Balancing Act

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

The compilations proliferated, with the Bare Essentials and Carte Blanche sets following -- the former an unmixed best-of type collection and the latter a more diverse set of tempos and styles. After a while, Naked Music began to look like something of a compilation factory, a direction that Denes saw as "going sideways." The anthology business can only take you so far; the real currency in the mainstream music market is the single-artist album. Naked sought out Astralwerks for the express purpose of promoting its first wave of non-compilations. (Naked's initial offering is the album Beautiful Tomorrow by Denes' new outfit, Blue Sky, due in January.)

In 2002, the label hopes to pull off the precarious hat trick of marketing singles, collections, and single-artist efforts all at the same time. The retail indicators suggest that the time for diversification is now. "A year and a half ago, I literally couldn't keep Naked Music vinyl in the store -- it was so absolutely on fire," Critchfield reports. "It still goes out in very significant numbers, but the CDs have been stronger lately. The first Nude Dimensions compilation is still one of my strongest-selling CD titles. The listening crowd doesn't seem to get tired of their stuff -- it doesn't sound dated or worn out. For the people directly involved in the scene -- the DJs and stuff -- it is a little worn to them now. Some of the local DJs are a little over the Naked sound -- a lot of them are actually. But DJs are magpies: They want new kill every day."

Bruno Ybarra concurs. "The dance market is too treacherous a landscape to survive in the long term. The attention span of the dance market is completely minute. The shelf life of the average dance record is like a week, and you've got to be on the bleeding edge of what's happening all the time. And all of us are in our late 20s and early 30s, so we're sort of graduating to that stage where we're not going to clubs every week. I guess we're all setting our sights on creating more enduring music."

Astralwerks specializes in exactly that -- overcoming the ephemeral nature of electronic music and building lasting careers. But each of the label's successful crossovers has had magazine-friendly looks and a bit of the swagger the press demands. Contrarily, Naked's first three acts scheduled for full LPs -- Blue Six, Aquanote, and Petalpusher -- are all behind-the-scenes producer types. Lisa Shaw, whose record is slated for September 2002, possesses the most star appeal. Ybarra calls her album to date "a midtempo, very classic-sounding record à la the Sade/Jill Scott/neo-soul kind of thing." Accordingly, Ybarra says he is devoting most of next year to nurturing Shaw's career development.

Astralwerks' vested interest in Naked Music has impinged on the autonomy of some of its musicians. S.F.'s Miguel Migs, whose Petalpusher album has been complete for months but has been pushed back by Astralwerks' scheduling experts, sees trade-offs in the increased exposure. "When labels go with a major, they start thinking of what will make them bigger and what will sell more instead of why they did it in the first place," he comments. "So I see some of that happening, which is a little disappointing."

Migs says the album he originally submitted had "lots of different styles, a lot of downtempo stuff and even reggae stuff in addition to the house -- some of which Astralwerks doesn't want on the album. I think they want it less diverse and more continuous, which bursts the whole point to me, because I'm a producer rather than an artist. It's a different kind of marketing."

But the strength of Astralwerks' overall push might make the few compromises worth it. "People found the early stuff on Naked that we were doing for the love of the music, not for any marketing or money strategy," Migs observes. "So now with more promotion behind it, there's no doubt it will cross to a whole new breed of people who don't know where to find dance music."

If it does connect with that new breed, Naked might just become the first big dance label that could.

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