Independent record label Future Classic quickly rose to the level of electronic royalty two years ago, and with the likes of Flume, Chet Faker, Flight Facilities, Jagwar Ma, and Ta-Ku on its roster, has become a synonym for contemporary Australian music. Despite all the attention it attracts, much about the label is still a mystery. I got in touch with its founder, Nathan McLay to answer my burning questions about its early years, its unique approach to vertical integration, Flume's success, and where they're going from here.
Nathan McLay's voice crackles over Skype as we struggle with a sluggish Internet connection. I had first met the Future Classic founder in the grimy basement of a 6th Street bar at SXSW earlier in the year, but the chaos of the week and ambitions of the label meant that it was months before we found time to connect. Holding my laptop above my head and wandering about my hotel room, I finally found a stable Wi-Fi signal.
Describing the move to found a record label as a "logical by-product" of his life at the time, Nathan explains that his job at Inertia and experiences DJing in the early 2000s sowed the seeds necessary to take the plunge. Following numerous requests from various friends to release the music he played at gigs, Nathan set up the Future Classic in 2004 with help from his friend, Chad Gillard. Euro-centric and heavily electronic, Future Classic set itself even further apart from its Australian counterparts by going vinyl only—a decision that Nathan describes as the natural way to contribute to record store culture at the time.
In a national music scene dominated by rock and roll, Future Classic's unique position meant that, in addition to being bigger in the UK and Germany than they were at home, the label remained largely insolvent for much of its lifetime. Nathan laughs, "From the start, I couldn't afford to pay Chad properly. I gave him every second DJ gig that I had and taught him how to DJ. To this day, our A&R and relationship with each other has always been routed in those years playing music together."
By occupying various aspects of the music industry, the two were able to keep the company afloat for several years until it became self sustaining. "It's interesting because in the early days releasing music was the thing we did for passion and throwing parties and touring international artists in Australia was the thing that we survived on financially," Nathan tells me. "We did a lot of German and UK acts, and bands too. That was our bread and butter. Releasing 12"s, EPs, and singles was what we did from touring money and our day jobs."
The label's month-to-month capital did little to distract Nathan and Chad from releasing what they wanted to, regardless of wide appeal. In its early days, distributors would tell the two to replicate successful releases with similar sounds, but even their recommendations did little to deter them from releasing the latest techno or jazz recording that they'd happened to fall in love with. When you look at the label's current roster, it's clear that little has changed. Paradoxically, this devotion to representing a variety of eclectic sounds has now become part of Future Classic's ever-evolving aesthetic, but it wasn't until 2012 that the label really came into its own
At the request of a local record store, Future Classic announced that they would be holding a original production competition and opened submissions for unreleased songs--within that 500-artist demo pile was the work of one Harley Streton, better known to the music community as Flume.
"It felt important," Nathan says, "Harley ended up being the first artist that we managed, so we built a team around the release, but nobody knew it would be so huge. People that I regularly sent demos to were responding positively so it felt good." After winning five ARIAS and the affection of millions, Flume's success proved to the indie-focused Australian community that electronic artists could make it big too. In the months that followed, Future Classic evolved from boutique label to global influencer.
When I ask Nathan if they've had trouble keeping up with their increased popularity, he's not shy to admit the problems that it creates. "The challenge is just processing all the communications …there are a lot of relationships to juggle. Constantly scanning what's going on and formulating plans for our acts globally gets to be a challenge.. after a certain point we have to say no and do stuff that's our own concept." Nathan tells me new project in particular is taking up a lot of time and feels "really good" – their first strong female act, George Maple. Future Classic's catalogue is peppered with her releases under various aliases, but now, with a team built around her and a three-piece live band developed, things are set to blow up for the British vocalist later in the year.
Brand development, key shows in LA, New York and the UK, and heavy support from Flume himself are just a few benefits of Future Classic's position in the music industry. Though far more profitable now than in the early years, Nathan and co. are once again vertically integrating themselves into many aspects of the music industry. In addition to releases and merch, their suite of services include music publishing, touring, and artist management. With so much under their belt, it's hard to see where they could possibly grow from here. Pressing this question on Nathan, I was surprised to learn that their strategy isn't in grandoise plans, but in restraint.
"It's just about adding the right people. I don't think we have to be putting out more things, it's what we don't do that will define us. There's a lot of expectation from artists to put out more content and get more views, and I think the whole industry needs to learn patience and to realize that bigger isn't always better. Letting things come when they come is a good trait."
As we progress through the years and artists come and go, above all things it's clear that Future Classic is here to stay.
Ziad Ramley is on Twitter: @ZiadRamley