Label of the Month: Tronic

Like a lot of student techno DJs, Christian Smith started a label as a hobby. That label, Tronic, is about to celebrate 30 years of activity and its 500th release. How has he done it? We sit down with the Swedish label head to find out.

10 min
BP LOTM Beatportal Tronic 1920x1080
May 6, 2024
·
By
Kit Macdonald

"I've never been a purist," Christian Smith says, definitively. The Swedish DJ, producer and label owner of Tronic Music alights on this point more than once in the course of a laughter-filled Friday-afternoon Zoom chat in mid-April, during which we discuss his dizzyingly prolific label and career, plus the joys of ditching northern Europe for Spain (he is talking from his airy living room which also doubles as a geographical box-seat for the August 2026 total solar eclipse.

"My label philosophy is exactly the same now as it was in the very beginning: I want to release music I like personally, and that I can and would play in my DJ sets," he says. Anyone who has kept tabs on Smith's DJ sets over the years will know that leaves the door open for house, electro, techno and countless other styles. "Being a purist might work for some people, but it doesn't work for me. I've always loved house, always loved techno, and always loved everything in between. And I've always felt that if you want to be successful in this industry you need to make friends everywhere and be open-minded."

Smith is better qualified than just about anyone to hold forth on what works and what doesn't in the label-management game. He founded Tronic as a student in Washington, DC, in 1994, and has run it himself ever since. In a few days the imprint will release his Tronic 500 EP, the label's 500th release. Smith's personal discography runs to more than 100 releases, on Tronic and a galaxy of other labels. The story of how Smith has achieved such eye-popping milestones in the cut-throat world of house and techno features relentless hard work, limitless passion and a sprinkle of good fortune.

Smith was born in Sweden to a Norwegian father and Swedish mother, but his father's job as a pilot for Lufthansa soon moved the family to Frankfurt. From then it was a race to see which of the world's great music cities would exert its influence on the young Christian first. The family had access to free plane tickets, so Smith was able to travel extensively from a young age. "We went to New York a lot and that's where I started listening to house music when I was a pre-teen in the mid-80s," he tells me. "I recorded radio shows on cassette tapes and took them back to Frankfurt and listened to them over and over."

The young Christian was able to travel to hear inspiring music, but he didn't have to. Berlin may be Germany's (and the world's) clubbing capital now, but in the late 1980s Frankfurt was the place to be, particularly after Sven Väth opened his Omen club in 1988.

Check out Tronic's 'Label of the Month' chart on Beatport
Tronic Label of the Month Christian Smith

"I started clubbing when I was 14, and later Omen opened with Sven Väth playing every Friday, so I was there every Friday." This was a long time before Väth became a "superstar DJ", but he was already a celebrity in Frankfurt and packed the club out every Friday. "I was a crazy fan and was hugely inspired by him. From a young age I was always there at the side, watching him intently, he was my idol."

Christian's love for the rave was so all-consuming that his schoolwork began to suffer, and at 17 his parents sent him to the US to finish school without the lure of Omen to distract him. The plan worked, and he got into university in Washington, DC. He had become an accomplished turntablist in the meantime, but house and techno would soon take over his life.

"I was in DC from '92 to '96 and that's where I started DJing regularly at raves, and meeting people like Ali (Dubfire) and Sharam from Deep Dish, John Selway and Josh Wink. Josh is from Philadelphia, which is pretty close by, and we would be on the same bills together, playing these packed warehouse raves with 2,000 people at them. I was always envious of him because he was getting paid $250 and I was getting $150, so I was always like, 'damn, what have I gotta do to get there?'", he laughs.

The first Tronic release, the IDM-tinged tribal techno of Galactica's Osaka EP, came out midway through Smith's time in DC. He had started the label partly as a hobby and partly to help plug what he felt was a gap in an overly purist market. "I wanted to have a label that released tracks that both techno DJs and house DJs could play" he explains. "This was long before the term "tech house" was coined, and I went to a distributor with this idea and he shook his head and said, 'hey man, these tracks are too hard for the house DJs and too soft for the techno DJs'." We laugh uproariously once again.

"But anyway, before long the label became quite established, though it was very poorly run in the early days. I was a sophomore and junior (second and third year) at university, and I'd do one release and then another four months later, and another a few months after that." Getting demos was difficult as everything had to be sent physically on DAT tapes, and in general everything moved far more slowly than it does today. "I got lucky though," Smith says, "the fourth Tronic release ("Goldrush," a collaboration between Smith and Jean-Philippe Aviance) did well and made some good money."

Tronic Label of the Month Dosem
Tronic Label of the Month Selway
Ramon Tapia Tronic

The label still had plenty of ups and downs after that - "we lost a ton of money several times when distributors went bust" - but it always bounced back, and gradually became more organised, with a more regular release schedule, as the 1990s faded into the new century.

The only real hiatus in Tronic's 30 years so far has been an interlude in the late 2000s, when a combination of a distributor going bust and a hectic and lucrative schedule of DJ gigs made Smith briefly decide he "couldn't be bothered". The feeling didn't last: Smith found a "fantastic" new label manager in 2009 (around the time he relocated to Sao Paulo for several years) and started releasing again.

"Since that point I'd say it's been a really tightly run ship," he says. "We do three releases a month and I work really well with my label manager. We have our workflow - she puts all the demos we've received into a Dropbox and I listen to them all myself."

Around 100 demos come to Tronic per week, which means a lot of work for Smith, but he refuses to delegate any of the responsibility. "If the label head doesn't listen to each demo themselves, the label will lose its identity," he says. "The person who cares most for the label is the person who runs the label." Smith deliberately keeps Tronic's promo email address a little (but not too) difficult to find, the idea being that only artists who have specifically sought out the label will send their demos.

Smith estimates at least 50% of the artists he releases are unknown, and part of the role in the process is mentoring these artists and suggesting little changes they can make to make their tracks work better for the label. "Right now Tronic is going through a raw techno phase - more driving, lots of energy," he says. "But there are no set requirements for consideration apart from it being good music by good people."

Tronic Label of the Month Drunken Kong
Tronic Label of the Month Mistress Barbara
Tronic Label of the Month Wehbba

Aside from running the label, producing his own tracks and remixes and touring the world as a DJ, Smith has restarted his series of branded Tronic parties around the world, which he typically uses to help lesser-known artists gain valuable exposure. The Tronic Radio show is another big commitment - it has been going weekly since 2013 and is now syndicated to 30+ countries and 100+ stations.

"I'm not going to lie, sometimes it's a giant pain in the ass to have a weekly show. No matter where I am in the world, or if I'm sick as a dog, I still have to deliver a produced show every week. But the good things outweigh the bad, and we have grown a very nice weekly fanbase all over the world now."

Among the current crop of Tronic artists, Smith names the Tokyo techno duo Drunken Kong as the label's "main" artists aside from himself. As well as the customary clutch of EPs, Tronic has released Drunken Kong's two full-length albums, a format Smith still has a lot of time for. "I think making an album is really good for an artist because it forces you to make music outside the box," he explains. "You might be known for making tribal techno, for instance, but if you have to deliver an album you can't just deliver 12 tracks of tribal techno, you have to mix it up, experiment and push your sound."

So what's the secret of secrets when it comes to guiding a record label through three successful decades and counting?

Smith answers without a beat. "The only reason Tronic is still running is because I haven't done it for money. My main income comes from DJing, but producing my own music and running a label are just things I love to do. With the label there are moments when you make a lot of money and moments when you make nothing, but whatever is happening with it financially, Tronic is purely about passion for me. That's the secret."

Christian Smith Tronic

Christian Smith's Tronic 500 EP drops on May 10th. Buy it on Beatport.



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