“I just wanted to do it—I didn’t really think too much about it,” says Mike Paradinas, recalling the early days of his label, Planet Mu. “I didn’t have a proper business plan or anything. I mean, that’s how it’s always been, a bit ramshackle,” he laughs. “We try not to lose money, I guess.”
Paradinas, otherwise known as the pioneering producer μ-Ziq, plays the self-deprecating Englishman exceedingly well. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s talking about a bedroom passion project, rather than a label that has been at the forefront of electronic music for a quarter of a century. With over 400 releases in its catalogue, Planet Mu has been pivotal in successive waves of dance music innovation—IDM, breakcore, dubstep, footwork—and has showcased countless boundary-breaking artists.
The label came about almost by accident. Signed to Virgin in the mid ’90s, Paradinas was asked to come up with a name for their new dance imprint. A Detroit techno fan, he riffed on Carl Craig’s Planet E. “Once it had a name, the idea obviously came to release other people’s stuff,” he recalls. The result was the 1997 compilation Mealtime, which featured music from Paradinas and contemporaries such as Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert, and Plaid. Virgin soon lost interest in the project, and Paradinas decided to go independent. Complications in arranging a distribution deal cost him his first planned releases; Boards of Canada, an early signing, were snagged by Warp. But he soon hit his stride, releasing a steady stream of music, first from his contemporaries in what came to be called the “IDM” movement, and then from an ever-broadening cast of electronic innovators.
“Ultimately, the music is the important aspect,” says Lara Rix-Martin of the ethos behind Planet Mu and its family of labels. Rix-Martin runs Objects Limited, founded in 2016 to explore “the weirder parts of electronic music” and support underrepresented gender identities. Rix-Martin is Paradinas’ wife and helps out with A&Ring at the label (Paradinas also works with a label manager, Tom Quaye, and press officer, Marcus Scott). Objects became an official Mu sublabel last year. “There’s nothing more powerful than something that is genuine, and ultimately that is what we both look for. Artists that are genuine to themselves.”
Mu’s key artists embody this idea. In the early aughts, an interest in the hardcore and breakcore scene (“It’s what I was DJing at the time,” he recalls) led Paradinas to work with some of the scene’s finest and most eccentric figures. Venetian Snares remains a flagship Mu artist, and heads up the Timesig sublabel, which recently put out a head-turning jungle record by John Frusciante. Later in the decade, the spacey, moody sounds of dubstep caught Paradinas’ ear. Key statements from the scene’s fringes—from the likes of Vex’d, Boxcutter and Milanese—appeared on the label. “It was a really exciting time,” recalls Alan Myson, who works under the alias Ital Tek. “It felt like it was quite a small scene, and there was a real momentum to it.” A teenager when Paradinas signed his first release in 2006, Myson still works with the label to this day; his appeared earlier this year. Myson credits Paradinas with helping shape and sequence his releases. “He’s got a great ear for picking out what has potential and nudging me along paths that could be explored more. When it comes to tracklist and sequencing an album, Mike is very involved. I really appreciate that input as I’m just too close to the music.”
Paradinas’ finely honed curatorial skills came to the fore with 2010’s Bangs & Works compilation, a painstakingly assembled primer to Chicago’s footwork scene. Previously little-known internationally, Planet Mu’s footwork releases helped introduce the brain-bending style to the European dance scene. RP Boo, footwork’s originator, credits the label with helping him “reach new audiences,” and with inspiring him to carry on. “The feedback fuels me to keep making more,” he commented. RP Boo, who has released three albums on the label, fits the profile of many Planet Mu artists. He is entwined in a scene and style, but his sonic signature is unique. At Planet Mu, such artists can thrive long-term. “The way we run our labels is down to being artists ourselves,” says Rix-Martin, who also makes music as Meemo Comma. “There’s a mutual respect of control. We give advice from a place of experience.”
The fruits of this approach are evident on the label’s 25th anniversary compilation, which looks forward rather than back, showcasing music from present and upcoming Mu releases. In the run-up to the release, we rang up Paradinas to find out where Planet Mu is at in its 25th year, and how long it might still be with us. (Spoiler: it’s at least until Paradinas pays off his mortgage.)
How has the pandemic affected the label?
There’s been very little difference. Since the label started, we’ve all worked at home. I personally hate playing shows, so lockdown has taken a lot of stress away from me. I hate flying and all that kind of stuff. So that’s been rather nice I think, for me personally.
At the moment, there’s a big change because people have suddenly started manufacturing vinyl, and the [waiting] times have gone up to between 10 and 14 weeks. But that wasn’t the case for most of the year, it’s been really quick. [Another] big change during lockdown has been that we can’t ship via aircraft, so it’s taking a month on a boat [for records] to get to the States and Japan. So we’ve had staggered release dates—a month later than digital, on average.
It’s been a good year for us in terms of sales, which I wasn’t expecting in March. But I suppose that, because there’s no shows, or very few shows, people have more money for buying music.
Did Bandcamp days help?
Yeah they did, they helped a lot. Especially with DeForrest [Speaker Music]’s record, that was a big one on Bandcamp. Bandcamp’s been great for us since we started putting our stuff on it.
What about Brexit? Does that pose a threat?
Yes, it poses a threat. It’s horrible. I mean it’s out of my control. I wish it wasn’t happening, but it is. We’re just going to do the best we can. At the moment it looks like there’s going to be a month or two of holdups at ports and stuff. But I think things will sort themselves out. I mean it’s not that different from shipping outside of Europe, which we’ve done for a couple of decades.
But in general it’s an OK time for the label?
2019 was really difficult. By the end of the year, none of the releases had made a profit yet. Press was changing so much at the end of last year. We said, “We can’t spend this much on press any more, we could put the money to better use – and keep going instead of go bust.’
This year was really good. And we’re a bit more careful about not doing too many formats and that sort of thing. We did a few digital-only releases. The RUI HO [Lov3 & L1ght] was one of the first digital-only albums we did.
Streaming is the big technological change affecting the music industry right now. Do you see it as benign?
Well there’s no point in being angry about it. I want to do the best for my artists, and if an artist says to me, ‘I don’t want to be on Spotify,’ I take them off. I personally would like to remove the label from Spotify because I think they’re cunts. I mean I’ve met some of them—they’re just US fratboy-type computer guys that don’t care about music. But on balance I think streaming is a useful tool for finding music. And young people tend to use it. I don’t think it’s affecting vinyl sales too much. I mean the damage is already done, you know.
Bandcamp is good for independent music, but do you worry that it makes labels obsolete, since it’s easier for artists to self-release?
I did it myself! With the Jake Slazenger records. I wanted to have it as my thing and get a bit of money through for Christmas. I take a wage from Planet Mu, but I’ve never taken any royalties from my music.
I’ve seen that [question] throughout: What is the advantage of labels as opposed to doing it yourself, when there are so many tools for doing it yourself? And it just comes down to that sort of gatekeeper thing, and having a filter you can trust, I suppose. A lot of artists think, ‘Well, I can do it myself, but you can press the vinyl’—so that’s one reason and the whole network we’ve got. We have good distribution deals—we’ve negotiated better percentages—because we’ve been around so long.
Could you talk about how you go about putting together an album? I know you pay a lot of attention to sequencing.
Ital Tek, Outland, for example: He’d been working on it for a long time and had sent me hundreds of versions of tracks. I knew roughly which ones I wanted to put on there. Then it took a day or two. I put it together and sent it to him, and he changed a couple of things around and it was there. Alan had envisioned it completely differently.
You’ve been working with Alan for years—more or less his whole career. How does that influence your working relationship?
I think Alan trusts, now, that I’ve got his—well, the record’s, if not his— best interests at heart. And I’m thankful that he hasn’t signed to Ninja Tune I guess [laughs].
Do you sometimes give broader career advice to your artists?
Sometimes, but I don’t know if my experience is as relevant as it was a while ago. But I do chat to my artists, yeah, and sometimes things come up. I was worried about Jlin a few years ago. She was doing so many gigs, and I knew she was heading for a period where she would get sick of that, if not have a bit of a mini-breakdown or something. Me and Tom (Quaye, Planet Mu label manager) were trying to speak to her manager, saying, ‘Look, she needs some time off.’ And she did take some time off, so I’m glad about that. But mainly with our artists I think the trouble is not enough gigs [laughs]. So we do try and link them up with agents.
At some point running the label seems to have taken precedence over your own music. What is it that you like about that arrangement?
Probably that I can stay at home and do it [laughs]. I don’t mind talking to people and artists, but I’m not comfortable with traveling and, you know, punching my fist in time with my music is something that I don’t feel that comfortable with. I like writing music at home— I’ve been writing quite a lot over lockdown actually. But yeah, I do feel comfortable running the label. It’s quite fun, and it’s rewarding.
After all these years, do you still feel a thrill when you discover exciting music?
When an artist does something good, yeah. Actually there’s quite a lot of exciting music, US techno and stuff, in the last few years, which is all very fun I think, and I get a lot of good vibes from that. So I’ve bought a lot of stuff on Bandcamp. And there’s a lot of good stuff coming out [on the label] next year which I’m excited about as well.
25 years is a long time. Do you see the label continuing for a good while yet?
I guess so. I mean I’ll be keeping it going ‘til I’ve paid off my mortgage.
Listen to and support PlanetMµ25 on Planet Mu’s Bandcamp.
Published December 03, 2020. Words by Angus Finlayson.