Interview: Chris Eckman – Glitterbeat Records (December 2016)

When it comes to world music labels, you usually think about regional realities with a local or niche following. That’s not the case of Glitterbeat Records. The German project’s growth is in front of everyone’s eyes. From Mali and Tamikrest, back in 2012, they’ve widened their vision to South America and South-East Asia, and by the end of this year, their catalogue will count 50 releases.

Three months ago, Glitterbeat celebrated its third Womex Label of the Year Award in a row, which is a clear indication of the global scale, audience and success reached by the company in just five years. To know a bit more about the story of the label and its involvement in the music market, we reached by phone Chris Eckman, co-founder of the project, eye-and-ear witness of the development of the world music scene.

We started our chat travelling to Mali and back to 2010, where and when everything got underway.

I started producing records in Mali and collaborating with musicians there. Initially, our sense was to release records from artists from Africa. Our background was more into indie-rock, but I can say that it’s more than 30-35 years that I’d listened to African music, so it’s not that I stumbled on it yesterday. For this reason, our aim was to move that music.

“The first artists we worked with were Tamikrest, the Tuareg band. We were trying to think how to bring their music outside its niche. We wanted to intercept a more general audience. I guess that, after these years, we didn’t entirely come out from that niche. So in some respects, our ideas were a bit different initially. We were asking ourselves something like ‘why do we always need to think about this music like something other?’ and ‘why can’t we try to fight for space for music with artists who sing in languages that are not traditional European?’ We didn’t want to fight hard to have a place in the mainstream scene, but just to be part of the general conversation and less a specialist interest. We were looking for places to intersect that music with rock and electronic, and a lot of other things that were going on.

Despite his present job as label manager, Chris started his music career as a musician. He’s indeed a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and since 1984, core member of the Walkabouts, Dirtmusic and many other side-projects.

“Before Glitterbeat, I’ve been both a musician and producer. I’d say that during the 1980s and 90s I was working as a musician. While, from the 2000s on, I’ve become more and more involved with music recording and production.”

However, today he is fully absorbed by Glitterbeat. So we asked him what it means to run a record label nowadays.

It means different things for different people. With us, because we started very deeply in the problematic era of music, we probably have a slightly clearer view compared to companies that are running from 20 or 30 years. That was and still is a really hard process to watch: the industry has scaled down step by step in such a long time. It has taken a really hard toll. We started with another German label [Glitterhouse] and went independent during our first year, but we are still basically working out of our flats. Only recently we’ve scaled up on that. So we have a small office in Ljubljana and staff of five people (which is a good number for a small label), but we do every step very very carefully.”

We tried to trace out the origins of the label and wondered if Chris could explain to us the reason why they decided to embark on a similar project.

Our desire was more like fans. We were working with Tamikrest and recorded a couple of demos with them. Then we did other projects in Mali, releasing demos with another label around 2010. We also started working with Tamikrest in 2010, but the first album only came out in 2013.

Actually, our initial plan wasn’t to have a label. Even if by the end of 2017 we’re going to release our fiftieth album, that wasn’t our goal. We initially thought about a small ‘boutique’ thing with two or three releases each year, which we would have done as side-projects and wouldn’t have become our life. But, we had the good fortune that the third record we produced was Tamikrest’s Chatma. That was really the reason why we had to abandon our part-time philosophy. From there, it already took off, even if it was only after six months.”

Even if five years have passed since then and almost 50 albums released, Glitterbeat’s first project is still the most meaningful for Chris.

We met Tamikrest in the Malian desert in 2008, and that was a turning point in my own life. I had gone to Mali in 2006 and travelled around the country for six weeks, then I went to Burkina Faso, but I had no recording equipment or instruments with me. The second trip happened when I went to Festival au Desert with my band [Dirtmusic], and we met Tamikrest. Within one year I was back in Mali, working with them again. For us, Tamikrest was something like the spark, our starting point. Then, it’s easy to point to them because they were our first artists, so I don’t have to choose between all the other ones.

“One thing that is very central to our philosophy is that we never release something strictly for commercial reasons. Everything we put out is something that we are simply crazy about. Some things work better than others, as it always happens with labels.”

Glitterbeat’s first releases were mainly focussed on African music. But, as the years and production went by, the label began to deal more and more with sounds coming from all over the world. For this reason, we asked Chris if they are following a pre-defined path or if it’s all about their music taste.

There was a point when we said that our goal was to have some artists not from Africa, and we did some research. We met some artists from Mexico (Sonido Gallo Negro), who were friends of mine and it was really natural for us to produce them. But now, it’s really a situation when we receive 10 to 20 albums a week, plus all the stuff that we are looking for ourselves. So at the moment, the trajectory is just to follow what we love and that hasn’t really changed. In a way, our playfield has become much larger, so we have records that are coming from South America but also South-East Asia.

At the same time, we can’t do this just sitting in an office. We need to get out, listen to real music, be face-to-face and meet the musicians and be among music fans. We need to feel the enthusiasm in first person. This work really needs to be done on a direct human level. Not just sitting at the desk, writing, sending and replying to emails or checking links.”

Considering his strong relation and insight into the world music scene, we tried to understand Chris’ perspective over it and its future.

I think that world music is going forward and that’s the good news! There’s quite a few of ‘insurgents’ within the community: people who are really trying to look at things in a slightly different way and revitalise the scene. The nice thing is that this philosophy is very nicely linked with the original question, which is ‘can this music excite people, move them and create an emotional response?’ This is really where it comes down to in the end. Of course, we know that so much of the music coming from all over the world has the potential to do that for people who are living in Europe and the U.S. The problem is that it has the potential but not the chances to do that. Luckily, there are some of us who are really working hard trying to change this situation.

The interesting thing is that now there’re different poles. For example, Asia is starting to grow fast and you’re starting to have middle class and small music initiatives in some of its countries. The same is happening in South, East and North Africa. In this way, things are becoming more interesting, because the world music community has always been too deeply based in Europe or North America. Now, things are finally starting to change a bit. Once we can get rid of that paradigm and experience music initiatives coming from the country directly interested, and producing that music so they can push themselves into the world market, this is when you can start to get undeniably into new things. We are finally moving towards that direction; I can see it at Womex every year. More people are coming from countries in North Africa, Asia and South America, not just to observe, but with very specific ideas. That’s really what we need to revitalise the scene.”

Glitterbeat will surely inject some life into the world music scene throughout the year. In fact, between hearing from Chris about the label’s new initiatives and releases, 2017 will be exciting from January to December.

We’re going to start producing label nights in different cities. They will start in the second half of 2017 and will just be called Glitterbeat Nights. They will happen in music venues, but they will also include film, maybe dance and workshops, too.

Then, we are also going to release different albums. It seems that we’re going in circles with that. We have another Turkish project coming out in the next days, then a couple of things from Tunisia, so we just tend to go wherever the river flows. We are looking for great stuff and we look at wherever people have records already available or need help to create them. At times, we follow new projects from the beginning to the end, while other times, we basically release the album when it’s already finished.

So yes, there’re a couple of interesting things coming out. We have worked with an interesting Turkish project, which has been around for quite a long time, called Baba Zula. Their album is really cool because it’s a career retrospective and there’s a remix album included, too. There’re also some crazy psychedelic live stuff and the band is quite popular to be a cool live act. This record is maybe the first one they have released that is really able to grab that feeling. Then, we have a band from Tunisia called Bargou 08. We are really excited about this project, because they are really powerful in their live performances and there’s a really interesting combination between the traditional music coming from the Northwest of their country, with rock drums and loop synthesizers underneath. It’s quite a fascinating and very intense kind of music. While, in March, there’s another Tamikrest record coming out [Kidal]. Their fourth after three years of silence. It’s going to be a very busy year.”

Another ‘very busy year’, which will probably bring Glitterbeat to win another Womex Label Award…

“[Laughs] It’s always an honour, but it goes without saying that we don’t produce music for awards. We look more than anything else to make great things for our artists. We really care about putting out things in the best way we can. First of all, we are really, really big music fans. We would never release something that we wouldn’t buy ourselves. At the same time, since the market is so tough, if we’re not going to release something that has great and special qualities, we are going to back ourselves deeply into a corner. Average doesn’t have a place anymore. That can also be a bad thing, because with young bands they don’t even have time to develop anything. There’s so much pressure on them and everything they produce since their debut has to work. If doesn’t work, it’s like the market moves on to the next band. It’s the general way the music industry works and it’s tough.”