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."

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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