Hi guys, first of all, who are you, where are you, and how are you?
Greetings from Lyon! Sandrine here, the label manager. Doing pretty good actually. Just spent a lovely week with Miktek who came to work on his album in our studio. Spring is finally here and the town is vibrant !
Let’s start at the very beginning. What prompted the birth of Ultimae label and how did you come up with the name?
Back in 99 Asura had their first full length album ready and several label interested, but none giving them the real go ahead. Tired of promises and also with the idea of the creation of a portal for ambient lovers Vincent Villuis decided to set up a record label, release the album and open a website. Vince and I met when they were putting the final touch to the cover. We started as Infinium Records and worked under that banner for about 18 months until we received a legal notice asking for us to destroy anything bearing the name Infinium. We went offline and on a trip in Montreal spent much time in a nice coffee place with our Latin dictionaries till we find the expression Ultimae terrae, meaning the furthest piece of land you can reach. We liked it very much and decided to go for the short version, Ultimae.
So the Asura’s album was the very first release… How was it put together?
Vince was part of the band at the time with Charles and another friend. They’d been working on tracks for a few years, had released some on various compilations and got the complete album story ready late 99. At the time it was only a CD album release as digital platforms weren’t in existence yet. When Code Eternity was released Vince and I immediately started working on Fahrenheit Project part 1. The original title was Fahrenheit but as we worked on it we got the habit of calling it the Fahrenheit Project and kept this title in the end. As long-term fans of electronic music and ambient specifically we had a pretty good idea of the people we wanted to work with but also went discovering on MP3.com That’s where we found Solar Fields…
Tell us more about the Fahrenheit Project series and how it has grown over the multiple volumes.
Vince always wanted to do a series of seven compilations with an idea of temperature in sound. It took us over ten years to complete the collection. Compilations are for us an interesting way to introduce the work of artists new to music composition or simply new to our label and fans. Often, this led to signing an album with us. Now that we’re done with Fahrenheit Project we are starting to think about the next series but I can’t tell you much, as we’ve not fully defined the idea.
What is the aesthetic of sound behind the label and how did it evolve over the last 10+ years?
We always released music in the ambient downtempo genre that touched us deeply. We can’t release something that would be just pleasing to the ear. Some albums which got released on other labels were first offered to us and the feedback they got was : make it deeper, put your guts out!!! We enjoy music that is wide, deep, emotional, melancholic, intense, spacious, ethereal… That’s where we started and I think that’s where we’ll always be.
How would you categorize the genre of the music in which you focus and what are your thoughts on the word ‘psybient’?
We tend to tag our releases with genres such as ambient, cinematic downtempo, IDM, atmospheric electronica. Progressive and psychedelic trance and deep techno also for some releases or individual tracks from artists such as AES Dana or Solar Fields. Some fans tag us with the term psybient but we don’t feel it’s really adequate for our music… or maybe a few tracks on some comps. To me psybient music contains more of these little psychedelic tweaks and effects which we don’t have.
You’ve managed to maintain a consistent presentation with all of your albums. Tell us about the packaging and artwork of all your releases.
Vince creates all of the artwork, sometimes at the beginning with his brother Mat. We changed last year, or the year before, can’t quite remember. We had enough of the black borders. At first we used them to show the cinematic, 16.9° style of our music but eventually they became a barrier to our creativity. Some of the pictures we wanted to use looked awesome standing alone and lost their strength within the borders. And after a good 10 years, a change is welcome. Sub88, a French designer worked on covers for I Awake and Cells albums. It was the choice of the artists to work with him as they really appreciate his mix of cold synthetic 3D type of objects and nature. Vince and I are really into photography, hence our choices.
How do you go about signing other musicians to Ultimae? Any particular names that you wish to release in the future?
I did tell you that we must be deeply moved by the music. Another essential point is the human encounter. We can’t work with an artist if we don’t get on. If he / she could never be a friend. In the music we somehow feel if we have a certain sensitivity in common, meetings often lead to lasting friendships. Exactly what just happened with Mihalis Aikaterinis aka Miktek or with Magnus Solar Fields who happens to be our daughter’s godfather. I Awake contacted us for his first album and came home to Lyon to visit us. That’s when we decided to sign him. Cell was doing internship with Huby Sea, we met him at the studio, invited him to a party at home and have been like family ever since. We hope we could work with Offthesky, we’re in love with his music. At the same time he seems to be in a good collaboration with Databloem and Hibernate, so we wouldn’t want to interfere.
What were some of the hardest lessons learned in running a label during the last decade?
Hahahahahaha… Nah that’s not for a simple interview, let’s write an essay!!! Make sure your name is unique. That was a proper lesson, luckily it didn’t cost us too much. Signing a license of the whole catalogue to a Russian company – with all due respect to my Russian friends, fans and partners – that was baaaaaad! The guys still sell our stuff and we never saw a single penny on our account. Reprinting 3000 copies of a release for a special order from a Canadian distributor which closed down, luckily we got the CDs back!!! Signing a worldwide distribution agreement with one company – you know that old expression, never put all your eggs in the same basket. We got lucky here too, that French distributor closed down but we were already selling direct from our website and to a few other websites such as Chaos Unlimited and Psyshop. That saved us.
Can you reflect on the current state of economics when it comes to running a label as a business?
Ultimae isn’t just a label. We run a record shop in the Lyon town center (funny thing, as I write, a psychology student doing is homework just fell asleep listening to Paul Kalkbrenner, sweet!!!), we have an online shop and ship worldwide every day, we sell not only our releases but also distribute about 80 self-produced artists and labels, we are publishers, run a mastering studio, write articles for music magazines… We’re rather independent and free, there is no exclusive distribution agreement with anyone for any country – you know why from the hard lesson learned question! Even on our digital distribution agreement with INgrooves we can go direct with a new platform if we feel we must for the good of Ultimae.
We’re doing well economically speaking. We are a team of 4 people, 3 full-time, 1 part-time. Several of our artists earn enough with royalties and performance fees to concentrate on their creation only. I studied business and law and had several experiences as manager in various companies which helped when it came to running our own. I do all the administration (with an assistant now) and legal matters, it’s my cup of tea. I keep a little bit of time for artistic work though, just so I don’t blow up! In 13 years of running a business only twice did we end up with a negative balance.
This being said, the current situation didn’t happen from day one, or by a twist of my magic wand. HARD WORK is the key. For 7 years both Vince and I had another full-time job and worked every night, week-end, bank holiday, holiday on the label. When we finally were able to take the vital minimum as wages we still worked crazy. It’s only when our daughter turned 3 that we decided to take a break for Christmas. Now we also take a break in the summer for a family escapade. Still today we are aware that we can’t just sit back and enjoy the ride drinking coffee and cracking jokes. We’re workaholics and with the help of Cécile and Arnaud have a dedicated team for the Ultimae mission.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in starting their own?
Run, you fool!
Tell us about Ultimae Subscription Program.
We just started the subscription programs following requests from old-time fans and friends who wanted to receive all our releases automatically. This to make sure they would not miss any, especially the limited editions. We have a 5 CD and a 10 CD subscription to accommodate with everyone’s financial means. People on the 10 CD program receive a collector item. We create small quantities of merchandising items, sometimes just 10 copies like the Pollen mugs, so it makes the gift very special.
What do you have lined up for 2013?
Next in line is the digital release of Aftermath 2.0, remastered version with addition of track # 08 originally released on Albedo. Then comes Miktek’s album [ Elsewhere ]… I Awake is working on an album, so are Scann-Tec, AES Dana, Asura. Miktek and Circular on an EP. Nova and I on compilations. I can’t promise everything will be released this year. Maybe we’ll even release something we didn’t plan!
Thank you for your time! Any last words for readers of Headphone Commute?
If you have suggestions of releases we should definitely sell in the shop, let us know! Anyone serious about running a record label can contact me with questions (firstname.lastname@example.org). By serious I mean people who do intend to pay royalties to their artists, sign decent agreements which they’ll respect, … It’s a mad job but I love it to bits! Keep following Headphone Commute, the team has a very interesting view on music :)