We caught up with Tom Blip, the brain behind Blip Discs, one of the UK’s most exciting labels in recent years whose releases span club-galvanising dance music to devotional religious drum music over the course of nine crucial releases and counting.
The Carvery: You’re a producer in your own right and studied music technology at university but what made you want to start a label?
I think it was due to the fact that I was convinced I wasn’t a very talented musician or producer for that matter. So it was a make-the-best-of-what-you-have scenario. Just after I applied for university I started to intern for a drum and bass record label called Lifted Music, which actually had an office not too far from Luton, where I’m from. I interned there the summer before I went to university and quite enjoyed the idea of having a record label. When I got to Leeds College of Music, I was quite overwhelmed by the talent around me, I thought, “Holy shit! I’m not very good compared to all these people!” I was no longer a big fish in a small pond as I had been in Luton. Typical. That kind of thing happens to everyone, especially when you’re not from a big city. I felt knocked down a peg. I resigned myself from trying to make any kind of artistic career but I decided that I did like record labels and started to get quite nerdy about them. I was working for a record label in Leeds called The Leaf Label which released very early Caribou, Four Tet, Pole…things like that. Those experiences of working at labels inspired me to take the plunge. Just as I was finishing my degree, the university was offering a small business grant which I applied for and got. I decided I was going to use the money to press a record. That was it. It was sheer fear, well, not fear but diving in headfirst. Born out of a lack of belief in my own music I set about channeling all of my energy and love into other people’s music.
I would definitely disagree with you on how skilled you are musically, but if it drove you to start the label then I guess that’s a good thing.
It’s funny how these things play out. I didn’t feel I was a very good producer or musician but once I had this platform on which to release music, I became much better at producing. It worked in reverse for me. Knowing that there was a platform for my music gave me the drive to put some time and effort into my own production chops. It was never the plan, despite having now released three or four records on my label.
When I initially conceptualized the label it was strictly for my friends. I had no intention of even doing the second record. That almost happened by necessity. The first one had gone so well that everyone was knocking my door down saying, “What the hell?! Where’s Blip 002?! You’ve just released a killer record, you need to get another record out!” and I responded with, “I don’t have anything! I haven’t planned that far ahead!”. Soon enough I’d made a start on a tune (which was an early version of my first single ‘Wrong Guanco’) and sent it to a couple of close friends. That track would go on to become Blip 002 but initially, I was convinced that the song was absolutely terrible! My housemate Jake (or Spooky-J) talked me into sending it to a few DJs including Bradley Zero and Ruf Dug and they came back saying, “Oh my god! We’re playing it everywhere! It’s going off!” I thought to myself, “Are you kidding me?! That track is crap!” Refusing to back down, they said, “Nope, I’m sorry, Tom, this has to be the second record and there’s nothing you can really do about it”. In the end, I surrendered, and to my surprise, like Blip 001, it also went quite well. You can see there’s a recurring trend here relating to my musical life; me refusing to believe in myself.
I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling.
I’m just thankful that I have quite a lot of people around me who are pushing me, giving me a nudge and forcing me to do things because I think I lacked the confidence back then to do anything about it. So many people have been really kind and encouraging. O’Flynn and Spooky-J really deserve special shouts for all the help they’ve given me over the years. I still get cold feet with music sometimes, but after some prodding I usually just take a deep breath and say; “Ok, I’m gonna do it!”
I’ve done bits of artwork design, bits of video, bits of mixing for people or additional production on certain things if I’m going to put a release out. I think every single tune has probably had some kind of musical input from me as well, so I’m pretty hands-on. It’s a very one-man operation most of the time, and by “one-man” I mean “me”, which is a bit weird as I’ve tended to notice a lot of people do these things with a partner. I don’t know. I’ve just never found the right person to do it with. At university, all my friends just wanted to make music. They had no interest in running a record label or starting a business so it was always left up to me really. I mean, it’s pretty hard to convince people to plough a grand into a record of which they might never see a penny in return. It’s basically all me but I have been trying to get better at relinquishing specific jobs to other professionals when it comes to artwork or PR for example.
Considering you’re still quite a young label, you’ve covered quite a wide range of music in your catalogue. Is there any kind of underlying philosophy that ties the releases together or is it just music you feel needs to be heard?
Yeah, there are a few loose threads. In fact, I’ve consistently and intentionally avoided any consistency in the music itself. I don’t want any of my records to sound the same. I’ve always been quite staunch on that. Around the time I set up the label I was getting really frustrated at the fact that a lot of labels were releasing essentially the same record over and over. I found it all a bit static; labels would push a certain sound, a certain brand, a certain look, a certain aesthetic, and I found that boring. I thought the point of a record label was to be always finding cutting-edge music. I was really adamant that the label would never, ever have a common musical thread. However, I think a general common thread is our championing of unreleased artists. I’m pretty keen on that. I love doing people’s debut records. When we did the first O’Flynn record (his debut) there was no interest from any other labels. Blip 002 was my debut record, Blip 004 was Spooky J’s debut record, Blip 007 was Mubashira Mataali Group’s debut record, Blip 008 was Swordman Kitala’s debut record. I like to release music that is a bit of a gamble because I think that’s basically why small indies like mine exist. We don’t exist to do something that a hundred other labels would or could do. If an artist has already drummed up a fair amount of interest and an established following, I probably can’t do the music justice to be honest with you. I’m not a big label. I don’t have a PR team. I can’t get a thousand-pound music video made. I don’t have that money. I don’t have that infrastructure. On a couple of occasions when artists who are clearly doing very well have approached me, I’ve actually said, “Go and do it with someone more established, don’t do it with me.” This really is just a home for people who are taking their first steps and that’s been a common thread in all the releases.
I guess another common thread is that I want the music to be a bit ridiculous. I don’t want anything too middle of the road. I don’t want anything that everyone is going to like. I always want to work with music that has the potential to polarise the crowd. I’m not really interested in pleasing everyone. I think a lot of people saw that, certainly with the initial few releases. They were pretty, for lack of a better term, rude. They were quite hard. Then again with Mubashira Mataali Group, I must have lost my mind. I thought to myself, “Oh my god, who on earth would want to listen to a ten-piece devotional, religious drum ensemble? Is this a terrible idea?” But that’s what made me really keen to release the record, aside from loving the music of course. It has to be a bit of a curveball. If that isn’t present in the music, chances are I won’t really like it. I generally don’t play things very straight or plan my releases very linearly. I wish that I could. However, I suppose all labels think what they do is unique so don’t take my word for it. Give it a listen and make up your own mind!
If time and money weren’t an object, what would the dream project be on Blip Discs?
If money wasn’t an issue I would just release more and more music from completely unknown artists that had crazy music. When you’re putting out records, there is always that worry of “Will I actually get my money back?” or “Who is going to like this?” but without those concerns, I could take even bigger risks. Time? I think that ties directly into it. I would spend all my time and money on risky, commercially unviable records. That would be the goal. The label I used to intern for (The Leaf Label) has the tagline, ‘Taking the least worst option since 1995’ and I love that. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about experimentation, because often that leads to great music (which sometimes becomes the next big thing).
Check out the full catalogue from Blip Discs here.
This interview was conducted by Sean Keating.