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The last 12 months have altered the clubbing landscape in potentially irrevocable ways.

For the most part – or here in the UK, at least – venues are still shuttered, pubs and other live music spaces remain closed and the summer festival season is hanging on the precipice, with some events, like this year’s Glastonbury Festival, already out of the running. Despite this, many are continuing to adapt their practices and find new ways to stay creative, collaborate with their peers and connect with the wider dance music community in whichever way they can – be it utilising the Bandcamp Fridays initiative, launching artist development schemes or starting up projects that offer a new model of support for DJs. Mixtape Club is one such example.

Launched last month, Mixtape Club is a non-profit mixtape series from Tom Lea, founder of London-based label Local Action, and Finn McCorry, the label’s Mancunian mainstay and head of its club-focused sister imprint 2 B Real. Though, Lea’s quick to stress that Mixtape Club is “very much [McCorry’s] baby.” Through Mixtape Club, the pair are channelling the independent DIY spirit of the labels they head up, local grassroots events they’d typically play and the artists they interact with (or, perhaps, admire from afar) into a project that offers something to both fans and the DJs commissioned. 

The premise of Mixtape Club is to financially support DJs during the pandemic. For season one, the pair have commissioned six mixtapes to run over the first half of 2021. The DJs booked are paid for their time and effort, (much like an IRL booking, remember those?) and are also provided with a budget to create original artwork to accompany their mix. By developing a visual identity around each mix, it frames them as standalone releases that can be enjoyed much like an album or an EP.  Fans can get involved with Mixtape Club by streaming and downloading the mixtapes for free. However, you can also increase your support from guestlist status to an ‘on the door’ ticket by pledging £5 a month via Patreon. If the venture generates more than its £300 budget each month in pledges, then the extra money will be distributed evenly between all DJs at the end of the season.

The first mixtape in the series comes from Chicago-based Discwoman affiliate Ariel Zetina, and it dropped earlier in the month. Titled Sestina, the mix features original and unreleased material from Zetina herself alongside tracks from her Chicago peers, friends and more – tapping into Mixtape Club’s (and its founders’) collaborative and community-driven ethos. We caught up with Lea and McCorry to discuss the new project. 

What was the inspiration and thinking behind Mixtape Club?

Finn McCorry: Mixtape Club is a celebration of the dance music mixtape, really!

Tom Lea: Yeah, we’re both big advocates of the dance music mixtape as a format with incredible cultural value. I think when most people think about dance mixes now they think about DJ sets for magazines, blogs or brands, and that’s fine – those are important in our ecosystem – but, there’s also a historical legacy of the dance music mixtape as a singular statement or a scene-defining snapshot that feels, to us, like it’s been lost a little bit.

FM: There’s probably lots of reasons why that’s happened – some are cultural but I think a lot of it is structural. The amount of resources required to license and properly release a dance mix are unrealistic for anyone without a fairly well-established office. So, they’ve been marginalised as a free promotional tool for brands or magazines or as strictly physical bootleg cassette runs that skirt licensing laws. Neither feel that sustainable to me, so I spent quite a bit of time last year thinking about different models we could try to pay DJs who make mixes.

TL: Yeah, I should add at this point that this is very much Finn’s baby. We’ve both contributed a lot to it and it’s a joint effort – as is everything we do, really – but I do want to make clear that he’s been the driving force behind getting this off the ground. Anyway, to go back to the question: obviously a lot of DJs are out of work right now. And there’s been a lot of talk about new models in dance music, even prior to Covid-19, but I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of action – and the majority of the action that is happening doesn’t actually help DJs or support DJing in itself.

FM: Things like Bandcamp Day have been a great initiative for a lot of dance music producers and generated some amazing projects by individuals and collectives, but I wanted to do something aimed at DJing specifically, focusing in on that. So, Mixtape Club was a response to all of the above. I wanted to put something into DJing this year and commissioning mixtapes feels like a really great way to do that.

"There’s also a historical legacy of the dance music mixtape as a singular statement or a scene-defining snapshot that feels to us like it’s been lost a little bit."
– Tom Lea

Finn at All Points East © Eleanor Hardwick

You touch on a key point on the site that the support given to artists through the series is both financial and artistic. Of course, financial support is hugely important, but how important is artistic support at this point in time?

FM: Forgive me for being a bit romantic about it, but while clubs are shut, the mixtape is the place that conversation is going to happen within dance music, I think? Conversations between records, scenes, eras or between different schools of production. DJing is where you join those dots and, for me, where most of the interesting stuff actually grows out of. Without getting too lofty, that’s ultimately what dance music is about in my humble opinion! So, while we can’t go and engage with the spaces where we’d normally have a lot of those ‘conversations’, it felt like a great time to actually put some time and money into some projects that do that this year.

TL: This is a wider point but I do think it’s relevant: there’s a real focus on individualism in music at the moment, not just dance music, where because there are now the tools available for an artist to handle every aspect of a release or a campaign themselves, people feel like artists should be doing everything themselves.

I totally get where that comes from. Plus, obviously the fact that artists now have the tools to do everything from the artwork to the mastering, to the label, to the distribution themselves is an objectively good thing, but Finn and I both feel very strongly that most of the best art comes from collaboration, where there’s several parties all bouncing off each other and creating something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Speaking from a label perspective, that’s pretty much how all of our most creatively satisfying and successful projects have happened. 

FM: Yeah, and that’s the exact spirit of the mixtape isn’t it really?

You explain this a little on the site, but can you expand on how the distribution model works?

FM: I’ve tried to keep this pretty simple, but it’s definitely a work in progress. Ultimately it’s a bit like you’d run a grassroots club night. We’re “booking” a DJ that we love for £150 each month, and budgeting £150 for artwork. That’s the sort of the fee you might pay your pal to play at a small 100-150 cap night you’re putting on, and that’s the ecosystem we’re trying to recreate here: small clubs, grassroots promoters, proper exciting DJs.

We’ve set up a Patreon subscription to support the project, set at £5 per month. These monthly pledges will help us break even on each mixtape in the first instance. This doesn’t get you any extra Mixtape Club content or access at the moment, it’s the equivalent of insisting on paying on the door even though you’re on the guestlist. But, if we do eventually start making over £300 a month in pledges, we’re going to collect all the extra money generated over the six months and then distribute it evenly to all the DJs who contributed. This is really important, because it means that if the overall project is a success, all the DJs stand to benefit equally. We’re not commodifying mixtapes and paying people based on their individual success, we’re trying to build some support for the principle of paying DJs to make mixes.

Again, it’s a bit like paying into your local party every month regardless of who’s playing, or how late you’re staying, because you want to support it. So, the support so far really does mean a lot; we’ve felt really grateful to see people respond positively to the idea. It’d be amazing if we could give everyone another decent fee at the end of the six months. But, let’s see how it goes!

Adding in a budget for original artwork and collaborations with visual artists is a really interesting aspect of the project. Why did it feel necessary to factor this in?

TL: It goes back to what we were saying before really, trying to present these mixtapes as releases in their own right rather than as part of a mix series. Every artist will have a specific vision with what they want to do with their mixtape and that applies to the artwork, too.

FM: Yeah, we just want to start from scratch with each mix. Also, again, with the absence of grassroots parties, we’ve lost a wealth of fun and exciting visual work that takes place on flyer designs for club nights and parties worldwide. That’s a big part of dance music’s visual identity that’s gone completely missing, so this feels like a nice way to get stuck in again.

Tell us about the first mix of the season.

TL: Well, we both really love Ariel Zetina. Finn and I are both huge fans – in fact, I think half the Local Action and 2 B REAL rosters are huge fans of her – and she’s clearly an artist who’s incredibly meticulous about her mixtapes and her DJing in general. Also, Chicago is a city with a real legacy of the kind of mixtapes we were talking about earlier, real statements of intent to define sounds and scenes. So, Ariel for 001 just made sense!

She nailed the brief: obviously her mixtape has an interesting conceptual side, referencing the sestina form of poetry, but it also works as a showcase of the current Chicago scene that she’s at the centre of, and she wrote original music for it. Ariel put a ton of work into Sestina, not just in terms of the production hours making and mixing it but the sheer amount of thought that went into it, and it feels like the perfect prototype for what we’re trying to achieve with Mixtape Club.

FM: Yes! Because really, at its best, a mixtape can house an EP or an album’s worth of material from an artist presented in a context that’s rich with the records, collaborators, friends, inspirations and the actual environment that helped form the work. I think Ariel really captured that side of the mixtape beautifully: a mix as a personal statement, a love letter.

Head to the Mixtape Club website for more information.