Label of the Month: Ghostly International

As the label approaches its 25-year anniversary, Marcus Barnes digs in with Ghostly International founder Sam Valenti IV to explore the bold and extraordinary vision behind one of the scene’s most essential outlets for independent music.

18 min
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Sept 5, 2023
Marcus Barnes

Next year marks 25 years since Ghostly International was founded in Detroit. For those of us who have been around since its inception, it’s hard to believe the label has been around for so long. There are many factors that play into this disbelief; the passing of time increasing in speed as we get older, resistance to getting old, but most of all, the fact that the label remains so fresh and influential after nearly a quarter of a century. From the iconic logo to its diverse catalogue and a consistently progressive artist development ethos, Ghostly’s identity is open-ended and that has been central to the label’s longevity and continued relevance. Talking via Zoom, label founder Sam Valenti IV and I find common ground on a range of topics. Over the course of an hour-long chat, Sam comes across as the archetypal humble-yet-passionate music head that you might expect to helm such a respected label. Many of the key touch points, regarding the conception of a label and the community and camaraderie that was present back in 1999, when Ghostly launched, trace back to the foundational elements of society itself. Deep as that may sound, coming together and collaborating is core to the formation of “civilised” society and fundamental to the success of record labels, too. A kind of micro-to-macro comparison.

“90% of labels are just groups of friends pooling their energy and talent, throwing club nights, putting out songs. I love that camaraderie,” he says, citing Gilles Peterson and Mo’ Wax among his early influences. “They had great art direction, felt international and seemed very exotic,” he adds. “What Gilles has done over his career, the template of building culture through a label, that’s still appealing to me. It means something to have a little crew of friends united by an idea or a taste.” Similarly, Ghostly’s diversity in terms of genre also came from the labels Sam admired and the magazines he was reading, including the likes of Jockey Slut, DJ Mag and Mixmag, which gave insight into the ever-fertile British scene.

Ghostly International Sam V

Honouring the label’s hometown and lineage, while ensuring that it wasn’t actually defined as a “Detroit label,” was also at the forefront of Sam’s mind back when Ghostly first came into being. This fed into the early experimentalism; Detroit has a rich history with many genres, and that all-encompassing outlook gave Ghostly its formative identity. Which is what Sam describes as Warp-esque. Ghostly is the product of its hometown’s DIY culture. Going way back to the roots of techno, which appeared a decade before Sam’s label was born, there was the notion of everyone having their own label. Kevin Saunderson with KMS, Juan Atkins with Metroplex, Jeff Mills with Axis, Carl Craig with Planet E Communications and so on. For Sam, growing up in the Detroit suburbs and being exposed to the local way of doing things meant the idea of starting his own label was a very accessible and real possibility. “I would see the addresses on the record labels I bought locally and they were down the street, or post boxes in Detroit or in Ann Arbor where I was going to college. It seemed very accessible,” he explains. “The idea of a label then, to me, meant pressing up some records locally, and taking them around town and selling them to the shops on consignment.”

Without getting too caught up in reminiscing about “back in the day”, this was an era where the internet was still very much in its infancy and the groundwork to get a label up and running was still driven by physical distribution. Sam, and many others from this era, and before, were filling up their cars with boxes of records and driving around themselves to get their music in all of the most important outlets. An important figure in giving Sam guidance in this early phase of the label was his friend, the late Disco D (Dave Aaron Shayman). Dave has his own club night and was already a few steps down the label path, so he was a key source of information, again, before the advent of “How to start your own record label” content, which is so easily accessible online today.

Matthew Dear and I were total rookies. We took about a year, I’d say, to get the first record together between the production and everything else,” he explains. “We made the labels on Dave’s computer. Distribution-wise, there were probably five that mattered, and I would just fax them. I remember that was the first thing I bought, a fax machine. They’d fax you back, asking for 30 copies, which was so exciting, to think that anyone wanted our record. A lot of the rest I just sold out of my car to local stores, but it wasn’t very well organised or elegant.” As haphazard as it may have been, Sam speaks of the charm of that time, when you had to simply figure stuff out yourself or be “crafty” in order to get the contact details for a high-profile DJ or someone equally influential, for instance. Once the first release – Matthew Dear’s ‘Hands Up For Detroit’ – was pressed up and ready to roll, he had a target list of DJs he just had to get the record to, including, of course, James Lavelle and Gilles Peterson.

Matthew Dear Ghostly International

Sam was still a student when he launched Ghostly, taking History of Art at the University of Michigan where he met a few of the label’s initial roster, including Matthew Dear. Understanding the development and transmission of culture through art and visual communication gave Sam solid grounding from which to formalise the direction of Ghostly. His arty background even influenced the simpler elements, such as the unmistakable logo, which came from Sam doodling in class. His own progression into a label owner followed what might be considered a typical rite of passage in electronic music: carrying records into clubs when he was underage for Detroit hero DJ Houseshoes before becoming a DJ himself. He used the name DJ SpaceGhost, named after the Hanna-Barbera Productions character. Serving an apprenticeship of sorts helped introduce Sam to Detroit’s club world and, inspired by the city’s multifaceted music culture, the launch of Ghostly was perhaps inevitable. “I felt like there was room for another label coming out of the US and mixing together different genres,” he says. “The first release is more of a house record, a wannabe French Touch type thing. Then it was IDM with Tadd Mullinix, then to instrumental hip hop with Dabrye, and electro with the Disco Nouveau compilation.”

Ghostly has maintained this open outlook ever since, becoming renowned for the quality of its releases and not merely for being a “house label” or “techno label.” This was partly driven by Sam’s fears around becoming one of those labels that gets hot for a minute, but quickly becomes hated, as can often happen in electronic music. “I remember being very nervous about getting pigeonholed genre-wise, because I would watch labels I loved get really hot and then people would turn on them. The UK press would be kind of harsh once you were big,” he explains. Being flavour of the month was never part of the Ghostly agenda. Instead, it’s been about maintaining longevity, working with new artists to develop their identity and giving those artists the chance to really stretch and express themselves fully through larger bodies of work. Scanning over the label’s initial roster, and tracing the growth and development of those artists, demonstrates how this approach has been intrinsic to the success of Ghostly and its original family members. Matthew Dear, Dabrye/Tadd Mullinix, Tycho, all names that have gone on to become established figures within the electronic music world and names that have contributed to the progression of the culture.

Ghostly’s sub-label Spectral Sound, which is home to more dance floor-influenced cuts, also provided an early platform for many of today’s best-known names; Seth Troxler, Avalon Emerson, dreamcastmoe, and more. A steady flow of new, vibrant energy keeps the label relevant and in a state of progression, while it’s still anchored by those who were there at the beginning.

Dreamcastmoe Ghostly International

Through Spectral, Sam is able to tap back into that DIY mentality of putting stuff “quick and dirty” so to speak. The label is home to singles and EPs, which have a more club-focused aesthetic, giving artists the chance to build momentum for their DJ career.

Meanwhile, Ghostly houses a remarkable suite of albums, from a range of artists. Offering artists the space to express themselves within such a broad, liberating format excites Sam, and it’s a form of media he is certain to remain committed to for the rest of his life. Simply connecting with new talent and envisioning what they’re capable of doing with a long-player is the course of much joy for Sam and it’s something that Ghostly fans also connect with. “It’s definitely an old-head thing, I’m not naive. I don’t think most people listen to albums front to back,” he says. “I don’t as much as I used to, unless it’s on vinyl.”

“I want to work multiple albums, I want to develop a storyline,” he adds. “I think it’s more fun. Today, we just put up two Shigeto reissues that have been out of print for a long time, and I’m just really excited that people will hear these for the first time.”

2024 will mark 25 years for Ghostly, an achievement that should, and will, be celebrated earnestly. For every label that has made it this far, there are hundreds that crumbled and never lasted the distance. Sam has spent more than two decades not only running a label, but working closely with artists and witnessing their difficulties; adapting to shifts and changes in what the people want, trends, the impact of the media, and the rise of social media. Through all of this, there have been so many lessons, leading to his current mindset. The hot and cold, rough and smooth nature of working in music, especially electronic music, is something he is now able to navigate with an experienced, accepting head on his shoulders. “It’s such a hot and cold game. I tell artists and labels all the time to prepare to be cold. It’s like you’re gonna be out of style for three or four or five years sometimes,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that you’re bad. It just means that people are looking in a different direction. That’s the nature of dance music. It’s a culture that needs newness, but the artists I’ve seen that have thrived have been able to ride those periods, and not let it shake their zeal. I guess it’s how professional athletes feel… You can’t lose your mindset, or you lose it all.”

Over the years, Ghostly has established itself as a key driver of electronic music, embracing the culture’s experimental side, celebrating artists who want to push themselves, and creating a space that is unique. The heartbeat of Ghostly has always been pure and nurturing, from the early years of putting on parties at Detroit’s legendary Motor Club, where label artists would bring their new music fresh from the studio to test on a willing dance floor, to today, with the label’s reputation for multi-genre releases and unrelenting support for the culture itself. A reflection on Sam himself, who is a father now and taking lessons from one of life’s biggest teachers. With the right balance of reflection on the past, together with a vision of the future, Sam’s mindset remains steadfast on his ethos, keeping things open. Always.

“I’m not a true techno optimist, I’m a bit of a chaotic neutral thinker,” he says. “There are so many really great ways to release music now and great ways to present yourself. It just requires everybody to do better, which is as fans, as attendees, as producers… we all just have to keep elevating our game or pick a lane that suits our needs.”

“But as far as what we do, I’m very proud of the program of releases in the genre spectrum, from Loraine James, Whatever The Weather ambient, to Galcher Lustwerk to Julie Byrne. I’m just very relieved that we can release the music we believe in without too much pushback.”

Looking back, for a minute, at all he’s achieved, Sam exudes humility and a feeling of deep gratitude. “It still feels new, in a funny way. There’s a lot of emotional history and internal history, but there’s new blood and there’s new projects. I feel grateful we still get to work with a lot of the OGs,” he says.

“You never really have it made, you’re always kind of like chiselling away. Obviously it gets easier to some degree, and your misses don’t hurt as much, but you’re still judged to the same standard as everyone else,” he concludes. “So you’re only as good as your last couple of things in some ways. I try to remind myself that and you don’t get too many Get Out of Jail Free cards. There’s only one way to win and that is to continue to be good.”

Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and writing coach with over 20 years experience in print and online. Find him on Instagram.

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