Techno Tuesday: Christian Smith on maintaining career longevity [OP-ED]
Techno Tuesday is a feature on Dancing Astronaut documenting the culture of underground dance music. We’ll bring you exclusive interviews, tracks, and narratives from artists within the techno, tech house, and deep house world in an effort to shed light on some of the best talent outside the world of mainstream dance music.
Christian Smith is one who’s certainly “been around the block.” Beginning his career well over two decades ago, he and his Tronic imprint have since become heralded as powerhouses in the contemporary underground dance space. Smith began pioneering the tech-house space before the subgenre came to be defined as such, creating Tronic in 1994 as a home for both techno and house DJs in addition to his own pieces.
Despite being doubted at first, singles like “Goldrush” and others that were considered “too soft” by distributors soon became mega-hits played by the icons at the time like Carl Cox, solidifying his and Tronic’s powerful entrance into the electronic sphere by the turn of the millennium.
Any career in the arts comes with plenty of risks and moments that require extreme perseverance. In Smith’s case, he had to deal with plenty, from growing his career and label to something he could live off of, to almost losing it, and to resurrecting it back into the brand it was after a three-year hiatus. The Swedish native discusses the arduous growth path he’s taken over his long years as an industry figurehead, and outlines his plans for the future ahead of his stop at this year’s Lightning in a Bottle festival.
Read Christian Smith’s OP-ED below, and grab tickets to catch him at Lightning in a Bottle here.
I started producing house and techno in the early 90’s. Back then making music was very expensive as you needed a proper studio to make tracks. I had a small studio, started experimenting, and eventually got my own sound and style. My sound back then was mostly techno with house influences. I did a few releases on other labels but felt that my sound did not necessarily fit on them. So while being at university in Washington DC I decided to start my own label to have an outlet for my music and have full creative control. Back when I started Tronic, it was mostly just a hobby and I did not take it too seriously. The release schedule was very inconsistent and I was also very disorganized.
Then, a few years later I approached an English distribution company called Prime so that one company could do all the distribution for Tronic, rather than dealing with many separate distributors myself. When I spoke to Prime I pitched the idea that Tronic is a label that both techno and house DJ’s can play. This was long before the term ‘tech-house’ was coined. The distributor told me that this would not work because my tracks would be too soft for techno DJ’s yet too hard for house ones. However, they took the risk and took on Tronic for worldwide distribution and gave me a P&D (production & distribution) deal. This was around 1997 and was the start of when Tronic would become a known record label. The very first release that I did with my new distribution partner, Prime was Christian Smith & Jean Phillipe Aviance – “Goldrush”
This release did ok at first but then suddenly became a big hit selling over 10,000 records. People like Carl Cox, Dave Angel, and DJ Sneak, were hammering it out and this was one of the releases that helped launch my international DJ career. From that point I was super motivated and became much more passionate about regularly working for the label. Tronic was still kind of a hobby, but then I managed to produce some singles and choose artists whose music people liked a lot all over the world.
I had a friend do the artwork for me, I chose the music, and then sent the DAT tapes to my distributer. They took care of the rest. It was a fairly simple procedure. For the next few years from 1998-2005 Tronic became one of the leading housy techno labels. My DJ career grew really fast, and when I was not touring the world, I was producing music and working on the label. I moved from Stockholm to New York, and enjoyed living in the States. I became good friends with John Selway with whom I ended up producing over 20 singles, countless remixes and an album together.
Tronic was very popular everywhere from Japan, USA to Australia, and of course Europe. The label had a bunch of big releases with artists like Vince Watson, Bryan Zentz, Misstress Barbara and Petar Dundov. There even was a release by Adam Beyer & Joel Mull, called “Capacity Unknown”.
Then suddenly out of the blue, I found out that my distributor went bankrupt. This was a big shock to me, because everything was going so well, and I generally had no worries with a packed DJ schedule, and solid releases flowing on Tronic. Suddenly I did not have the means to continue my label. Thankfully I quickly found another distributer, ELP, in Germany, and the releases started coming out regularly again. However this was around 2005 and the vinyl sales started dropping quickly due to MP3 becoming popular. It did not take very long until ELP went bankrupt as well. It was really frustrating. I never cared much about the money, but for me it was more of a passion running the label. So when the second distributor went bust I was a bit jaded, and decided to take a break with Tronic, releasing on other labels, and touring full time as a DJ.
After a three-year hiatus from the label, I got a manager, and we re-launched Tronic in 2008. We re-launched with new artwork, digital through Beatport, and also vinyl. For the first time I had a team of people helping me and se set up a regular release schedule. We started by re-releasing a classic that John Selway I released in 1999 on Carl Cox’s Intec label called called ‘Move!’. I asked Steve Angello to remix it. This was long before he went EDM.
Since 2008 Tronic has had a very regular output if releases. I remixed a few classics including Carl Craig – “At Les” and Underworld – “Dark & Long” and we had artists building their profiles, and releasing albums as well. Artists including Wehbba, Anna, Dosem, Macromism and Eric Sneo have all contributed a good amount of releases throughout the past few years. I also released 3 artist albums on Tronic since 2008. My philosophy has always been fairly simple. If I like it and play it in my sets it qualifies for a release on the label. I think one of the main reasons why Tronic is still so successful over the years is the fact that I have always been very open minded when it comes to the music that is released on Tronic. I like everything between house and techno. Even though Tronic is mostly known as a techno label, I’m not shy to sometimes release a house single. People love the pigeonhole artists and labels and follow trends, and probably because of this Tronic might not be featured on a lot of the “hipster” sites on a regular basis. But I can honestly say that am really happy the way the label has evolved over the years. I have a great team that help me run the label, as well as loyal artists that keep submitting music for the label.
A few years ago I had a big problem my old label manager who stole over 2 years of royalty income from the label. That sucked big time, but we rebounded stronger than ever. Now my team is amazing, and we are kicking ass! Tronic is currently the 2nd highest selling techno label in the world. What makes me happy about this is that it never was my aim to have a top selling techno label. We are now up to release number 246 and receive around 100 demos a week. Time flies when you’re having fun. Quality control is very tough now, but this is imperative for any successful label no matter what style. I feel blessed that we have such a big fan base and it keeps growing. For me it’s about releasing the music that I am passionate about, but at the same time I am happy to see that people appreciate the variety and consistency of the label.
This year we will have 4 albums on the label, 2 compilations, and a bunch of single releases. Even though the traditional album concept has become somewhat dated and does not yield many sales, I believe it’s a great way for artists to evolve and push themselves to being more creative. It’s easy to do singles with the same style over and over, but it’s whole different ballgame producing a cohesive album.
Forthcoming this year we are working closely together on bigger projects with Drunken Kong, Victor Ruiz, and Kaiserdisco. And of course still working with the regulars and close friends like Wehbba. For me it’s important to constantly seek new talent, while at the same time not forgetting the people who have been loyal! We will also focus more on doing Tronic branded events around the world. We are planning on doing around 30-40 Tronic events in the next 12 months. It’s a lot of work to put together these events, but I find it very rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to showcase talent that might not normally get booked in bigger venues. And also, I’m not gonna lie, it’s tons of fun to party with your friends ;).