CHICAGO’S GUIDANCE RECORDINGS
BY J.C. TRIPP
Like many Chicago-based labels, house music was a catalyst for the launch of Guidance Recordings. But unlike the now-defunct house labels that never moved beyond the genre Guidance charted an adventurous course from its inception. Releasing pioneering compilations of dub, down tempo and lounge the label rapidly expanded far beyond its original deep-house offerings. And that continual quest for new sounds and emerging artists has made Guidance one of the most dynamic and respected labels in the world of underground dance and electronic music.
Guidance Recordings was founded in 1996 by Ivan Pavlovich, Rob Kouchoukos, and Sid Stary. All shared a passion for house music and were involved in its nascent recording industry. Pavlovich and Kouchoukos met while running operations at the legendary Cajual, Prescription and Relief labels. At the time a new wave of producers were expanding upon the Chicago house music blueprint—adding state of the art production techniques and a cosmopolitan edge to art form. Guidance embraced the globalization of electronic music, assembling a diverse and talented roster of artists from across Europe, the UK, and North America.
The label released its first two singles, Free Energy “Happiness” and Projekt: PMs vocoded house classic “When the Voices Come” in May 1996. It followed with a string of timeless twelve inches that helped launched the careers of house music legends such as: Austin “Abacus” Bascom, Deep Sensation, Blueboy, Fresh and Low, Kevin Yost, and Chicago’s very own Glenn Underground, prompting Muzik Magazine to proclaim Guidance “the best new house label in the world” in its 1997 year end issue.
Although Guidance initially made its mark in the industry on the strength of its deep house singles, the label’s goal has always been to release a diverse spectrum of soulful urban electronic music encompassing but not limited to house, dub, downtempo, hip hop, lounge, electro and world influenced sounds. All three of the label’s founding partners came of age in club culture during the late 1980′s when DJ’s regularly spun rock, reggae, hip hop, house, freestyle, electro and techno all in the same set. It’s in that spirit of diversity that Guidance carries on.
Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Blueboy’s “Remember Me”, Guidance has successfully launched Mundial Muzique, Midnight Express, and Hi Fidelity House, Dub, and Lounge compilation imprints. This foray into the CD compilation market proved to be a crucial phase in the label’s expansion, exposing the Guidance sound to a wider music buying audience beyond the confines of DJ culture and paving the way for the label’s transition into a full scale record company dedicated to artist development.
Over the years, Guidance has been very fortunate to have a number of the acts on its roster grow with the label and evolve from DJ?s producing the odd one off single into versatile artists capable of releasing engaging full length albums. The year 2000 marked the release of the label’s first proper artist album, A:xus “Soundtrack for Life” produced by Toronto’s Austin Bascom. In early 2001, Guidance followed suit with “Doubts and Convictions” the masterful debut album from Marseille, France based trio the Troublemakers.
Refusing to rest on its laurels, the label has continued to keep the quality level high, delivering the sterling sophomore album “Numero Deux” from Milan based duo, The Dining Rooms; the debut full-length of Nuspirit Helsinki, a multi-talented collective of local DJs producers and musicians that ascended to the forefront of the European nu-jazz scene; Norwegian folk electronica trio, Flunk’s stylish synth pop love affair “For Sleepyheads Only” and Caia’s “The Magic Dragon” a captivating album of far east inspired electronica from Andy Cato of Groove Armada.
In an increasingly challenging industry Guidance has branched out, licensing tracks to television programs like “Six Feet Under” and tapped into the burgeoning video game market, compiling the soundtrack and companion soundtrack album for the popular Play Station 2 game Smuggler’s Run, and placing songs from the Guidance catalog on Midnight Club 2 and Grand Theft Auto III. With last year’s signing of Bent, Nottingham, England’s undisputed champions of leftfield dance music, as well as exciting new artists such as Seattle’s Young Circle and Tennessee’s Skyway 7, the label’s future is looking positive. Add to that a strategic partnerships with companies such as E Music and Apple’s I-Tunes store and Guidance are posed to thrive in the digital era.
Guidance’s cluttered office located in a non-descript building in Chicago’s West Loop might be anti-climatic for an article in, say, Wallpaper magazine. But clearly it’s all about the music and Guidance makes no pretense about it. It’s a cold spring Friday afternoon and things seem pretty guiet at the office, with just two of Guidance’s “family” members in presence, founding principle Ivan Pavlovich and operations manager Tony Mesones. With the Bent LP playing in the background, we sat down to talk about Guidance Recordings, the Chicago scene and the music industry.
JC Tripp: From the start it seems like Guidance has been on a dub and spiritual kind of vibe.
Ivan Pavlovich: Even from the start there was always one song on the e.p. that was different, it wasn’t straight deep house. As we’ve grown older and our tastes have matured, we’ve gone from more club oriented music to more down tempo, a lot of orchestration, just a more mature sound I think. Music we can listen to at home, not having to go out to clubs and bang our heads against the wall. But Tony will still do that but he does that for fun (laughter).
Tony Mesones: Yes, to diversify the catalogue as well, you know, in the long run.
JC: Are you, in terms of genres of music, are into any broken beat or is it primarily down tempo?
Ivan: Down tempo. I think the problem when you deal with broken beat is that you’re talking about 2,000 people in the world who are into broken beat and you’re only dealing with these people. The only people who understand it are the people who are in it.
Tony: To make the scene, you are closing it off. Also, it’s a West London thing. The thing about broken beat shows that I’ve been too, I’ve noticed when I went and saw Dego, everybody stands and dances in the same place. It doesn’t get crazy.
Ivan: But, we’re not downtempo. In the beginning we were just trying to do quality music, whatever appealed to us, you know? So, it wasn’t about classification or anything, it was like “do we like this on its own. Do we just like this on its own.
Tony: And can we do something with it, you know?
JC: What were some of your first projects.
Ivan: Josh Michaels, who’s since moved to San Francisco, did the first release. Some of our big 12” artists at the beginning, we had the Glenn Underground’s, the Kevin Yost’s, Larry Heard. Just really pushing the deep house sound. And at the time things were getting a little harder and we just wanted to bring it back to deep house.
JC: Your roster is very international now.
Ivan: I think it always was. Somebody asked me this the other day, ‘do you only sign Chicago artists?’ And, we only have 2 Chicago artists and they’re not even in Chicago. We had like 3 or 4, but Glenn Underground’s the only one who did an album for us. We really don’t work with that many people from Chicago, not by choice, that’s just the way it worked out.
JC: So, it’s not about Chicago artists, it’s about wherever the material comes from?
Ivan: We just started gettting projects from overseas and they snowballed. It’s a weird thing, you go territory to territory. You get an album or some tracks from a couple of French artists and all of a sudden you get 40 demos in that territory. And then in Scandanavia the same thing happens. You do a couple of things and all of a sudden it’s a flood. I mean, we may as well be a Scandanavia label now. (laughter)
JC: Well, you’re more like a European label in the sense of what you’re representing. Do you get that comparison?
Tony: Yeah, I think it’s an easy comparison to make, a natural association. It doesn’t bother us, if that’s the question.
JC: You have at least two very successful compilation series, High Fidelity Lounge and High Fidelity Dub Sessions. That’s a big part of your operation.
Ivan: Yes. I guess there are three levels of operations: you have the twelve-inches, which we’re now relegating to promote artist albums, with remixes. And sometimes to test out new artists. And then you have the artist albums and the compilations. I think they all are equally important.
Tony: They all help each other out in some way.
JC: And how do your compilations come together conceptually?
Ivan: It’s just a matter of somebody coming up with a concept that can be spaced out over a series. With the new “Star Gazing”, Tony just kind of came up with it and hopefully we can carry that over through a number of volumes. That’s always important.
JC: Do you think there are too many compilations out there now?
Ivan: It’s definitely tough to set yourself apart in the compilations. If we hadn’t started the lounge series years back when there were just a couple of chillout lounge compilations and the market was really open for it. I don’t think we’d be doing it anymore. It wouldn’t be worth it because the sales drop.
JC: But you pioneered that in the States.
Tony: Yeah, luckily we were there at the beginning, you know, especially for the US. Because without that it really wouldn’t be worth doing it.
Ivan: I think “Star Gazing” is a brand new concept unto itself.
Tony: Synth-pop but a little bit edgier.
Ivan: A little bit edgier, a little bit folktronicish. But I don’t see many compilations like that out there.
JC: It’s not in the club realm at all then?
Tony: No, it’s more of an electronic-rock vibe, right? Stuff like Flunk, Telepop, Les Rythmes Digitales, that kind of vibe. I haven’t seen a compilation that kind of devotes itself to that genre yet.
JC: I want to talk about some of your specific artists, firstly with Nu Spirit Helsinki. Do you typically look to develop artists or do you go with one record and see how it goes?
Ivan: The hope is to be able to develop them. Up until know it’s been really tough for us because we’re always doing first time artists. So, we’re really breaking them and then having to wait for the second album to sell.
Tony: As a record label, you really have to look toward developing the artist. There’s all of this time and money and energy into breaking them. If you have nothing to follow up with then it really hurts.
Ivan: You’re just getting your feet wet with the first, and then the second time. The Nu Spirit Helsinki album resonated.
JC: It’s an awesome album. Too bad radio couldn’t pick up on that.
Ivan: Yeah, you know in a lot of instances I think “this would be great for R&B radio” but it’s a very “European” album, I guess.
Tony: They’re doing a lot of shows in London now and they’re really starting to catch up. That’s an album that is going to take a long time to get to the point where it’s understood.
Ivan: I think it’s just harder to understand, it’s not an easy album to get. You’re going to have to really sit with it and that’s why it’s talking so long. Which is great, because that album is going to be around 10 years from now.
JC: It’s definitely got a classic feel.
Ivan: It doesn’t date itself. Those guys are amazing musicians and producers. They are perfectionists.
JC: In terms of breaking an artist, what is your strategy?
Ivan: The strategy is to sign really good artists and hope for the best (laughs). It depends, it varies from artist to artist.
Tony: And there’s the twelve-inch thing and see if we get the response.
Ivan: It depends, from artist to artist. It depends on what kind of artist they are and what their abilities are. Some people can’t DJ or tour live, and you’ve got to figure out some other way to break them. Maybe it’s like the Dining Rooms. Maybe instead of bringing them over for a tour, maybe you just do a lot of film and TV licenses and try and get the word out through that. Another artist we’re looking at signing has an amazing live show, so the focus would be to bring them over and do a tour.
Tony: As a label, we’ve been making a push to try to get a national tour together. The difficulty is that our artists are overseas. Now we’re making the push, we’re gettting the buzz where the audience wants to see and hear them in the states. For example, flunk, which will be touring in the fall. It’s new territory for us here at Guidance.
Ivan: Yes, well it’s a live tour and that’s tough. The problem with Nu Spirit Helsinki is you’re talking about 12 people. That doesn’t include sound guys, technicians, etc. You can’t bring 12 people over from Europe and have a shitty show, so you’ve got to have these other people, you know?
Tony: It’s more hurtful to have a bad show than it is not to do a show. It’s cost prohibitive: you’ve 12 people, we’re a small label here. I’m sure the response would be great if we could get them over here and there would be a demand to see them. But if they keep doing more shows overseas and maybe there will be a buzz and we can do something.
Ivan: We don’t have radio here like they do overseas. You have to use alternate methods of marketing bands, things like video. Very few electronic artists have been able to get on MTV. What’s cool are things like Cornerstone Player, Res magazine has a DVD with a lot of electronic artists. So, you have to look at those options to spread the word.
Tony: There are alternate avenues. We don’t get much radio play but we do with stations like KCRW. There are certain tastemaker stations that have been good to us.
Ivan: It’s this grass-roots kind of fight to find the best means of exposure for your artist and figuring out how to make that work for you.
JC: You have a very strong graphic image with your packaging. It’s part of what attracted me from the start.
Tony: We try to make it a definitive statment like with our lounge series. If you’re talking about marketing that first impression is so important. How do you get somebody to go towards this CD? That’s why the Ultra releases have done so well, or the Naked look. And we’re doing it a little differently but we’ve got some great artists creating work for us.
Ivan: I think we’re getting better with the art work. There were a couple in there that just snuck by (laughs).
JC: Getting back to the music, do you put people together and say ‘hey, I’ve got this concept’.
Ivan: Rarely. Mostly we’re talking about finished product. Where it’s developing an artist, meaning with the 12-inches, the whole farm league thing. You keep putting them out and it’s like ‘wow, this is what’s working’, giving them feedback, working with them on that end. But not really starting from zero, where you’re like ‘OK, I’m going to take this person and this person and put them together and lock them in a hotel room together for a weekend and then we’ll have an album’. We did that once with a relase called “Urban Renewal”, which was spoken word. So, that was the only time where we actually put people together. We took Chicago spoken word artists and sent them to New York to work with Rahzel . Different things like that, we called King Britt and said ‘can you and Ursula Rucker deliver something for this project.’ But beyond that it’s really up to the artists.
M: Do you have certain clubs that you do things with?
Tony: Ivan and I have taken it upon ourselves, and Tobias as well. We started a night, on Mondays, at a place called Spoon on Wells. The night reflects the label, the diversity. We do the house music thing but Tobias willl throw in some ‘80s. Everybody does a house music night here in Chicago and it’s boring. It’s about just keeping it fun and it reflects our tastes.
Ivan: On that whole vibe, people take music soo seriously sometimes.
Tony: Especially in this town. They’re so serious about it.
Tony: Even the musicians on the Bent album, they’re having fun when they make their music. They’re trying different things, it’s quirky. A Captain & Tenille sample for a house track, you know?
Ivan: With Nu Spirit, it’s great to be serious like that. That’s a serious album but other times music can be fun.
M: Do you think Chicago gets too pigeon-holed in the whole house thing? Everybody’s like ‘Chicago, house music!’
Ivan: There are other scenes. The whole thing they’re doing with say, Thrill Jockey. They’ve got their own scene with Tortoise and Cake. That’s a great scene and it’s viable and you’re making it work. But you’re getting crossover into our magazines, the electronic magazines. But you still have the history of, like, this is where it started.
JC: I had a pre-conception of Chicago that everybody was all together in one place, as a family. And then I realized it’s very north-south.
Ivan: Yeah, totally, as split up as neighborhoods.
Tony: I’m relatively new to the town, I moved here two years ago and I had the same pre-conception as you, where it’s kind of a family vibe.
Ivan: I think if you’re actually in Chicago it’s pretty diverse, but for people who come over here they’re always amazed. They expect to see, like, Frankie Knuckles and everybody’s just jackin’.
JC: Now it seems like every trendy bar has a compilation.
Ivan : Every bar, every national retailer, anybody you can think of now has a compilation to make it a lifestyle.
JC: Is that anything you would get into?
Tony: We do it. That’s just another way to reach that market. You don’t have radio, but you have these comps that are everywhere. There’s major retailers that do this. My mom goes into these places, Joe Schmo from whatever college goes to these places. This is how to reach these people. You can’t go through radio, so you go to these major retailers and you get on their compilations.
JC: Do you find that there is any unity amongst member of the scene, in terms of working together on projects or promotion?
Ivan: I don’t know, there’s no sense of unity, everybody’s off on their own running their own race. Which is good and bad. I think if it was there’d be some inteesting collaborations and maybe more music that pushes boundaries if people did put their heads together. Even when we’ve tried to do things with other house labels, downtempo labels and it never really worked out. I am sure there’s some underlying competition or egoism about what everybody’s doing, but it’s very hard to bring people together. That said, we’re on really good terms with a lot of the labels. Everybody shares information, the people who know each other help each other.
JC: In terms of Guidance future growth and direction. Do you see things as getting bigger or what?
Tony: They need to get bigger.
Ivan: The market right now is awful. Anybody in the U.S. will tell you. Any label, save something like Ultra, who still is spending the marketing money, Eighteenth Street Lounge Music based on Thievery Corporation sales, not their other artists. Their other artists are hurting just like anybody else. Definitely, everybody is feeling it. You talk to people in France, and they’re doing all of the Buddha Bar compilations like Vagram, who’s the main distributor of these compilations—they’re hurting. Even though the French market just went up like the only market in the world to increase their sales. Our genre of music has gone down like 30%. So, everybody is hurting, a lot of labels that were distributed by majors have been dropped. So, now is not the time for somebody to start their own label. The labels that are still in the U.S. doing it, it’s getting harder and harder you know?
JC: What do you attribute that to?
Ivan: The economy, for one. The economy is hurting everybody. People aren’t spending the money on music. So, you’ve got somebody who’s going to the store and spending $20, instead of the $60 you’d allot yourself a couple years ago. That’s why the artwork is important, that’s why all of the marketing is important. You’re vying for one person’s 20 bucks with everything else that’s in the marketplace. Like I said, if we hadn’t done the lounge years and years ago it wouldn’t be feasible for us to do it now.