From this Miami Beach office window, you can almost see the Sony building. For independent dance label SFP (Sounds For the People), this is about as close as it gets to the record-biz big time. In fact the only thing SFP seems to have in common with the music giant a few blocks down Lincoln Road is its ZIP code.
Which is just fine for DJs-turned-label-owners Marc Sacheli and Pierre Zonzon. Tucked away in a nondescript building untouched by gentrification, co-founders Sacheli and Zonzon have no illusions about their place in the industry food chain. As a label that produces underground dance tracks for DJs and DJ compilations, SFP tends to always be a few steps ahead of the next big thing, the purveyors of up-and-coming talent.
"I mean, that's really the role of a small label," says Sacheli through his French accent. "The other labels are looking at us as producers and not big sellers. There are different steps in the music business, and we finish the product and present it to the next level. We cannot sell a million records, or even half a million. We're not set up to do that. We don't want to do that. I wish, yes, in the future. But our role is more to put everything together and say, Well, this track from over there might go really well with this singer over here.'"
That was in fact one of the goals of founding SFP: take a track from over there (Europe) and mix it with a singer from over here (United States) to make a unique hybrid, something like the mélange of Miami Beach itself. Given the preeminence of the great instrumental DJs of Europe and the U.S. preference for vocals on dance tracks, the formula was good enough to help a fledgling label grow.
The other goal, and the inspiration for the company's inception, was to release club compilations in the manner of the European label Ministry of Sound. After their arrival in the early 1990s, Sacheli and Zonzon helped put South Beach on the techno map as DJs at Bash. The pair believed a compilation of tracks from the club was a way to capitalize on Miami's hot status in the club circuit at the time. With a little help from Bash co-owner and Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall, the result was the Bash CD Compilation Volume 1 and 2.
"In America no one was doing this -- there was no club compilation at the time," says Sacheli of those heady days. "And it was pretty difficult at the beginning with the distribution, because once again, nobody was doing this at the time."
Which is all part of the paradox of life on the front lines for a small independent label: having a great idea or artist with little recourse for marketing it. The upstart dance-club DJs trying to sell a bit of South Beach met with resistance from established labels and distributors in the United States. Before Paul Oakenfold was filling up arenas, DJ-produced music was still a fringe business.
"It seems very close, but six or seven years ago, dance music in America was 100 percent gay," says an incredulous Sacheli. "And it was like you couldn't do dance music if you were not gay. Which was pretty stupid because in Europe gay and straight are together in the same club."
In the world of dance music, Europe is the mother ship. It's a staple on the radio across the continent, while dance and electronic singles regularly register on the charts. Meanwhile a successful lounge compilation in the U.S. will sell around 200,000 records, about a tenth of any healthy hip-hop CD.
"The perception of electronic music is different because once again over [in Europe], it's a fact it's part of pop music," says Sacheli. "Not like here, where it's still really marginal. If you look at Billboard, dance music is at the bottom of everything. Because of America being so big, to promote a record you need a major company to be behind most records. And what is happening with dance or electronic music, they don't really understand how you can promote a DJ."
The French-born and -raised Sacheli and Zonzon know what goes down in the clubs of Amsterdam, Paris, and Ibiza. So it's no surprise that the company's main source of exposure and income comes from tracks by Euro-friendly artists like Robbie Rivera, Kluster, and the company's resident DJ Ivano Bellini, all in the dance clubs of Europe. The hope then for SFP and similar small dance labels is to have a big song in the European club circuits and ride it stateside.
"Our market is more right now in Europe; it's where our label names are known, our artists are known," says Sacheli. "Our records are selling over there. We're basically waiting for the big thing to happen in Europe, then come back here."
But the doldrums of the sagging economy during the recent recession/not-recession, along with problems that have plagued the music industry in particular, have affected SFP like all the rest. Though much of the music business is in limbo and many independents are going under, SFP has survived following that age-old investment advice: diversify.
To market each new style that comes swirling out of the myriad subcategories of electronic music, SFP has spun off a new label to capture the essence of the sound. Besides SFP, which now stands for its tribal house sound, there's Asphalt for club/house, Deep Touch for a more jazzy or loungy house sound, Soulgroove for garage vocal house, Manga Beat for a funkier sound, and Filtered for disco house.
"If we get three or four different tracks in a different style, then we open a new label," explains Sacheli. "It's just because, since we are releasing an unknown, the only way to sell it among the DJs is to recognize the name of the label."
Because it's impossible to chart the course the music will take, the potential for new artists is wide open. It's not uncommon for Sacheli or Zonzon to meet a new artist at lunch and lay down a track that afternoon.
"To compare it to rock music, it's like the hippie movement, where Ecstasy replaces hashish," laughs Sacheli. "Kids need a new music to express themselves, and I think dance music is one of these movements, still unrecognized really in America, but I believe it has to come. When you want to give a message to the world, sometimes the ways you're gonna choose are not dictated by the market. You're gonna feel that this way is better for the message."
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Nowhere can the winds of change be felt more than at the annual Winter Music Conference, where a few well-placed copies of a new record can become the next big thing. And while the actual conference seems to be in flux, with fewer official registrants but a growing number of visitors, the event seems destined to keep growing no matter what. And it's all thanks to the Brits.
"The English, they made Ibiza," explains Sacheli. "They are the ones that say, Okay, this is gonna become a big club hit for us in the summer. That's the place to go.' And it seems they are doing the same with the conference."
But if the Brits lead the charge to SoBe during WMC, that doesn't mean they or anyone else are hearing the sound of the island.
"When [people] come from Europe for the Winter Music Conference, they go to listen to all these house DJs, that's the Miami sound for them," says Sacheli with a chuckle. "But after the conference it's not the Miami sound. It's like us. We are, in Europe, the Miami sound. Filtered Records is the Miami sound. [Yet] there are two record stores in Miami Beach, [and] one of them doesn't want to buy the record. So I'm not sure of the sound of Miami."