How Toolroom has stood the test of time in an ever-changing landscape [Mark Knight Interview]
Eons from Toolroom’s humble beginnings inside its head honcho Mark Knight’s family toolshed in 2003, the independent label this year celebrates 15 years of operation from the height of the dance music hierarchy.
Toolroom has proven its incontrovertible ability to remain relevant in a highly forgetful sonic age. It’s established itself as a “house music haven,” clocking in dozens of enduring, club-ready releases under its belt from EDM elders like deadmau5, Tiësto, David Guetta, and Mark Knight himself, in addition to hosting the No. 1 tech-house playlist on Spotify and attracting over 13 million weekly listeners to its weekly radio show. The label’s success can be largely attributed to its founder’s unequivocal receptiveness to the chronic ebb and flow of the industry. Presently sitting at the top spot for Beatport’s highest-selling label of all time, Toolroom was years ago one of the first to sign on with the once-revelatory music hub.
“[Beatport] has been a really core partner of ours since day one because they could see what was happening with vinyl,” Knight said. “We’ve always been very adaptive in that respect. That’s a great thing about having a smaller company as opposed to a massive one: you can move very quickly to accommodate for changes within the industry.”
However Knight, who is himself Beatport’s second highest-selling individual artist of all time (behind deadmau5), was able to foresee a vital transition in the industry that Beatport’s model fell short on accommodating for: the move from the “war for downloads” to streaming.
“We said ‘Ok let’s embrace what the new movement is in streaming and make sure we’re very well-versed and ahead of that.’ And thus, it’s become a major part of our business now.”
More recently, Knight has been able to hone his long-accrued production pedagogy to not only breathe unprecedented fiscal life into Toolroom, but provide a service for promising producers in their organic stages who are looking for hands-on, tried-and-true methods: Toolroom Academy. The Academy is a suite of production courses taught by Knight himself, as well other seasoned Toolroom talents like Umek and D. Ramirez who have achieved “bonafide international careers.” Toolroom is the first of its kind to offer such in-depth electronic music education; and while Knight says streaming is still the label’s main breadwinner, Toolroom Academy is “hot on its heels.”
“If you really want to learn how to do the production thing you can just go on YouTube and find 25 people who can teach you how to put reverb on the snare,” Knight said. “But if you want to learn how to do things that are specially tailored to a niche sound by people in that respect, there aren’t any other courses out there like that.”
Following his cultivated intuition in all Toolroom endeavors, Knight says he keeps A&R especially close to the chest. While navigating a dance scene that Knight plainly describes as, “clogged up with mediocrity,” he has managed to forge an uncanny repertoire, including not only house heroes like deep, nu-disco favoring Amtrac and back-to-basics, Chicago house wielder, Weiss, but also tech masters like Umek and Knight’s own protégé, Adrian Hour.
Knight describes Hour, a young, burgeoning techno talent out of Buenos Aires, as the emblematic Toolroom artist. With a deeper profundity in his voice, Knight reckons Hour is the greatest young talent he has worked with in the last decade, noting his unparalleled, “ideas, sound design, and sound choice arrangements.”
“He’s one of those guys who I wish had arrived 10 years earlier when the emphasis truly was on making great records.”
When scouting artists, Knight is looking for talent—plain and simple—much less so behind the decks, and almost entirely so in the studio. At the bottom of Knight’s checklist is social presence—which he sees as an all too common “facade” many acts use to compensate for lack of production ability in the current dance music climate.
“Show me you can write records that stand the test of 10 or 15 years. That’s what I’m looking for. I can see through everything else,” Knight said.
Reflecting on the dance scene in its more embryonic stages, Knight points out that the only recognizable form of social media for producers like himself in his come up was Beatport, which he accredited as the “only true medium for giving you a career,” back then. Now, Knight describes modern EDM at large as the “antithesis” of what those on the forefront at the time like himself, Steve Angello, and Sebastian Axwell intended it to be.
“Now the whole thing has become so dilated with other ways of getting people’s attention,” Knight said. “It was always about rebelling against the pop model, and it’s a shame that that has crept into our industry.”
Looking inward, Knight sees his own artistic identity as one that is “intrinsically linked” with that of Toolroom. It’s easy to see how the Grammy-nominated artist views his own sound as a “beacon” of what the label is working towards as a whole, given the fact that he’s hardly stepped outside of it to release his work since its formation. Many of Knight’s own Toolroom releases—including his remake of Laurent Gaurnier’s “Man With The Red Face,” a collab with Toolroom-fostered Funkagenda, and his massive tech house track with D. Ramirez and Underworld, “Downpipe” —are among the label’s most pronounced, club-classic anthems.
In celebration of their watershed 15 year mark, Toolroom has put together a massive, 70-track compilation album, accompanied by a 15-city tour, making stops in hotbeds all over Europe and North America. Knight says the anniversary is anything but “retrospective,” and more meant to embody where the label is now, as well as where it’s going. That’s why Knight decided the album should be brimming with not just Toolroom trustees, but fresh faces, too.
“We wanted to use this album to say, ‘These are the producers that are Toolroom,’” Knight said.
In a landscape where it’s no longer feasible for a record label to thrive solely on its musical output, Toolroom, now more profitable than ever, has made all the right moves to diversify. However, Knight incepted his house-torical brainchild, not on a mission to make millions, but with the same immaterial, unadulterated passion that has continually catapulted him to the top of the charts over the years, and to entrance crowds from every continent.
“We wanted to have a place where every record you released was a get out of jail free card,” Knight explains in regards to his incipient vision. “Say you were playing a gig, and it wasn’t going as well as you planned. You pull out a Toolroom record, and it would reignite the party.”
Isn’t that what dance music has always been about?
Featured Image credit: Pete Griffiths