In an era when running a record label can be as easy as uploading a few hastily mastered tracks to Bandcamp with some dodgy artwork, the ones that do it properly really stand out. A good label is one that is dedicated to music, not money; one that releases that music for the love, not for the sake of it; and one that understands both their artists and their audience. A name that has consistently ticked those boxes since its inception four years ago is Well Rounded, the Brighton-based stable of imprints run by scene stalwart Ashley Marlowe, known to most as Donga.
With an unflinching dedication to releasing vinyl and an uncanny knack for championing emerging talent, Marlowe has earned Well Rounded and its subsidiary labels – Well Rounded Housing Project and Well Rounded Individuals – a level of respect, from fans and artists alike, that few labels manage to achieve. So when news broke online last week that Well Rounded would be hanging up their dubs at the end of the year, it sent a ripple of shock and sadness through the electronic community. We caught up with Donga to get some insight on the move, and as he is quick to explain, it was a decision based as much on human factors, as it was business: “Fatigue is one thing if I’m honest. I have tried to do as much on my own as possible and I get anxious thinking about my responsibility to the artists. I need to scale down and look after myself and my health.”
Characteristically humble, it’s a statement that summarises Marlowe’s attitude toward both his labels and the artists he works with. Well Rounded made its entrance in 2009 with the ‘U Cheated’ EP, a release put out because Marlowe felt a certain up-and-coming producer named Deadboy wasn’t getting the exposure he deserved:
“The labels came about initially to release our friend Deadboy’s tracks. As that went well we just tried to keep going and growing where possible. The vision was to follow our musical instincts and hopefully survive whilst doing so. Not survive as in draw a wage or make money but be able to turnover at least.
‘Vision’ is something clearly abundant in the Well Rounded camp – Marlowe’s ability to recognise emerging talent, sign and champion it, is evident from their back catalogue. Deadboy’s consequent success with the Numbers stable is well documented, and names such as Hackman, Xxxy and Leon Vynehall owe much to the early support of Donga. Submerse was another of those prospects, who saw his 2010 ‘Hold It Down’ EP getting snapped up by Well Rounded at a crucial time in his career: “I’ve got so much love for Well Rounded – they’ve always pushed great, forward-thinking music. I feel after I had my release with them, that’s when my music career started to pick up some good pace.” These are sentiments echoed by producer South London Ordnance, who released on the label in 2012:
“I’d always been a massive fan of Well Rounded and had been sending them music for a bit, so when Donga said he wanted to do a 12″ I was really up for it. I think what people find exciting about Ash is how much he fucking loves the process of putting out underground dance music. If you’re passionate about something you do it will always shine through in your projects, and that’s undoubtedly been the case with all the Well Rounded labels.”
UK house talents James Fox and Hodge have featured on the Well Rounded Housing Project offshoot, and voice similar feelings on what sets the Well Rounded imprints apart from other labels:
James Fox: “The main thing that sets Well Rounded apart from other labels is personality – whether that be artwork, the music released or the way in which the label communicates with the public. These days there are an awful lot of identikit labels releasing very similar music and I think the WR family of labels is something of a reaction against that.
I was very glad to have a release with the label at an early-ish stage; it felt like the right tune on the right label at the right time and was relatively successful all told. It was definitely a massive push forward for me in terms of profile and I’ll always be grateful for that. Ashley has definitely been a great influence on me; sometimes you can get a little too caught up in the hype and bullshit that surrounds the music industry in 2013 – he cuts right through all that and gets down to what really matters: the music.”
Hodge: “Donga has always been really supportive. I played him a bunch of music not aimed so much at the floor and he was really keen to put it out, which is really cool – I think that’s what sets Well Rounded apart from some other labels. They just put out whatever they want – no restrictions.”
Marlowe’s uncompromising vision has extended well beyond the realms of domestic underground dance music. He was quick to catch on to the emerging juke and footwork sounds penetrating UK dancefloors and began using the Well Rounded Individuals label to push the styles, bringing US producer Matt Mauldin aka Wheez-ie to the table with EPs in 2011 and 2012. Mauldin reflects on the impact it had on him:
“I’m very proud of the two records I put out on that label and equally grateful that Donga found my music and gave me a chance. Back in 2010 no one other than Planet Mu and Juke Trax was really releasing juke. Well Rounded was one of the first labels in the UK to put out a juke 12”, and the first to put out a 12” by myself. I’ve really respected both their commitment to putting out quality releases, and to putting out vinyl.”
Vinyl lies at both the heart of the Well Rounded ethos, and the heart of the man behind it. The human element of his approach again becomes apparent when Donga tries to explain his dedication to the format:
“I grew tired of trying to explain this so now I just say it isn’t rational, it’s just what I enjoy personally. My father used to send me to his records and ask me to put on specific albums for him as a boy. Those spined sleeves of different colours, like a library, was a world of potential new discovery. And he was a damn good DJ – making people smile, dance, laugh… you know I was a little boy falling in love with the girl across the room while he spun records. Oh, what can you say? You either feel it, or you don’t.”
There’s a heavy romanticism at work here. Marlowe is a character who values both the physicality and sentimentality of vinyl, and the hard work and integrity that has historically underpinned its culture. The latter, he feels, is largely neglected in today’s music industry, where the urgency and immediacy of digital downloading has shortened the attention span of many listeners and fundamentally changed the structure of the business. It’s a state of affairs that has obviously contributed to his decision to call time on Well Rounded:
“The main inspirational touchstones for me exist in things of the past. So I would like to see if I can keep active in the business without having to adhere to the new infrastructure that has developed post-digital download/internet etc. These are useful tools but too often people will not invest in physical music if they are offered an easier alternative. The lengths I went to physically find record shops in other towns and countries taught me a respect for the people you meet on the independent frontline who put their whole lives behind their passion for meagre material returns. I don’t see that reflected in much online.
These days things lack investment of time – even when just listening. There seems to be such a ‘flick-thru-a-clip’ culture. I think that’s a hopeless situation if artists are trying to evolve their craft in a new or subtle ways. In society I fear an overall lack of humanity at the heart of things, and certain quarters of the industry are lazy and take too much for granted. At label level every release you do is an investment in an artist and a potential financial risk. I think that gets overlooked. And because a lot of labels are in the position of having to really push branding to gain a position in a market it starts to resemble something corporate too easily. Back in the old days you could succeed by banging out white labels from the boot of your car! Progress is a pre-occupation for a lot of people perhaps whereas for me I’m in no hurry. I need to drink in the sounds around me and this so-called exciting fast paced world leaves me aghast.”
It seems the modern values of the industry and online culture are incompatible with the traditional, no-bullshit attitude of Well Rounded. Perhaps this is a label simply not designed to exist in the corporate musical maelstrom of 2013? I ask Donga what, if anything, has changed in the four years since he founded the labels, and what he feels the Well Rounded legacy will be?
“Verdict: misadventure. Haha. I could actually be really cynical here. When something means as much to a person as this label has to me you get easily frustrated. I’m tempted to say it’ll pass without much comment – like a lot of stuff online.
Overall I fear we perhaps aren’t meant to exist in these times because of dominant trends. I don’t want to feel dictated to by a market. This decision is really about going back. Oh and perhaps more obliquely I picked up this record for £3 yesterday and it really put me in touch with all my experiences being passionate about music all my life, and if I’m really honest, probably helped pushed the decision forward in my mind. Madness perhaps to some, but that’s the power of music to me. I want to be able to create music with this spirit in it. I think I may succeed better without worrying about the industry outside….
And I watched this…”
Despite the announcement that the labels will stop signing new music, this is certainly not the last we’ll hear from Donga and Well Rounded. As well as honouring the remaining releases on the labels’ schedule, Marlowe will be focusing his attention on the record shop he opened in Brighton at the start of the year, appropriately titled ‘Well Rounded Vinyl Vendors’. Situated on the first floor of a building that also houses Brighton institution Rarekind Records, it’s a venture very much in line with the values Donga nurtured in the Well Rounded labels:
“We love records. I have been buying since a boy. We want to revive the culture of dance shops in a way that doesn’t have to embrace ‘modern’ values. I mean, for example, we are on Facebook but try to be really open and conversational with people. Rather than just supply and demand and promote products only. Promoting lesser-known quality music is important for us across the board.
The shop is small, and the stock is closely curated, but we offer an excellent, exciting, unusual range of choice I’d say. It’s such a cliché that people in record shops are moody – I mean I’ve been treated like shit in every kind of commercial establishment you can name! But hopefully that wont be your experience with us. We do have fun. Especially when people are vibing on the vinyl in general. Anyway the reason we would hope you might want to come to us is to discover MORE music.”
Also forthcoming on the Well Rounded agenda is a return to Echo Festival this summer, with a showcase featuring Xxxy, Lakosa, James Fox and Hodge. Marlowe reflects fondly on last year’s activities, and what we can expect on the Croatian coastline this June 6-9th:
“Medlar’s set by the bar one afternoon was dreamy. He played so many choice tracks. Me and my fiancé reclined on some sun loungers and he provided a perfect summer soundtrack. It was small, as you’d expect, but really well tempered. I enjoyed meeting the local Croatians with day tickets. They took more time to give me feedback and they knew nothing of us previously. They loved the music we played. Pure and simple.
This year I’m gonna crucify myself. Or get the artists to put me in a Wicker Man at the end of our slot. I would like to think people can expect some GORGEOUS music. Of varying flavours and dynamics.”
We wouldn’t expect anything less. Whilst the decision to call time on the labels has clearly been a tough one, it’s opening the door to another chapter in the Well Rounded story. The man who’s keeping that tale alive leaves us with acknowledgements to the people who have contributed to it so far, and some final words of wisdom:
“Shouts to RUBADUB, EPM Music, Kudos Distribution, Underground Resistance (for personal inspiration), all independent specialist dance stores alive and M.I.A, Nathaniel Mellors (WR & Individuals Art), Flatwork (WRHP art), David Richards, Aliona Shi and Andy Cooke (videos), Chris Gorsuch (tees), Paul Gibson, Stickie Davis and Ed Lilo, Jim TFA (club events). ALL THE ARTISTS….I’ll have to stop there. It’ll never end and I still won’t remember everybody right now.
Fight for what you believe in. I know that isn’t generally easy but think about what matters, cherish it, support and celebrate it. DO YOUR BEST. LEAD BY EXAMPLE. FOLLOW YOUR HEART!”
Words: Ed Oliver
Photography: Josh Dunlop
Catch the Well Rounded Records showcase featuring Xxxy, Lakosa, James Fox, Hodge and Donga at Echo Festival in Croatia 6-9th June. Head here for £65 tickets.