For over a decade Toolroom Records have created, showcased and played records that have steadily infiltrated and augmented themselves into the history of electronic music. What started as a small-scale operation has developed into an internationally recognised brand that’s now utilised and celebrated across a multitude of platforms. To put it simply, take the label’s discography away and the history of dance music would look very different.
When it comes to brands in today’s dance music industry there are only a handful that offer a complete package, and moreover offer it seamlessly across all platforms. With record sales at an all time high to coincide with its 16 million weekly radio listens, worldwide touring and an impressive online programming schedule Toolroom have certainly embraced digitization and resoundingly solidified its status as one of the pioneering brands in modern dance music. Yet the beauty remains within the simplicity of the brands long-standing musical ethos, as managing director Stuart Knight explains succinctly; “we’ve never followed trends simply to make money. We only put out music we love, and that’s never going to change”.
A decade ago few could have predicted that House & Techno would grow to become two of the most influential genres in underground music, and one of the catalysts behind it’s evolution are heritage house labels like Toolroom who have been influential and responsible for countless anthems that have dominated the scene, and the charts, along the way. With the likes of David Guetta, Faithless, Dave Spoon, Fatboy Slim & Todd Terry all enjoying success over the years the imprint has taken pride in nurturing and helping develop the careers of many of the worlds most respected producers. Following a series of hugely successful compilations over the past few years the release schedule for the year ahead shows little sign of slowing down, with the label’s reputation further enhanced with label head Mark Knight spearheading a current roster that includes Doorly, Amtrac, Tough Love, Bontan as well as our personal favourites Prok & Fitch.
Becoming synonymous with quality releases it’s no surprise Toolroom’s ‘Live’ & ‘Knights’ shows have become a part of the undergrounds most revered parties, with annual tours worldwide including North America, Australia in addition to a long-standing Ibiza residency that continues to flourish due to its devoted fan base which brings us fundamentally to the point that both Mark & Stuart understand exactly who their fans are and what exactly it takes to please them.
With Toolroom gearing up for arguably their biggest year yet that includes hosting a stage at the award-winning 15,000 capacity We Are FSTVL, we sat down with managing director Stuart Knight to discuss the pressures of running a major label, how it all began, resisting the lure of the mainstream as well as an exclusive lowdown on what to expect from the artists playing this year’s We Are FSTVL Toolroom stage.
Having started Toolroom in 2003 the label has gone on to become one of the biggest in the scene, did you ever realistically foresee the success you were going to have?
Well we started the label with big ambitions – at the time we looked to labels like Subliminal and Defected, and we wanted to emulate their consistency and credibility. So it’s fair to say from the off we had aspirations to be among the biggest in the scene, but it’s been a gradual and steady process for us. Having said that there’s been moments when I’ve been blown away with just how big we’ve become – when we see people from Japan buying our merch, or when we sell out massive club shows in America, or when we get to host stages like We Are Fstvl; they are all reminders of how far we’ve come since the early days in 2003.
What are the fundamentals to running a successful record label? Is there a point where you have to start catering for the mainstream?
I think to run a successful label, you need the right mixture of creativity and business acumen. Ultimately, the music comes first – if you’re finding quality artists and quality music then you’ve got a chance. Combine that with an effective and professional business model and you can be on to a winner. Surrounding yourself with the right people is absolutely vital too. We have a big team at Toolroom – over 20 full-time staff – and each of them brings something to the table. That’s key to growing the company – allowing people to do their job, trusting them to make the right decisions. In terms of catering for the mainstream – well for us, with 20 staff, obviously we have to make a certain amount of commercial impact to sustain ourselves, but it’s not about compromising musically. We’ve always been about music that sits neatly in-between the underground and commercial anyway, but we’ve never followed trends simply to make money. We only put out music we love, and that’s never going to change.
Toolroom has become so much more than a record label with content and club nights now available on a multi-media and platform basis, is this continuous diversification an essential component to success in todays industry?
I think that’s a really important question – diversifying is essential in today’s climate. We were really quick on embracing digital back in 2003, and because of that we grew very quickly through sites like Beatport – it truly opened up the international market for us, changed our business model entirely. Now, with streaming, it’s changing again. You can waste time fighting this, but it’s almost wasted energy. You have to adapt, figure out a solution and move on. Also finding ways to diversify beyond selling music – events, online content, management – there are so many possibilities out there. That’s what keeps me excited and buzzed-up about leading this company.
With so much going on how big is it necessarily about having a large team or a smaller group who share that indispensable passion for the labels success?
As I alluded to before, Toolroom is a big team, and that’s important to me. Other labels prefer to keep a smaller core team and outsource everything, which is cool, but we like to do everything in-house. I have a big team, all of whom have a mad passion for our music scene – I literally have to kick them out the door at 6pm every day. That passion and hardwork is what ultimately drives the company forward.
With residencies and festival appearances all over the world lets look at one closer to home in ‘We Are Festival’, how exciting is it to curate your own stage amongst an equally amazing line up?
We were delighted to be asked back this year at the festival. At the end of 2014 we did this feature on our website where some of our staff members listed their favourite Toolroom moments of the year – and half of them mentioned our We Are Fstvl stage in 2014 as the high point. We had our stage rammed from the get-go; we kept the energy levels all day, right through to my brother Mark’s set at the end. And two of my residents (Pete Griffiths and Mark Storie) actually closed out the entire festival. So we’re excited to be back – and I have to say we’ve put on a special line-up for you guys, so I can’t wait to see it in action.
Can you tell us a bit about each artist and what they will bring to the Toolroom stage?
Obviously he the head honcho of the brand, and absolutely symbolises what we’re about musically. He’ll bring the classic Toolroom sound with his set – energetic, credible tech house.
We love this guy. Brilliant producer, he can make everything from deep house to techno. He played for us recently in London and smashed it to pieces.
Purple Disco Machine
On a deeper tip, PDM bring a serious dose of funk to the stage. They’ve had a number of big records in the last couple of years – My House was a big on Andre Crom’s OFF Recordings, and they delivered a big remix for us at the end of last year.
This is the first time Shiba San has played for Toolroom, but we’re all massive fans of his work over the past 12 months particularly. He’s done lots of quality deep/bass stuff with Dirtybird, and Okay was one of the stand-out tracks of 2014.
Tube & Berger
These guys have been playing quite a few Toolroom Live dates of late – including our huge London party last November. Big disco-influenced electronic basslines, I’m a big fan of this duo.
Another debut for Toolroom, obviously he’s known for the huge MK remix of My Head Is A Jungle among other things, but beyond that we know he is an impeccable young producer and a quality DJ.
One of the key new artists in the new Toolroom crew, Weiss is just about straight up house music with balls. Our fans absolutely love this guy, and rightly so. Expect him to lay down some chunky underground grooves.
Dennis has played for us for a number of times, and he is such a professional. Everything he stands for is real, is quality. A class act. Underground house music at its finest.
He played for us last year at We Are, and got the crowd smiling, believe me. He dropped some absolute classics that day which tore the roof of. I cannot wait for this set – expect big party vibes. See you down the front!
Toolroom Records host ‘Toolroom Live’ at We Are FSTVL on Saturday 30th May.
Having initially began as a one day event in May 2013, the Essex based weekender is now one of the biggest festival dates in the UK. With 10 stages hosted by the likes of Defected, Paradise, Cocoon, secretsundaze & MK it’s no surprise it won ‘best medium sized festival’ at the UK festival awards for 2014. With 15,000 in attendance 2015 is set to sell out in record time with tickets now well into it’s second (and final) release.