Guy McCreery
Third Ear Recordings

Third Ear Recordings has released a consistent catalogue of idiosyncratic dance music during its decade of existence. On the label's tenth anniversary, Kone-R speaks with founder Guy McCreery

By Kone-R

UK-based Third Ear Recordings should be a familiar name to discerning fans of techno, house and deeper shades of electronic beat music, having emitted a steady stream of distinctive sounds over the past ten years from a globe-spanning selection of artists including Brendon Moeller, Kelli Hand, Delano Smith, Fabrice Lig, Wbeeza, and Kyle Hall.

If you're unfamiliar with Third Ear's output, this recent podcast by Belgrade's DJ Velya is an excellent starting point. As you'd expect from a showcase mix, Velya's selection includes the label's best known (and most commercially successful) track, Carl Craig's massive rework of Theo Parrish's Falling Up — eight and a half minutes of bubbling, building Detroit house music.

As Third Ear prepares to celebrate ten years spent cutting the finest wax plates, Kone-R caught up with founder Guy McCreery to find about the origins of the label, its links with Detroit, and how the forthcoming two-disc anniversary compilation should help to "dispel the notion that has crept in over the past few years that Third Ear is a deep house imprint".

Guy, you've been operating Third Ear for ten years now. What was the thinking when you started the label?

Third Ear was not initially intended to be a label. The initial idea, which came in 1999, was for a website/portal for music, visual arts and writing. At that time, the level of hype and misinformation regarding the potential of the internet was ridiculous, and of course it all imploded in the Dot Com Bubble Crash of 2000, just as Third Ear was launching. It took another six or seven years before analytical data on digital media on the internet began to have any real basis in reality. At the time, if you had even a half-baked business plan, you could probably find people with money who would invest in that plan, such was the scramble to make money. I have a Ph.D in Anthropology and writing a business plan that was internally coherent (logical within itself) was easy. The business plan was very believable. Except the premises on which it was built were almost completely inaccurate. We were not trying to deceive ourselves, or our investors, by any means. It was just very difficult to get reliable data. Projected sales of digital music on the internet was just one example. The rate of growth year on year for digital music being touted during the early 2000s was pure fantasy, as we discovered by about 2003. Telecoms companies and tech consultants were particularly guilty of this. So, in 2000, we had to backtrack and rethink. I had asked a former Sony Music Japan staff manager to join me. Masakazu Hiroishi was the producer of Jeff Mill's seminal Live At The Liquid Room CD, and was responsible for licensing all the big electronic music labels at Sony in the early 1990s. Sony were pulling out of licensing dance music as early as 2000, having seen CD sales decline from about their peak in 1996, so we decided to go into licensing and distribution of electronic music in Japan. We were not able to pick up the big labels from Sony unfortunately, but we had a partnership with Baked Goods in the UK and Hausmusik in Germany, both distributors of electronic music at the time.

Putting out a few releases of our own was something Hiro and I just had to do. It was a compulsion. Through his contacts, Hiro was asked by SEGA to coordinate the artists for a new groundbreaking game called REZ, which Sony and SEGA were collaborating on for the first time. So the REZ compilation was our first release. And I had gone to Detroit in search of the sounds like those coming mainly from Carl Craig and Kenny Larkin. At that time, they were making electronic jazz, as I thought of it. By 2004, I was the chief executive of Third Ear, running a company with an office and staff in Tokyo. We were not making much money and around 2005 it was getting so stressful for me that I decided to sell my stake in the company to Hiro and concentrate on the label. Carl Craig's remix, which is actually not a remix but a version, as it contains no samples from the original version by Theo Parrish, was the first release I did on my own as Third Ear Recordings. I could only afford to press 300. People thought I was deliberately trying to make it hard to find, which wasn't the case. I've never believed in limited edition runs. My view has always been, press as many as you can afford, keep them available if at all possible, and release on any format that people want. For me, Third Ear releases are there for DJs and need to be available when they want them or need them.

Did you have certain achievements that you were aiming for? How close have you got to achieving them?

For me, the goals of running a label have always been releasing music that makes me excited and animated. Music has an effect on my mind and body. It truly is a spiritual thing. Some music gives me enormous energy and a sense of well-being when I hear it. This is obviously what people talk about when they talk about the healing power of music. But even when you don’t need healing, then good music of any kind will take you to new levels mentally and physically. There are numerous occasions when this happens to me. As someone who loves being on the dance floor listening to a great DJ, I know that there are many people like me. So, releasing music to be experienced on the dance floors of the world is my contribution to humanity, and is a main motivation for me with the label. Given the fact that there is so little money to be made from releasing music these days, this spiritual motivation is more necessary than ever to give my life some purpose. Given what I’ve just said, I’ve had more than a few moments when I’ve had a fantastic sense of achievement. These are mostly when I’m on a packed dance floor, the DJ drops a Third Ear tune and all the arms on the floor go up. There is not much to beat that if you’re running a label.

You describe the label as primarily "having DJs in mind", and most of your releases appear on vinyl. Do you have a particular affinity for the format, especially as nowadays there is less of a direct connection between DJs and vinyl as there was when you started out? Is vinyl important to the Third Ear ethos?

Releasing music primarily with DJs in mind is really a business decision. I would like to release all kinds of music, but that is not practical or possible. Another reason for focusing on DJs is because DJs buy music and support the scene. Sure they get mp3 promos, but they don't steal it if they’re real DJs. Let’s be frank about this and call it what it is. Also, if my customers are primarily DJs, then I know that I will at least have an income and a business, however small. My reasons for releasing vinyl are various. First, this is the medium that a lot of DJs still prefer, with quite a few young DJs choosing vinyl. So, if my role in dance music culture is to get the best music that is out there to the DJs, so they can get it to the people, then I should release music on any format that DJs want. Then there is the sound. Music that is properly produced, mastered and cut will sound more pleasant to the human ear when played loud, and I mean LOUD, when played from vinyl. This is due to the effect of the analog sound path that produces what human beings often interpret as a warmer, fatter sound, which many DJs like. Digitally produced music played digitally has an edge to it that gets tiring after a few hours of hearing it loud. That's my experience. Digital is fantastically convenient and robust as a format. There is no sound carrier that will deteriorate, for example, and it is very light to transport around. It is very convenient in a number of ways. These are important factors for music professionals on the move who want reliable and lightweight sound sources. I also like digital formats and have no problem with providing digital formats for people who want them. I like vinyl not only because I like that warmer, fatter sound, but also because it is tangible; you can hold it and touch it and watch it while it’s playing. Who doesn’t like watching cool artwork on a record label going round and round, with the tone arm hovering over the black disc, and amazing sounds coming off it! However you look at it, it requires a commitment which releasing only on digital doesn’t require. Quite what you make of that is up to you. For me, it’s just something that I have to do if I’m serious about releasing records for all DJs to play.
You now have a back catalogue more than 100 titles deep. Obviously some were more commercially successful than others but are there any releases of which you are particularly fond, any gems that you feel fell under the radar?

Well, I feel that most of them 'fall under the radar'! I'm not releasing 'join-the-dots' music. I am drawn towards music that is individual and clearly so. It may follow some very obvious designs, which dance music must do, as it has to be functional in some significant ways. But at the same time, if it has the stamp of the individuality of the person who made it; who has deliberately and carefully tried to craft something that is their own, and as a result produces something that is unique to them, then I’m interested in that. Their desire to communicate comes through strongly, even if they are not excellent musicians. Their music has an energy and unpredictability that music made by a person trying to sound like someone else doesn’t have. If they have the skills to make music speak for them, then you will hear something special. Music made with this sensibility is what I intuitively gravitate towards. I think most Third Ear releases are too idiosyncratic for most DJs. My impression is that DJs who are trying to be distinctive or who are searching for something a little unusual, rather than being interested in sounding like everyone else, buy Third Ear releases. I wish it was different, for the sake of the artists as much as anything. Although artists that have chosen to be uncompromising in their search for their sound know the situation. But there clearly are people out there who are big fans of the label, and the numbers are growing not declining.

You're marking the 10-year anniversary with a double compilation album which is part retrospective, part unreleased — and this is the first label compilation you've ever released. Was it a major headache to select and sequence the tracks?

I wanted to do a comp this year because it is 10 years. Also, my label manager at my digital distributor has been telling me of the promotional value of doing digital compilations for a while, and I wanted to give him something to work with and to show that I’m listening to what he says! I've not wanted to do a comp before because I carefully select all the tracks on a release and don't want to pick and choose one or two for a comp. Also a release is a thing in itself. All the tracks on a Third Ear release are important. There is never any filler to leave out when it's time to release a compilation. In the end, it was the DJ mix of Third Ear tracks by DJ Velja from Belgrade, which crystalised the track list. That mix is on our Soundcloud so you can compare. I thought his track selection was so good that I wanted to release those tracks. I made some changes, adding some personal favourites and making the compilation more representative of the label. So, in the end it came together very easily and quickly. Thank you Velja.

Third Ear, despite being a UK label, has done a lot to expose music from Detroit. How did that come about? I assume you were already a fan of a lot of music from the city?

I was. I came to electronic dance music through mix tapes that my then new girlfriend had. This was 1993. In another life, I had a career as a singer and musician, and as a promoter. So I had a musical background, in jazz mainly. When acid house hit in 1987 in Britain, I was very curious about it, but didn't know anyone who was going to raves and therefore didn't get into the scene at that time. Of the mix tapes that I listened to, certain tracks stood out as having what the jazz critic Leonard Feather called 'the sound of surprise'. A lot of those tracks that had the sound of surprise, not all, happened to come from Detroit. Of course, the guy who was making the mix tapes was selecting certain sounds himself. Up until that moment, I thought that techno originated in Europe, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Holland. When I realised there was a black music element it all made sense to me. I had studied the form and structure of African drumming and its social context, and the structure of dance music DJ sets and the social context of the dance floor and the club were so similar, that to me that it suddenly all made sense. So, off to Detroit I went. It's amazing how the underground New York dance music scene of the 1970s and 1980s had escaped me. It just goes to show how you can be living next door to something, metaphorically speaking, and not know that it is there.

In addition you foster local talent — Wbeeza being the current wonder kid on the block. How did you find him? Does the label have a demo policy?

Yes, we have a demo policy. We accept demos and listen to them all eventually. Usually within four to six weeks. This is a very important part of running a label, part of the graft of A&R work. Another reason I wanted to release this compilation is I wanted to dispel the notion that has crept in over the past few years that Third Ear is a deep house imprint. I get sent a lot of imitative ‘deep house’ and want to get the word out that I want to be sent all kinds of electronic music. If I hear a track and want to release it by the time I get to hear it, but it's already been signed by someone else... so it goes. I'll follow that artist in future and maybe we'll work together at some point. A friend of mine introduced me to Wbeeza. She thought that he and I should meet. When we did finally talk at the end of a long night at a chill out, we had a long conversation about music, of course! During the course of the conversation, which included a detailed analysis of kick drum sounds and the importance of the kick drum in dance music, I was thinking 'I have to hear this guy's tunes'. A few days later I did, and here we are.

The label has grown into one of the most respected underground electronic imprints in the UK. If you could do it all again, is there anything you'd have done differently?

I would have pressed fewer records of some of the releases and more of others! You can never really know how many to press. Press too many and you're left with your money tied up in dead stock. Press too little and maybe just when people want the record, it's sold out and you're pulling your hair out in frustration waiting for the repressed stock to arrive, when invariably it doesn't sell as much as if you'd had the stock ready for the stores. Digital formats do not present this problem! With time, I've become much better at the financial side of running a label. I wish I'd been better at that much earlier.
Thanks a lot for your time, and all the best for the next 10 years!

^ The compilation In Yer Third Ear 01 is out on November 25th
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