He should know. Mark’s been wheeling and dealing his way through the business since his parents bought him a synth in the early 80s. His path through the last 20 years leaves a trail of artist careers, great records and legendary parties in his wake. If ever there’s a man to have been in the right place at the right time, it’s Mark.
His pop band Perfect Day enjoyed some success at the end of the eighties before he fully immersed himself in the hedonistic glory of acid house. He took up a day job as a record distributor before establishing Wall of Sound and went on to work with some of the greatest singers, songwriters and bands. Royksopp, Les Rhythmes Digitales (aka Stuart Price) and the Propellerheads are just some of the artists to have been under his care.
These days Mark is still at the helm of Wall of Sound, DJing on BBC 6 Music and still getting feverishly hot under the collar about new artists and music.
M spoke to him about how he became embroiled in the music business and why he thinks it’s becoming increasingly hard to make any money in the industry…
How did you get into music?
It just hit me. There were moments which shaped and changed the way I heard things. I also reacted against what my older siblings. They were into a lot of heavy rock and I went to the synths.
Synths were a very intriguing scenario back then because, at the time, they weren’t everywhere. But when they became available in the early 80s I made my mum and dad get me one from the Gratton catalogue.
I painted my bedroom black and used to sit there and make noises on it. I was always into melodies. Melody lives with you forever.
How did you start songwriting?
I was in a band in the late 80s called Perfect Day - it was a prock band. Not prog. Prock. At that time I was doing some visuals in night clubs too so I was on both sides of it. I worked at the first Shoom and the early acid house clubs but had to leave that behind to focus on the music. I went through the band process which taught me about the business. So when the band split I got a job in a warehouse packing records. I wanted to know what happened to your music once you had made it.
I started doing press and distro deals for artists and that’s how the label took shape. People like Basement Jaxx and Kruder and Dorfmeister would come knocking at the door. I did a Wall of Sound compilation called Give 'em Enough Dope which featured all of these kind of artists. It was a reaction against the diluted dance music that had started happening. You weren’t allowed to say you loved Kraftwerk, hip hop or Steely Dan. Everything was kept separate.
At the time Mo Wax, Ninja and Warp were all doing their thing. We became part of that alternative scene but I always wanted to bring melody. From the very beginning I said I want to sell a million copies of every album I released. Back then I was criticised for saying that.
Is it more difficult to survive as a label now?
It’s impossible to survive now. How do you survive as a label? You tell me. It’s just so different these days. There is a generation of people who place no value in music because of the internet. People think it’s free everywhere which has caused irreparable damage as far as I’m concerned.
The one positive of the web is how it’s brought people in touch with more music. Previously we’d have to hear something on the radio, then go to a shop and ask someone how to find it. Now one click can give you access to everything.
How do you source new talent?
Things happen for a reason. I’ve always said that. There are certain moments when the planets align. But I still get bombarded with messages. I used to have a team of A&R people but it’s now fallen just back to me again. We’d be bombarded with physical demos. Now it’s oversaturated with emails. There’s so much to go through. It’s crazy.
Are new artists business savvy?
They have to be these days because it’s such a DIY thing. The money that comes through record sales, it’s just so different to before. Artists need to realise it’s not all over once you’ve got a deal. That’s just the beginning of it.
Which acts have you most enjoyed working with?
I stand behind every record and artist I’ve worked with. That’s how I always look at it. There are some interesting stories from those heady days back in the 90s when it all went a little bit mad. It’s very well documented which is good because I don’t remember any of it.
Royksopp were the biggest selling act on the label. They never compromised that. Grace Jones came at a time when we were moving the label on. People always say never work with your heroes. But I just thought fuck that.
Lazy journos (not that you’re one of them) invented terms like trip hop and big beat. And everything we released got put in a box. Every record we put out became big beat. Because of that, I started Bad Magic, a hip hop label with Ugly Ducking and Blak Twang, We Love You, which was more guitar-based with I am Kloot and The Bees, and Nucamp, which was dance dance.
Jacques Lu Cont (also known as Stuart Price) was still at school when I signed him. He was in a band called Zoot Woman. He said to me that he’d done this project which became the first LRD album. It was quite alternative at the time electronically. We decided to release it but he needed a different character so Jacques Lu Cont came to be. The whole French thing was buzzing around, we constructed a story and everyone believed it. It evolved into [the LRD album] Darkdancer. And it landed in the middle of Brit pop much to the consternation of everyone at the time. Stuart went on to become the biggest producer in the world.
Which new artists are you working with that you’re excited about?
Sykur are from Iceland. They’re big over there. We only took certain tracks from their album as I didn’t think the rest of the world would understand it. Curling is their great single. They are part of a great creative vibration going on up there at the moment. In Iceland we had some of the craziest Wall of Sound parties ever. Killaflaw are also amazing. The singer has a great voice and is part of a combination I call rock n rave. I played it to some people in America and they loved it. In the past, they didn’t get it because they didn’t see electronic music as real music. Even though it evolved over there in Chicago and Detroit.
When we did the Propellerheads, there was a connection, but now because of EDM, US audiences are actively seeking out these musical styles.
Mark is DJing at the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen tonight (31 July) alongside live sets from Sykur and Killaflaw.