Matt Handley, A&R Director For Sweat It Out, Speaks About His Influential Label & Yolanda Be Cool [Interview]
This time we have an extraordinary guest from one of our favorite labels: Matt Handley, A&R director of Sweat It Out!
Sweat It Out is an indie label and music agency based from Australia, renowned for breaking dance music through to mainstream there. They’ve risen to popularity with their global hit single "We No Speak Americano" by Yolanda Be Cool, and more recently have been the driving force behind Parachute Youth and RUFUS. Also, they’re pushing Flume’s new side project What So Not. Besides running a label, they do management, bookings and even publishing for their acts.
In other words, Sweat It Out! is a purveyor of quality music and has an indie approach and musical taste that hugely inspires us. We’re honored to get a chance to talk to them about their label and journey.
(BV = Budi Voogt of EDM.com; MH = Matt Handley)
BV: How did you guys get started with Sweat It Out...what’s the founding story?
MH: Originally I worked for another label called Central Station Records. I was actually the lawyer there, and Ajax was the number one DJ in the country. He wanted to start a label, and around the same time Central Station Records went bankrupt, so we teamed up with my boss there, Jamie Raebrun, to independently start Sweat It Out.
BV: What about the name Sweat It Out…we’ve heard some references to hot Thai food and heavy party nights?
MH: Exactly. It is a reference to sweating out the weekend by having really spicy meals on a Tuesday.
BV: The label’s founding father is DJ Ajax, whom had twice been crowned Australia’s best DJ. Unfortunately, he has passed away over a year ago. What was his role in the label and how did he influence you and the team? What did he bring to the table in terms of vision and musical taste?
MH: Today, still, if you ask pretty much any DJ in Australia right now, they would say that Ajax was their idol and one of the coolest guys to walk our shores. As a DJ, he had impeccable mixing skills and was renowned for showing international DJs who was the boss.
His role within the label was that of head figure and A&R, serving as a style icon and inspiration to both the artists on the label and others aspiring to get on.
BV: So Sweat It Out is not just a label but also an agency with a publishing wing. What services and activities do you guys perform exactly?
MH: Pretty much all that. We just launched a management wing and are constantly looking for ways to expand. It's become a requirement in today's music industry. To stay afloat, you need to have your fingers in all the pies.
BV: From what we understand you guys are very close to your artists, focusing on local and Australian talent. Do you guys represent all your artists for bookings and management too? Or what’s the approach here?
MH: Not always. Of course we like to represent our artists for bookings, and for the young guys we almost always do, but sometimes they are already signed elsewhere and the opportunity is just not there.
As for management, we handle things on a case by case basis. For example, some of the talents we manage do not release solely on Sweat It Out, but have a more diverse strategy. It all depends on what's best for the particular artist.
BV: Sweat It Out gathered mainstream recognition when they had signed and released ‘We No Speak Americano’ by Yolanda Be Cool in 2010. The track charted in over 16 countries, striking #1 positions in over five.
You had been working with Yolanda Be Cool before that release, pushing their Afro Nuts EP earlier. How did your collaboration come to life and what was the process of the creation of the ‘We No Speak Americano’ single? Did they just deliver a finished track or was this an intense A&R process?
MH: Well, I'm one half of Yolanda Be Cool, so even though I worked for the label, it was always my goal to sign music to it. It meant that I had to get Ajax's approval though - but fortunately he loved “We No Speak Americano” when he first heard it.
BV: Being a relatively unknown label at the time, the record ushered you into worldwide fame. How did the label and the team experience this? What opportunities and doors did it open to you and was it ever at times too overwhelming? Any major takeaways from such an experience?
MH: It basically gave us the confidence to take the label on as a full time operation for all of us and made us operate more professionally in every aspect.
BV: In late 2011 you guys released Can't Get Better Than This, the debut EP of Australian duo Parachute Youth. The track was a huge hit in Europe and we absolutely love the track. How did you guys get involved with Parachute Youth and how did the EP come to life?
MH: This was a release that Ajax heavily A&Red, taking it from an initial 10 minute demo to 4 minutes of perfect pop.
BV: From a label perspective we’re very intrigued to see collaborations between indies and majors. Another good example would be Inspected whom are pushing Koan Sound together with OWSLA. We often notice that as an indie we may be on the forefront of digital promotion, but mainstream penetration still depends on having access to the distribution channels and marketing funds of bigger companies. What are your thoughts on major - indie collaborations and what’s in it for both parties? Is there a big loss of freedom involved?
MH: We have worked with Sony for the RUFUS releases and it's nice to have them there as a backup. Kind of like how we have the USA to help us out if we ever got attacked by our neighbors with much greater sized armies. It's not necessary, but good to have in place.
BV: Coming back to the label’s musical style, it has definitely changed since 2008 to now. What’s your policy and approach to signing new talent; is there anything in particular you look for? Also do you work on a per title basis or do longer term deals with artists?
MH: We just look for stuff we love. And then, to quote Ajax, music has to stick. It has to have something that makes it unique and stand out.
BV: Recently you launched sub label ‘Club Sweat’. As stated on your website “Club Sweat was created as an avenue for us to release music we love without an agenda. No radio play? No online budget? // No problems! Great music stands out above all else.” Tell us about how this sub came to life and what music you’ve pushed so far.
MH: That's a pretty accurate description. With Club Sweat, we focus on great club music and release it without too much marketing fuss...and people seem to be loving it!
BV: The Silversix “Love What You Feel” release has been very well received, leading the sales chart of Club Sweat on Beatport. Seeing the success of this record, even without the promotional efforts, we’re curious to hear your thoughts on the future for the sub.
MH: Yeah... we have a lot of cool stuff on the Club Sweat label to come and are looking to start doing parties with it as well.
BV: Let’s move towards talking about the EDM industry and its recent developments.
More and more, people are becoming accustomed to having music available at the click of a mouse. Downloads overtook physical product, which in turn is now being overtaken by streaming. As a result, the majority of the audience we cater to is becoming less willing to pay for music. Most buyers of music are musicians themselves or purists, whereas the partying fans don’t hesitate to buy event tickets. Some have even coined the term ‘Event Driven Marketing’ for EDM.
In an earlier interview you mentioned that Sweat It Out didn’t turn a profit during the initial three years. How did your team survive that period and what motivated you to keep going? What was the turning point?
MH: Well....we weren't doing it for the money. We were doing it because we were passionate about it, and we still are. Lots of our releases still lose money, but we love it and push them anyways.
BV: In terms of genres, we’ve seen the rise of electro, then dubstep and now deep house and synth wave are thriving. What do you think the next big thing will be?
MH: I don't know and to be honest, I don't really care. Music will always be subjective. What's terrible to one person is amazing to another; this will always be the case.
BV: Alright, time to start rounding things off.
Australia is the home of multiple great indie dance labels, most notably yourself and Future Classic. Recently you’ve been pushing releases of Flume’s side project What So Not, which have been doing very well. A beautiful collaboration. What is Sweat It Out’s relationship with Future Classic and how do you guys collaborate? And big plans for the future?
MH: Well… Australia's scene is really quite small, so even though we are very competitive, we all have beers at the end of the day and support each other as much as possible.
BV: Looking to the future, Sweat It Out is undoubtedly going to make big waves. Could you lift the veil on some interesting things you have planned?
MH: Just a whole lot more of the same really!
BV: In terms of artists, anyone in particular we should be on the lookout for?
MH: Motez, Crooked Colours, Indian Summer, Bixel Boys, Danny T and Terace Playmode are all on the up. And then we also have a few new guys that we feel will be making some waves very soon.
BV: Awesome. That’s the end of it. Matt, thanks for being with us and speaking so frankly.
MH: Thanks for having us, best of luck!