Join us for a listening session today 2-5pm dedicated to Be With Records.
2024 will mark the 10-year anniversary of one of our favorite archival labels Be With Records. Founded by DJ and all-around record fanatic Rob Butler, the label has put out an astounding 180 releases in its 9 years of operation. Somehow, Rob has managed the Herculean task of running the label completely by himself, which has allowed the label to retain a unique soul that’s fully representative of the eclectic tastes of its founder. South African jazz, library music, balearic downtempo, west coast soul, electronic Brit-funk – nothing seems to be off the table for Rob and his insatiable taste/love of music keeps the label going strong into its 10th year.
When working on the in-house collection at In Sheep’s Clothing NYC, it was an absolute no-brainer to reach out to Rob and built out a section dedicated to his essential archival imprint. Today, from 2-5pm we’ll be hosting our afternoon listening hours program with full album side playbacks of eight classic releases from the Be With Records catalog including releases from Arthur Russell, Ned Doheny, Marcia Griffiths, and Steve Hiett.
In anticipation of the listening session, we caught up with label founder Rob Butler over email to learn more about the label’s beginnings, inspirations, and elusive records. Big love to Rob for all that he does and going deep into how the label approaches its releases <3
How did Be With first get started?
Well, I’ve been a record lover and buyer for over 30 years so records are my biggest passion, without question. (Alongside Manchester United, natch). I’ve DJ’d since I was about 14 and worked in record shops from the age of 16. Upon moving to Manchester for my degree, in 2002, I started working at the legendary Piccadilly Records and ended up staying for the best part of my 20s. So, I’m one of those boring vinyl geeks, I guess.
In terms of wanting to start a label – that’s just one of those things that I’ve had in my head since the late 90s and being obsessed with the output of Stones Throw and Rawkus at the time. I started working in earnest on the ideas around a reissue label in the background of my day job in 2012. My job was in arts & culture marketing – the ‘marketing’ side of which I really didn’t like, the subject matter and long lunches I did like – and I’d been working there for a couple of years. However, I wasn’t happy and I knew I needed a career change. Yet, this time, I wanted to do something I was genuinely passionate about.
So, I suppose the label was borne out of twin frustrations; on a personal / work level but also the ongoing annoyance that my wantlist was so full of rare, prohibitively expensive records and my favourite reissue labels weren’t addressing this.
For a while it had been apparent to my friends and I that someone really should be doing more high quality reissues of in demand vinyl records. There were a lot of reissue labels that we always looked to but they were still missing a lot.
I thought to myself, ‘there’s room for another label to do all the records that I want to own’. So it definitely started out as something deeply personal – I wanted these records so I thought ‘why don’t I research how to license records and see if I can put them out myself?’ I thought that, if I want them, chances are there’ll be another 500-1000 people around the world who’ll also want those records.
I researched licensing repertoire to release and spoke to some contacts in the industry and everyone seemed to be cautiously optimistic. Seeing as my list of records I consider ripe for reissue stood in the 1000s, I figured my chances of getting a few out seemed to be not that slim.
What is your earliest memory of music?
I was lucky to have two music-obsessive older brothers who are each around a decade older than me so from the age of about 4 or 5 I was being exposed to great music. I was the weird kid at the age of 6 and 7 trying to tell my friends at school about, at various points, The Jam, The Who, New Order, Neil Young, Curtis Mayfield, A Tribe Called Quest. I have great memories of listening to Thriller and Surfin’ USA as a very very young kid. I never looked back!
Can you describe the ethos/approach behind the label?
Yes, I always like doing this! Well we’re definitely, happily, all over the place in terms of what we put out. That was set from the get go.
For some, it’s a curious release selection. Perhaps the discernible authorial voice behind the label’s presence and its activity to date resonates because it all emanates from one record lover’s deep passion for these artists and these records. It’s undiluted in that sense. I was determined to reflect my broad tastes as a DJ and record collector.
Unlike most other vinyl-only record archivists, Be With doesn’t adhere to one single genre. As such, we are free of those often self-imposed shackles. Rather than honing in on certain aesthetics, territories or eras, Be With output consists instead of music I’ve connected with on a personal level, and I suppose can only be grouped by virtue of what I perceive to be its musical worth.
Now, I would say this, but I think every record we put out is exceptional. And that’s perhaps the only element that ever links one release to the next.
Be With is still primarily a vinyl-only re-issue label, although I bent that rule fairly early on with some “first time on vinyl” releases. I also put out a couple of 12″s of remixes of Ned Doheny remixes to coincide with re-issues of Ned’s LPs. And there have also been a couple of other “not re-issues”. But there are no plans to turn into a proper record label anytime soon.
There are four main things that determine whether we re-issue something:
A. Do I like the record? This is usually the sole creative direction criteria for Be With, although there might be the occasional record that I really like but just doesn’t feel right for the label. Sometime these are records that I’ve known about for years, and sometimes they’re something someone’s suggested and I’ve never even heard of it.
B. Do we know who owns the rights? Everything we do is 100% licensed from the people who, to the best of our knowledge, absolutely own the master rights. Of course there’s the matter of who owns something legally isn’t necessarily the same as who should own it ethically. But not every record owned by a major means that there’s an angry artist who’s been screwed over.
Be With’s first record was a Leon Ware album owned by Warner and that re-issue lead to a relationship with Leon which meant that his wife asked Be With to handle the vinyl release of the album he had been working on when he died. I also licensed two Ned Doheny LPs from Sony and a third one from Warner. These lead to organising a Ned tour here in the UK and now Ned’s basically the label’s uncle.
When we aren’t dealing directly with an artist we always try to get in touch with them to see if they want to get involved in any way with a release. Some are happy to answer some questions and send some press shots, others just wish us luck and leave it at that. We haven’t yet walked away from a project because an artist doesn’t want it to happen. But we’re prepared to if that happens.
C. Do we think we can sell enough copies to make it financially viable? Here’s where the romance meets the ruthless financial practicalities of running a tiny label. It’s a simple matter of working out how much it’s going to cost to put the record together and then working out if we think we’ll sell enough copies to make it worthwhile. We’ve definitely lost money on records in the past and obviously want to avoid doing that again. For some labels the income from record sales is part of a bigger picture, but for Be With as a business our only income is from selling records so if our records don’t make any money, then we can’t pay the bills and we won’t be able to re-issue any more records.
D. What audio and artwork assets are there for us to work with? Yes, it happens that we even get as far as signing an agreement and then it turns out that whoever owns the rights to license the music doesn’t actually have any music for us to use. But even if we have an amazing transfer of the original tapes, we’re lucky to get a scan of a front cover of the sleeve, let alone print-ready artwork. Every label re-issuing records will tell you the same thing, that it’s the artwork that’s usually the biggest pain in the arse. We can usually get hold of a well looked after sleeve either from our own collections, from friends, and even sometimes fans of the label. And yes, we’ve even had to pay those crazy Discogs prices to get hold of a sleeve we can use. But we do have a couple of records on hold because even though we’ve got to the point of having some amazing sounding test pressings, these records are just so rare that no one we know has a copy, and buying one would cost more than the money we’d make from the re-issue.
So that should be everything. It’s a combination of creative direction, legal practicalities, financial viability and then the practicalities of whether we have everything we need to make the actual records. Simple!
But Be With is definitely not purely about the sales and the margins. The spreadsheets are there to back up the label’s creative direction and keep the label going. There are plenty of records we could re-issue that would sell well, and some that would sell REALLY well. But they’re not records I like. And likewise some of the really popular releases allow us to put some records out that we really couldn’t justify on their own. Oh the power of hindsight 😀
What keeps us going? Having bills to pay and wanting to be able to pay those bills by re-issuing great records that are super rare and stupid expensive!
It’s definitely not a way to get super-rich. To do that we should probably open a pressing plant!
There are so many elements that are satisfying. From getting a really great suggestion from a follower of the label on the Reissue Request Line on Facebook, to finally tacking down that person you’ve wanted to license a record from all these years to getting the “license approved” email from a major. From putting out a record that was never even available on vinyl (and never looked like it would be) to working with really close friends who want to put their music out on Be With. To finally breaking open the seal on the finished record you’ve been working on for 3-4 years!
But, I suppose, above all… cliche klaxon… it’s about doing exactly the job I’ve always wanted to do and waking up every day looking forward to opening up my emails to see what’s happened in the 12 hours since I last looked.
Each day brings something pretty magical that tends to outweigh the stress of running your own increasingly unwieldy business!
The label is approaching its 10 year anniversary in 2024. What were some pivotal moments during the last decade?
So the first 3 releases came out in 2014, so that was a big deal in and of itself. But probably the biggest turning point was deciding to jack in my day job and go full time from 1st Jan 2015. That year was a big big one and I needed to be fully free to focus on both the label and the big tour we had planned (and had hugely invested in) with Ned Doheny. So, yeah, definitely the “Be With Ned” European Tour of early 2015, that helped us reach a wider audience and I think lent us some further authenticity which is always key when you’re just starting out and the record nerd world is such a cynical, dismissive place to dip your toe / raise your hand within.
Later that year we released the Letta Mbulu reissue which was huge for us and continues to be. Doing the Kylie reissue in early 2016 I think was key as it was album number 10 so we wanted it to be a pretty wild record to mark the landmark; and it showed people that we didn’t give much of a shit about what people thought about us or what they thought we were trying to do.
Moving back to Manchester from London in late 2017 was a big moment, it enabled us a bit more breathing space, away from the craziness of London life and housing mayhem/costs etc.
Getting into the library game, first with KPM in 2018 after a few years working on that, was also a significant moment for the label and really helped us put a solid foundation under the label. At least until the next set of bills came crashing in!
Is there a record/album that continues to elude you after all these years? (Could be either finding the vinyl or figuring out a reissue)
Oh man, great question. As for reissues, we got so close with certain things (Clube Da Esquina or Channel Orange, for example) that get through the first rounds of major label sign-off and then get nixed at the last minute, for whatever reason. In terms of some of my most wanted records, it’s hard to list one. I’ll have to think. My Discogs wantlist is apparently at 45,000 records (not all unique, of course) so that gives you an idea of the never ending search for records which consumes my life when I’m not with my wife and kids!
As a label owner, what are your personal favorite labels?
It’s hard to look past Stones Throw as my favourite ever label – right since I first got Super Duck Breaks in like 1997. To think that for over 25 years they’ve been such a constant source of brilliance is, frankly, quite staggering. Plus it helps that Chris (PBW) is such a lovely guy. I loved Rawkus for that brief period in the late 90s and, as an honorary Mancunian, I have a lot of love for Factory, too. Island is another favourite, of course. Stax, Chess, Blue Note – I mean, the list is endless. Of current labels still doing it, I like Efficient Space (they never put a foot wrong), LITA, Mr Bongo, ICE, Strut, Archeo, Claremont 56, Music From Memory, Soul Jazz, DEEK, Emotional Response, Sundazed (are they still going?) and Seance Centre. And many more of course!
What is coming up next for the label?
Well as you mentioned, it’s our 10 Year Anniversary next year, 2024. We’re working on all the different ways to mark that landmark right as I type.
Hopefully, throughout the year, we’ll be announcing a few very special releases (including a first-time vinyl release of a latter-day Ned Doheny classic and more unreleased things from our pals in the biz; including – *everything crossed* – the return of Koushik, the man who’s “Be With” gave us our name!)
To celebrate more generally, we’ll be putting on some really great live shows around the world. We’ve never been to Japan, haven’t been to Australia for over 20 years, haven’t been to NYC since 2010 and we still need to do that show at In Sheep’s Clothing in LA, guys! So, lots of work and planning to do.
There’s even talk of doing a coffee table book with lots of fantastic interviews with all the artists we’ve worked with and some nice pictures of, well, records! Though I worry that could be too self-indulgent. However, we’d elevate the package with a 7″ of unreleased songs from some heavy-hitters.
In terms of as-yet-unannounced things, we’re doing a couple more Themes records (the most sought-after ever, if that gives you an idea!), some more KPM bits, a classic mid-90s hip-hop album from one of our favourite female MCs, a couple of classic West Coast rap records, some more Tommy Guerrero reissues, more Steve Moore library fire and lots we haven’t yet fully got over the line.