Clone boss Serge on why selling records isn’t so different to selling potatoes
By, Apr 27 2012
In anticipation of the Clone Records: Royal Oak x Clone Basement Series party at London’s Hidden on May 11, 2012, we decided to dig out our classic 2009 interview with label boss Serge. Find more info on the night, which features Serge, Untold, Gerd, Dexter and many more, here.
Serge is a busy man. As boss of Rotterdam’s Clone – not just a label, but a record store and distribution company as well – he’s spent 20 years working tirelessly to help make your record collection amazing.
Clone Records was founded in 1993, and really rose to prominence in the late 90s and early 00s for its fresh but reverential take on the classic sounds of Chicago house, Detroit techno, electro, disco and italo. Killer productions on the imprint from the likes of ADULT., Alden Tyrell, Duplex and Putsch ’79 were rooted in the past, but their very passion and attitude made them sound incredibly present, and unmistakeably Clone.
One of the label’s most important functions has been its curating of dance music’s heritage, both in releasing new work by older artists and in reissuing hard-to-find 12″s and albums from yesteryear. In 2004 Clone had the honour of putting out Grava 4, the final album by Drexciya, reissues of records by Drexciya, Dopplereffekt and related projects have followed. Meanwhile, the Clone Classic Cuts series provides modern listeners the chance to own high quality, properly-licensed 12″s of seminal fare by the likes of Tyree, Gay Cat Park and Oppenheimer Analysis, and little-known albums by such artists as Fred Ventura and Unit Moebius.
In spite of, or rather because of, its deep-seated appreciation for what’s gone before, Clone has always remained one step ahead of the game. Its output over the past decade has anticipated and in some cases precipitated worldwide vogues for minimal, electroclash, nu-disco and Detroit techno. So it came as something of a shock when, at the beginning of this year , Serge announced that the closure of the label: “In order to remain passionate about what we do, we feel we should not continue the label as it is…so we won’t.”
The dance music world duly mourned, celebrating Clone for its old-school values, originality and tireless commitment to quality. Tears flowed.
And then two months ago, pretty much out of the blue, Clone announced its return to the stage. Normal service would be resumed, but not exactly as before: the new-look Clone would take the form of various sub-series, designed for deeper exploration of certain sounds and aesthetics: Clone Loft Supreme, Clone West Coast, Clone Club, Clone Bassment, Clone Aqualong and Clone Jack For Daze. Evolution through fragmentation, or something.
Now was clearly an opportune time to call up Serge and talk about Clone as it was, as it is, and shall be. Why exactly did he retire the label? And why did he bring it back after a couple of months? He also fills us in on the history of the label and store, and why sometimes selling records isn’t so different to selling potatoes or second-hand cars.
“As a young kid you always like the stuff with the most energy.”
What set you on the path to founding Clone? Were there any particular people, parties, labels or moments that particularly influenced you in the early days?
“There wasn’t really clear trigger to starting the label, it just slowly evolved. In fact, everything we do, everything we’ve done, has just slowly evolved. There was no clear catalyst. I started putting out records shortly after I had done a couple of releases on other labels in the early 90s. Like a lot of other artists, I just thought, ‘Why not do it myself? Put some music out and just see how it goes…’ The main influence for me and my friends back then were the small labels coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York, and from the Netherlands; so basically we just did something that other people were doing as well. It wasn’t something new, we didn’t have big ideas about starting an “official” label; we just wanted to put out records so we could play our own music at parties and stuff…”
You mentioned that labels from the Netherlands were an influence. Any in particular?
“It wasn’t so much that we were influenced by other Dutch labels, rather that there were other people in the Netherlands doing a similar thing. And not just in the Netherlands, but also Belgium, Germany, the US. I think our influences were definitely more from the US than the Netherlands at that moment.”
Were you already a DJ before you heard the early Chicago and Detroit stuff? What did you listen to before that stuff hit?
“Slowly I got into disco and some early hip-hop stuff in the mid-80s, I also liked some more electronic stuff, some of the Belgian-wave kind of stuff like Front 242. At the same time I was really influenced by the black disco stuff coming from the US, some of the soul and R&B things as well, but mainly the uptempo dance stuff like disco. You know, as a young kid you always like the stuff with the most energy.
“When I first heard the acid house stuff it really blew me away.”
“I had begun to record and tape stuff at home – you know, like all kids do – and slowly that interest evolved and I started to go clubbing. One of my first clubbing experiences was in early ’88 with the first acid house, and when I first heard that stuff it really blew me away – it was like music from somewhere else. I went to one of the best places in Europe at that time, the Roxy club in Amsterdam, and it was basically the only place on the mainland at that time playing house music all night long. It was something completely different, so much energy and so different from everything else I knew.
“I’d already bought some records – I had some neighbours who were DJs and into more the scratching, DMC kind of thing. That was interesting but it wasn’t really my thing, and I only got the virus really dirty after I heard the first acid house and Chicago things and early Detroit stuff – which for me were all more or less the same thing, just abstract house music, techno music, the only thing you heard in early ’88. I probably heard some in ’87 too, but only on the radio; it wasn’t until ’88 that I experienced it in the club. Then I wanted to hear more of that music. In the same year I started playing in local clubs, spinning early dance stuff, a little bit of everything.”
What prompted you to open the Clone record store?
“Well, the label came before the record store. A friend of mine had a record store in the Hague, Hotmix, and that closed down and somehow left a big gap. Right at that time the harder, more commercial house stuff became really big in the Netherlands, and the more – I don’t know if I can call it pure – but the stuff that got me into music began to disappear.”
“That was basically my focus in the beginning: every record that I would sell would be something I’d want to have in my own collection.”
When was this?
“This was probably like ’93-’94. Gabba became really big, and then at the other end of the spectrum they had what’s known as “mellow house” in the Netherlands. You had two scenes, the hard scene and the mellow scene, and that was basically it. There was a small underground scene in and around the Hague and Rotterdam for acid parties and more experimental stuff, and that was the scene I was involved in then. The Hotmix store closed – I think end of ’94 or early ’95 – and there was no other record store concentrating on good dance music, the quality stuff made just for itself and not for money.
“I had some good connections in Germany – I was going there very often and going to all the record stores, so I was already bringing back lots of records for friends and people I knew. I started a small store with another friend in a really small town, the area where I came from, and after that we opened a small store in Rotterdam, within a skate/graffiti store. We had a small space, it was called Urban Unit, there was the skate store there and a guy selling spraycans for graffiti, a graphic designer, a hairdresser and then I was last coming in with the record store! That place was really, really underground and really small. I didn’t have a lot of money back then, so I started small and only stocked really strong records. The records I had there were the records that I would have in my own collection, because I would say to myself, ‘At least if I don’t sell it, I can have it for my own collection as a double-copy’ or whatever. So that was basically my focus in the beginning: every record that I would sell would be something I’d want to have in my own collection.
“After that period in the mid-90s I opened the store and some others opened up shortly after that – this was the late-90s. At this time there was a good scene, some good stores, a couple of good distributors, and also the underground became really lively again. Well, the scene was always alive in and around Rotterdam and The Hague but it became bigger. It was only for that one or two year period that there were no good stores, and it was impossible to get hold of good US imports at that time. It was really strange, because Holland’s always been good for dance music, but back then it felt dead.”
How did opening the store impact on the label?
“When I opened the store, we stopped doing the label. Because it was only a couple of people – myself and my friends – that were putting out the music, and at that time we didn’t have proper distribution. So we stopped putting out records and I focussed more on the record store, which did really well. We had customers from everywhere. We already had a small scene, and a good mail-order system, so it wasn’t like we started from zero, we already had a good thing going on; and I’d been in the music scene for some time. It was after two years of doing the store that we started up the label again, and putting out releases by people other than myself and friends, so then it became a little more serious. The label really picked up after that, and it had some synergy with the record store, and the mail-order we were doing, the DJing we did…”
How have you found the business side of things has changed over the years?
“The business side has become more difficult. Sometimes I say to my friends who are not in the music business who see me working a lot: the whole operation we have now, the amount of records we’re putting out and the whole system we have in the office and so on – if we’d had that like 10 years ago we would’ve been booming big-time, we would’ve been selling so many records at that moment. But it’s a different moment now; there are not so many local record stores any more, so there are fewer retail points. It’s obvious that record sales are slowing down, because the culture of buying records and becoming a DJ is different now. There are more people putting out music, there are more records coming out, the whole scene is more divided into sub-genres and scenes. Back then, if Underground Resistance put out a good record, everyone bought it; even the hard house DJs or the mellow house DJs or whoever. Now things are more divided: you’re a dubstep DJ or you’re a house DJ or a techno DJ or whatever. So if a record is little too whatever, you won’t buy it. It’s strange, but that’s how most young record-buyers think now. It’s become so much more of a niche market, which obviously makes it much harder.”
“I could be selling potatoes or second-hand cars. It’s the same thing.”
Which leads me to the big question. What caused you to “close down” the Clone label for that brief period earlier in 2009? Everyone was pretty surprised. And worried…
“If you do something just from your own personal experience, and you only reflect your personal taste, everything stays really personal. So now there’s a big scene, I know basically everything which is going on in the music scene, I know why certain artists are big, even if they’re not putting out quality stuff. I understand how the system works. I know why certain DJs are really big at certain times – I know how all the tricks work, and why a DJ like Tiesto is big, I totally understand that. With all that knowledge it makes it much harder just doing your own personal thing: it becomes like, ‘We have that kind of following so if we put out a record which is that or that they will probably say it’s a little bit too retro, or a little bit too modern, or techno-ish, or too easy’ or whatever.
“All the other things – like promoting your music, keeping your company going, making sales – they’re just not fun, it’s just work. I could be selling potatoes or second-hand cars. It’s the same thing, having the knowledge: OK this classy car is going to do well with this kind of smart crowd, so I have to get a more fancy showroom because it’s a classy car, or if I have some cheap second-hand car I do it a different way, I’m trying to attract a different kind of customer. It’s just pleasing people, giving people the goods they want to have. And that’s not why I’m in the music business: I’m in the music business because I enjoy music. Music is a strange thing but it can touch certain things in human beings, and that’s the whole reason.
“Having run Clone for 15 years, it came to this point where I had to make a decision: I could what other labels have done, make it a “proper” company. For example, Warp Records made itself a company – it’s a different label to what it started out as, you know. These days they put out bands, and they promote the bands as goods, they hire marketing agencies, they hire a stylist and for the singer from the band they get the most fancy clothes. They style them, and they look like every other fool on the street, but they still have designer clothes and everything is thought of. So I could go into that direction, and try to release big-selling records and CDs, but that’s not my personal taste, I don’t care about bands playing at big festivals or whatever. The other option, then, was to simply quit the label…”
Did you feel Clone had become in any way stale, or pigeonholed, or…?
“One of the things that kind of bothered me is that a lot of people call Clone an electro label, or a disco label, or a whatever kind of a label. I come from a background where everyone was listening to everything – in the beginning, at the good clubnights, you heard the most obscure underground acid tracks and beside that you heard, I don’t know, Rebel MC, or Doug Lazy with a hip-house tune that was in the charts, or Tyree, ‘Turn Up The Bass’. It had life, it was more versatile. It didn’t matter if you had a good techno record or house record or hip-hop or disco record, everything was possible on the same night. Coming from that background means it’s always been normal for me to buy all different styles, no matter what it is.
“With the label we went through a couple of waves and developments. We started off with minimal techno, which at that time was very much the new thing, then we had a wave of some electronic stuff and some acid stuff. After that electronic stuff we went back to the electro beats, then we had the whole thing with nu-disco. Basically we were going through all our influences from the early years, and we made our own thing out of that. Somehow that triggered a lot of people to do the same thing and go through the same different stages. I believe now that we’ve gone through all the stages of trying new things. The nu-disco sound has already been here for five years, it’s not ‘nu’ anymore.
“I come from a background where everyone was listening to everything.”
“There are no new frontiers in the music scene now; everything you hear now is a combination or a hybrid between old styles, nothing new like acid exists anymore. I think acid and reggae were the last couple of things that were totally different to anything we knew before. Imagine living in a small place in the 70s or 80s and only hearing the radio and suddenly one day you hear reggae coming out of the speakers! Or in the 80s you hear acid music: I remember sitting on the bus with my Walkman, I had like self-mixed acid tapes, and the girls sat behind me would be like, ‘What is that, like, bird music?’ – because they could only hear the high ‘tweet’. Something like that – that experience of hearing music you’ve never heard before – you can’t have that anymore because you’ve already heard everything. So we don’t have to look for something new anymore, there’s like a whole archive of music styles and influences we can use.
“That’s also what we decided to do with the label. If you were putting out a more commercial or accessible thing, then the people who were only into the disco records we were putting out would say ‘Hey, what are they doing, that’s not the label as we know it.’ People who were really into the Detroit techno stuff like Drexciya and Duplex, they were always wondering, ‘I always like the techno stuff and electro they put out but I don’t really understand the disco stuff’. So it was just a bit weird, because different people had very different expectations of the label. Somehow you always end up feeling those expectations, and you can’t please everyone. Or you just start, like, a straightforward techno label, which is not something that I want to do.
“So I thought, OK, I’ll have these small sub-series, which also gives me more space to go deeper into each genre and also start working with newer people who maybe aren’t that developed yet, who maybe don’t quite have the high production skills as some of the artists we used to work with like Alden Tyrell, Dexter and those guys. Just people who have those same honest feelings and reasons to make music – that’s basically more important than having production skills.
There are both commercial and creative advantages to doing things this way…
“It probably makes it more clear: if we put out the Clone Club series, people who are into dark electro stuff probably don’t even have to try the Clone Club series, because that’s proper club music. If you don’t like one series, we just stop it after two or three weeks and we start something new again – it’s also just fun thinking of sub-labels, and images and series and things like that..[laughs]
“The Clone Club series has a release by Mina Jackson, who’s a really skilled singer , she’s done a lot of gospel stuff and a lot of collaborations with Mike Dunn from Chicago. They made a track which was so good – a really killer song – but they didn’t have a label for it, they were just going to put it out digitally, and I said, ‘No, this has to come out on vinyl!’ We probably have another one coming on the Club series, but we just don’t schedule anything, we just put it out, and if we have something good we put it out straightaway, and if it doesn’t fit on any of the series that we have at the moment, we’ll just start a new one for it. That’s always been the way of the label: we don’t schedule things, we just put things out, see how it goes. We don’t say, ‘OK, this is a “big” track, we’ll schedule that in for next summer’ – if we like something, we want to press it onto vinyl and we can have it out there in four weeks!”
“I think acid and reggae were the last couple of things that were totally different to anything we knew before.”
You must have an efficient set-up in order to turn round a release in four weeks!
“It’s all local, everything is really close by. We have studios in the same block as us, so the pre-mastering is basically done in-house. The manufacturing plant is in the Netherlands, so if we send something there we have it back in not too much time. Things are pretty fast. The designer is working in-house tpp. I don’t think there are many labels that can put out records as fast as us, because we do everything ourselves.”
Will the Frantic Flowers and Frustrated Funk sub-labels have a part to play in the new-look Clone stable?
“Frantic Flowers we don’t know yet. We may just run it as a separate series, or we might just do the Clone Bassment Series, there’s some overlap there. Frustrated Funk I used to do with Klen, one of the guys who has worked at Clone since the beginning; we decided that he’s now going to run it on his own. Frantic Flowers – which I also do with him – we’re not sure about yet either.”
What about Clone Classic Cuts?
“Well, we put out the [Netherlands techno legends] Unit Moebius CD a couple of months ago. One of the things I wasn’t enjoying was the whole CD distribution thing, and CD sales. When the Unit Moebius CD came out we’d literally just stopped working with our UK and French, US and German distributors, so it was really bad timing.
“But we will continue to put out Classic Cuts, the same way as we do with the other series. And we won’t really focus on albums like the Unit Moebius or the Fred Ventura. We’ll see how it goes. The problem with the Classic Cuts is, there are just so many bootlegs these days. It’s just not worth it sometimes: I really had a lot of work getting two 12”s licensed, and shortly after I licensed them they got bootlegged. It got to the stage where it didn’t make sense to get a proper license for a 12” if you know that a bootleg label has already sold 1000 copies or something.”
Clone has always had a special relationship with Drexciya and Dopplerffekt, releasing the former’s last album, re-issuing a lot of their stuff, and continuing to release new material from Gerald Donald. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to work with them? How did it begin?
“I think it began with Grava 4, the Drexciya album. There’s not much about our relationship I want to share with others; it’s kind of a personal thing I have with them. I mean you know the attitude and aesthetics of Drexciya and Doppleffekt, and they’re not very public in their ways of doing things. But there is a new project coming out, on one of the new series, Clone Aqualong, called Der Zyklus – that’s helmed by Gerald Donald, or Heinrich Mueller as he calls himself these days.”
Do you still enjoy DJing?
“The DJing thing was always one of the main influences for me – to stay connected to things that are happening, because you see what’s going on on the dancefloor, where people are really responding to music. And it gives me a lot of pleasure: because it’s also one of the most intense ways you listen to and experience music. At least for me, because I’m much more into the music when I’m DJing than when I’m on the dancefloor myself, or when I’m listening in my car…It’s kind of essential to me to have a couple of gigs every month, and it’s always a good way of trying out new songs and seeing how things work.”
“It’s a good thing that all music is available at the moment – no matter whether you pay for it or not, you can find it.”
Do you feel like there’s a new generation of younger producers worth getting excited about?
“I think there’s definitely a whole new generation. There’s people who have been in the scene for 10 or 20 years and they’re asking themselves, ‘Have I been in this game too long? Am I doing this for fun still or have I just become a professional?’. But there’s a lot of newer, younger artists feeling the opposite. I think that’s one of the good things about us changing things at Clone, because a lot of young artists are trying to re-invent the wheel, and I could say, ‘Well guys, I’ve seen all this before’ but if those guys are doing it for sincere or honest reasons than it’s all good, because I enjoy those songs as well, they remind me of things that gave me a lot of pleasure back in the day.
“Take for example the Clone Jack For Daze series with Neville Watson and Steve Summers – it’s nothing new, and some people say, ‘Ah, I already know that…’ – but it’s great. Here the other day in Rotterdam one of our guys was DJing, and there were two 15-year-old guys completely new into dance music, and one of the guys said to the other, ‘Hey man, I found something like totally new, it’s called jacking music!” [laughs]. And of course kids who are 14 or 15 years old they don’t know that stuff, and it’s totally natural that they should be able to learn about in this way.”
The internet has obviously made music more accessible for young people, regardless of where they live…
“Thanks to the internet, people can experience music anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you live, you can find the most obscure songs – and those songs by small artists who don’t even know that their music is on the internet can have a big influence on certain people. That’s a nice thing – it’s also strange, but it’s nice.
“It’s a good thing that all music is available at the moment – no matter whether you pay for it or not, you can find it. It can give your life a strange twist, if something has a big impact on you. For example, Drexciya now is impossible to find on record so you must look for it. So I can imagine a teenager now, when they hear Drexciya for the first time, is experiencing a whole new sound. That’s why I want to keep doing this – because certain people might only just have heard about, I don’t know, Putsch 79, and they think, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ and then they discover a whole new world and they discover other nu-disco acts and then they discover the old disco stuff, and so on, and then they find out about Drexciya – so it’s good to leave the connections to quality stuff open; people won’t get into it if you just focus on one thing, and definitely not if you focus only on making money or getting into the hype press. The hype press just wants a fashion scene. Just like that I can name 20 artists that has been called the New Thing and never been heard of again, and 20 small, underground artists who’ve always been ignored by the hype press but who are still around, still doing their thing and influencing people now. And that’s much more valuable than being the next big thing and grabbing some quick cash and turning the passion for music into a mere job.”
“I do need that record store experience. It’s a social thing, but also being in a record store can give you some extra experience, talking about music, extra information, and tips.”
Do you go record-shopping much anymore?
“It’s a little strange, because I totally enjoy finding good new stuff, but I get so much supply at the Clone store so that pretty much all the good music I hear is coming to me. I still do a lot of buying for the record store and distribution, that something I want to remain attached to. I still go online on my own record store and listen to music and buy music via my own mail order service! [laughs] It sounds silly, but during the week I don’t have that much time, so there are still records which I didn’t buy in for the store, so I go online like the rest of the customers and listen to the records and ask the guys to put them aside and I’ll pick it up as soon as possible or get it delivered. So I’m the same kind of buyer as the rest of the customers!
“But I must say, if I go to London or any other city, I don’t really have the energy to go record-buying anymore. To be honest, I really like the shop experience, I like to hang out on a Friday night in my own record store and just talk about music and drink a beer or a coke – that’s a lot of fun, but if I find out about a good record I just order it for the store and if I can’t order it I just go on Discogs, or Gemm or Ebay and buy it from there. So there’s no reason for me to go to some second-hand store in London and go through looking for some record which I probably won’t find anyway. I just go online!
“That’s the luxury of the internet, and I still get the social experience in my own store and a couple of other stores that I go to in Holland. I mean, if I only shopped online, it wouldn’t be enough. I do need that record store experience. It’s a social thing, but also being in a record store can give you some extra experience, talking about music, extra information, and tips – even some records I’ve heard where I didn’t like and someone’s said, ‘Go on, you should have another listen, it’s really good’ and they’ll be right. If you’d been shopping online you would never have bought that record…”
Catch Serge and the Clone crew in London on May 11, 2012. Tickets and info here.