Interview with Alpha Centauri
Alpha Centauri. The record company which releases spacesynth music - the music we love so much. We interviewed Maciej Repetowski, the heart of the company, and he tells how Alpha Centauri got started, how the company is today and what the future has reserved for us.
HOW THE STORY BEGAN
The company from which Alpha Centauri originated was founded in July 1999 as AXIS f.u.h. Its main purpose was audio recording and mastering for local hip-hop bands and also for electronic musicians around. They were also producing radio spots and ads for third parties and some soundtracks for multimedia and web design sector. In November 1999 AXIS opened an online shop with rare electronic, italo and spacesynth CDs. At first the shop's catalogue was made mostly from ZYX releases and later also from Hypersound's.
According to Maciej there were no plans to create a record label at that time and to focus on the spacesynth genre. “We were happy with our online shop, especially when we became an exclusive distributor of Hypersound's releases in Poland”, Maciej tells and continues, “The focus had shifted from studio work to maintaining online record shop and starting from late 2000 we were not doing any more studio work for third parties.”
Before founding the company Maciej had gained musical education and also used to compose his own music. “I finished primary music school. Me and my brother Radek used to make tracker music since 1989, first on Amiga and later on PC”, Maciej speaks about his early years on music, “During my studies between 1989-1994 I started to be hooked on Techno and became an amateur DJ. I also managed to gain some knowledge and experience about studio production and mastering. I was always interested in music making and production, first at amateur level and later as a professional studio engineer”. After studies Maciej came back to his home town and managed to make successful techno parties in local clubs for a next few years with his brother. Later they invested some money in studio equipment which eventually paved the way to creation of AXIS f.u.h. in 1999.
Later the company’s name was changed to "Axis Records". “The company was always registered as AXIS f.u.h. Starting from 2001 when our record label was established, we began to use “R & R records” as label's name. It was derived from our surnames, actually it used to mean “Repetowski & Repetowski Records”. In 2003, me and my brother decided to split and I became the sole owner of the company again, I decided to change its name to AXIS Records.”
Starting up a completly new company can be difficult in terms of financing and establishing connections with other partners. How was the situation for AXIS Records? “It was not very difficult to start, to be honest. We used to have a home recording studio for some time, so most of the necessary equipment was already there”, Maciej tells and continues, “Of course, later we needed some bank loans to make it work, which we were repaying for a next few years.”
AXIS Records' first artists were Bookovsky, Zoltar and Geiger Box. How did you get in contact with those artists? “It was through our online record shop. We became quite a popular source of independent electronic music in Poland, so it was natural that some artists started to ask if we would be also interested in releasing their music.”
Maciej’s record label was based in Poland for a long time, but then he moved to UK and changed the name, once again, to Alpha Centauri. “I was long time thinking about emigration. I had to sort up my business first, but eventually I made a decision and was never looking back. The benefits are rather obvious: Poland is a young EU country with no worldwide recognition when it comes to music business.” Maciej also describes some of the benefits of UK, ”UK is the essence of music industry; a UK-based record label has much higher credibility than it ever was for a polish label. Also, with very stable economy and relaxed style of life United Kingdom suits me and my family very well.”
Although Maciej likes to live in the UK, he misses some things in Poland. “I miss my family, my father and brother. I also miss Polish food a lot :) As for the country itself – if I have felt good in Poland, there wouldn't be any reason to migrate to UK...”. According to Maciej the Spacesynth genre hasn’t got that much interest in the UK. Instead Maciej says the main reason for moving in to the UK was rather the mature and proliferating music industry there than the specific interest in spacesynth genre.
THE POWERS BEHIND ALPHA CENTAURI
The amount of employees in Alpha Centauri has changed during years. At the beginning it was just Maciej and his brother, later they managed to have some freelancers hired for particular tasks. “Starting from 2004, I am running the label entirely by myself. I have a lot of people helping me with various tasks, though”, Maciej tells. ”Some are volunteers, some are being hired to do certain jobs. Recently, I would like to highlight Jouni Airaksinen (Mark Vera) as a person who has granted me with his enormous help on several artistic, PR and business matters.”
Swiss label Hypersound is a family business but Maciej’s wife isn't working for the company. “God forbid :) My wife is happily working in a health care sector and I only sometimes ask for her advice, mainly when it comes to music evaluation. She seems to have a good taste when it comes to spacesynth.”
Running a small record label isn't so profitable that you can instantly make a living from it. “First rule when you are establishing a record label is to never quit the “normal” work, at least for the first five years of activity :) I do have a normal work, Alpha Centauri is my second work, the one I love most.”
THE SPACE PEOPLE
The name spacesynth is quite representative and Maciej agrees: ”It's perfect. It binds two main flavours of the genre: space theme and synthesizer music. Synthesizer Dance was also widely used, but I think Spacesynth is more adequate term, especially today, when Dance music means mostly some euro dance cheesy tracks.”
Sometimes people mix up the term spacesynth with music that is totally different. Definitions are needed to tell what this music is all about. “I think that the definition of the genre which is available at your portal, www.spacesynth.net, is quite good. I would quote what you have written there, if asked :)”.
Alpha Centauri has released both classic and modern spacesynth. Some people like the old-school style and some prefer the new style with trance influenced sounds. But is there a need to invent subgenres for spacesynth? “I don't think so. Of course, some artists tend to blend elements from different genres together, but this is a natural way of diversifying the genre.”, Maciej tells. “We used term “Dark Space” as a description of Vocoderion's music, but it was rather marketing term than the effort to create a new sub genre of spacesynth”.
Do the strict "rules" within the spacesynth genre make it difficult for composers to come up with something that feels fresh and new? “It depends”, Maciej thinks and explains further: “Marco Rochowski has proven that the classic spacesynth can still sound fresh and new. On the other hand, especially with beginner artists there is a tendency of blind copying Laserdance formula.” Maciej's idea is that eventually one has to grow up and develop an original style. Many artists have already achieved that and some still have to find their way.
Maciej has been looking for a fresh way of making spacesynth music which hasn’t been explored that much. “I am looking forward to see a concept album where tracks blend into each other via climatic interludes and tell the complex story. A kind of soundtrack to an imaginary sci-fi movie with a lot of vocal samples and epic special effects.” He would like to see more thought-out and innovative music with a general idea behind the album, so that it is not only made up of several randomly selected tracks put together, but rather a finished music project through the whole CD. There are some differences between today's and yesterday's artists. “Today's artists produce music much faster than it was before, thanks to VSTi revolution. There is also much more independence, one doesn't need to go to the studio to record an album anymore. Majority of today's artists produce their albums (starting from composition through mixing and finally, mastering) entirely in their bedroom studios. Sometimes, the technical quality of such productions leaves a lot to be desired.” Is there something lacking today when comparing to the golden days, and most of all, is there enough talent? “There is a plenty of talent when it comes to today's artists. What seems to be missing is patience and a will to improve musically. I was forced to cancel the cooperation with two of my artists because of that. Despite the time that has been given to them, there was no significant improvement in their composition and production skills.”
Spacesynth music is far from being a mainstream genre now and many fans, artists and label personnel meet on Internet and share the music and love for it. Maciej is active on Spacesynth.net forum and IRC-channel. Even though Alpha Centauri releases other types of music, he doesn't often participate on other forums: “I would like to be active on other forums, but constant lack of time is preventing me from being active elsewhere. I am signed to some studio production related forums, but I'd rather passively read the new posts than to participate.”
“I love to be in close contact with fans and artists. Being active in the community has given me a lot. I met great spacesynth artists, some of them are my friends now. I've spent endless nights on IRC channel with them on talks about spacesynth music. This is also a valuable source of feedback for me as a label owner; I am not hiding from criticisms or polarized opinions. Last, but not least – IRC channel is the best place to listen to the latest rumours about new tracks, artists and releases :)”
THE BIRTH OF ALBUMS
Making an album is a long process starting from artist's inspiration to a final shipping product. Maciej is responsible of doing 99% of the work himself with the exeption of actual music writing and producing. Occasionally he hires some people to do cover artwork, mega mixes, etc. The albums are the main focus for Alpha Centauri and that's the reason why Maciej isn't producing any other things like merchandise. “Alpha Centauri is focused on preparing and releasing albums now. The only form of merchandise we use now is releasing of free mega mixes from time to time. They act as a teasers for forthcoming albums and have proven to be quite successful in gaining label's recognition and popularity.”
Alpha Centauri artists are involved in the album cover making process as much as possible. Process is usually started by Maciej asking an artist what would his/her dream cover look like. Then they start realizing those ideas. Sometimes an artist comes forth with a self-made cover which is then used as a basis for final artwork.
How does the process for making the album covers proceed then? Does it include listening to the artist's music and trying to figure out the atmosphere and mood in the music? “All depends on what I have been provided by the artist. If it is only an idea then I listen to the album and try to imagine some pictures that go well with the music. Then it is time for conceptual work, lots of digital sketches and 3D renders. During that stage I send all my ideas to an artist for acceptance.”, Maciej describes and continues, “I am also open to any suggestions. Once the graphics is done, I make the textual contents, etc. “ Main tools for creating Alpha Centauri covers are Maxon Cinema 4D, Vue d'Esprit and Poser. 2D graphics are created and composited in Adobe Photoshop. A lot of royalty free and some stock 3D models are being used during the process, usually changing the textures are changed to make them look more unique.
Many album covers in the genre do not have much information inside. Alpha Centauri tries to break this tradition. “We are trying to include as much information in the booklet as possible. Space Project debut album was the first one in the genre (to my knowledge) which contains vocoder lyrics printed inside the booklet.”
“I try not to limit artist's imagination when it comes to cover art. For example, Vocoderion had a very strong idea of what she wanted to achieve. I found her cover project both controversial and intriguing. In that case, I was merely trying to create everything according to her vision. There was a lot of work with digital compositing on that one, but the final result is unique. Some people love it, others hate it, but it has never been anything like that done before when it comes to spacesynth album artworks.”
The cover artwork to Spaceraider's ”Journey into Space” album is one of Maciej's favorites, however it is also the one which required a lot of work. “Thomas Gillert had an idea about telling a short story, much like in a comic book. On first page we can see a spaceship approaching the planet, rather typical spacesynth motive. Usually, before removing the cellophane wrapping from CD one has to have a peek into back cover. OK, now we are able to see that the ship is moving towards the space station which is orbiting the planet. Now, when you remove the wrapping and open the jewel case, another picture shows the ship as it is landing next to the cosmic pub. The question arise: what is the pilot up to? When you open the booklet, it turns out that the pilot is rather pretty woman who just came there to have a drink...” Journey into Space was Maciej’s first cover art done entirely in Cinema 4D software apart for the humanoid models exported from Poser. Originally the girl was meant to land on a jungle planet to have some sunbath on a beach. The idea was later dropped due to time restrictions and so came up the space pub idea.
These days it's fairly easy and cheap for a musician to obtain tools for mixing. “Once you have the tools (today it is mainly software), you still have to gain knowledge how to use those tools properly”, Maciej remarks. “Majority of music material I receive is in good quality and requires only basic mastering. However, there are exceptions. At that point, all that matters is music itself. If I think that the music is worth an effort, I can do a lot to improve the technical quality of an album, including complete new mix of all tracks.” However, this takes a lot of time as Spaceraider's album has painfully managed to prove.
“If I only need to do the finishing mastering and the cover artwork is provided by an artist, then I can prepare a release within a month. However, usually either there is a lot of work on cover artwork or on audio material. Sometimes on both. Then it takes a lot more time, up to six months or even more, as it was with Spaceraider's album, when I had to mix again majority of the tracks due to their inferior technical quality because of the fact that originally half of the tracks were provided as XM modules made with 8-bit samples. I encourage you to listen to the album and try to guess which tracks have started their life as tracker modules ;)”
Despite the heavy work, the very same album is also one of Maciej's favorites. “I stand proud behind all of Alpha Centauri releases. The one that was a kind of breakthrough was Spaceraider's album, and it was the first release that was actually selling well. All subsequent releases are selling quite good, too.”
There's no ordinary day at Alpha Centauri. The nature of one-man business guarantees that every day is different. “When it comes to Alpha Centauri, the work is task oriented. One day I am doing the mastering, other day I am listening to some demos and next day I am doing the accounting. Of course, checking email and having a look at spacesynth.net website are kind of everyday routines ;)"
Most of Apha Centauri’s musicians and distributors are from Europe. Most buyers come from Europe too. That is because spacesynth and italo genres used to be much more popular in Europe than in other parts of the world. Lack of promotion outside of Europe seems to be the main reason why the genre hasn't succeeded to grow outside Europe yet. But Maciej also receives a lot of mails from other parts of the world from people who have just recently discovered this genre of music.
Despite of troubles with reaching wider audience Alpha Centauri's sales are constantly growing and the last two releases have made an enormous peak in the statistics. “In fact, I ended up my first financial year in UK with a profit. The trick is not to overprint CDs, so they do not fill your warehouse. I print 500 copies of each album now, in the past we used to print 200-250 copies. Right now, I can sort out most of financial matters with artists within 14 months since the date of release, which is nice throughput.”
Good artists don't grow on trees. So where do they come from, how can they be found and furthermore – are there enough of them? “He he, I kinda know where this question comes from... Well, Alpha Centauri has solid base of artists, most of them are busy on making their debut albums now. I do not need to actively search for new artists anymore, usually they find me before I would ever been able to find them :) From time to time I check websites like mikseri.net in search for some new talents, or I listen to spacesynth.de contest results and contact someone who seems to be promising. I would never have enough artists, neither will I stop to accept demos, otherwise what would be the point of running a record label? However, now in order to get into Alpha Centauri, an artist has to be pretty damn good and very talented. This is not so common :)"
Promotion is very important. Especially with a small and unknown genre like spacesynth is, finding effective ways of promoting is difficult. “I send promo copies to radio stations and some web portals, I actively search for new distributors all around the world. Recently, our free mega mixes have become a strong promotional items, every one of them has been downloaded hundreds of times (I have constant statistics from our web server). This goes into a correlation with sales growth. In the future, I will continue the idea of releasing free music as marketing strategy, it seems to work very well for my company.”
There are two things Maciej would change if he had a chance to go back in time. ”First, I used to be very temperamental in the past when it came to defend my company in public. Sometimes, I would go into endless arguing with people and finally I would lost my temper. This should have never happened. Apparently, UK has a calming effect on me, cause now I tend to be not involved into such disputes anymore :) Speaking of UK, the second thing I would do is that I would have migrated to UK much earlier, I just love to live here ;)”
Alpha Centauri's short term goal is to publish at least 4 releases per year. Long term goal, and more ambitious one is to make spacesynth music available to wider audience and make genre's recognition on a music market more profound.
“I hope we will still have classic spacesynth songs in the future, however I would also welcome some cross-genres experiments, especially with trance, which is a melodic music that has much in common with spacesynth in terms of composition and sci-fi influences.”
There's an evergoing discussion how to take this style further and how to make the music more accessible for people. For example, you can't buy spacesynth in ordinary stores right now. We gave Maciej some ideas for evaluation:
* Do like Hotsound Records did with Laserdance back in the 80s, and include some of the songs in the well-spread italodisco-collection albums, to be able to reach a bigger audience.
* Try to get the music played on the bigger radio stations
* Buying the rights to use the well-known Laserdance or Koto brand?
* Start selling some merchandice with prints of the artists, i.e. merchandices like posters and T-shirts with some nice space motives.
* Produce a video that can be played on some television show.
“What worked in the 80's will not work today. Spacesynth is an underground genre now and a chance to put a track into some mainstream compilations is rather marginal, in my opinion. The same goes for radio stations and video clips, unfortunately. First we need to make people realize that there exists such electronic music like spacesynth. The knowledge about the genre is still VERY limited. If you ask some young people what spacesynth is, they will probably answer that it's a Techno subgenre or something like that. That's why Alpha Centauri is not going to be satisfied with having a small, fan based community of customers. In a long shot we are rather into raising awareness about the genre and seeking for a wider audience, especially amongst the young generation of listeners.”
Electronic music distribution is everywhere and most big labels are nowadays offering their music in digital format. Spacesynth labels haven't yet quite caught up. ”It has to be done on a global scale, not in a form of online MP3 shop only fans know about. It has to be available to an average teenager so that he/she can get the music easily and cheap from respected music portals. Then it will work nice and that's our plan. Only recently, we have started to distribute Electron's album via iTunes and such. All our future releases will also be available as digital downloads.”
Internet piracy is a controversial issue that causes a lot of debate from both sides. It's something that every label has to deal with. “There is always going to be a problem with piracy, even within such a small genre. I've seen our releases on Russian P2P servers, but there is nothing I can do about it – the law in Russia do allows them to do so. So instead of crying out my tears, I'd rather focus on releasing great music and building nice relations with my customers.”
In terms of earning some money from releasing spacesynth Maciej thinks that there can be a profit made out of spacesynth releases if you plan your moves wise. Alpha Centauri had a good first financial year in UK and they are looking into the future with optimism.
Maciej’s future dream for Alpha Centauri is “To make a difference. What I mean is that for last 10 years or so, spacesynth was like an animal on a verge of extinction. Without the proper care, it will disappear. My main task as a label owner and spacesynth genre lover is to make it back into mainstream electronic music, where it belongs. Ambitious and naive? I would say: VERY MUCH :) Impossible? We will see, I am not a kind of person who gives up easily...”
Last - but not least we would like to thank Maciej for participating in this interview and telling us about his company.
“Spacesynth is a unique musical genre. It managed to survive for so many years, despite all the odds; it gives us an endless joy and takes us on a trip to space every time we listen to it. Alpha Centauri is committed not only to release and sell spacesynth albums; we would also like to take a significant role in bringing the genre into previous prosperity and recognition in a world of electronic music. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all our customers, fans and supporters – without you it wouldn't be worth an effort!”
2008-08-02 12:06:01Interviewer(s): Spacesynth.net Team