Guidance Leaves the Path
"The next level costs a lot of money," says Rob Kouchoukos, co-owner of the Chicago dance-music imprint Guidance Recordings. As a first step up, Kouchoukos and his partners Ivan Pavlovich and Martin Stary spent a bundle flying the label's new Glaswegian act Spylab to Texas to make its American debut at this year's South by Southwest music conference. A dance-music performance usually involves little more than turning up at a club with a crate of records, but on Friday, March 16, Spylab filled Austin's Soho Lounge with a bank of Macintosh computers, keyboards, and a real live singer. It was an unusual display for SXSW, where guitars rule. "We're definitely rolling the dice now," says Kouchoukos.
Unfortunately an inadequate sound system hampered the show; feedback so decimated the delicate, pretty voice of Sophie Bancroft that she gave up after one song, although she did try again later in the set. And since the group's two keyboardists chose not to situate themselves onstage, the only visual focus was a twitchy video collage worthy of a sophomore film student. The group's debut album, This Utopia--a dreamy mesh of down-tempo beats, atmospheric samples, and moody cooing--isn't due out until August, but this gig was supposed to generate a buzz. It may be too soon to tell if it was worth the expense, but it's difficult not to see this roll of the dice coming up snake eyes.
Over the last five years Guidance has grown slowly but steadily, not by taking big risks but by churning out a solid stream of house-driven singles; they've released nearly 100. Kouchoukos and Pavlovich met working at Cajual Records, the now-defunct label run by local house legend Cajmere (aka Green Velvet, aka Curtis A. Jones) that single-handedly spurred the 90s house renaissance in Chicago. They both spent two years there, learning the elusive ins and outs of distribution and promotion in the dance-music world, where tastes change more frequently than the weather. "I think Chicago was running dry at the time," says Kouchoukos. "But there was a lot of music coming from London and Glasgow. It was getting very global, and that's the kind of music we were into. It had the Chicago house vibe with better equipment and better engineering, a fuller sound."
They met Web designer and dance-music fan Stary through friends, and in 1996 the three partners poured all of their savings into an office space, aiming to release two singles a month. "We never really met that goal," says Pavlovich, but the label managed to sustain itself anyway: "When we needed some extra capital we'd ask for some money from our parents." Today the label employs two additional full-timers.
As the market and their own tastes changed, the label's direction drifted from straight-up dancefloor toward more atmospheric music, and it moved away from 12-inch singles. CD compilations, of both licensed material and the label's own catalog, promised a greater profit margin and a longer shelf life.
"They didn't blow up, but there was a demand for them at the time," says Kouchoukos. "Kind of the aging-clubber demographic. Coffee-table kind of music." Guidance issued the first of three "Hi-Fidelity House" compilations in February 1997. But it wasn't until the label released series in genres not geared toward the dance floor--"Hi-Fidelity Dub," the world-tinged "Mundial Muzique," and the low-key "Hi-Fidelity Lounge," whose two volumes have sold between 25,000 and 30,000 copies each--that things started taking off. A pair of superb hip-hop titles--The Voices of Urban Renewal and 2001: A Rhyme Odyssey--failed to achieve similar figures. "It's all based on the flavor of what's coming out on the vinyl scene," says Kouchoukos. Despite the success of these series, the label has been careful not to bank on them. Kouchoukos says he won't release additional volumes unless the material is up to snuff. "We could force it and slap together another volume of Mundial, but I think the whole Afro-Brazilian-Latin electronic fusion thing is kind of tapped. It's a saturated market."
The compilations' success opened the door to a series of full-length albums by artists like Spylab, Nuspirit Helsinki, Troublemakers, and Roots Combination, all of which are due out this year. "We knew that if we were going to evolve into a real record label we needed to do artist albums and to get the groups on the road," says Kouchoukos. "The same traditional techniques that labels have used for years will still apply to dance music." Generating attention through live performance, as Guidance attempted with Spylab at SXSW, is one such technique. Although the label had previously released albums by Chicago house producer Glenn Underground and the soulful Austin duo A:xus, the newer titles are a direct outgrowth of the various compilation series: they cover many of the same musical categories that Guidance already has experience selling. "We have a roots-reggae album coming out, and through the dub series I know how to cross-market the electronica with the traditional reggae fans," says Kouchoukos.
While Guidance has sustained itself for five years, its owners have begun to feel like they're on a treadmill, spitting out releases to keep the cash coming in. "Product flow is the way you stay alive, so as much as I'd like to release only the five great records I want to put out in a year, we've got to be more proactive than that until we have an act that breaks to a level that can subsidize us," says Kouchoukos. This year promises to be a crucial one for the label, determining whether it will become diverse and full-fledged or remain a singles-oriented dance imprint. "If we don't take the risk then we're stuck," says Kouchoukos. "We've just got to go for it."
The only observation worth reporting from South by Southwest last week--aside from the fact that dot-coms were as absent this year as they were pervasive last year--is that the music business has never appeared more fractured. The true consensus buzz was for two acts that peaked decades ago: the reunited Soft Boys and Ike Turner. That said, there was plenty of excellent, diverse music, much of it from outside the U.S. Personal highlights: the Moroccan pop of Sawt el Atlas; a punishing, angular set by Chicago's Fire Show; the tech-enhanced pop-rock of Colombia's Aterciopelados; the hypnotic trance-rock of Tokyo's OOIOO (see Critic's Choice); and the giddy pop perfection of Canada's New Pornographers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Swider.