Steve Bug Talks Poker Flat's 15th Anniversary, Blasts Digital Era: 'A Lot of Good Music Gets Forgotten'

Mirjam Knickriem
Steve Bug

Steve Bug has never been one to mince words.

Pioneering and ever opinionated, the German artist founded Poker Flat Recordings in 1999 and steered it to become one of house music's most respected underground imprints. His edgy yet accessible hit "Loverboy" set the tone for the label's quality curation, which has found such artists as Trentemøller, Mark Henning and H.O.S.H. populating its deep and diverse catalog.

To celebrate his seminal label's 15th anniversary, Bug released a special series of Four Jacks EPs that comprised a digital "Best Of" compilation. The compilation featured reworks of Poker Flat classics from the likes of DJ Tennis, Mind Against, and Audiofly, as well as exclusive tracks from handpicked rising talents. Bug has been busy on his own production front as well, reprising his Traffic Signs moniker to collaborate with Berlin veteran Jake the Rapper on their forthcoming Cookie Jar EP.

Billboard caught up with Bug at Playa del Carmen's BPM Festival last month to discuss his label's landmark anniversary and get his take on the current dance climate.

Take me back to when you started Poker Flat. What was your approach and vision for the label?
At the time, we were running Raw Elements. We kind of figured that the diversity of music we were releasing wasn't really going with the market. At the time, I also wanted to change distribution but my partner wasn't sure about it because he was running another label with the same distribution. When we started Raw Elements, it was like it is right now again, you know, more underground. You wouldn't even put your face on the label. But at the time we were starting Poker Flat, it was more about showing off and getting the artist's face in addition, and we used old Playboy magazines from the 70s as art to add a fun touch to it. A lot of people actually thought we were doing the shots ourselves! At the end, we decided to split Raw Elements and Poker Flat into two and switched distribution. Poker Flat had a great start with "Loverboy." Even after just two releases, we were thinking it was the best move we'd made. The new distribution was really into it. They really supported us. 

Many of the artists you released on Poker Flat were good friends of yours. Did you always see it as a vehicle to advance those you like to surround yourself with?
When we first started Raw Elements, I had been releasing on Superstition and I didn't really fit in the surroundings musically. I didn't really see the personalities of the artists releasing on the label fitting mine. I had a totally different vision of not only house music, but why I got into the business. So I wanted to surround myself with people that I like, and I knew there were people doing great music that didn't really have the platform at the time. It was quite different. It's pretty easy to start a label now, but back then it was a big deal. So finding a group of friends with the same mindset or vision was the best way to go. I had to steer the boat and help other people to build us together. It didn't work out the way we expected. A whole group of people can take off together today. Back then, it was more about the person who was running the label, rather than the people who were releasing. I think it all changed when we signed Trentemøller and John Tejada. As it happened, some artists became so popular at the time, especially Trentemøller who went on to do remixes for Madonna, that when we released his album, it was perfect timing. I remember at the time, we were like "Do you think we can really handle this?" because it wasn't really danceable. But we made this label to release music that we loved. We loved it, so we had to release it. Then we got three orders in numbers that could have killed us. In those times with the CD market, if you wanted to put a CD into the big shops, you had to have a couple thousand in the order. The way they used to work, if they don't sell it, they're going to send it back to you and you don't get paid. We had three orders of ten thousand and were like "let's press five and see how it goes." Another two weeks later, another ten thousand. We were worried that if this went back on us, we'd be bankrupt for the rest of our lives. Luckily it never did! It all sold and it even went silver in Germany.

What are the moments or releases that were formative for Poker Flat?
John Tejada's "Sweat on the Wall" has been one of out our best selling releases. One good thing about the label is that it has never been super hyped. I think that helps you stay around for longer. After Trentemøller, I thought that if we kept going that direction, we might start to sell out. You know, signing big records and losing the sound of the time. I was looking for new artists that were more underground. I've always had a good sense for what's going on in the underground, since I see us as a part of it. The underground is where it's really happing, and where the most creative things come from. A lot of people that have been in the business for a long time and play all the time, but they don't really have the time to be in the studio and come up with something. They just do tracks to release something. I was like this for awhile. I took two years where I barely released anything. I still released tracks but I had a whole album I never released in 2006, then suddenly I got into the mindset I'm in right now, where I'm not really giving a damn what's going on at the top. Just trying to do our thing instead of following trends. I think shortly after the Trentemøller album was a big turning point for us. We had been so big, so afterwards the sales went down, but it was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build it up again and get some new artists involved. Now there's Alex Niggeman, Daniel Dexter, SHOW-B, Johannes Brecht, Martin Landsky and myself. So musically, I think we may be in the best period of the 15 years.

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How did Poker Flat's approach adapt to the digital era?
My partner was always better with that. When it started, I remember thinking "Fuck it, let's keep doing vinyl only. Fuck digital." But I was already playing digital, so I realized it didn't really make sense to only release vinyl. So we started doing it. It was good to be there from the beginning, and it was good for the back stock. It was a good opportunity for the music to get into areas where they didn't have record stores. In the beginning, it all seemed to be a good idea, but I have to say that I'm not too sure about it nowadays. It killed the record stores in a lot of areas that still had them, and the consumption of music has of course changed this. It didn't get better in my opinion. People sit at home on their computer, and maybe they go to the store to check it out, but there's so much music that how do they find anything? Before you'd go to the record store and there was a social aspect to it. You'd meet people and there was a dealer who already had a pre-selection, and now most of the stuff that's supported by the websites is the stuff they know is going to sell or is already selling in the top ten. So it keeps on repeating. But there's so much good music out there. There are tracks I play that blow the roof off, but when you talk to the artists and hear the numbers, it's ridiculous. A lot of DJs also only play the promos they get from their friends, so they already have enough to play a good set from. So I don't think it was good for the business. A lot of good music gets forgotten. People have to give away a lot of free music to even get a feature in a magazine. That's why I think a lot of people are succeeding in doing vinyl only labels again, because that's the only way to separate oneself from the others. There's a big market for a certain kind of music, the underground house and Detroit techno. That's one of the reasons I'm still going record shopping. It's good to see that there is an underground scene mostly based in vinyl and that there are still DJs who buy it and support it.