They say a single branch of a tree is never as strong as the trunk it clings to. And that tree itself heavily relies on its roots and in this critical age for Mother Nature the right fostering of the tree as a whole might be even more important. As you can see there’s plenty of things you can do with the tree metaphor German electronic label Ki Records picked for itself. ‘Ki’ is the Japanese word for ‘tree’ and if you stick to that symbol the actual root of the label is electronic music in its core while the branches of it grow into different directions with every release, making it broader and more complex while simultaneously strengthen the foundation of it all. These days the label that was found by Paul Kadow and beloved producer Christian Löffler in Cologne back in 2009 celebrates its tenth anniversary, so I decided to catch up on this history of the company with Kadow.
“I think we needed these ten years to become a tree,” the label manager tells me. “It feels like we are now a proper record label whereas throughout the past 10 years we were growing to become one.” And obviously, the tree wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Kadow’s partner and co-founder – Christian Löffler. “In 2009 there was hardly anyone interested in working with him and that’s why Christian and I decided to do it ourselves and to start a record label,” Paul explains to me. So, maybe there would have never been Ki Records if Christian had found a home for his music back then. Luckily he didn’t and in many ways his trademark sound become the DNA of Ki Records. Ten years ago, German minimal techno was riding on a wave of international success thanks to the reputation of Cologne-based Kompakt label and the hype Paul Kalkbrenner‘s Berlin Calling movie accidentally created. For a long time it felt as if everybody wanted to become a techno producer and DJ in Berlin. Back then living in the German capital was still relatively cheap, the underground club scene was quite vital and there was a natural cultural openness for new talent in that field. However when a scene gets bigger it also evolves and creates new musical branches. And by now I sincerely hope these tree metaphors aren’t getting out of hand.
Being naturally interested in electronic music since I was a kid I was open for a lot of these things and I’m not even denying my affection for the Berlin minimal techno hype back then as well. Like for many others my introduction to the sound of Ki Records happened via Christian Löffler and I think it was when a friend of mine told me to give his 2012 record A Forest a spin. And for the artist himself and his partner that record was a turning point when they first noticed that the label idea might work out in the end. “This album was the moment when we first got a reward for all the hard work we had put into the label,” Paul tells me. The other milestone for the label might have been their pioneering approach towards streaming as he explains to me: “I think we were one of the very first labels in Germany that used this new digital way to reach fans and had a strategy for working with the services available at the time. We were lucky enough that our distribution partner Finetunes pushed us hard and educated us in this respect.”
Emotions beyond Euphoria
There is a reason why Ki Records takes things a bit different, while Christian was struggling to find a label in the first place and why they created a certain reputation and that’s the music itself. Whether it’s the albums from Löffler or the releases by Stimming, Aparde or Kiasmos member Janus Rasmussen – there is something thoughtful and complex in the music, something that separates the Ki releases from other techno productions. They are not simplified club bangers, they are usually a bit softer, a bit odd, filled with sonic soundscapes, mellow melodies and an undeniable melancholic vibe from time to time. Something that works quite contrary to a scene that usually celebrates escapism through euphoria but for Paul Kadow and his team being home in both musical worlds – the clubs and the festivals – means a lot as he explains to me:
“Music has the ability to create emotions. Another important factor is that the music is timeless, that I can imagine listening to the album in five or ten years from now and it will still be good.”
Music that follows trends is not their thing as he confirms. Instead they carefully pick the artists that could join the family. They need to have a broader understanding of electronic music and the art that goes with it. Löffler protégé Fejká who freshly released his debut Reunion is a fine example for that as he also brings a strong visual component and understanding to the equation as he’s also filmmaker and photographer. Ki Records celebrate the complexity and diversity of electronic music, showcasing the emotional and maybe even human side of the genre and over the years that strong vision was shaped more and more. Back in 2009 the scene however was a different one as the label head tells me: “Back then labels were looking at big names because big names sell and already have an audience which makes it easier.” Nowadays this credo is still very much true as Kadow confirms but the music market is also way more tolerant and ignorant at the same time as he furthermore explains:
“What counts today is music that fits to specific keywords such as ‘romantic’, ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘happy’, so that it can fit nicely into playlists and gets a lot of streams. This is great for a label and the artist but makes the music more and more homogeneous. In 2009 the artist had an audience, today it’s the playlist that has an audience.”
Ten years after its launch Ki Records is not just a label but also a management agency. When it comes to the company’s daily work there are six people involved and everyone has a unique role as Kadow states: “There’s one person for promotion, one for paid media and online campaigns, one for graphic design work such as cover artwork and flyers.” They also have one person who does all the animated videos and some music videos as well as someone taking care of the webshop and merchandising. Kadow does all the production and coordination between the artists and the different sectors alongside the release schedule. “I also am in charge of our own schedule – what has to be done, when and how and overlook all the costs,” he says.
Despite the professionalization of the label the common musical DNA and understanding of their sound and vision remained intact. In 2019 the sound of Ki Records is as distinguished as it is diverse; just like I’ve come to know it many years ago. And I’m pretty sure that’s the reason why they are still here when a few other electronic music labels had to shut down in the past decade. They carefully let the tree grow with patience and a good understanding of how to run a label of this size. And if you thinking about following their path and start your own techno label Paul Kadow got three golden rules for you: Good music, good distribution and good promotion. “You need good music that must be available everywhere and you need to let people know that it’s out there to change their lives,” he says. “As there is so much music getting released these days and at the same time it’s becoming so easy to distribute music to all the outlets, put a special effort on promoting your music.” By sticking to this credo Kadow, Löffler and the rest of the gang managed to stay in the game and constantly deliver releases of high musical quality that never fail to stick to the expectations. And that also reminds me to catch up on the releases of some of the countless other artists in the roster like Monokle, Daisuke Tanabe and Aparde. I’m pretty sure that each branch of the mighty Ki tree will be an happy invitation into new worlds of electronic sweetness. And hopefully it will encourage others to plant their own independent tree and continue to establish a forest of likeminded people. That’s probably not the worst thing to happen in the industry, right? Happy birthday, Ki Records!
On November 9 Ki Records will celebrate its tenth anniversary with an big label night at Berlin’s Ritter Butzke club, featuring Stimming, Fejká, A Kiasmos DJ-Set by Janus Rasmussen, Aparde and more. Find more information right here. If you’d like to attend we got 2×2 free guestlist spots for you. All you need to do is write us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Ki Records” and your full name. Good luck!