Label of the Month: Toolroom Records
Label of the Month: Toolroom RecordsJuly 4, 2023
Illuminated in the rosy glow of the pink LED “T” light perched on the wall behind him, Mark Knight joins the call in a flash of color.
The “T,” of course, is for Toolroom Records, the boutique UK record label, now in its 20th year of operation, that Knight has nurtured from nascent record label to full-scale record company over the past two decades.
“There is a big difference between being a record label and a record company, and we are a record company,” Knight muses. “A record company has staff, it has strategy, it has ambition, it has financial backing, and it has history. And that’s what we are.”
These days, the company’s award-winning label arm is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading dance labels. Twenty years ago, though, Toolroom was just a big dream born from disenchantment. “I was somewhat underwhelmed by the performance and the professionalism of the labels I’d been working with,” Knight recalls.
His brother, Stuart, was recently out of work, and their father, who retired from drumming in a band at the age of 55, was in search of a passion project to which to devote his time.
“I told them, ‘I really think we should start a label. I’ve got an idea for its sound and how I think the direction should go,’” Knight says. “The stars kind of aligned — we were all looking for something to do.”
The three Knights sat down and drafted a five-year plan detailing their aspirations for Toolroom. Visualize a Venn diagram in which the underground makes up one circle and the commercial, the other. Toolroom would stake its flag in the center, a “sweet spot that speaks to all ends of the musical spectrum” when balanced just right.
Operationally, Knight intended Toolroom Records to be “a record label run by DJs, for DJs.”
“We were very sure that if we married the principle of passion for music that we had with solid business ethics, we would have all the right assets to be successful,” Knight reflects.
He was right to think so. True to Knight’s objective when he, his brother, and his father first put pen to paper, Toolroom’s sound has evolved into a distinctive and recognizable signature. “That sounds Toolroom” has a meaning sure to be understood by anyone familiar with the label company’s catalog.
Over the years, as Toolroom has created this clear association between label and sound, it has simultaneously become synonymous with defining club records. Knight’s 2008 cover of Laurent Garnier’s “Man With The Red Face” alongside Funkagenda and his 2011 remix of Florence And the Machine’s “You Got The Love” (2011) — both released via Toolroom Records — are among them. Notably, the former was named “Best Ibiza Track 2008” at Pacha’s Ibiza DJ Awards and Beatport’s “Best Tech House Track of 2009.” Beyond works from Knight himself, Toolroom has also hosted productions from venerated house and techno talents like Fatboy Slim, Todd Terry, Pete Tong, and Amtrac, among others.
The homegrown label company is known equally as well for its innovation, well-evidenced in its diversification beyond the traditional record label model. Since its establishment in 2003, Toolroom has moved into events, radio, and music education. These targeted efforts have led to the launch of Toolroom Radio, a weekly radio serial that nets more than 16 million listens per week, and Toolroom Academy, the educational arm of the label company that offers music education courses, a DJ school, live events, sample packs, and mastering.
In retrospect, developing an acute understanding of Toolroom’s identity, sound, and values was key to Toolroom’s early success and later, to its longevity.
“We knew what we stood for. We knew we had a sound, and that’s paramount; you need to stand for a certain thing so people get the association,” Knight attests. “And even from an early stage, we knew that maybe it wasn’t always our time to be at the front of the queue, but music goes in circles, and we also knew that if we maintained our position and what we stood for, when it was our time again, we would be at the front of the queue.”
Fittingly, this ethos has led Toolroom exactly there: to the front of the queue. In 2009, Beatport proclaimed Toolroom Records its “best-selling label of all time,” and each year, it reliably retains a place on Beatport’s list of the Top 10 Best-Selling Labels of the Year.
“We have been so robust over the past 20 years. We’ve kind of just sat in growth; we’ve never dropped off. We’ve always said it’s been this growth pattern,” Knight says.
The clarity and long-term nature of Knight’s vision for Toolroom have conferred patience and discretion to its development and growth. Knight, who professes himself to be “hell-bent on the quality threshold of the music we release,” believes that Toolroom is only as good as its last record. His philosophy, predicated entirely on how synchronous of a fit a record is for Toolroom, renders the process of preparing one rather painstaking. As students of this school of thought, neither Knight nor the Toolroom team at large are tempted to vacuously recreate the viral sounds of the moment.
“It’s very, very easy to get suckered into trends and say, ‘Oh, that’s a cool thing to do right now, let’s just jump on that bandwagon,” Knight acknowledges. “It’s a lot more difficult to say, ‘Yeah, that’s not quite for us. As successful and financially viable as it is right now, that’s not in our DNA, so let’s stick to what we know, do that bit well, and when it comes around again and it’s our time, we’ll benefit from that.”
Although many trends have swept through the electronic music industry since Toolroom’s foundation, the label company has been steadfast in its conviction to its core tenets: credible music, quality workmanship, passion for the craft, and professionalism. At Toolroom Records, these principles are always in fashion — and they have been since day one.
Toolroom has imbued these values in its latest live venture, Where Music Matters, a world tour commemorating 20 years of Toolroom, with stops in Los Angeles (July 15), New York (August 5), Toronto (August 6), and London (August 19). Featuring performances from Knight, not to mention Gene Farris, Tone Troy, NOIZU, Martin Ikin, and others across cities, the Where Music Matters tour promises the quality strains of house, techno, and tech-house for which Toolroom Records has won repute, along with the for-the-love-of-the-music attitude that has always been Toolroom’s throughline.
When Knight speaks about Toolroom or music in general, he does so with the effervescence characteristic of someone who truly loves what they do. His passion and enthusiasm have a charge to them, one strong enough to be felt by anyone in the room with him or, in our case, through an internet connection thousands of miles away. This heart is balanced with humility. “I think sometimes, birthdays can mean more internally than they do externally. You can get a little caught up in patting yourself on the back,” Knight says when asked to contextualize the tour’s title.
In lieu of a pat on the back, Toolroom is keeping the lens turned where, for the company, it always has been: on the music.
“We wanted to use the anniversary as an opportunity to say something from our heart, which we really feel: it’s about the music,” Knight explains. “In a world that’s clouded by social media and algorithms and a lot of innate bullshit, we wanted to put the spotlight back on the music to get back to the core values of it. [We want to] make this a year with great music that leaves a legacy for the next 20 years, so people will go back and go, ‘2023, what a brilliant year for music.’ It starts with writing great music.”
The ethos underpins the Where Music Matters tour and everything else at Toolroom, especially artist development. The label company ardently champions music education and artist development through Toolroom Academy, its music production school that opened in 2015 and has since gone on to offer a production certificate, among programs dedicated to teaching students techniques to reduce their reliance on samples and how to mix and master. Through Toolroom Academy’s array of on-demand production tutorials, interactive online programs, and even the world’s first record label-based degree, Knight and the Toolroom team strive to create as many opportunities for new artists as possible while making music education innovative and accessible.
Importantly, Toolroom Academy has sought to use music education as an equalizer for female DJs and producers, who have been historically underrepresented in the dance space, through #WeAreListening, a platform, event series, and mentoring program hosted through the school. #WeAreListening, founded by Toolroom’s community manager, Victoria Smith, has awarded women scholarships to Toolroom Academy as part of its ongoing efforts to educate, break down the barriers between record labels and female artists, and ultimately, subvert the gender imbalance in the dance industry. The initiative has directly driven music and artist signings at Toolroom while spawning connections that have catalyzed not only collaborations, but also residency and club bookings.
Toolroom Academy has proven to be a strong pipeline of talent for Toolroom, and Maxxine is a shining example. The UK-based DJ/producer, who worked with Toolroom Academy through #WeAreListening, has since signed multiple releases to Toolroom, in addition to a management deal with Toolroom. Along the way, she’s become ubiquitous on the white island, picking up bookings at Ibiza clubs like Tantra and Eden.
“The Academy has created an opportunity for us to teach the level of quality [that we strive for] and the kind of nuanced approach to how we do it,” says Knight. “We have all these people like Wheats and Maxxine, who have come through that system and have gone on to have big careers. They’ve put their heads above the parapet, and then, we’ve backed them. We also have a management company that helps facilitate management, publishing, so we create a whole kind of ecosystem for art to be looked after, and obviously, we do things correctly. We pay people, we give them the right advice, we give them the right amount of help. It’s a very considered approach to the way we A&R and the way we look after artists.”
Toolroom’s practice of taking artists under its wing applies not just to the emergent acts discovered through Toolroom Academy, but to all of its artists. Much of the music released through Toolroom is written in the setting of a writing camp, where Toolroom’s mentorship and hands-on approach meet.
There, Knight, Toolroom artists, and other team members synergize to write and workshop productions. This dynamic creative interplay helps situate tracks in that middle ground between the underground and the commercial, directly empowering artists to hit the “quality threshold” that Toolroom upholds in an encouraging, collegial environment.
“There’s nothing positive in rejection. We don’t like saying, ‘we don’t like it,’ and artists don’t like hearing it. But if you work together on projects where you sit in the room and say, ‘I like that idea, I like that idea, don’t like that, let’s work on that and develop that together,’ we get it to a point, then they take it away and finish it off, and everything starts on the front foot,” Knight explains, adding that Toolroom has a writing camp “going pretty much every other week.”
The writing camp model is critical to music production at Toolroom and at the other labels in Knight’s portfolio, including the newly-founded Fool’s Paradise, a house haven that will lean into the classic, soulful sound of the genre, with Knight’s 2021 LP, Untold Business, as a reference. As Knight observes Toolroom’s milestone 20th anniversary, he is simultaneously preparing to introduce the world to Fool’s Paradise. This acquaintance will be made in mid-July via the label’s debut single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Knight appears alongside Sgt Slick and Beverly Knight on the cover of the 1979 Prince song.
How it came together is nothing short of serendipity. Knight, who calls “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” his “favorite record of all time,” began working on the cover with Sgt Slick. Beverly Knight, who previously appeared on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” from Untold Business, was the first YouTube result to populate when Knight searched for other covers of the classic on the video platform.
“It was mad. We’d literally just done a record together, so I phoned Beverly and she said, ‘I do it live all the time.’ So she came in, she knew it inside and out, and she did it literally in one take, did the whole thing in 45 minutes.”
Fool’s Paradise takes its title from the Meli’sa Morgan song of the same name. Per Knight, there is not normally a lot of money to be made with a house label, so to invest the considerable amount of work that comes with starting a label for little financial return is its own kind of fool’s paradise. But, like Toolroom Records, “it’s a project that very much comes from the heart.”
As Knight prepares Fool’s Paradise for its moment in the sun come July, he is also concentrating his efforts on setting up Toolroom Records for the next 20 years and then some. Future plans for the leading label include further growth of its events business, relocation of Toolroom’s UK office, currently nestled in Maidstone, England, and the opening of an office in the United States, which represents Toolroom’s “biggest market” by far. Knight also intends to awaken some of the dormant labels in the portfolio, explore ways to leverage artificial intelligence to monetize the Toolroom catalog, and increasingly move into catalog acquisitions.
The label company is no stranger to change. It was, after all, founded during a turbulent time in the music industry, when products were beginning to shift from physical to digital during the then-emergent age of Limewire. When asked what the dance industry can learn from Toolroom, particularly during a time when technology is ushering the music ecosystem into a new era, Knight’s response is timeless in the face of this change.
“We really have married two principles of an innate love for what we do and a professionalism that looks after the people within the scene, because without looking after the artists, there is no scene,” he remarks. “We know who we are, we stick to doing what we do, and we try to do everything with legacy and integrity. And if it works and makes money, great. And if not, we still feel fulfilled because we upheld those basic principles.”
Rachel Narozniak is a music journalist based out of the New York/New Jersey area. Find her on Twitter.