Ten years of Macro with Stefan Goldmann

In the ten years of the Macro, the label has pulled at the seams of contemporary electronic music, unravelling preconceptions across genres to become a label of great distinction and perpetual intrigue. Founded by Stefan Goldmann and Finn Johannsen in 2007, the label sprang into existence at the height of  computer music’s dominance and turned the music on its head with honest-to-goodness bands like Elektro Guzzi making their presence felt in Techno and DJ/producer hybrids like KiNK turning that very notion inside out with his extensionalist live shows and productions.

A reserved but sincere output, Macro has ebbed under the surface of the popular consciousness with minimalist and micro Techno and House arrangements that feign the obvious for something concrete and has stayed the course over the last decade.

Regularly making his own impression on the label over the course of the existence of the label is label head Stefan Goldmann. Son to classical composer Friedrich Goldmann and raised between his mother’s native Bulgaria and Berlin, Stefan’s musical influences are a rich tapestry of various European traditions and popular culture references. Stefan’s career in electronic music has its roots in the drum n bass scene in Berlin in the late nineties as a DJ, but would cement itself in the world of Micro House and Minimal Techno by the early 2000’s when he started producing music under his own name for the likes of labels like Perlon, Ovum and most notably Classic.

Not content with the freedom and release schedule afforded to him working with other labels, he and kindred spirit, Finn Jonannsen founded Macro in an effort to take back creative control and leave a unique imprint on electronic music.

Stefan Goldmann is also something of a musical polymath, and from releasing music to writing about  ideas of how we gauge quality in music, he’s an intriguing character in himself. He created the ‘Elektroakustischer Salon’ nights, opening up the club, Berghain to experimental formats in 2006.  Since 2011 he’s contributed regularly with a column in the Berghain flyer as well as authoring the  book, PRESETS – Digital Shortcuts to Sound.  

It’s not often we get a chance to entertain the notion of a Q&A with a multi-faceted individual like Stefan Goldmann, but indulging us here , Stefan shares some of his thoughts on music, Macro and why he thinks being a Berliner is boring through some very in depth and entertaining answers. 

10 years of Macro… that’s quite a feat for any independent label. What do you think has been the quintessential ingredient to the label’s success?

Time on our hands and cash to burn. Just kidding. I guess we were lucky. At some point I was fed up with dealing with other people’s labels. The waiting time until they fit your record into a schedule, the arguments which track should be the A or the B side, the cover design. We had a very vague idea who our other artists could be. From the start our overheads where low. We saw labels that needed to release a record every week or month because they needed the turnover. We never were in this situation since our office has basically always consisted of our laptops and that’s it. Everything else is handled by outside people. We were lucky because our initial setup lasted us ten years without hiccups. We have the same design, mastering and distribution guys, the same lady handling our manufacturing. Then the artists mostly found us, or we stumbled over stuff by total chance. Pretty early on we just went for things not knowing how they would work out in terms of revenue, but where we felt they don’t already have a place out there or already belong to somebody else. I’m not talking necessarily about big musical revolutions, but little ideas and bents and fixes that lead to music that’s not represented by a hundred artists or labels already.

You clearly put a lot of thought and effort into what you do at the label and beyond, through everything from your own music to the events you host and even writing. What universal idea drives you creatively across all these various aspects of your career?

You can have a very interesting time in this. I don’t mean everything is always fun, like accounting or logistics or other chores. It’s more than just the music. I think this culture is so rich with opportunities to go out and meet people and see places, in more than one way, that it’s worth our time and effort. The quality and bandwidth of possible encounters is what really thrills me. If you just DJ or just produce or just press records, you’d miss so much of it. After touring for two months I begin to feel some fatigue, but I can add a week or two to my journey somewhere and just take the time to reflect and write down some texts. Then I can spend four month in the studio working on a project, and then tour again. I’m never tired. It’s a bit like in agriculture. If you sow the same crop on the same filed year after year, your yield goes down because the soil ‘tires’. If you do tomatoes in year one, corn in year two, and nothing in year three, your overall harvest is actually much more effective. Same with music. I don’t really have ‘universal ideas’. I just like doing all that stuff and meeting the people who are connected to all these different things.

It seems to me that when Macro started out there was a wealth of development and progressive attitude to electronic music which has stagnated somewhat as people rely on a formula of a formula and have gone back to utilising the very same thirty-year-old tools they used when this music was created. What effect do you think this had on electronic music and what do you think will encourage the development of music on the label and your own music, moving forward into the future?

Most people have always relied on a formula. Give somebody a 303 and a 909 and there you go. This is exactly what happened. It’s astonishing to what a degree particular machines or software or presets shape genres. People are happy with this. You still have people picking up the guitar and playing their three-chord, twelve bar blues form. Maybe around 2005 was the first time that a lot of people could afford to experiment with more than two or three pieces of gear. While in 1992 you’d either get a sampler and a drum machine, or a DX100 and a 909, in 2005 you could use plugins, buy some multi-effects units, multitimbral synths (synths that can play several sounds at once), AND a sampler. It was an interesting time, but I tend to feel the earlier generation made music that remains more significant and influential than the next generation’s. On average the production quality was better in 2005 than in 1995, but the 90s definitely yielded more influential output than the 00s. I tend to think that due to limited means they ended up delving deeper within one or two machines. Think of Robert Hood and the DX100, or Jeff Mills and what sounds to me like a Jupiter 8, or Plastikman with whatever reverb he was using. Around 2003 stuff began to have a tendency of sounding too cluttered. And some people recognise this, so they want to go back in time. Of course this doesn’t work out neatly.

I recognise how much electronic music is defined by the state of technology. Basically all the novelty there is always has followed what was just becoming available in the form of tools. Too much has been defined through sound design, rather than structure. Personally, I think I’ll be caring much more about altering structure than perfecting sound in the future.

Can an inflexible model for a label be sustained over the course of ten years or do you constantly feel you need to adapt to stay relevant?

Try saying the same thing again and again, and eventually people will tell you to just shut up. If it has been pressed to a record once, that’s basically perfect enough. A second record with the same approach is just for emphasis really.

KiNK (who regularly features on the Macro roster) is a perfect example of an artist that maintains his popularity without adapting to current trends or being a media darling/pariah. How do you explain an artist’s like KiNK’s continued success and do thoughts like these ever inform the artist roster at Macro?

I think he adapts a lot. Change and adaptation is not the problem. What doesn’t work is attaching yourself to a trend that is already established. It’s the mistake I see over and over again, and nobody who is successful has ever done this. For Kink, I guess its 20% talent, 10% luck and 70% sheer, meaningful effort. He spent ten years in a room building his skills in handling machines. Then he spent a few years on the road remodeling his live set three days a week. Others do that a little here and there between handling their Facebook account. At least in the long term, you can’t substitute substance with marketing effort. As for Macro, we do like people who have some level of skill. You might be a total amateur and make something extremely valuable once, as a chance find. But as a label you prefer to work on projects which have the potential to unfold over five or ten or fifty years. I believe it’s a waste of time to chase “the record of the day.”

What exactly do you and Finn look for in music or an artist to make it onto Macro?

Something we haven’t seen or heard elsewhere already. I mean this on a rather modest scale. Seen from far enough we’re all just monkeys flying on a rock through space. It’s mostly just techno. Typically it isn’t within the powers of any individual artist to invent and establish a genre. To invent techno as we know it, it wasn’t enough to be one of those guys in Detroit. You also needed Kraftwerk, Disco and the Roland Corporation and around 500 other factors to come together in time and space. We’re just looking for something within our area of competence which moves us and whose makers show some curiosity to tweak things a little bit here or there. It’s all about some tinkering, really.

There’s a world behind all of this that the reader doesn’t often get to see or hear and it can go from making sure promos lad on the right desks to something as simple as agreeing on a flyer for an event. I found it very interesting when we labelled you as a Bulgarian DJ you found it funny. You also said labelling you as a German DJ on the flyer was boring. Why did you think it was boring?

It has become the most regular thing for a DJ or techno artist to be based in Berlin. It’s almost what you expect to see in a program of any club anywhere in the world. You came up with “BG” for Bulgaria behind my name. It’s funny. I’m half Bulgarian and half German, but I was born in Berlin. Usually people try to put “Berlin” there.

You thought it was a PR move, and maybe at a subconscious level it was. What has been the effect of PR on music over the last decade in your opinion and how does a label like Macro continue to find its space in this world between hype, trend and the institutions that govern these aspects?

There are five million people out there who want to be artists, and an audience that can’t be bothered with caring about more than a handful of these. That’s totally natural. Nobody can evaluate 80 different varieties of melon or cherry jam or orange juice before settling on the variety they’ll like best. Nobody listens to 80, let alone five million, bands before settling on a favorite, or even just on whom to listen to on a night out. So all these musicians need to scream into the marketplace that their melons are tastier than those of the others. Nobody ever could possibly check all the competing claims against each other. So basically our idea has been that it makes no sense whatsoever to try selling melons. Most PR is just futile, as long as it concerns “me too” products. There everybody just cancels each other out. To give you an example of how hype or press don’t matter all that much: we have those two bands, Elektro Guzzi and KUF. They do live band concepts within styles typically associated with electronic gear and DJs. They might not be Depeche Mode, but they get to play consistently and people enjoy seeing them and end up buying their records. I’d say that’s so because they are damn good, but they also hardly have a lot of competition. Effective PR is easy: don’t go where it’s crowded. Go where it’s empty.

You’ve written at length about the influence of media and social interaction on music and in the current landscape it seems that a social engagement is essential to proliferating music. How do you predict this will affect “club” music (for lack of a better phrase) of the future?

Has it really been different? For 99% percent of its history music needed to happen right in front of people who’d just walk away, or worse, if you couldn’t engage them. The recording musician was a brief historic aberration, where you could create something totally detached in a studio and then a record company wouldn’t know how successful it would be unless they released it and watched. You sometimes even needed to buy it without listening to it first, and then could try to get used to it at home. This way a unique array of all sorts of studio ideas came into the world, and they still mostly clutter the $1 bins at thrift shops. On the other hands  certain concepts got a firm hold in music history that wouldn’t have had a chance if they only had to rely on a live audience. That’s, say, 1960 to 2000. That was a unique era. Now we are kind of back in 1840. The recording doesn’t matter all that much again.

If I have to guess, the same two forces that have always shaped music will keep ruling. That is, we like to hear what we already know, and we get bored if we hear it too often. Thus, in all likelihood music will continue to change gradually. Also, we can’t actually repeat the same thing. No imitation is perfect, so change is inevitable. You can hear this with all the people who try to produce like its 1988. It’s just impossible. They get all the original gear, but some element of a circuit has aged and this changes the sound. Or they just can’t help and set the compressor right rather than wrong, as it was done in 1988. And there you go.

What then causes abrupt changes and cultural shifts, rather than the inevitable gradual changes, are new technological means and people’s reaction to them. Like when Willie Kizart’s amp fell down and the speaker membrane was torn, but the studio had already been paid for. That’s when distorted guitar came to be recorded, and 70 years of guitar rock followed. That defect couldn’t have happened if there wasn’t the technology first – the electric guitar, the amp, the studio and the record – and somebody hadn’t put down the money for these. Chance events that get perpetuated, or one phenomenon that affects a lot of people at the same time, like dozens of 808s and 303s washing up in pawn shops – those instances may lead to abrupt changes. Otherwise we just prod along.

I’ve read that you too don’t like categorising music. I find that in recent years most artists or labels feign categorisation like genre. What are the perils in your opinion of labeling music so categorically?

Actually I love to categorise. The conflict is usually when person A says “this is like that”, and person B is convinced it’s like nothing else in this world. Both are looking at the same thing, but see different aspects of it. You can’t expect to tick ten or fifty or a thousand boxes and to have no match with anything else. For something to be fresh or different, sometimes one little aspect shifted is totally sufficient. I love that idea. You can cook a dish you’ve cooked a hundred times and change one ingredient and the whole thing tastes differently. It’s the same with music. You’ll never need to be bored in this life.

On the back of that last question, how will you then explain the sound of Macro to the uninitiated?

That’s what we have initiation rites for.

You seem to occupy this space between the highbrow (your excursions into classical music, writing and experimental music events) and the “lowbrow” (everything from Drum n Bass to Techno). How does one side inform the other in your creative output and Macro and how do you find a balance between these two worlds?

I’d need to rant about this horrible distinction of “high” and “low”, and I think we’ll both have a better time if I don’t.

In your RA exchange from 2011, you mentioned that you had found a hard time to play just one style of music, which was very much the trend back then. Today the landscape has changed and the popular DJs are the ones that can be a bit more eclectic with their selections. How have these paradoxical shifts affected your DJ sets?

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Do you refer to the “expert digging DJ” variety, where they are expected to line up records in increasing time/cost ratios of finding those records? It may appear eclectic, but it’s also predictable in another way. I believe Finn wrote a piece about this some time ago. I guess the other 98% of DJs keep sticking to their formulas. Of course there are exceptions. Nina Kraviz is ridiculously successful, but she also pulls off incredible mixes between things few other people would dare to play or even know about. There’s no preconceived category for this. That exist too.

Personally, of course I adapt to the people I play to – how else would it be an exchange? – but I basically stick to playing what I’d love to hear at 100 dB, and I keep phasing out the things I did hear often enough. I wouldn’t like to get bored. I don’t like gimmicks and I don’t like stuff that sounds dated. I like music that sounds good now, and maybe sounded well ten years ago and will still do so ten years from now. I believe there is music which transcends the moment.

By now I’m comfortable to play out things very few other people play out. Take Vladimir Dubyshkin. For the last two years, I’ve played that out consistently, and very few other people did. Probably because it’s at 140 bpm, but has this slightly silly feel to it with all those rave elements. It’s too freaky for the hard techno crowd and to fast for the more daring DJs. I just pitch it down to 130 bpm and it sounds even better. It’s strange that many DJs seem to have forgotten there’s pitch adjustment on their decks. They probably check the file on their computer and say, “Nah, too fast.” So I play it and people go nuts over Dubyshkin all the time. It’s pretty great to have stuff at your disposal that stands out glaringly but isn’t all over the place already.

Following on from that, how might your set unfold at Jæger next week?

Who could possibly know the future?