experienced the “golden days” of indie culture when it was still possible to sell 10.000 copies of a release on an underground level – so, we were used to a “new standard” of 500 copies basically from the beginning. The digital side of things has been getting better over the last few years, but the increase of mp3 sales has slowed down quite a bit too, I feel.
Regarding the question if there would be something I should have done differently, I am not sure. Of course there are times when I think that I probably should have followed certain trends more extensively.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received with regard to label management, and what would be your words of wisdom for someone pondering on starting a label of their own?
I actually can’t think of much advice that I received – I probably always had my own way of thinking about how label management should be done, being based on fairness, freedom and also friendship. To be completely honest, my advice nowadays would be: just don’t do it unless you really love what you are doing. It has just become more and more difficult to release music, so if you don’t have the passion you should better not start a label. When I started Equinox Records, I had the dream to be able to build up a company with probably 2 or 3 employees working for it – but market realities have proved me wrong there, and most smaller indie labels today are basically run by just one or maybe two persons.
For a more specific advice I think it’s very important for artists to play live and to be active on social media. It’s important for labels to find artists that are being active on sustaining and building their own fan base – joining forces so to say. Having a booking agency connected should be good thing too.
In an era when there are countless netlabels that exclusively release music in a digital format, your medium of choice is still vinyl, complete with elaborate cover art and occasional extras. What is it about vinyl that makes you still hold it so dear?
It may just be my personal background as a DJ, growing up with vinyl culture, as well as the fact that I am a record collector. I still prefer to have music on vinyl with full artwork. At the same time I think it is also essential to have the music digitally, especially when you are a DJ. Therefore, our releases always include download cards, sometimes with additional tracks. But most importantly I want to create something “real” – in most cases a digital only release implies to me that it is less “worthy”.
Equinox prides itself on standing for an electronic yet organic sound. Is that the main feature that separates the label from other imprints operating in the same area of the musical spectrum?
Yes, we called our sound “organic / electronic” from beginning on – it basically means that we want to release electronic music that still has a natural, organic vibe to it, bringing “soul” into the machines. But that may not be the main thing that seperates us from other labels. I think Equinox has followed a very distinctive certain path throughout the years. There is this kind of “common theme” in the sound as well as the art. The unique artwork seperates us strongly. You can possibly tell from looking at the cover that it is an Equinox release.
Soon you will drop the third instalment in your label’s Sound Exposure compilation series, “Counter Future”, a 21-track compilation marking the 50th Equinox release. Originally, it was announced as a 4xLP encompassing 50 tracks. How come it’s now less than half of that?
Ha, yes, that’s true… we first wanted to put 50 tracks on it, then 25, then it was narrowed down to 21. The thing is that we called out young unknown producers to send demos but nothing that we received really convinced us that much… So, basically, most of the 17 artists that are featured on the release have already been part of the extended Equinox family before. I really just wanted to deliver quality and these 21 tracks are the best of all tracks I had available for this project. Each track means something to me and is a important to the release.
Counter Future - A Sound Exposure Vol. 3 (Preview Mix 1)
(01) Geste – Inhale (Spitting Concrete Intro)
(02) Godblesscomputers – Romania
(03) Fulgeance – Cypher
(04) Haunted Days & Witch’s Teat – Landing Strip
(05) Skyence – Scars
(06) Playpad Circus – Megalomaniac
(07) Anthony Drawn – Lighthouse (feat. Graciellita)
(08) Andreikelos – Beautiful Mountain of Algos
(09) 2econd Class Citizen – I That I Am
(10) Glen Porter – The Devil’s Chariot
Counter Future - A Sound Exposure Vol. 3 (Preview Mix 2)
(01) Geste – Exhale (Intermission)
(02) Gone Beyond – Kill Ya Sound
(03) Bit-Tuner – Getaway
(04) Andreikelos – Roots Go Deep (feat. Bombers of Consciousness)
(05) J. Baracuz – Before The Storm
(06) Dday One – Anechoic Chamber
(07) Kopfklang – Piet Mann 4
(08) Deckard – St. Ella
(09) 2econd Class Citizen – On Emptiness (Keys Re-Work)
(10) David Vangel – I Heard You Sing
How long has the compilation been in the making? Did you spend a lot of time and thought on the selection of the tunes and the sequencing of the tracklist?
Yes, I did spend quite a while in the selection and putting it together, that’s why there has been such a delay. It became quite difficult to form a tracklist that would not become boring as the total duration of the album is about 1.5 hours.
On a related note, is there a specific idea or concept behind “Counter Future”? I mean, besides it acting as the label’s 10th anniversary compilation.
Well, yes, there is a meaning in the name - it basically derives from “counter attack”…
You say about “Counter Future” that you wanted it to sound timeless yet modern, futuristic even. Do you think you pulled it off with the tracks you compiled?
That’s partly what I wanted to express with the name - because “Future” also kind of means forward thinking, being state of the art in this case… but “Counter Future” also means to look back, being “against future” – that’s what I meant with “timeless” here – because I tried to pull out tracks where it would be hard to say whether they have been made in 2002 or 2020. Yes, I am happy with the result and I think that even in 10 years the album will not sound dated or old.
What, in your opinion, makes a timeless piece of music?
Which of the tracks on “Counter Future” really stand out to you personally, and why?
My personal favourite might be “Scars” by Skyence – it’s just so good soundwise. Playpad Circus’ “Megalomaniac” is also one of my favourites. All in all, I would say that there may not be too many tracks that could be a “single” but they work well as a whole and each tune is part of the big picture.
What mark would you like this release to leave? How would you like it to be received and remembered?
Well, to be honest, I just want it to sell the 500 vinyl copies we have made. I have accepted the fact that most of the music is made just for a small circle of like minded people so I do not expect it to “blow up” at all, especially as it has always been difficult to promote and sell compilations. Even though there has been a rise in the interest of instrumental music in the past 4 years I think it is still too different and experimental for most people. Major magazines still ignore us and this won’t change. I begin to accept the fact that Equinox will be underground forever – and maybe that’s a good thing.
With all the hard work you put into making each Equinox release a special artifact, it must be a bitter pill to swallow that the sales figures oftentimes don’t remunerate the effort. Is that the curse of small indie labels in general?
Well, it’s just a matter of expectations, I believe. Nowadays, you can’t expect to go “gold” anymore. But if an album sells 500 vinyl copies and is doing well on the digital sales, then it’s already a success. 500 copies for albums or 300 copies for 12”s might be the new standard at the moment for most indie labels. So if you are trying to survive as a label owner or artists, these figures might be a quite bitter truth.
What’s next for Equinox and yourself? Can we expect some new DJ Scientist material anytime soon?
Yes, I think there will be two new albums that I am involved with – maybe still this year. One will be with Ceschi and will contain mostly older material, and the other one is still a secret but will be brand new material.
Lastly – any shout outs / words of wisdom?
Read books, listen to good music, leave Facebook, eat less meat, question everything and read the DopeSound blog, buy the Counter Future album and visit equinoxrecords.com… need more? Thanks for the interview!
Free download: Andreikelos – Beautiful Mountain of Algos
Win one of two flexi-disc copies of Geste's “P.I.N.N. Electronics”, released in a limited run of 250 only. All you have to do to enter the competition is identify five of the Equinox releases in the pictures included in this post, and send an e-mail with their complete titles to dopesound[at]googlemail.com.