Label of the Month: Terminal M
Label of the Month: Terminal MNovember 2, 2020
Celebrating 20 years of techno mastery, Kristan J. Caryl tells the story of Monika Kruse’s prodigious Terminal M imprint.
As we chat over Skype on a drizzly mid-week afternoon, Monika Kruse is shaking off a little weekend hangover having gone out for a friend’s birthday. “I miss dancing, I miss traveling, I miss seeing my friends,” she says, and there is a very real sense of dejection in her voice.
When you work in an industry that has been in hibernation for six-plus months, motivation can be hard to find. But Kruse has found it in daily meditation, healthy homemade juices, and doing sports every other day. At first, she found being isolated at home depressing, then adjusted to the situation and enjoyed the slower pace of life, but is now starting to “feel bored” again.
Her creative outlet throughout all this has been an exploration of the healing frequencies of binaural music. The results have informed her latest EP, Rising Heart, a much more ambient-focussed offering than her usual club grooves. “With Corona, obviously, the tool-y tracks don’t work as well as they used to work. Techno is for dancing, not sitting down. So we’ve worked on finding music that works better at home,” she says in good English, with a soft German lilt, adding that she believes the Corona-enforced “lack of dancing and outlets for people to express themselves” might be what has lead to rising tensions and anger in people, some of which has spilled over into occasionally ugly anti-mask protests in Berlin.
This move toward releasing more listening music is not the first shift in Terminal M‘s sound, but the only one that has been quite this sudden and necessary. In the past, the label subtly moved from its big room techno roots to more melodic techno realms — especially on sub-label Electric Avenue, which ran 2004 to 2013 but eventually proved “too much of a distraction” — and later on to tech house.
Label artist Transcode, who’s topped charts with his tunes on Terminal M, adds that “it’s a very well run label with solid backing from a wide range of tastemakers in the industry. The sound is fairly broad but represents music with a strong groove, melodies, and hard-hitting drums. What I like is that they aren’t afraid to take risks and they genuinely want their artists to succeed.”
Monika continues, “I don’t go with trends at all, I’ve never jumped on any hype. I just do what feels right, but I can’t really tell you what that is. The music I sign for Terminal M just gives me a certain feeling. It’s just about releasing what I like, I don’t care what sells or not.”
This underlines the fact Kruse likes to live in the moment. Rather than dwelling on the past or projecting too far into the future, she prefers to meditate and be right here, right now. She references Eckhart Tolle’s cult book The Power of Now early on in our conversation, which explains why she has the mindset she does, and maybe why there has never been a master plan for Terminal M.
When the label started 20 years ago, and further back still to 1991 when Monika first started DJing, techno was very different. It was a world dominated by men. Record labels weren’t collected like lifestyle accessories, and the underground scene was infinitely less businesslike. Some of Kruse’s operational methods are a throwback to that time, but she is also a long-standing trailblazer who broke plenty of the early stereotypes.
Her label, Terminal M, has been a vehicle for all this ever since inception in 2000. At the time, digital wasn’t yet a thing, and labels were necessarily vinyl only. Despite the extra challenges this presented, Monika wasn’t cowed. With “zero money” and “really no clue” but the help of friend Marc Romboy, she plowed ahead starting her own imprint and pressed up “maybe six or eight thousand copies” of her first EP, Needlehopper, a collaboration with friend Patrick Lindsay as Monika Kruse @ Voodooamt. They all sold out. “Maybe it would help if there was a formula. But my plan was always just to have fun with nice people.”
By then, Kruse already had the experience of working as a product manager for Chrysalis Records with groups like Gang Starr, and had her own high profile DJ career. Releasing with other labels, though, meant long waiting times. What’s more, she was also “surrounded by great friends and producers” who she thought deserved to be heard. In fact, that is where the label gets its name. “A terminal in an airport is a meeting place, and is often where we ran into each other back then,” says Berlin-born and based Monika. “So I thought it made a great name as I have always wanted the label to be about friendships and family.”
This was backed up by Alex Stein, a Brazilian-German artist based in Berlin who has become a recent addition to the label’s ranks. Back in 2014, he decided he wanted to release on Terminal M, and in fact wrote that down in his “goal book,” before officially signing in 2019 for his Rebirth EP. “We first met during a friend’s dinner,” he says. “But it was only later that year, at the airport in Berlin, that I made contact and talked with Monika for the first time about wanting to show her my music for the label.”
Monika is very low key. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of the weekend, but seems shy in conversation and reticent to big up her own achievements. Really, she has every right to be anything but shy, because she remains one of Germany’s most prominent international DJ exports, having been involved in the scene since day one. She started out playing hip hop and funk, and later early Chicago and Detroit house and techno, at a bar “to about 30 people.” The first big step up saw her become a member of the Ultraworld Crew whose events in abandoned WWII bunkers played a key part in the evolution of the early Munich techno scene. At the same time, Kruse also became a regular at Sven Väth‘s iconic Omen in Frankfurt, and before the end of the decade, was a resident at Belgium’s Fuse. A move to Berlin led to the launch of Terminal M, as well as playing at Berlin’s Loveparade in front of 1.5 million people and becoming a regular at places like Berghain.
“There wasn’t anyone to look up to when I started. We were really the first wave,” says Monika. “I always just made my own decisions, but also back then the sound was more rough. Now with digital everything has to be that bit more perfect, so I can help my artists with those things.”
Alex Stein has been on the receiving end of that, and more than agrees. “Monika is amazing when it comes to that. She is hands-on, but can also be hard. Not in a bad way, just very real and honest, the way it should be. I am incredibly grateful for her giving me feedback on all the demos I send her, taking the time to listen in, and test these tracks. But especially for taking the time to give me feedback about the music and to talk to me about it to the point where I feel comfortable, and know that sometimes there’s not necessarily something wrong with the music, but she just knows that I can do better and is pushing me to do so.”
Transcode echoes these sentiments and recalls sending Monika the first version of his track “Devotion.” He’d written it after really falling in love with techno, and specifically the Terminal M sound. “She asked if I could tweak a few things, including the notes of the Reese Bass, and once I did, it really took the track to a whole new level, and she fell in love with it straight away. So the feedback has actually been super useful. It pushes me to reach my full potential and I’ve really grown as a producer working with Monika, even in a short period of time.”
While Kruse didn’t have direct input like this when she was coming up, she says she really looked up to her idol, Prince drummer Sheila E. “I used to see her rock so hard and I thought, ‘fucking hell, women can do whatever they want to, even playing drums.'” That said, for the reserved Monika, singing or even playing drums felt too exposed, so she stuck to DJing, which at the time was not about superstar selectors and social media posts, but purely the music. “I could just hide away back then.”
Though not a fan of today’s cult of personality or the egotism of social media, Monika accepts they are necessary evils in 2020. “I play this game because it is a tool to bring the music to the audience. Nowadays, DJs have to travel with photographers. There is real pressure to post stuff all the time or you risk being forgotten. It’s not about music, but pictures. Promoters book people because of followers. So I do it when I have to, but it’s not a good thing for the scene at all.”
Despite the challenges of the digital revolution, the seismic impact of social media, and even a period a decade ago when the label was losing money, Monika has “never even been close” to closing up shop. Success for her is not so much about sales as getting good reactions in the club. “If people freak out on the dance floor, that’s why we create music. I hear stuff that I know will be Top 10 on Beatport easily, but if it’s not right for the label, then it’s not right.” Stein adds that he feels “there is never a need to make a certain style for Monika’s label, and that is one of the things I love the most. You have the freedom to create, all that matters is that it rocks the dance floor, but at the same time, I know that she expects the best of me.”
Unlike many of her peers, Monika is still involved on a personal level with everything the label does. She has just one assistant, and between them, they do everything from the A&R to the artwork, the social media to the distribution deals. This hands-on, old school approach extends further: Terminal M doesn’t force artists to sign the same exclusivity deals that many contemporary labels do. While they are keen to protect investments and their brand, Monika is “fine with artists releasing on two or three other labels. I’m proud to give them that platform and happy to watch them succeed.”
She is, though, weary of A&Ring certain demographics in order to meet quotas. Instead, signing female talent has always come naturally over the years, from Miss Kittin in the early days, to ANNA more recently. In fact, for a veteran like her, none of today’s social and political issues are anything new: she founded No Historical Backspin, an event series promoting diversity and tolerance, long before discussions of such issues were as commonplace as they are now.
At heart, Kruse is the same music addict today that she was when she first started obsessively collecting records in her early teens. So long as she continues to find music that excites her, and form friendships that make her proud, she is happy. As for the future, the label has five or six EPs planned between now and February. Beyond that? Nothing, because as Echart Tolle would say, only the present moment really matters.
Kristan J Caryl has been a freelance music writer for more than a decade, with bylines in RA, DJ Mag, Mixmag, Bandcamp, Attack Mag and RBMA. He’s based just outside Leeds, where he started community station KMAH Radio in 2015. As well as music, he’s overly obsessed with trainers, gardening, boxing, and his two children, who he raises with his wife. Find him on Instagram.