Turning Points: Daniel Miller
For over 35 years, Daniel Miller’s Mute Records has remained a pacesetter for independent labels.
Preluding in 1978 as a humble means of distribution for his synth rattled solo project, The Normal, it wasn’t until Miller was introduced to Fad Gadget that the idea of Mute as a fully-fledged label was conceived. Since then, Miller has been the man behind some of the most important releases of the past three decades from the likes of Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Moby, Liars, and Arca to name a few. But has the business of label autonomy been an easy path to tread? With Mute’s uninterrupted prosperity and Miller’s impending DJ slot at Bloc, the label boss tells us exactly how he has remained immune from failure.
1960s: Guildford Art School, Ron Geesin and discovering tape manipulation
I was obsessed by music but was and still am a terrible musician. I found it very hard to express my ideas through instruments. So Guildford Art School gave me room to experiment. It had a little sound studio with three stereo tape recorders where I learnt how to loop sound. One guest teacher was the poet Ron Geesin. He introduced me to the EMS Synthi A synthesiser. Despite the sounds being so primitive, it was really inspiring. At the time, I had heard of electronic music but was very underwhelmed by a lot of it. The possibilities seemed endless but no one was exploring them. When I heard Switched-On Bach, I was disappointed by its misspent electronic scope. At the same time I was hearing acts like Amon Düül for the first time. They expressed such strange ideas. Later, I discovered Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and beyond. It was so complex yet somehow sounded like people just making noise. It was very punk before punk. Very DIY.
1978: Meeting Frank Tovey and establishing Mute Records
I never intended to start a label. I just wanted to put out my single, Warm Leatherette, from my solo project The Normal, purely to have the experience of releasing a record. I expected it would either be ignored or hated so I would just go back to figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. But people liked it. I wrote my address on the sleeve of the record and started receiving demos. But I still didn’t feel like I had an urge to start a label. Then I met Frank Tovey. We were introduced by Edwin Pouncey, a cartoonist for Sounds magazine. Frank was living in Edwin’s flat, recording Fad Gadget demos in his cupboard. We shared the same sense of humour, same vision and the same love for experimental music. Fad Gadget was really the starting point for Mute as a proper label as opposed to a space to release my own music.
1980s: Signing Depeche Mode
Nothing really prepared us for Depeche Mode’s success. There were a lot of knee- jerk reactions that had to be made when signing them. They supported Fad Gadget at the Bridge and were so young. Within a few months of signing they had their first hit single. The label then went from small distributions to international recognition. Thankfully, I was lucky enough meet people who would help me deal with the transition. When I first started working with Depeche, Mute was just myself and one other person. I didn’t know anything about the business of music other than how to press records. A year on and Depeche had released their first album. It was a worldwide hit and we had to quickly learn how to organise international deals and collaborate with publicists. It was all very new but somehow we pulled it off.
Mid 90s to 2000s: Selling to EMI and the Britpop fallout
Britpop wasn’t a great time for Mute because the movement was ubiquitous. New Labour was also on the rise and it all felt very compromised and watered down. Everything seemed incredibly boring. By 2002, we sold Mute to EMI. It wasn’t really a controversial move as we were fairly autonomous with the major’s workings. The problems with the deal were really their financial difficulties. They also had a very different philosophy. Even though they respected the arrangements I had in terms of A&R sovereignty, it became difficult to release the records I wanted to release. Nothing worked with how the EMI machine worked. So in 2010 we took the label back; this time with a fully-fledged team. What remained was that feeling of independence. It’s part of our DNA. It’s something that EMI couldn’t offer but couldn’t take away either.
Present day: DJing and the future of Mute
Nostalgia is good but not in terms of running the label. With Mute, there’s too much to be nostalgic about. And I need to keep myself challenged. That’s a fundamental reason why I DJ techno. Electronic music has become universal but with techno, you have to be on form. Most of the audience are likely to be DJs themselves so there’s no room to hide. But I embrace that. I need to be challenged. That’s why I continue with Mute. Our artists have voices either literally or musically. They push boundaries. The world doesn’t need another independent label unless they’re doing something different. Mute offers that difference and keeps my mind as open as possible.