I wouldn’t be working in digital if it weren’t for house music. Me and my best mate Jamie Odell (Jimpster) launched Freerange Records in 1996 with £2,000 his mother-in-law lent us. It was never meant to be anything more than a hobby. But the scene was huge in the 1990s and we quickly gained credibility. Artists and producers wanted to be on our label. Twenty-three years on, we can count more than 300 releases and are stronger than ever.
I was 23, a recent graduate, working for the NHS. Not exactly rock ‘n’ roll. Starting the label was an outlet for my passion for electronic music and my entrepreneurial spirit. As we grew, we built a website on this thing called the internet. It’s strange to think how new and exciting it all was back then but building that site sparked something in me. The experience compelled me to find a career in the "new media" industry, and I applied for a job at BMP’s new media agency – Billco. So, if it weren’t for flogging records, I wouldn’t be running a digital agency as CEO.
But there’s an irony to how both the digital and music industries have grown and changed. The former totally screwed, then completely transformed, the latter. Music was one of the first industries to be disrupted by the web. I saw first-hand how a business selling niche drum and bass could go from selling 10,000 copies of a vinyl release in the late 1990s to less than a tenth of that a few years into the new millennium. We went through a series of distributors in no time – as the bottom fell out of the market for physical product they went bust, owing us hundreds of thousands of pounds. If Freerange had been our only business, we’d have gone the same way. But that experience has helped me function in my role at the agency – turning clients from analogue snails into digital beasts. Quite a virtuous circle.
In 2009 we set up a second label to focus on a different, disco-influenced sound. To choose a name, we looked to the ad industry for inspiration. We called it Delusions of Grandeur.
We’ve maintained that DIY spirit, after all these years. We used to get sent demos on cassette. Now we get more than 200 links a week sent to us from producers. We couldn’t manage it without an army of loyal Saturday workers that we rely on to help out. My mate and business partner is off DJing around the world at the weekends and picks up the workload in the week. All credit to him, really.
Tom Roberts is founding partner of Freerange Records, a London record label and music-publishing company, and chief executive of Tribal Worldwide London