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Touch: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

There is a small, but quite important problem with creating a label profile on touch: It isn't a record company. What might seem like a paradox is in fact a mission statement that has awarded the brainchild of Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft a singular position in an otherwise glaringly standardised industry. Right from the beginning in the early 80s, Harding and his congenial creative partner Wozencroft made it clear that they would do things differently. Their personally layouted editions in a wide range of formats contrasted with generic, lovelessly presented CD jewelcases. Wozencrofts strikingly associative and beautifully ambiguous imagery quietly exploded into a world of cheap glamour. Explorative and inquisive sounds provided for an escape from conveyer belt produced bubblegum tracks. A catalogue built on passion and a love for many different forms of expression counterpointed the rigid genre-demarkations of traditional record companies, exposing probably more people to niches like field recordings and sound art than any one else. Even more importantly than these outwardly visible aspects of their endeavours, meanwhile, was what went on behind the curtains. Touch built long-lasting relationships with their artists based on mutual understanding, trust, respect and, most importantly, far more than just physical objects – Wozencroft and Harding importantly started representing their artists' publishing rights long before it became fashionable again over the past few years. Despite the clarity of this vision, which has already landed touch various spots in design features and profiles in major music publications all over the globe, Harding and Wonzencroft have never dragged their feet, using the thirty year celebrations to further push Touch into a future that is as unknown as it is fascinating. The notion of not being a label has never been a mere slogan to them. It has been a constant reminder to adapt, change and inspire.

What were your main motivations when setting up Touch?
When we started in 1982, it was a fertile time creatively and there was all sorts of cellular activity going on. The extraordinary energy unleashed during 1977 and 1978 gave a huge boost to creative thinking and opportunities and this period was crucial historically as well as culturally. The Soviet Union caught a bad cold in Afghanistan and their economy stated to implode. The United States ground them into the dirt with Star Wars and the ideological map started to be redrawn, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of the 80s. So it was a time of opportunity of thinking and action and many groups and individuals took this up. At the same time, technology was starting its unfinished journey from analogue to digital and the concept of consumerism started to become inseparable from the cycle of seduction and addiction of which capitalism is the master.

So being around at that time it was hard not to respond to and become involved with what was going on in some way.


How would you describe the situation for Touch right now? What are the  financial realities you're faced with, for example? How satisfied are you with the exposure you've managed to create for yourself?
Well, of course you can never do enough, but we are a small organisation and as such you do have to be on the conservative side financially. But it is surely proven that if your economic model is oddly tight but flexible then you have a chance to ride through any storms which may hit you on their way through. We never have had any expectations of any kind of funding directly, so the experience of there being none available in the 80s has stood us in good stead now, when the conditions are pretty bleak.

The very act of survival and advancement over the last 30 years has, of  course, meant that we have adapted and evolved and of course have witnessed many other organisations fail to make it. Often this is determined  by simple lessons of life - its hard to start a family and keep going on this levels normally one of the family has to have a full-time job and so something tends to give. But those forces from the 80s were very powerful and the inspiration taken by many at the time is still playing out.


How, generally, do you see the role of a platform like Touch today?
We see ourselves as publishers and curators primarily - we are not interested  (and don't have the resources) to spend time on A&R.


Do you see it as a problem that so many people are setting up their own label nowadays - or artists selling their own music directly - thereby considerably increasing the overall amount of music available to listeners?
It depends what you mean by "problem". In the 30 year cycle in which we have operated, we have witnessed saturation of the market several times.  But perhaps because the economy is very small (well down from the substantial share of the independents in the early 80s), it is possible to start the cycle over again with fresh ideas without too much economic damage being done.

But I do also think now that we have to teach and learn from the pitfalls of over-production. It is so much easier and faster now to make an album – a product of digital technology - and this has caused serious issues for the consumer, the artist and distributor. People are full. There is a deep desire for cleansing and emptying, for mobile and wifi-free zones, for quality sleep and active relaxation rather than passive consumption. But these desires contradict capitalist forces and since these are the forces of reaction, they try to control and model them for their own ends.


How important do you rate the importance of distributors (including mail orders and outlets for digital downloads) for Touch? How hard has it been for you to find and work with distributors in the early stages? What, do you feel, could be improved in this regard?
We are very fortunate to have developed an excellent working relationship  with a distributor, for both physical as well as digital, so the expansion into digital distribute was relatively seamless. The trust built up between Kudos and Touch has also enabled both parties to allow each other the freedom to evolve as needs and demands change.


How do you rate the impact of social media for your work? How do you personally work on creating a community around Touch and how would you rate the importance of these social factors compared to the actual music being released?
We are operating within a very small statistical bandwidth so it is very hard to assess any impact in these terms. Some are very active in supporting us on twitter and other social media and we are only happy to support this by setting up our own presence on these platforms. But without the artists and their work we would have nothing to say. QED.


Just like many artists and labels, the press have found it hard to adapt to the new playing field of the digital age. What kind of support and co-operation would you expect and appreciate from them?
Oh you are so right. The response of the press to the fascinating changes  we are going through has been hugely disappointing. Few if any in the printed media have shown the necessary imagination to cover the crucial issues which are unfolding right now.


From your experience, has playing live - or organising live events - really, as many have claimed, been a positive factor for your activities? How would you describe the relevance of a direct communication with fans and supporters?
Yes indeed, this is hugely important. As the poor consumer gets saturated by an overloaded market place, its critical that we involve them and give them the room to breathe emotionally and creatively. Live events give the opportunity to escape the compression which occurs with the omnipresence
of "music".


How do you define success for yourself?
By maintaining enjoyable and challenging relationships with the artists (who always keep us on our toes) with whom we work and emotional engagement with the work we publish.


Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
GOOD music never loses its value. The issues is, how are people supposed  to know what is GOOD? There just seems to be only two responses available at the moment: "I like it" or " I can study it at college". Music seems to have become separated from its cultural and historical context and so it becomes another thing to be consumed. Too much tastes like candy floss.


How do physical sales and (authorised) digital downloads compare in terms of income for you? Do you see models like Spotify as a problem or a potential solution?
The bile attached to napster, last.fm, spotify and others is understandable, but they went about it the wrong way. It's impossible to get away from the simple fact that artists need to be able to try to earn a living and expect royalties or some other payment if their work is sold. If that financial lifeline is cut off then there is no incentive to make "music" and so who will then fill the channels created for all this work? The same people who think music should be free will be the first to complain when only the rich make music. It's a car crash unfolding right in front of us.


In how far do you see artful packaging as a way forward for you as a label? Are the objectification and value of music inherently related to each other, would you say?
It's hardly a way forward because it's something that has been intrinsic from the start. However, the idea is not to "objectify" the music but to give it a parallel narrative. It's clear that the recent online/digital dislocation of cover art from music has been a disaster in terms of how the latter is valued as anything more than freely-downloadable ones and zeroes. Touch has always  tried to bring another dimension to the music we publish by seeing the possibilities of cover art as a form of sonification rather than illustration.


From your perspective, what would be a workable model for the future for listeners, artists and Touch alike?
That is the challenge we are presented with now. As CDs become a passé  format and vinyl, which is expensive to produce, regains former lost ground, there is no economic model available yet to fill the gap. This is creating huge issues for artists, labels and distributors as well as consumers. The tension between the growing demand for high quality audio and ease-of-use is where the future may lie ...

As I said, fascinating times.

Touch, London, June 2013

Touch label profile interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Touch