09 July 2019
VFT at 30. Thirty Years of Variable Frequencies.
In the 3rd and final part of this series of articles tracking my musical journey over the last 3 decades, I cover the formation of Fine Balance records in the mid 1990's up to the present day.
The embryonic stage of Fine Balance Records.
The spring and summer of 1994 was when I began to seriously consider starting a label, but I didn't really have a clue how to go about it.
Back in those pre-internet times the local library was my best friend and I spent many an hour in there looking up books on the subject of running a business.
After doing some research I came across an organisation (who are still about today) called the Prince's Youth Business Trust, whose purpose is to help young people to start businesses who normally wouldn't have the opportunity to do so.
This sounded like me because at the time I didn't have any collateral or steady income so there was no chance of any bank lending me the cash I needed.
I had an initial meeting with someone from the organisation who told me that in order to be considered for a loan I needed to submit a business plan.
All of this was new to me, so the next few months were spent back at the library researching how to compile an effective business plan.
August 1995. During the planning stages of Fine Balance.
With broken TR606 drum machine mounted on the wall.
By early 1995 I had done the research and had compiled a rough business plan outlining my ambitions for my proposed new record label that I had decided to call Fine Balance.
The name came about because it used to be a bit of a catch phrase with me and my friends when we used to get philosophical about life and use to say, 'it's all about finding a fine balance'.
1995. Establishment of Fine Balance Records.
In early 1995 I submitted my business plan to the Prince's Youth Business Trust and waited for a response. When the response came the news was good but I still had some way to go.
I was informed that my business plan had been accepted for consideration but this was only considered to be a basic plan. I was told that I was going to have to compile a more professional plan with the help of an appointed business advisor.
So for the next few months I was getting regular visits from a guy named Phil who was assigned as my business advisor.
Phil's job was to help me compile a more in depth business plan complete with profit and loss predictions, pie charts, graphs etc. and to accompany me to the final meeting when I go and face members of the trust to put forward my plan and answer their questions.
After months of research and planning, in early December 1995, I was finally ready to submit my updated business plan and face the board at the Prince's Trust and explain to them why they should lend me some money.
My memory is a bit sketchy but I do remember the meeting went well and I received a phone call a day or two later and was told that my application had been successful.
A few days after that a sum of money was deposited in my bank and I was able to go shopping and finally upgrade my junk shop studio.
Only a few relics from my old set up survived the studio rebuild, one of which was my Casio CZ101. The TB303 was sold back in 1992 and replaced with a Roland MT32 sound module with Dr T's editing software, which turned that module into a bit of a beast.
I bought myself a couple of nice Christmas presents in December 1995 in the form of a Roland JV880 sound module and a Sony DTC 750ES DAT machine.
These were quickly followed by an ART DXR Elite multi effects unit to go with my Yamaha R100 reverb processor which was another device that survived the cull.
I also bought what was to be the pride of my studio, a Yamaha RM50 drum module. After years of making do with cheap limited drum machines I finally had something I could get my programming teeth into.
The specification of this drum module read more like a synthesizer with its pitch envelopes and resonant filters, which I think were a first for a drum module. This basically enabled me to twist and mangle the internal sounds beyond all recognition.
Soon afterwards I upgraded my computer to another Atari ST but a newer model full to capacity with a 'whopping' 4 megabytes of RAM. I also upgraded my software to a little known 24 track sequencer called Sweet 16 written by a guy in Sweden.
I was never really a fan of Cubase, which most people I knew were using at the time. I always liked those lesser known off the wall programs, and I'm still very much like that today.
A new mixing desk came courtesy of my friends from Shades of Rhythm, who sold me their old 12 track desk that they used to use for their live shows.
Programming my Yamaha RM50 drum module. 1996.
The final edition to my old studio set up was a little Yamaha sampler called an SU10. The thing was only about the size of a video cassette but it allowed me to easily incorporate sounds from the outside world and was handy for things like vocals, effects and extra drum sounds.
The First Fine Balance Release - Carpet Dancer EP
(catalogue number fine9601)
Back in the pre-internet days you had to do a lot of telephoning and travelling to get things organised. Such was the case for my first release on Fine Balance Records.
Once all the tracks had been written and recorded, it was time to find somewhere to press them onto vinyl.
Then as now there were a number of brokers that could take your project and organise everything such as pressing, artwork and packaging. I went down to have meetings with a couple of brokers in London in early 1996.
Once that was taken care of I needed to find some way of getting the records into the shops. So, after more researching in the local reference library and a few calls to a few different distributors, I finally struck a deal with a company called SRD, who were based in north London.
The first release came out in the summer of 1996 and back then there was no real way of tracking the records progress. It received a couple of mentions in some dance music publications but feedback was limited.
The only way I knew that the records had sold was when I received a cheque from the distributor a few months later.
It would appear that I'd sold all copies of the first release and I had enough money for a second release having just about broken even financially.
In retrospect maybe I should have repressed the first EP but again, I had no real way of knowing what the true demand was.
Me around the time of the first Fine Balance release. 1996
Release number Two Accumulated Knoledge EP.
(catalogue number Fine002)
And so about a year later in the summer of 1997 I released the second EP on my label, the Accumulated Knoledge (sic) EP.
The process was a repeat of the first with the same broker taking care of the pressing and SRD dealing with the distribution.
However, this second release didn't sell as well as the first one and I had around half of them returned to me a few months later.
And so I lost money on this second release and I didn't have the funds available to press up a third. The loan that I took out with the Prince's Trust was eventually written off because the business was insolvent and was unable to make the repayments.
Fine Balance On Ice.
And so in 1998 I had to quit running the label and I pretty much took a step back from the entire scene altogether in order to consider my options. It was at this point that I decided to go back to school and get some qualifications under my belt.
I had no plan to stop producing music but I guess I just wanted to make sure I had a backup plan. I enrolled into an adult education course where I learned computer programming in the language 'C' in which I gained a qualification.
It was becoming clear as we exited the 1990's that the Internet was going to be playing an increasingly more important role and I was acutely aware that I needed to get online as soon as possible.
My computer programming experience would give me good grounding in web creation as the concept of building websites is similar to that of writing computer code, only HTML was much easier to master than a programming language.
Around this time I was also experimenting with other electronic musical styles such as UK Garage. I liked the fact that it could be made using the same sort of equipment that I already owned but just called for a slightly different approach.
In the year 2000, I registered the web domain 'finebalance.co.uk' and created Fine Balance Productions with the idea to release some Garage productions and remixes online under that name.
The website was launched in August 2000 and just contained a bunch of DJ mixes and some unreleased projects to stream and download.
The following year was the next quantum leap in my musical production career as I discovered that it was now possible to produce entire compositions inside a computer with no external gear.
I first saw a glimpse of this when I saw some guys using Propellerheads ReBirth back
in the late 90's, however, when I saw Reason for the first time in 2001 it shook me to the core. Here was some software that could make a PC sound like a whole studio full of equipment.
There was also another program called Fruity Loops (Now FL Studio) that was gaining popularity too. But being my typical self, I didn't choose any of those programs and I went for something relatively unknown, a DAW called Orion from a small German company called Synapse Audio.
Orion is now discontinued but I'm still using it as my main DAW to this day because at the time of writing - June 2019 - there's nothing else quite like it, but that's a whole different topic. . .
My setup in 1998. Within 3 years it would all be replaced by software. Consisting of: Roland PC200 mkII master keyboard, Roland JV880 synth module, Yamaha RM50 drum module, Roland MT32 Sound module, ART DXR Elite multi effects, Yamaha R100 reverb, Atari 1040STE (expanded to 4 megabytes), a Yamaha SU10 mini sampler and my trusty CZ101 synth mounted on the wall.
Over the course of the next few years I worked on a number of Garage projects and remixes that I used to upload to the website and to various forums. I also supplied some material to a couple of radio DJ's in London but that was about it.
Fine Balance Recordings re-launched.
The UK Garage thing was a pleasant distraction for a while but by the end of 2006 I was back producing Techno again and was feeling reinvigorated after quite a lengthy break from the scene.
By now the Internet was firmly part of everyday life and sites like MySpace and YouTube were opening up new musical possibilities.
At the beginning of 2007, I relaunched Fine Balance Recordings as a digital label and began selling tracks through various download stores, most of which have long since disappeared.
After a couple of years I grew a bit tired of submitting tracks to all of these download sites. I was just a tiny label in a sea of other labels all vying for attention.
I figured that I'd rather do things my own way and so in 2009 I decided to pull out of all of the commercial download sites and expanded the Fine Balance website to sell direct to the customer.
And that's how it's been ever since. Fine Balance now has a strict self distribution policy. I may not get the same sort of traffic as the main download sites, but those who do come here are only seeing Fine Balance products and I'm not competing with a glut of other random labels. And I get to offer direct service to all my customers.
Around the time I relaunched the label, vinyl was not on the agenda. Back in 2006/2007 vinyl wasn't being played in any of the venues I visited and the popularity of CDJ's were probably at their peak.
However I did start noticing vinyl releases picking up again over the next few years and by about 2012 the vinyl scene had definitely re-established itself once again.
It may not be as dominant as it was before and in no way was it ever a threat to the digital DJ-ing scene, but vinyl was back. Even the supermarkets were selling it again (albeit re-issues of old classics.)
It was during late 2012 or early 2013 that I was contacted by a label called 'For Those That Knoe' and I was asked if I had any unreleased tracks that I'd like to submit to the label for a vinyl only release.
I submitted some previously unreleased material retrieved from some old DAT tapes and sent them to the label owner, Ben, and within a few months the first EP was in the shops. It was my first vinyl release for around 16 years.
At around the same time I was being contacted through my website by people asking if I still had any copies of the early Fine Balance releases for sale?
All copies of the first release were gone, but it just so happened that I still had a load of unsold copies of the second EP in the loft that had been sitting up there for years.
Now all of a sudden there appeared to be a demand for them. I put one up for sale on Discogs and it sold within minutes. I had about 150 copies of the second EP in total and they all sold within a few weeks. After the sale of the old EP's I decided that it was probably time to release a new vinyl project.
And in 2014 I began making preparations but I kept facing various delays and setbacks and it wasn't until 2016 that the release was finally ready, the limited edition Return To Techno EP , a few of which are still available in the Vinyl Shop.
And that pretty much brings us up to today. Fine Balance Recordings now sells digital downloads, vinyl records and T shirts with more products and services in the pipeline. The site is aimed at DJ's and general underground Techno and Tech House enthusiasts.
More vinyl releases are planned but I don't have a tight release schedule so cannot at this stage say when the next one will be. My next vinyl release will most probably be on a different label as I'm currently speaking with a couple labels at the moment.
Interesting times lie ahead as the industry continues to evolve and all the talk now is about 5G and streaming services. I'm currently just watching and waiting to see how it all unfolds.
Personally, I'm not a fan of having all of my music in the 'cloud', however I can also see the convenience for the everyday non-technical consumer who isn't interested in the hassle of owning and storing lots of music, but would nevertheless like instant access to it.
I don't think this describes the typical Fine Balance customer though, so there are no plans for me to start streaming my catalogue even though some underground music sites like Beatport and SoundCloud are exploring this option.
I think it will be a while before professional DJ's are comfortable with fully streaming their sets, I would presume that there are also still a number of security and legal issues to sort out.
I suspect that there will always be people who will want to actually own their music, be it in a digital or analogue format, nevertheless it's interesting to watch the developments in the industry which are moving on relentlessly, and has changed beyond all recognition since I took my first tentative steps back in 1989!