Nick Minieri of Zakim Recordings on releasing vinyl, Boston’s dance scene, and deciphering noise vs. signals
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s Don Draper declared on the first episode of Mad Men: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.”
Apply the loaded nine-letter word to an individual and the face of Nick Minieri materializes. The jovial daytime advertising agent, nightlife writer, & human Shazam is back on the lips of Boston’s dance community with the release of house music standout John Barera’s latest EP, Sheffield Scene. The vinyl is pressed off Minieri’s ever-blooming Zakim Recordings, the latest of his creative brainchildren alongside essential six-year-old electronic music site Beantown Boogiedown.
How does he juggle advocating himself to both The Man & The Underground? Hint, there is no Easy Button.
Minieri is quite the polymath — from the Draper-esque advertising day job to operating the Zakim Recordings label, somewhere in between he professionally photographs nightlife & occasionally DJs parties such as the 15-year-running Elements. We caught up with him during some of his rare few minutes of downtime to see what’s up.
Georgette Bibber: Tell us about your drum & bass beginnings & a snapshot timeline of events to this present moment.
Nick Minieri: Drum and bass was definitely the first style of dance music that spoke to me when discovering Goldie & Photek’s work on compilations circa ’96-’97 as an otherwise clueless high school student. It rolled in a lot of the gritty, lo-fi production aesthetic I loved about ‘88-’92 east coast hip hop with a frenetic tempo that mirrored my own sort of jovial persona.
Even though I played mostly dnb in the mid- to late-2000s, I never really aligned myself with just one specific style or sound. I bought & listened to a lot of house & techno 12” singles when I was coming up, but didn’t start playing either at parties until a few years ago once I felt more comfortable navigating through unplanned sets. While the vast majority of my gigs these days are house, I obviously still love drum and bass & will always consider Elements my home away from home.
Honestly DJ’ing has never really been the “main” thing I always wanted to do, it’s more a fun side dish. Also been getting serious about music production in recent months. That’s just in my downtime! Honestly my output with the blog has tumbled a lot since taking on more responsibility at my actual job, but I try to keep it updated when I can. Many of my current best friends are in the scene & certain doors wouldn’t have existed without Beantown Boogiedown.
What specific qualities interest you when adding an artist to your labels’ output?
I enjoy working with producers who have found their own voice & employ a similar work ethic to mine. I’m a firm believer in letting the music do the talking, & prefer the promotion to happen through word of mouth rather than trying to create excessive buzz online. Tracks that get over-hyped tend to never be one ones that people fondly recall down the road, anyhow.
The dance music I prefer combines classic motifs everyone appreciates (ie: TR-808 drums, Rhodes keys, etc.) with modern sounds that are fresh & unique. The tracks don’t necessarily have to be dancefloor weapons; something that can be enjoyed under headphones can be equally as meaningful. But I definitely avoid anything generic or too “pop”-esque in chord progression (such as too many major keys… simply not my cup of tea).
I also want to sign music that someone can play five years from now without thinking “damn, that track sounds sooo 2015.” This is especially important in the current climate where the shelf life of new music is shorter than ever before. In my opinion, more permanent styles such as house, techno & dnb are better suited for vinyl, where “fad” genres are best consumed (& discarded) in digital format.
Zakim releases are always available on limited 12” vinyl — considering the lengthy & costly process behind pressing, share as to why this component is crucial?
First off I know the whole “ultra limited edition 180g colored vinyl run” indie label bit is played-out as hell right now. I don’t do these short runs intentionally on the empty premise that the scarcity will generate some sort of artificial hype or bidding war for a second-hand copy on Discogs. It’s more because 100 copies is what I find most logical for the small local following Zakim has right now.
The main reason I choose to release on vinyl is it forces me to be really selective about what gets pressed because of the financial risk. Even if I sell every copy I still lose money; it’s a labor of love. I only release 2 or 3 things a year on Zakim, there’s a bit of an exclusive factor too… the quality control & the impact of each title simply wouldn’t be there if I was doing digital releases every week.
Digital sales have been plummeting in recent months as many prefer streaming/YouTube. I’ve thought about releasing on Beatport, but if you’re not spending money trying to get your track on the banners of the front page (& subsequently on the charts), they’re just going to instantly get lost in the shuffle. I read somewhere that over 75% of tracks uploaded to Beatport or iTunes don’t even get a single download. If I was anticipating, 1,000 downloads on each release I’d be setting myself up for a major disappointment. Plus if I sold them digitally, people probably wouldn’t buy the vinyl, so the whole exclusive factor would be sort of diminished.
The fact so many people have supported Zakim locally has been awesome. I’ve met up with people all over the city to drop off records to them when I’m out & about, it’s sort of a culture that naturally manifests itself. People can really draw a powerful connection to the music this way. Even waiting for the tests & full releases to ship from the pressing plant is exciting. One cool thing to note is at least half of the people buying records on my label aren’t even DJ’s… casual listeners have been really supportive as well.
Your latest release is an EP from fellow Renaissance man John Barera & an assembly of his friends. Describe how this collaboration came about for you?
We put out a release with John, Ali Berger, & #MakeItNew resident Baltimoroder a year ago which was a success. We sold over 50 copies (half the run) just by word of mouth in two weeks. John approached me shortly afterwards with a vision he had for a follow-up, which I was 100% on board with. He sent me the tracks around June of last year, & put them into production around October.
What I like the most about the Sheffield Scene EP is it showcases John’s talents not just in terms of his songwriting & arranging, but also his ever-increasing ability to improvise in a live setting. The title track was an ad lib synth jam between John & Walter Merlin Jones (a veteran with releases on Juan MacLean’s DFA label), recorded in a single take with no edits. “Loan Shark” is a sprawling broken-beat affair where John is given miles of bandwidth to let the envelopes on his Juno-106 rip. Ali Berger also appears again, as well as Anton M on the A-side. Both of those tracks are straight up no-bullshit house not unlike much of Barera’s output on his own Supply imprint.
With Zakim being a Boston-focused label, putting this EP out was a no-brainer.
In an interview with the Boston Globe 2 years ago, you mention that “there’s a lot of noise out there & very little signal.” What is your perspective on the Boston music scene with the addition of the festival Boston Calling & the emergence of new electronic producers & weekly events?
Re: Noise vs. Signal. That’s an issue that is going to be here to stay because of social media. There’s a lot of producers trying to release half-baked or generic songs before they’re ready, which adds to the ever growing tower of noise that permeates soundcloud, beatport, etc. Not many people are curating or helping promote things that aren’t their own, and blogs in general command far less authority unless you’re writing in a Buzzfeed listicle-style format. People don’t want to read about musicians unless it has to do with their sex lives or who they’re firing shots at on Twitter. It’s unfortunate. But on the flipside, artists are also frequently accessible now and engaging with everyday fans more than ever before. I particularly enjoy the Reddit “Ask Me Anything” posts that a lot of big-name artists initiate.
While Boston Calling is geared towards traditional rock and hip-hop, it’s definitely great to see more public events like this happening downtown. David Day did a huge roller disco party at that spot last summer too which had a huge crowd. Other public spaces such as the Lawn on D are now hosting tons of events in the summer. Mayor Walsh appears really devoted to helping stimulate nightlife culture by keeping the T open after 12 a.m. and being open to the idea of keeping venues open past 2 a.m. We’re obviously not in the same league as New York or LA, but I don’t think we try to be, either.
The quantity of producers emerging from Boston right now is another major development. John Barera, JSTJR, Durkin, Graphs, ABSRDST, Robokid, Twism & B3RAO and others are all getting picked up by top-shelf labels. I think this is only going to continue, and there are other cool imprints such as the Lifted Contingency who are doing a killer job helping to curate this fledgling talent as well.
A current popular phrase is that Boston is finally becoming more than just a pit-stop for trans-Atlantic artists to visit before hitting New York City. There are CONSIDERABLY more things happening in the dance scene than a decade ago. Yes, many headliners often have to come through on weeknights, but with many clubs stringently adhering to higher-margin Top 40 nights on weekends, it’s often a necessity. Still better than nothing I suppose!
Lastly, any words of advice to those struggling with work/life/fun/ & social media balance?
Believe me, it’s tricky, I struggle with it as much as anyone else. I generally work at least 60 hours a week & am always on call, weekends are a luxury for me nowadays. I don’t take even a single hour of downtime for granted anymore. I’m sort of forced to be productive in that capacity.
Just set aside a few hours a day to work on personal projects, & give yourself definitive goals to achieve. Last Sunday I blocked off an hour in the afternoon just to slice & organize audio samples for my music production on my computer. Then another hour to write up two posts for the blog, as well as some rhythms on my drum machines. Manage your time in small doses, even make lists if you have to. Focus on improving your workflow & treat it like an actual job. Work smart. All that jazz.
Another one of my secrets is I watch very little TV, maybe 1 to 2 hours a week tops. Facebook can also be a time-suck but I’ve gotten better with how much time I spend there.
Anyone who wants to be involved in any music scene should definitely try going to events that interest them whenever possible, even if it’s just a few times a month. Going to shows helps keep your ears to the ground & is obviously a great way to make connections (especially at the smaller ones). Sure you can network online, but meeting in person has a much greater impact. Also, get off your smart phone if you’re at the club!
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