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Everything about Substance Recordings is impressive. The snazzy, ultramodern Website. The stark CD cover art. The swank Collins Avenue office. The penetrating gaze and intelligent patter of label head Greg Chin -- a striking Chinese-Jamaican transplant who also happens to be the electronic indie's principal artist, a.k.a. Stryke. The Kingston-born DJ built an appropriately impressive reputation as an adventurous purveyor of techno against the throbbing monotony of South Florida's trance scene. His most recent release, the full-length Pages from the Blue Diary, smoothes the tech edge with expansive house beats, trance buildups and breakdowns, and an ambient sensibility that makes some tracks downright chill. Stryke's labelmates are equally eclectic: Dominican tech-house phenom Sheeno, dark tech disturbance Anti-Eye, and full-on housemeister John Beltrana, among others. Good stuff all around. It's just too bad this is hardly the most auspicious year to get a new label, no matter how good, off the ground.
"It's been tough," Chin says simply, looking back over the fourteen months since the Substance startup in May 2001. He sits in an airy, well-appointed office on South Beach the label shares with the young investor who generates the cash that keeps Substance going. A message board on the wall outlines the steps to success while a DJ Stryke doll spins at tiny turntables on Chin's desk, a tiny reminder that for all the getting and spending, it's still about the music.
"It's a weird time for labels right now. A lot of people are saying, 'September 11. September 11,'" Chin observes. "I really don't think this [slump] is a result of September 11. I think electronic music in general isn't selling as well as it was." He just as easily could have said that nothing is selling as well as it was. Whatever the reason, the majors have been bleeding in established genres such as rock, pop, and hip-hop, so for a small independent to survive on electronic music, some creative thinking is required.
"We have to try to find an alternative means of distributing our music," agrees Chin. To that end Substance has taken to licensing tracks to other labels and will be hosting a Friday night at the South Beach club Red. "Electronic music for a long time was very faceless," he notes. "And we're struggling on how to -- I hate to use the word -- market. I pretty much have production, DJing, working in the studio down pat. But when it comes to a label, you're dealing with different kinds of personalities. It's definitely a learning experience."
Chin made a big promotional push last March during the Winter Music Conference, but had no luck in finding a distributor who would get Substance Recordings into stores. After that, business stalled. "Summer is a slow season for dance music," he shrugs.
In the meantime, Chin has been at work in the studio and on tour. Although the DJ is a little embarrassed to admit his business inclination, the budding record exec in him sees new markets in the Caribbean. "Kids are hungry for the music," he says of the crowds who catch his shows in the Dominican Republic. "These guys have record stores, but you can't get a Carl Cox or a Funky Green Dogs album." Calls for gigs commonly come with the request: "Can we book Stryke and have him bring the product down to sell?"
Even in his native Jamaica, where the dub movement can be said to be one of the original forces of electronic dance, Chin sees untapped potential. "There's no one carrying any dance music," he claims. "When I first went down to play, I thought: 'I'm gonna be in trouble because of dub, [but] the kids there want to hear house and techno also. Kids fly up here, so that's what they know."
Chin appreciates the eclectic taste of his fellow Caribbeans, in contrast to the more rigid requirements of some fellow Miami DJs. "I don't like the fact that we get to the point where we alienate people: If you don't listen to i.d.m. you can't be here," he mimics. He also objects to what he sees as an overly elitist anti-commercialism locally. "To me, at the end of the day, if I'm still doing what I want to do, I haven't sold out. I have to support myself and take care of the people around me. I have to go out there and get these distribution deals."