Name: Steve Bug
Occupation: DJ, Producer, Label Founder of Poker Flat Recordings
Recommendations: La cage, je resterai en vie by Sandra Chevrier. I’m a big fan in general, but I feel most connected to her work from 2013-2016. This is one of my favorite paintings of hers. I wish I could have it on my wall.
"Levels (live at Capitol Studios)" by The Robert Glasper Trio. It’s part of the Covered album that was recorded live at the Capitol Studio in 2014. The whole album is very beautiful, but to me this one stands out from the rest. It’s a beautiful moody piano cover of Levels by Bilal. It also features some awesome jazz drums. It was released on Blue Note.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Steve Bug of Poker Flat Recordings, visit his facebook profile or the website of Poker Flat for current releases, background information and lots of music.
When did you start with your own label - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started my first record label, Raw Elements, together with Tobias Lampe in ’96. The idea was to create a platform for music that I personally liked, as well as to surround myself with artists that had a similar vision. In ’99 we started Poker Flat Recordings and after 3 years of learning a lot, we realised we wanted to do it slightly differently. Also, the sound had slightly changed despite the roots of house and techno remaining. Whilst Raw Elements took inspiration from the early Chicago House sound, I’d say Poker Flat has a stronger connection to the sound of Detroit, which might be because I moved to Berlin the same year Poker Flat Recordings started.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as a label curator and the transition towards your own approach? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Well, when you start to make music, I think you try and find out how other tracks have been produced. You analyse sounds and rhythms, maybe even trying to re-create them. This helps you understand certain things, but because you were not necessarily able to come up with something similar at the time, you may end up accidentally creating something different/new, forming your own sound as the years progress.
Unfortunately nowadays, due to all the sample packs that immediately appear after something becomes successful, people are able to just put the parts together and come up with something that sounds basically the same as their favourite track. That not only leads to hundreds of tunes that sound very similar, but it also doesn’t allow you to build a sound of your own. It’s easy to jump from one hyped genre to another. But you’ll probably never learn the roots of really creating a track from scratch. It’s more like putting the parts of a puzzle (created by someone else) together instead of painting a whole new picture, which can even reflect your personality.
What were your main label-related challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
With Poker Flat we had an excellent start. The Double Action EP including Loverboy was a big success and it raised the bar for all releases that preceded it. We were mostly working with friends, so the label sound was progressing with their own personal development. Back then it was vinyl only, and the market was not oversaturated so it felt simpler. Now there has been a transition into digital, way more music is released and less people are buying it due to streaming services and illegal downloads. It’s much harder to even get heard by other artists now, since they are getting bombarded with hundreds of promos every day. Besides that you have to think about social media campaigns and, and, and … It is a lot of fun, and keeps it interesting, but it’s definitely more work for less money.
How do you see the role of labels in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing?
I’m trying to stay out of the creative process of others’ music production. It is rare that I feel the need to ask for changes in a track. Helping to put together a release, single or album; choosing remixes etc, that’s a part I like to play.
In general we try to give artists room to breathe. We are usually looking for longevity in our relationships, so we want them to grow with us.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the buyers, your own demands in terms of quality?
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the music-, music-PR- and music-journalism landscape? How do they affect labels in general and your own take on running a label in particular? What role does social media play for your approach?
With the countless labels, artists and releases nowadays it is more difficult than ever to get people to listen to your track. There is a small amount of influential magazines that have a monopoly on the industry. They have a big influence over what’s going on in the clubs, and they prefer to support things that are already at the top of their game because they think this maintains customer returns, as well as fresh and upcoming talents and labels, as this helps retain their credibility. Everything in between has a difficult standing to get a feature or even a review for a release.
About the role of the social media for labels, I’m not 100% sure. When you don’t see your label as a brand, there is not much you can talk about. Most things you post will not get much reach due to the filters being used, so you have to be very smart about what, when and how you post.
However, in the end I’m not sure this affects any of the sales or click-throughs on any streaming platform. To me social media becomes more and more a closed circle where it is all about likes, and the more you get the better, but it might only feed the social media and not help to sell any more music. If we were to talk about any other product I would see things differently, but to me electronic music and social media don't seem like a great fit. I mean, is a DJ who has more likes, a better DJ than the one who has less likes? Is a track that had lots of likes, played more by DJs? Ok, a DJ with plenty of followers is more likely to get booked these days, and maybe even bring more people to the event. But again, that doesn’t make them a good DJ.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Machines are great at being precise, something I personally really like in electronic music. While in other music the human feel to rhythm or sounds played often makes the difference. Humans can also triumph with emotions over machines, at least until now … Personally I sometimes like to just play around and see what I, or the machines come up with. A lot of times little accidents can create something great. Sometimes working with a sequencer can be helpful as well to come up with something that you’d never had come up with by simply playing notes on a keyboard. Generally sequencing is something that allows you to create a whole track by yourself, rather than having to get a band together. To me working with machines is great, and I definitely prefer hardware over software in most cases.