Warp Records’ Sheffield roots and rise to fame have been well documented – but 25 years on, how has the label evolved? We spoke with Warp’s head of creative services and production James Burton and head of A&R Stephen Christian about finding the right artists, continuing to invest in physical formats and The Designers Republic’s lasting influence on the label.
When Ian Anderson designed Warp Records’ original logo, a purple flattened earth with an intersecting flash, he wanted it to look futuristic. At the time, Warp was a small outfit based in a Sheffield record store, but it had aspirations of being something much bigger – not just a local label, but an international one.
In 1989, Warp was founded when George Evelyn and Kevin Harper, who later became Nightmares on Wax, presented an electronic track they had made using bedroom samplers to Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell, who owned the independent Sheffield record store Fon. The pair suggested going into business together and the track, Dextrous, later sold 75,000 copies. Over the next decade, the label was responsible for reviving Sheffield’s dance scene, signing some of the most pioneering acts in techno and helping bring experimental computer music to mainstream audiences. In the 25 years since it was founded, it has produced some of the most talked-about acts, album artwork and videos in electronica and TDR’s designs for the label – from luxurious anniversary box sets to steel etched vinyl packaging for Autechre – have earned Warp the accolade of being many a designer’s dream client (and favourite label).
Today, Warp’s roster has expanded to include more than 30 artists, from indie groups to rappers and DJs. It still retains ties with Sheffield, but has been based in London since 2000 and now has offices in New York, LA and Paris.
Warp’s head of creative services and production James Burton has been with the label for 17 years. In that time, he has seen the number of staff more than triple from nine to 35 and seen the internet transform the way it does business.
“Obviously the internet has affected the whole music industry and Warp, like every other label has had to change how it works in relation to that – from promotion to formats it sells and how it sells them,” he explains. “When I started, Warp were just beginning to develop its online sales through Warpmart – we didn’t have secure transactions at the time, so customers would need to place their order and call the office with their credit card details. I was packing orders, and there would be about five a day. Now, [online store] Bleep is processing hundreds,” he says.
“Digital marketing and social media have [also] hugely grown in importance,” adds Burton. “Our plans now are much more focused around when assets will be released to create the biggest impact from them, as things spread so quickly (and are also over so quickly) that it’s essential they are timed correctly. It also means we have to create much more visual material around a release project,”
In Warp’s early days, the label worked almost exclusively with TDR, with Anderson’s studio producing the majority of its artwork and promotional imagery. After the release of Warp’s tenth anniversary box set, Anderson says there was a conscious decision to bring in other artists to work on creative – “they wanted to build on the individual profiles of artists, rather than the Warp brand itself,” he told CR in September 2014 – but TDR still collaborates with Warp on artists from Aphex Twin to Autechre, and Burton says it has had a lasting influence on its visual approach.
“[TDR] really set the foundations of the visual identity and brand language of the label to this day,” explains Burton. “Even though we moved away from working with them on every project, as artists wanted to establish their own identity outside of what TDR were doing, I think their influence is still felt.
“That’s usually not a conscious thing, but perhaps something to do with the preference of the artists and designers that we work with – in recent years it’s been interesting as some younger designers have directly referenced TDR’s 90s work. We’ve also worked with some of the designers who’ve moved on from TDR to found their own studios including Matt Pyke at Universal Everything and Michael Place at Build,” he adds.
In describing TDR’s work for Aphex Twin, Anderson says there has always been a sense of almost “non-design”; playing with expectations of packaging and what it should look like (a concept that can be seen across Warp’s creative output, and not just releases designed by TDR). The original logo and deep purple used on Warp’s early record sleeves are also still key parts of its identity , used most recently in imagery and a microsite promoting its 25th anniversary celebrations (the label held a series of events in Krakow as part of the Sacrum Profanum festival).
While many labels have scaled back their physical production in recent years, Burton says Warp has increased its focus on box sets and physical releases: Aphex Twin’s 2014 album Syro was released in a lavish five disc limited edition package, designed by TDR and priced at £250, as well as CD, LP and digital formats. After images of the packaging were released online via the Creative Review website, the label had to allocate copies via a ballot.
“Physical formats still take a high profile,” says Burton. “We put a lot of effort into trying to create appealing packages – in fact, much more effort and money goes into that these days. A jewel case with a four-page booklet won’t cut it anymore. Obviously if people can get the music for free, they want a bit more if they are spending their money on it. It’s always a struggle making something nice on budget though, especially with CDs where we’re limited how high we can price things by shops, so the production price has to follow,” he adds.
From Flying Lotus to LFO, Warp’s artists all have very different yet distinct identities, and many of them are closely involved in producing or designing their own album art.
“Some artists do the artwork and make videos themselves – Boards of Canada, for example, create all their own artwork and take some convincing to get anyone else involved at all,” explains Burton.
“Others have their own ideas, but employ people to create their visual material, and others are open to ideas from designers and film-makers, but most artists signed to Warp are very aware of visual culture and have strong opinions on what we create to accompany their work. We try and facilitate those ideas and work with whoever can achieve them,” he adds.
For artists with a cult following, Warp can also take a more creative approach to campaigns – it has hosted surprise listening parties in the desert for Boards of Canada, and before the artwork for Aphex Twin’s album was announced, the label teased fans with cryptic images of mysterious street art and neon green Aphex Twin blimps hovering in the sky.
“Artists like Aphex Twin have a very loyal and quite large fanbase, which also gives us the luxury of being able to be a bit more creative with campaigns,” says Burton. “You just couldn’t do that with new artists – for example we couldn’t tweet a map reference and have 100 people turn up in the middle of the desert to hear an album by a new artist, as we did for Boards of Canada. It’s great that we can do that, as it’s fun for the artist, the fans and us – it’s probably harder to break through a new artist [now] than ever though,” he adds.
Warp’s roster has expanded considerably since its early days, both musically and geographically, but it is still relatively small – a decision head of A&R Stephen Christian says is largely based on practical considerations. “We are very particular about who joins the label and that naturally keeps the volume of new projects relatively contained,” he says.
“On one hand I think there’s a realistic bandwidth consideration, sure, and we want to be able to focus as much as possible on each release or project. We also aren’t able to sign every artist we’d like to, although I think we do pretty well,” he adds. When it comes to discovering new acts, Christian says there is no conscious criteria for what makes a Warp artist – but musicians have to do more than just sound great.
“I guess it’s easy to say [we look for] ‘great music’, and there is a strong legacy that helps inform what our idea of that is, but in actuality, it extends further. [It’s] artists that have a strong, forward vision, who are compelling and important regardless of a label’s involvement… with a firm grasp of the conceptual elements that surround their music, such as visual art and technology,” Christian says.
“Some will have built a substantial following by the time we work together, some might be relatively underexposed … but there’s no baseline expectations beyond the originality of what they’re doing,” he maintains.
“[The roster] has always been diverse, and will continue to be, because it has to be – I’d like to think the diversity is some kind of manifest composite projection of our imagined record collections.”