In an industry as brutally fickle as the music business, to survive 10 years as an independent label is a feat in itself. But this year UK label Ninja Tune—without whom we would have never heard music by Cinematic Orchestra, Mr. Scruff, Coldcut and countless others—celebrates its 20th year of existence, an accomplishment that it is commemorating with a series of parties around the globe and a book and box set release. Matt Black, one half of Coldcut and co-founder of Ninja Tune, took some time out to reflect on the past 20 years and the next 20 to come.
Congratulations on the 20th birthday of Ninja Tune! What did you do personally to celebrate?
Well you know me, I think I’ll probably be found with my nose in an enormous pile of fair trade, organic sugarcane. But if I’m not doing that, I might be doing a meditation course to finally crack the trick of being able to turn myself into a diaphanous sheet and slide through the keyhole, which would qualify me as a true ninja, rather than a stealth ninja. A ninja pretending to be a ninja. Is a ninja pretending to be a ninja a true ninja? If they’re very good with getting away with it. I think that probably is us. Also I’m celebrating along with the rest of Ninja Tune with a pile of new music, various parties worldwide so can’t get much better than that.
What kind of vision did you have in mind for the label when you founded it two decades ago?
Sometimes I think of the music business as a huge sausage machine that puts artists in one end, and then all these A&R [guys] and corporations turn the handle and this horrible mince comes out the other end. So the vision was to escape the sausage machine and found a label and a way of doing business that was different to that—[one] that had more love for the artists than just seeing artists and music as a pure commodity.
What is the key to Ninja Tune’s longevity?
We’ve managed to show that it’s possible to be careful with the cash [and] crazy with the music. And I think our artists are closer to us than they are with many other labels. And again, the strength of human relationships… when organizations get too big, they become clumsy and autistic. So I think we’ve avoided that by staying on a human scale.
What have been the label’s greatest triumphs?
Well, being here after 20 years in a cutthroat, savage environment with huge dinosaurs falling all around [is] a major triumph. Jason Swinscoe, who started Cinematic Orchestra, was working in the office at Ninja Tune—the people who work here are pretty much all music lovers—and Jason was a music lover who managed to use the opportunity that being at Ninja gave [him] to parlay [that job] into an increasingly successful career as an original music-maker. So that’s a bit of a fairytale come true. And I like Jason’s story because it’s true and he’s still rocking on, and it shows that Ninja Tune can do that. We are partly a platform of opportunities for people to take their music passion further.
What’s the best piece of advice you could offer someone wanting to start an indie label?
Whatever it is that’s your vision, try and work out what makes you different [from] everyone else. Then try to connect that with some way of getting yourself noticed that arises naturally out of your uniqueness, rather than doing what everyone else is doing. Because if you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re not going to get anywhere because there’s an awful amount of people trying to do it… And keep your passion for what you’re doing as a light clearly upfront. Don’t get confused by the mirrors of Babylon.
Where do you see the label being 20 years from now?
I’d like to see Ninja Tune get more involved in software and visuals. I do think that music is just software, and software’s what’s useful to people—whether it’s to chill out, dance to, reprogram yourself. And I think convergence between music, labels, artists, engineers, producers, remixers, DJs and film makers, editors, directors, producers, coders, designers, artists, cameramen etc is still going somewhere interesting. I think that some of the key artists on Ninja like Cinematic [Orchestra], and Coldcut and Mr. Scruff are increasingly fascinated by the possibilities of making music into audio-visual entertainment of one sort or another.
For a while I’ve thought that film was the top artform, because it includes everything else. But in a way I think I would still hold that videogames can do everything that film can do and add that other dimension of interactivity. So I would like to see Ninja Tune evolving more in the multimedia direction. I think we’ve made some good inroads into that, and I think we can continue. But as Steinski often reminds me, every moment is a gift, and all you can say is we’re here now and enjoying every moment. So I’m concentrating on that rather than a 20 year plan.
- Marisa Aveling