Why OWSLA could be the most important label in dance music right now
By putting creativity first and fostering collaboration between artists of all mediums, OWSLA has set itself apart from the rest, writes KATIE CUNNINGHAM.
In a dark, stuffy, two metre-squared room, Skrillex is making the floor shake. He’s crouched over a laptop, wrestling with a HDMI cable that keeps dislodging itself, playing his new single Purple Lamborghini at a volume that is almost certainly damaging the hearing of everyone around him.
We’re at the office his label OWSLA calls home – or, more precisely, we’re underneath it. While 15 odd label staff arrange release rollouts, write blog content, plan events and coordinate press schedules upstairs, Sonny Moore is roadtesting the speaker system in the studio his team has been building for the past year. The idea is that when it’s done, OWSLA’s roster of artists – a cast of names that currently includes everyone from Australia’s own What So Not to new success story Mija – can drop by whenever they want to work on tracks, without going through the hassle of booking and paying for a commercial studio.
But before they can do that, Skrillex has to ensure the sound is up to standard, and that means making the volume loud. So while his contribution to the Suicide Squad soundtrack blares out, a room full of guys dressed in all black (the unofficial OWSLA uniform), watch on and nod approvingly. “If we drop any more bass, it might trigger the L.A. seismic warning system,” one sound engineer jokes.
“If we drop any more bass, it might trigger the L.A. seismic warning system”
OWSLA began here, in a particularly unspectacular stretch of Downtown Los Angeles, five years ago. In the summer of 2011, Skrillex founded the label together with his manager Tim Smith and publicists Kathryn Frazier and Clayton Blaha. Not that he had any particular aspirations to be a label head – “like a lot of artists, in the past he’d had some frustrating experiences with labels,” explains OWSLA’s General Manager Blaise DeAngelo – it was just the move that made sense.
As North America’s EDM explosion took hold in 2011, Moore saw artists like Zedd, Dillon Francis, Porter Robinson and Kill the Noise starting to make a new wave of electronic music, without the industry ecosystem to support them. They either weren’t taken seriously, they couldn’t get good label deals, or they weren’t getting the resources and support they needed from the label they did have. So he started a label for them.
“I think he saw it as his responsibility to give these people a place to be themselves and pursue their art,” DeAngelo tells me in his office, away from the ear-bleed of the speakers. “Not in a holier than thou way, not that they needed him to do their thing. But he wanted to provide a platform to incubate their talents. “
Incubate they did. OWSLA’s first release was Porter Robinson’s Spitfire EP, a release that crashed the Beatport servers and kickstarted the career of one of EDM’s most genuine talents. (“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of @Skrillex and @OWSLA,” Robinson tweeted last week when the label officially celebrated five years. “Thank you guys so much.”)
— porter robinson (@porterrobinson) September 13, 2016
What came next – landmark releases like Zedd’s Shave It, Gesaffelstein’s Pursuit and What So Not’s Jaguar EP – proved just as successful. Along the way, Skrillex became dance music’s biggest superstar and OWSLA grew with him, amassing over 200 releases in the last five years.
In 2016, OWSLA doesn’t just release music. They also throw parties, make merch, host festival stages, have a Beats 1 radio show and run NEST HQ, a website devoted to raising the profile of emerging artists (“We really want to show and share the passions we have for stuff that we like and that just makes us feel good,” Skrillex said by way of mission statement when it was launched back in 2014). With photographers, videographers, writers, visual artists, vocalists and producers all in the OWLSA orbit, it’s less a label and more a collective of creatives, working across multiple disciplines and supporting each other along the way. Which is kind of their business model now.
At the start of the year, DeAngelo says, he and the rest of the label had a meeting to discuss how they could best provide value to artists. As well as the obvious financial support, “the thing we landed on was [providing] content, creative resources.”
“We decided to stop thinking of ourselves as a record label and start thinking of ourselves as a creative service. Why would an artist sign with a label like OWSLA in 2016 when they can distribute their music directly on iTunes, market their own stuff with third party consultants, get third party publicists? Really, conceivably, you can do it all on your own. The one thing that’s hard to do as an artist is to find the right creative resources.”
“Obviously we still do all the traditional label services like distribution, marketing, sales, publicity. But we realised that anyone can do those things”.
That emphasis on supporting creation is what sets OWSLA apart from its contemporaries. While much of the modern dance world spins on greed (just look at Bob Sillerman’s attempt to build an empire, or The Chainsmokers’ insistence their project is a “brand”), OWSLA has always put creativity first. When DeAngelo says business comes second to art in these walls, you believe him.
It’s something that comes from the top down. “Sonny’s always been that kind of guy,” DeAngelo says. “He grew up in Downtown L.A., he’s always, with no provocation whatsoever, trying to give back to the community. He’s reinvesting his money into building studios here at the office. He’s just always looking to support other artists and artistry in general. That’s kind of how OWSLA was born – he felt an innate calling to support modern artistry.”
“That’s kind of how OWSLA was born – [Skrillex] felt an innate calling to support modern artistry”
Even from the outside, the support network within OWSLA is obvious. The same artists frequently pop up in each other’s video clips, they share each other’s music on social media, and when one of the crew is DJing in L.A., there’s every chance Skrillex might swing by for an impromptu back-to-back set.
Collaborations, Blaise says, often happen organically. “We have a massive group text that all 30 of us are on. Pretty much we are always in communication with each other. It does very much feel like a family.”
It helps that Skrillex isn’t an absent label head. “It’s actually insane,” DeAngelo replies when I ask how much involvement Moore has in OWSLA’s day-to-day operations. “It’s almost like he has two jobs. He’s an artist, but he’s also a very active label head…obviously we try to be mindful of his time. We don’t involve him in the small minutia of the label. But if we asked him, he would. If I called him and asked him where I thought I should put my desk, he would come in here and try to help me figure it out.”
One week later, Skrillex is sitting on the stage of the theatre at L.A.’s Ace Hotel, joined by Blaise DeAngelo, video director Jodeb and Dutch producer Wiwek. They’ve just screened Still in the Cage, an ambitious 18-minute, big budget video clip for Moore and Wiwek’s new track of the same name, filmed on location in Thailand.
Kanye West is in here somewhere, but so are a couple thousand of the label’s biggest fans. Entry to the premiere (and the rowdy afterparty in the lobby) was free and the line to get in wrapped around the block. Another label might have made this an invite-only VIP event, but exclusivity isn’t the OWSLA way.
“We’re not a record label, we’re a group of creative people who just like to make stuff”
Still in the Cage is a case-in-point example of OWSLA’s commitment to creativity. It’s hard to imagine the budget required to make a film of this scale constitutes a cost-effective marketing move – but just like the studio complex, it’s something OWSLA poured money into because they believed in it.
While Skrillex and co. are ostensibly on stage to field questions about the video, it doesn’t take long for the Q&A session to detour into OWSLA’s mission statement. “We’re not a record label, we’re a group of creative people who just like to make stuff,” Skrillex says. “I think right now is the opportunity for any artist or anybody who’s creative to get together with likeminded people and break the mould all the time: musically, visually, sonically.” At the end of the day, that’s what OWSLA is about.
Katie Cunningham is the Editor of inthemix. You can follow her on Twitter.
OWSLA will be at this year’s Your Paradise in Fiji. The 2016 event is sold out, but you can grab 2017 tickets now.