More ale must have been downed than I had realised because afterwards I had got it into my head that Ben Parkinson had named his label Boe Recordings after a one-eyed cat. As if.
Speeding through the tape I reached the point at which he explained exactly how he had come by the name: “I am not pretentious in the slightest and I could not think of the vibe or feeling the label is all about,” he admitted. “So I named it after my cat. My cat has got on one eye and he is called Barry. So it’s Barry One Eye: B.O.E. It’s not deep at all, in fact it is shallow and lazy.” Right then.
Levity aside though, ‘shallow’ and ‘lazy’ are not words that you would readily use to describe the likeable Parkinson nor his super little label. In fact one commentator was sufficiently impressed recently to assert that with Boe ‘house music is in good hands’. A bold statement indeed but not unwarranted because with the minimum of fuss Parkinson has crafted and nurtured something to be truly proud of.
Now five years and 20 releases on and both are really coming into their own. Talking with Parkinson you get the distinct impression that he really hasn’t had time to be shallow or lazy since he launched Boe in earnest with little if any notion of how to run a record label.
“It’s been a massive learning curve. When I started I didn’t have a clue. I’d been playing records since ’97 but had always wanted to make more of it than just a hobby, to put something back as it were. Achieve something,” explained the adopted Londoner originally from Wakefield. “I always thought I had a decent ear, was really passionate about the quality of music and thought ‘Fuck it, I’ll start a label. How hard can it be?’. At first I didn’t pay much attention to it and thought it was easy but after a while I realised actually there was lot more to it than I thought.
“I did ask for advice but still did things under my own steam. I’m an only child and used to doing things on my own. I don’t know how people working together on labels are ever able to come to any compromise especially on A&R, artwork and things like that. If I was working alongside anyone else I’d never get anywhere. I like putting my own stamp on things and I’ll live and die by my decisions. If it goes shit then it’s my fault and if it goes well then good.”
So far so very good it is though for Boe. From the label’s debut release from Parkinson’s pal Burnski to the latest Boe XX – a tip top various artists package featuring Perseus Traxx, Kammerton, Outboxx and Machinesleet – the Boe selector has curated his imprint near faultlessly despite his apparent inexperience at the outset.
“I was good friends with Burnski from ages ago. He was putting music out, was on Morris Audio at the time, was just about to be on 2020 Vision and there was this one track that was like a catalyst, which I said I could put out because I knew it would do well,” he recalled. “Then I started looking around at other artists I liked. So I approached Kink. He had just had a release out on Odori but was being overlooked even though his music was technically unbelievable. So well polished and well done. He was well on board for it all. Then I approached Consistent and agreed a third record so I then had that package and went on from there.”
Indeed it has and Boe has recruited some of house music’s finest new producers of recent years, usually before their ability has been widely appreciated thanks to Parkinson’s savvy A&R skills. Deymare, Leif, Kris Wadsworth and Iron Curtis have all made appearances on the label. Yet despite his knack for talent-spotting, Parkinson insisted there has never been a plan when it comes to running Boe.
“I was at a funny time musically when I started the label in terms of what I was buying,” he recounted. “Historically I’ve always bought records but I’d never been involved in a massive scene when growing up so I was never really sure what I was into. About the time of starting the label Discogs was really starting to come in and I found myself really into older music, while the new music at the time – the whole minimal thing – wasn’t inspiring me. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great records made then but I was never into the weirder side of things.
“So with the music I was signing I wasn’t sure where the hell it was going to go or what the future held. But I am glad the whole deep house thing came back as it clearly rejuvenated me and my thinking as to what is good and what is not. It’s helped my A&R selection. Scenes will come and go but a good record will always be a good record.
“I’ve never cherry picked big names for a release. 800 euros to get four tracks from some Detroit guy? I could afford to lose that money but what would that do? That would be A. N. Other record on A. N. Other label. What I like is to find newer artists and forge our own sound, pushing our own artists and music.”
Although deep house in the broadest sense, the tag only tells part of the story and Parkinson was quite certain about what he was looking for when it came to signing new material.
“For me it’s got elements that I love; it’s got soul, it’s got feeling, it’s got emotion running through it. It is not particularly tied to any genre, any sub-trend happening now or in the future. And it is varied as well. It can be really slow like the G-Transition thing [The Second Transition] or it can be pumping techno like the Kris Wadsworth stuff. I like to vary things but even so I think every record I’ve released has had a Boe sound to it even though you might not be able to compare one to the next.
“It is about intuition or gut feel on a record. You know it sounds good, it gives you that feel. I listen to tracks over and over and if I don’t get sick of it then it goes on the label. It’s simple as that.”
Most recently his A&R radar was drawn to Soul 223, a producer with a fine pedigree having released for Soul Jazz and Delsin as well as Peacefrog under his Stasis moniker.
“I didn’t know he was Stasis until I dug a bit deeper,” admitted Parkinson. “It was such a different sound to his Stasis stuff. I’d got his record on Soul Jazz – can’t believe how long ago that was, 2005 – and I found him on Soundcloud and realised he was doing more stuff. Brilliant. He’d got his own sound, was influenced by a lot of things, but a seasoned producer and could make very simple-sounding music sound phenomenal. That’s what he is good at, making essentially simple-sounding tracks sound awesome. So I got in touch. He’s a great guy, very down-to-earth, family man, really sound, knows what he’s doing.”
The result was the excellent Eastern Promise EP, one of the best releases on a UK label last year and much more than simply a deep house record thanks to its broad influences and mature sound.
And there is still much more yet to come from both Boe and Parkinson including new projects once again from Soul 223 and Leif plus at long last from the boss man himself. “It has been a long time coming,” Parkinson admitted. “I am my own worst critic. I never love what I do but I am getting to the stage after five or six years of tinkering about where I am now thinking ‘actually I think it is alright’. I am never 100% confident especially when I have such amazing music at my disposal from other people.”
Once ready though it will represent a new chapter for Boe and you get the overwhelming impression that Parkinson is as enthusiastic and committed as ever. He shunned regrets even though by his own admission few of the label’s releases have made money and that the imprint’s balance sheet would make an accountant lose sleep.
“I do question myself as to why the fuck I am doing this but I do love it,” he confessed. “I love the people whose music I sign. I’ve got so much admiration for them. It’s music I love and will play at home. I get a buzz off people charting the records, reviewing the records good or bad. I get the biggest buzz when someone random comes up to me and says ‘wow, I’ve got a load of your records. They’re so amazing’.
“I don’t look back on things and regret them, I just look back and think they could have been done differently, as we all do whatever we look at. And because I literally started out with nothing, no idea how a label was run, I would like to start afresh just because I do know those things now. But Boe has a name for itself now, it’s doing well apparently so. I would like to do another label but I just don’t have the time. You can only cope with so many demos a year.”
Je ne regrette rien or otherwise, Parkinson did however reflect on declining record sales during his five years in the game and urged distributors to do their bit to rejuvenate the market and at the same time adapt or die: “Things do seem to be changing, the market seems to be changing and the way distribution is run has got to change. If you are a distributor running on processes that were in place ten or 15 years ago then you are going to die a slow painful death. There are new distributors coming along that are doing really well, not necessarily fresh to it but with obviously experienced people behind them, that come straight into it, bang, know what needs to be done, know the market, have the contacts and they can go out and do a great job.
“Distributors have got to pick up their game and change the way they do things and keep sales going. My sales have definitely declined over the last year even though in my opinion the quality of the music has got better. It’s one of those things that is so hard to judge.”
Having learnt the hard way and mostly on the hoof, Parkinson also had some sound advice for those also thinking of starting a label.
“Don’t bother,” he laughed. “No, I’d never say that. I know a couple of guys now who have asked me for advice. I try to give advice for what it’s worth as best I can to anybody in as much detail as you want because when I started I had no idea and if I’d known then what I know now I’d have done things differently.
“I’d say think about it longer. What is it you are trying to do? Is it your own music or someone else’s? Think about the reasons. Think about the image your label is going to portray, think about what the ethos is about. Think things through, don’t rush anything ever. Don’t be eager to start the label just because you want to start a label.”
Although something of a vinyl junkie (he tried digital deejaying but admitted he cannot multi-task and fell out of love for playing out because he wasn’t using his beloved records), Parkinson is nevertheless no blinkered evangelist of the black stuff. Instead he acknowledged the need in business terms at least for Boe to offer both mediums.
“Vinyl-only is more akin to what I am about. It is not about being exclusive. It is just what I do,” he explained. “I’ll never go vinyl-only now though because there are too many people out there that know the label, like the label and can only buy digital music. The majority of the world can only do that. It’s only us lucky people in Europe or the US and Japan who can afford to do that regularly. So what I’ve done for the vinyl buyers is to offer something extra to that available to the digital buyer.”
Yet digital is where a release can really make or break financially, as Parkinson pointed out: “Done right then that is where the money is made. That’s your cash cow. I’ve done releases where someone has charted one track, a major artist, and that one track has sold 20 times more than the rest of the tracks on a four-track EP put together. And I’ve managed to recoup a bit of money because of that.
“And that’s where digital wins because it’s a mass market. People go to Beatport, ‘what’s in the charts?’. Top 10. Download. Buy. Done.
“If you get a track in the top 10 on Beatport you are laughing, whatever top 10 it is. I know people who focus their business model on getting in there because that’s the best way to run things, that’s their business. And it’s very shrewd because that is how the market is run. You love it or hate it. Or try to do both. I love it when it works but I hate it the rest of the fucking time but that’s the way things are nowadays, you just have to accept it.”
Even so, Boe is perceived very much as a vinyl label, something Parkinson was ready to admit: “I was talking to a mate the other day, someone I’ve known a long time, he deejays, we’ve done parties together and I mentioned about doing less for the digital buyer and he said ‘well, you’ve been vinyl-only from the start’. Even he didn’t realise that I’d always done digital. Perhaps it’s because I’m a major vinyl head.”
He is also a key figure and face on an underground scene that in London at least is in rude health. “Underground house people are helpful and supportive of each other,” he explained. “There’s a really good scene in London, it can be difficult for those involved, but they always put on a great party and those are the sort of parties I want to go to. Always the same people at the same parties, brilliant. Might be a total of 300, 400 or 500 people maximum that come into contact with each other across the parties but I’d rather go to one of those any day of the week than say Fabric. Parties such as Night Moves, Northern Purpose, Kiss Me Again. We know each other, we’re friends. It’s a bit geeky but I like the idea of that.”
Back to Boe finally and Parkinson is deeply committed to the label still despite the ups and downs: “There are certain things you don’t want to think about like the amount of time I have spent at home listening over and over again to demos. If I worked out how much time I had spent on this it would be a large potion of my life over the last five years. You just don’t realise.
“But I really don’t want to stop the label. I absolutely love it. It’s part of my life now, it really is. I’m addicted to it.”
It’s like the man said, house music is in safe hands.