Sunday, 3 March 2013

Beyond the band #1: UB40's Earl Falconer. EDM, Circus Records, global DJ superstars, management....

He may be, like the rest of UB40, getting on a bit, but Earl Falconer has quietly fashioned a whole new music direction away from the band. And it’s being lapped up by kids who would sneer at Red Red Wine. That's if they even knew the song.

It’s a long way from being the next hot thing to building a career and making a living from music. I’ve always been interested in how musicianship and career thinking develops as life goes on. Some people become fine craftsmen; some give it all up with happy - or less than happy - memories, some change direction, or revise their ambitions, some become businessmen. A few stay blazingly creative all their lives. 

UB40 guitarist Earl Falconer is sitting in front of a plate of pasta in the Cross in Moseley, Birmingham. Next to him is Lanval Storrod, onetime UB40 manager, who partners Earl in his new ventures. We’re going to talk about Circus Records; this post is not, like others in this series may turn out to be, about surviving the old band. In fact, UB40 isn't really on the agenda. There is a lot to say about UB40, of course. When the time is right and the legal and financial dust has settled, then I’ll dive right in, possibly after checking with m'learned friends. 

In the meantime, I’m curious. Wikipedia says Earl is 54. How come he’s managed to put himself right at the centre of a DJ universe which is, to put it mildly, breaking records, thrilling crowds of tens of thousands, and making a fair bit of money? And how has he managed to do all this for a considerable length of time?

I had no idea any of this was going on until I stumbled across the terrific Dub Specimen CD, made at Elephant House studios in 2006. It’s a great piece of work: a collaboration between UB40 colleagues Earl and Jimmy Brown, featuring a host of local singers, and the G-Corp guys as well. If you haven't come across it, dig it out. It's a refreshing and creative listen.
Earl Falconer: I’ve been into dance music – a long parallel with my UB40 career – since about 1992. We were putting on rave events at the Moseley Dance Centre on Friday nights 
Were you jocking? 
I was MCing. I got up the nerve to start MCing along the way…Through that I got into rapping. From that club we started three labels…a house label with Lee Fisher, a jungle and hard core label which became drum and bass later on…. We put out loads of records. Since then I’ve had other labels. Then I started Maximum Boost, a drum and bass label. Swan-E who was my partner at the time, he had a label that was winding down, so he came on board…We signed up artists – a kid called Picto… and he started to make dubstep and became Doctor P… and that became Circus Records, with Flux Pavilion. 
Walk me through the process of starting a label. Lots of people say they have a label…It sounds easy, but it can’t be, can it? 
I kind of fell into it. Lee Fisher had a shop in town. So we had the kids coming in every week, so we knew exactly what they wanted. And we started making records. Basically, back in the day, all you needed was a distributor. You’d go to them with your music, and in they liked you, you’d do a little deal.
 But you still had to cut the records, press them up, get the distributor to shift them… 
Yeah, yeah, but it was nothing. Cos it was in the business anyway. It was part of it. It was quite successful.
Did those labels make you money, or was it just a case of just washing your face? 
We did really well. A number 1 in the dance chart with the first release. The rave scene started off all together, but then it split. You had the house posse, and the hard core. So it fractured, and that’s exactly what happened to our little partnership. People didn’t stick at it. I could see the potential that if we stuck at it, but people went off to do their own little thing. 
Isn’t that one of the problems with big personality DJs? They become brands… Instead of being the guy who shares it all with his audience, he becomes the personality guy who imposes his thing on you…So he steps in front of the music. And he drives things, not the audience. 
It is the jocks, yes. They all go off in their own directions. They may get together for big festivals. That’s just the way it is. 
OK, let’s talk about Circus. Is that local in any way?
Yes, the two biggest artists are from Northampton. Towcester to be exact. Flux is from Towcester, Doctor P is from Towcester. They went to school together. We signed Doctor P as Picto when he started to make Dubstep; we had to create another label for him as Doctor P. And that was Circus. It’s gone well, because they’re so good. 
Earl is being understated and modest here. It’s one thing to have dance chart hits in the 90s on limited run vinyl, it’s a whole other thing to have a stable of DJs, a management company, and a label whose stars go out and play to crowds of tens of thousands. I picked away at how this transition took place. The big step forward clearly came with Flux, and it's been well documented - it's an interesting story which illustrates neatly how the genres of music Earl’s been working with have been embraced by social media, bypassing the established music industry outlets almost completely. 

And that explains Lanval Storrod’s role in Circus: already in a business relationship with Earl through UB40, and equipped with a terrific address book and some business moves, he’s been watching all the changes and working out the angles. 

So I was reading a cute interview in the Guardian with Flux, where he talks about playing to thousands of kids in the US, and coming back to play a tiny venue over here... 
Lanval: Not exactly true! He was doing Coachella. The label brought him to Coachella. And he was blown away, playing to about nine thousand people at three in the afternoon, 110 degrees in the shade, and the tent was packed. In the interview Flux said that it makes a change from playing to about 80 people – but that was when he first started. But of course that was the nice juicy headline.
Earl. Flux played Red Rocks in Colorado last year, again, to about nine thousand people.
Lanval: In America, there’s huge festivals, that can attract 135,000 people a day, kids between 16 and 25. 
Which we never hear about. 
Lanval: It’s… huge. It’s not just big, it’s huge. In America, they’re calling EDM (Electronic Dance Music) the new rock and roll. That’s where the Guettas, the Swedish House Mafia are scoring. And EDM gets airplay.
Given the company, it wasn’t surprising that the conversation touched on Reggae. If EDM is producing global pop morphed from specialised dance scenes, I wondered, given the continuing global demand for Reggae, why we weren’t seeing more international breakouts. And here I got a bluntly realistic analysis. 
Lanval: Although it has that possibility, and there is huge demand worldwide, it doesn’t get the (mainstream) airplay. And the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t make the money. So if it doesn’t make the money, it won’t get the airplay. 
But going back to EDM – it’s obvious you’re going to get play on 1Xtra, and a bit of Radio1 
Earl: Yup, Zane Lowe… 
But you’ll never get your EDM stars, or the next new talent, their starting exposure on their local radio stations, even though they’re huge, or in the case of the next guys, with huge potential.

I’ll skip over Laval’s openly derisive dismissal of local radio's use to musicbiz managers; it's too painful. But it’s a sad fact that the CHR, AC and related formats in place at local radio of all stripes are risk-averse to the point of not even being willing to consider the smallest degree of experimentation in off-peak hours. Lanval’s next point was telling, and shows just how much our media landscape has changed in the past ten years. 
Lanval: The important thing for us is all these blogs, all these Internet stations, YouTube…UKF
Earl: United Kingdom Forum – a media company
Lanval… the biggest EDM Internet video site. Just one of Flux's videos has had 25 million views though them. That’s how we’re getting it out. 
And there we had to leave it, swapping business cards as we wrapped up - very rock and roll. Earl’s card, for Maximum Boost Management, part of the same group of companies that runs Circus, simply describes him as… management.

Maximum Boost Discography

Circus Records

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1 comment:

Sweet Rare Reggae Music said...

Great to see these guys doing well, the "Dub Specimen" album is very good, shame they never did a volume 2, nice post :-)