Label of the Month: Garage Shared
Label of the Month: Garage SharedAugust 1, 2023
In music media you’ll often read about how passionate an artist or label owner is. Articles and press releases will emphasise, and repeatedly reinforce, the dedication of whoever they’re writing about. Unrelenting passion is the catalyst behind countless successes across the music community, in every genre. Without this level of unerring commitment to the craft and its many facets, so many of us wouldn’t even be here. Sitting down with Gavin Foord and Chris Stemp (AKA Bitr8), two of the team behind Garage Shared, is a real lesson in what passion for the music is all about. They’re celebrating five years since the launch of their label, and it’s a time for reflection while also looking forward to what’s next. “When the pandemic happened, we both ended working full-time on the label and it was great because there was nothing else going on,” Gavin explains. Last weekend he’d celebrated his 40th birthday at the Garage Shared annual garden party, not that he remembers much of it. He’s spent more than two decades committed to music, DJing, producing and curating. “So we literally focused on that every day. It was a blessing having the label because we had nothing else going on.”
Both Gavin and Chris have a very down-to-earth demeanour, two guys who absolutely love garage music and have been dedicated to the sound for over 20 years. They have stuck with it through thick and thin, staying loyal when others either jumped ship to other genres or quit the game altogether. Gavin goes on to explain that the downtime during the pandemic gave the label team, and their associated artists, the chance to direct the energy into something positive. It ended up being a pivotal period of growth. “I’m part of a group as well (FooR), but we had no gigs. We signed to Warner, and we were meant to go and do the signing the day everything went into lockdown,” Gavin says. “We weren’t allowed to contractually release any music, so we were just working on the artists full time. We haven’t really looked back, to be honest”.
Throughout our hour-long chat, it becomes clear that this deep-seated passion has overridden any setbacks or bad luck Gavin and Chris have experienced over the years. The pandemic is a prime example of how they’ve successfully navigated a (very) difficult situation to come through stronger and wiser.
In the last five years, Garage Shared has been intrinsic to the renewed energy coming out of the UKG scene. When the label first launched it was off the back of FooR’s curation of 2017’s entry in the iconic Pure Garage compilation series. At the time, fresh garage music was pretty hard to come by, and they had to go down a lot of Soundcloud rabbit holes to gather up enough music to fill the compilation. “There were people making music, but it wasn’t as easy to find. You had to really deep dive to find the new artists,” Chris tells us. “Even the old-school ones were doing it so sporadically. It’s been mad just watching it explode. If you wanted to do one of those compilations now, you would have tunes coming out of your ears.”
“From doing that, we discovered all these artists – Soulecta and Blakk Habit, people like that. They had remixes on the comp, and a lot of them are fucking really good producers,” Gav adds. “We helped connect them with vocalists, so they could make some great original music, and then thought, ‘We should help them release it.’ So that’s how it started, and we still do that now.”
This notion of nurturing, supporting and guiding new artists is central to the Garage Shared ethos. As already alluded to, both men have had their fair share of difficulties over the course of their careers, but, unlike their label cohorts, they had no one to turn to for advice. Having learned so much, they have adopted a top-down support approach, offering advice, while also cultivating the individuality of each artist. Due to their approachable nature, it’s not difficult to envision Gavin and Chris having a positive impact on the artists they work with, like a couple of astute older brothers. You laugh at their jokes and respect their advice. Their wisdom and good nature has cultivated a family-like atmosphere at the label, where the music and artists come first. A prime example of this is their parties at Ministry Of Sound, where they populate the lineup with their label’s roster of artists, giving them the most prominent slots of the night, while taking the graveyard shift themselves.
Through his work on Pure Garage, Gavin realised there were very few labels that specialised in garage at that time. In fact, there was only one that was consistently pushing UKG. For some, that would have been a red flag perhaps, but they saw it as an opportunity to develop an outlet that was new and fresh. Though garage had a dip in popularity, commercially at least, after its heyday of the late nineties and early 2000s, there has always been an undercurrent of demand in the clubs. It never went away.
Hints of a potential “comeback” arose in the early 2010s, when Disclosure tapped into the garage sound. But they were among very few artists pushing the sound and the revival many hoped for failed to materialise. In more recent years, artists like Conducta have helped to lead the charge for a new generation of DJs and producers who are embracing UKG and revitalising the genre. “It’s the younger kids who are getting into it, who weren’t around when we were doing it the first time round,” Gavin says. “Part of the problem with garage, when it wasn’t coming back, is that everyone at that time was trying to make the records that we loved 20 years ago. When the kids got into it, they were like, ‘Oh, I like this element of garage, but I’m into this artist now’. They’re merging styles, and that’s when it really started to kick off. That amalgamation of styles is what really set things off.”
“It’s that rawness for me,” Chris adds, speaking about the spontaneity of garage producers, many of whom don’t worry too much about putting out overly-polished tracks. “They just feel a tune, they make a tune. There’s not that sense of, ‘This needs to be the most polished thing in the world’. Has it got an energy about it? Has it got a groove about it? They’re not sitting in the studio for hours and hours and hours and hours. They just go, ‘This works. Let’s just get it out’. It’s cool because that sort of bootleg dubplate culture is what this thing was built off in the first place”.
We discuss how open DJing has become in today’s culture, where selectors can play a wide range of styles in their sets without ostracising the dance floor. Artists connected to Garage Shared have been played by DJs like Peggy Gou, Michael Bibi and Darius Syrossian, for example. This openness gives greater scope for experimentation and for garage artists to connect with a wider audience. “We’ve heard our tunes played at what we’d consider to be tech house raves, and we were like, ‘Oh, okay!’. We welcome it,” says Chris. “If we can cross over to other genres, that’s great. They’re not even using the garage word, and that’s okay. It’s just music.”
Over the past five years, Garage Shared has been home to a steady flow of releases, each having their own impact on the label’s stature, and the wider UKG scene. FooR’s link-up with Effie (“3 Words“), for instance, was an early release that set the standard for the label’s future releases. Then there’s “On My Knees,” by label mainstay Soulecta and Bitr8, which was the first GS release to land in Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist. It stayed in the beatport top 100 for over a year and got the remix treatment from garage legend Matt Jam Lamont a few years after it landed. Soulecta’s “We No Speak London” is another standout, and the first Garage Shared track to have a video. The clip featured a who’s who of UK garage past and present. More recently, BVNQUET have been making some noise with “Sublime,” demonstrating their musicality, which has caught the attention of the UKG maestro MJ Cole. Their discography has been intrinsic to establishing a whole new generation of garage heads, both artist-wise and audience-wise, too.
Gavin and Chris met in Southampton. Gavin, a local, while Chris was at uni there, picking up a few residencies during his time as a student. They were often playing the same parties, and Gavin cites Chris as one of his favourite DJs. Their friendship grew out of love for garage and they’ve been mates since the early 2000s. In that time, they have experienced the highs and lows that come with working in a creative business that is often very fickle. Chris went on to tour with MistaJam as part of his Speakerbox party brand, and Gavin started out making hardcore, becoming a DJ, and then working through a variety of managerial roles connected to nightclubs before going back to his DJ residency. He then started his own label, using Chris as a sounding board. In typical Gav style, he jokes about sending Chris his own records but pretending they were by someone else (his brother, who has a different surname). Finally, on his 30th birthday, Gavin decided to give music one last proper shot, joking that he thought his life was over. They got together and made a dark version of the classic Monster Boy hit “Sorry,” which went viral and landed them with a record deal. They invested money in making a video and were seemingly on the cusp of a big break, but the deal fell through. “We put all our money into this song and the video, we spent thousands of pounds. Then they didn’t sign it and it couldn’t come out because it was a cover,” Gav explains. “So it was like, ‘Fuck, I’ve lost all this money’. We were just trying to make it back, and then Believe distribution gave me a deal and a small amount of money to start a label.”
“So we started a label and didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing,” he adds. “Literally, just as the money was about to run out, we did Pure Garage.”
No one wants to go through losing money, or deals falling through and any of the challenges that can stand in the way of musicians, but these tough times present us with lessons. If you can learn from what’s happened, then you can grow and utilise what you’ve learned to move closer to success. More importantly, those lessons can be used to help others, which is central to the DNA of Garage Shared. “Because we’re artists ourselves, we know what we would expect as artists. As soon as we stopped thinking about how to be the best label and started to think, “What would we want?” the labels began to really succeed,” Gavin says. “We lost all that money all those times for various reasons. If we can help these artists not make the same mistakes or lose the same money we made… What a fucking benefit that would have been to us to have someone go, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t go to Spain and do that video’!”
Chris cites communication as another key factor with regard to the lessons they’ve learned. Signing to labels who didn’t necessarily share their ethos, for instance, or having a brief chat that somehow became a legally-binding contract. The informal nature of the music business can sometimes lead artists down the wrong path, being blindsided by friendly conversations, or the attention of an influential label. But Gavin and Chris ensure that their communication is open and honest, so their artists have a clear idea about everything that is happening. “We will never dictate to the artists, it’s more a case of giving guidance like, ‘We think you should go down this route and not make these mistakes,” Chris explains. “It’s always a collaborative thing, and if they’re like, ‘No, I really want to do it this way’ we’ll go down that route, if it seems the right way to go, because we’re not always right”.
“You establish a level of trust with people as well, by being more communicative with people – trust and investment,” he adds. “They know that you are investing in them for the good of them”.
“One of the best pieces of advice I had was during the first lockdown,” Soulecta tells us. “Gav called me up and suggested writing a list of all the artists I wanted to collaborate with because all gigs were cancelled and it was a period of time where artists were spending more time in the studio and had time on their hands. I made the list, reached out to all the producers, MCs and singers that I liked and ended up with two albums worth of material by the end of the year. We then released these albums as Soulecta & Friends and Soulecta & Friends (Dubs Edition); these are my biggest and proudest bodies of work to date.”
“We share the same goal of contributing to make UKG popular again so it’s been great to have discussions with like-minded people about the new UKG scene, where it’s at now and what’s going to happen next,” he adds.
Birmingham-based producer Tuff Culture concurs, “The label has opened up avenues and lanes for exploring and seeing what talent is really out there,” he says. “And it has allowed artists like myself to produce music from the soul rather than focusing on putting out what could be deemed as ‘the same old.'”
Ultimately, Gavin and Chris take immense satisfaction from watching their artists blossom and get the success they deserve. Whether they’re making money or not, the biggest payoff is the music growing in stature and the artists reaping the benefit. From new discoveries in Russia and Japan, to homegrown UK talent, all feeding into the rich, diverse spectrum of sound that encompasses garage, A&R and artist development is at the forefront of their dedication to the sound.
“We’re not doing this for financial purposes, we’ve both got separate things outside of the label that pay us. We’re doing this because we love the genre of music and we believe in the artists,” Chris says. “Without being too clichéd, obviously the music is always the main focus, but creativity means a lot for both of us. Money is obviously great, but at the same time having creative control and being able to help someone else who’s got a creative vision… That makes me tick, and Gav and Alex, too”.
“Coming from not being able to find many garage records to fill one compilation to putting out one or two records a week, that is success in itself. That’s exciting,” Gavin adds. “We still get as excited when we find a new artist as we did back then. As long as we still feel that excitement, that keeps you going. We’ll worry about how we pay the bills later…”.