Label Mates: UMEK / 1605

Slovenia-born techno veteran UMEK has been almost single handedly responsible for putting his country on the international clubbing map, and has built his 1605 imprint into one of the genre’s top labels in the process.

Since taking a brief hiatus towards the end of the 2010’s, the label has went on to release music from names like Mark Reeve, Cosmic Boys, Space 92, and Teenage Mutants, and seems to be pressing on with the goal of staying at the top for years to come.

Welcoming UMEK and his label to the latest edition of our Label Mates series, we got to ask him about the early days of 1605, why he felt it was best to put things on pause for a few years, who we might expect to see release there in the coming months, and more. Get the full discussion below.

You first launched 1605 back in 2008, do you remember some of the most difficult challenges you faced in the early days of the label?

The first track we released was VoRr’s ‘Outlaws’, which still sounds great, actually. It definitely wasn’t easy to start a new label back then. We had a hard time getting a distributor, securing media placements, and other promotion, but we were kind of prepared for that.

If you’re new, you don’t get the banners on music stores, and without banners the numbers are not great. You have to be persistent and push through the first couple of years. As a new label, you definitely need to go an extra mile in terms of promotion and get as much online exposure as possible. In three or four years, we positioned 1605 as one of the hottest fresh labels, which allowed us to move forward to where we are now.

And how does running a label in 2021 differ to 2008?

I’d say the biggest difference is that we now have a lot more tools available to us, that help us in all aspects of label management. I actually helped develop one of them with my company Viberate. It analyses artists’ performance on social media and streaming sites, which helps labels to make informed decisions about who to sign.

Next to great music, social media presence has become essential if you want to make a serious impact, and labels can benefit immensely from artist’s own reach. For me to sign them, the artist definitely has to be active in their community, and that’s certainly something that has become important over the last couple of years.

You took a bit of a hiatus with the project from 2017 to 2019, what brought you to make that decision?

Various factors influenced that decision. At the time, we had to move all available resources to Viberate, as it took off really fast and we were heavily understaffed. At the same time, I needed to focus on developing my new sound. My main challenge was to re-gain the respect of the techno community, which was quite a struggle, since they apparently didn’t like my venture into tech-house in the years before.

I was fully aware of the circumstances. I needed to go back to my roots and build my current sound, so I made a plan to reposition myself on the techno scene, release a couple of tracks on big techno labels, get played by DJs and get a couple of my productions on top chart positions. After three #1s on other labels it was time to re-launch 1605, which I initially used as an exclusive platform for my releases and after I strengthened it by a string of chart-toppers, I decided it was time to add some additional talent to it again.

For me, it didn’t make much sense to release music if I couldn’t promote it properly. Also, I’m very picky and put so much thought into who to sign. I notice a lot of talent and I get sent a lot of great music that I end up putting on charts and in sets, but if the artists don’t meet my criteria, I don’t release it.

And did it work out for the best?

Yes. I’m very practical. I like to have a plan and I followed this one to the day. It took a little more time than I expected, but in the end it worked perfectly. Working hard, following a solid plan and trusting my gut almost always brings the results I want.

I’ve had ups and downs in my career, and I’ve predicted most of them. Like, for example, it’s obvious you’d alienate a part of the die-hard techno fanbase if you digress into other genres, and you’ll struggle to regain the respect of the techno community, when you decide to come back. That was definitely the hardest part, but I was aware of it even before I took the turn. It’s been half a decade since my excursion into tech-house ended and I still haven’t got back all the respect – and I know some people in the techno community will never respect me again on account of that, even though I’m proving myself constantly.

I can imagine how a die-hard fan with an UMEK tattoo on his arm felt when I took that turn and can understand that disappointment. But on the other hand, I’m an artist and I feel the need to develop and reinvent myself all the time. With that in mind, I really can’t regret my past decisions, as they were a part of the process that got me where I am today. In retrospective, maybe I could have used an alias, and people would care less, like nobody is bothered with the fact that I’m producing electro under Zeta Reticula.

Who can we expect to see on the label during the remainder of 2021?

Australian female DJ & producer Mha Iri is returning with her second EP after she made an impact with her debut release on 1605 and reached the top 5 on Beatport’s techno chart. I love her music, her energy, everything she represents and her great engagement on social media. She puts a lot of effort into her creativity and communication with her audience – and with good results too.

Then there’s Sam Wolfe, who booked a couple of hours of my production master class, we’ve spoke extensively about how to approach labels to get signed to them and it’s kind of funny that in the end it was me who warmed up to it. I didn’t plan or expect that, but at some point, I thought he would actually be a good addition to 1605. We’ve released his track and got a strong response from the community, so I signed him for another EP. I like how everything comes together organically on 1605.

You release the majority of your own music on 1605, why not work with other labels more often?

As there are not many strong labels in techno right now, I don’t really feel the need to release my music anywhere else. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it in the future, but right now I can release a track with the same impact on 1605 as on any other label.

Ok, maybe apart from Drumcode – they are in their own class. I know I was only able to relaunch 1605 by solidifying my sound through releases on other labels, but on the other hand most top labels only approached me after I already had three number ones. That’s why I’ve been releasing my music almost exclusively on 1605 for some time now.

Going forward, I’ll probably reduce the number of releases, to give every track a bit more space. Also, I’d obviously like for artists I work with to focus on 1605 as much as they can, but based on my own experience, I understand they want to make their name by working with other labels as well.

And what’s your favourite label, besides your own?

Check out my playlists and you’d be able to figure out a couple of my favourites pretty quickly.

Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone that’s considering launching their own record label?

As I already pointed out, I’m a very analytical person. I love music and I believe that good music is the base of everything, but at the same time I like to look at numbers, analyse data, and make informed decisions. I’ve literally drawn my plan on a piece of paper. I’d suggest anyone who wants to start a label to do the same. Find a good distributor, secure as many store banners and media placements as possible and try in every way to generate interest in your music.

Think about how to efficiently allocate the resources you have. Carefully select the artists you’ll sign. But foremost, think about how you can stand out and be interesting. Write your own story and build a good brand out of it. And never forget – it all starts with good music.

Desiderati 4.6 VA is out now on 1605.