Balancing Act

Naked Music wants to be one of the premier dance labels in the country -- without losing its indie cred

Since its inception in late 1998, Naked Music has been the little dance label that could. Of the hundreds of domestic independent labels servicing the fickle tastes of club culture, Naked Music has been one of the very few to consistently release records that attract attention outside the DJ world. The imprint's signature sound has epitomized the elusive San Francisco house gestalt for nearly two years, an eternity for a scene that goes through boutique labels faster than record needles. And it's not just scene vets who are checking for Naked's releases: In a recent Rolling Stone interview Madonna herself mentioned that she'd been enjoying "a very small label in San Francisco." Victor Critchfield, the owner of the BPM record shop in Hayes Valley, sums up the imprint's nearly instantaneous success: "It's one of our necessary commodities at the store; it's like bread, milk, butter, and Naked Music."

Now, the small company -- which is headquartered in Manhattan and has an A&R office in San Francisco -- wants nothing less than to smash the glass ceiling between the 12-inch dance market and general consumer acceptance. But in order to reach the promised land of the mass market, Naked must avoid getting caught in the amorphous middle tier between underground credibility and crossover success -- a place virtually every ambitious electronic independent seems to end up in (some local examples being OM, Six Degrees, and Asphodel).

In fact, there is little precedent for specialty imprints of any kind making an impact on the general listening market. Jay Denes, who co-founded Naked Music with Dave Boonshoft and Bruno Ybarra, is stumped when asked for examples of labels that have successfully done what his intends. "Hmm, there aren't really any currently," he muses over the phone from his New York office, "not in club music anyway. There are historical examples, but I'd have to think, because the scrapheap of ones who tried and failed is a lot higher than those who succeeded." (Daniel Chamberlain, editor of URB, the leading American electronic music magazine, says, "I could see Naked becoming something like Ninja Tune -- maybe not known everywhere, but definitely a lot more widely than your average specialty label.")

To overcome the two main constraints facing the limited-budget indie -- distribution and promotion -- Naked signed a deal with Astralwerks in October, becoming the first joint venture of the Virgin Records subsidiary. Nearly every electronic act to move significant units in America -- the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Air, Daft Punk -- has done so at the hands of Astralwerks. What's more, Astralwerks has committed to few projects that have flopped commercially, although it should be noted that all of its prize ponies have come from overseas. Conversely, Naked's central artists are all home-grown: Producers Miguel Migs (aka Petalpusher) and Gabe Rene (Aquanote) live in San Francisco; producers Denes and Dave Warrin (Central Living) and vocalist Lisa Shaw reside in New York; and singer Gaelle Adisson calls Atlanta home. If the partnership goes according to the labels' expectations, it will be a major coup for the domestic dance market.

"Why did we sign with Astralwerks? Simply because we had to," Denes says. "When it's time to do something and if you don't do it, you're going to be out of business. When there's nowhere else to go but sideways or down, you have to take a step. So you look into the four or five media companies that control the world and you basically pick the one that fits you best. Virgin Worldwide has all the best shit hands down, so that's where we went."

The Naked label blossomed out of Naked Music NYC, a loosely defined group that Denes led. According to Denes, his label OM Records wasn't in the financial standing to properly promote his outfit's debut CD, What's on Your Mind?, in 1998, so he struck out on his own, bringing OM's A&R man Ybarra with him.

Naked Music's first 12-inches quickly established the label's unmistakable sound: squeaky-clean sonics, thick, shifting bass lines, and plenty of female vocals, all wrapped up with classy cover illustrations by former S.F. resident Stuart Patterson. The latter element may have had much to do with the label's quick rise to prominence: Amidst a wall of plain record sleeves, Naked's full-color images of languid nudes surely caught the eye of a few house DJs, the majority of whom are male.

After the initial four singles sold beyond projections, Naked Music released the Nude Dimensions Vol. 1 compilation CD and began penetrating the so-called "lifestyle market" with continuous mixes of what Denes describes as "your vibey, soul-jazzy, sexy, lying around, dancing, whatever it is you do" tracks. Mix comps were the logical delivery system for Naked, since neither commercial nor college radio in America would play its individual numbers. Also, the label's fairly strict -- some might say conservative -- adherence to its particular aesthetic made for songs that were best experienced together rather than played with others. This easy collectibility is due partly to the singles' similarity in production values and partly to the artists' dedication to craft. "You could hear the Naked sound coming three miles away," BPM's Critchfield observes. "Besides their distinctive deep and moving bass lines, all the songs also have a beginning, middle, and end. So, if you look at them structurally, they're not just loops; they're actual compositions, which a lot of people in the dance record business are not that familiar with."

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