'We knew that eventually, people would dig a little deeper and discover some of the subgenres within electronic music,' says label founder James Grant.
The glory days of the compilation album are, sadly, behind us. Streaming has made it possible for anyone to curate their own playlist, rendering seminal compilation series like Late Night Tales, Back To Mine and the Ministry of Sound Annuals less essential.
But in the late ‘00s, as streaming gained traction and downloadable mixes were posted online, one dance music label swam against the current and launched a two-CD compilation series. That label, Anjunadeep, now boasts one of the most eagerly awaited compilation series in dance music, taking over from the illustrious runs of earlier progressive house compilations such as Renaissance and Balance Series and offering a deeper, more mellow update on the genre.
Billboard Dance spoke to Anjunadeep founder James Grant from the new London headquarters the imprint shares with its parent label, Anjunabeats. Home to 35 staff members, this 3,600 square foot space reflects the label’s huge growth over the past eleven years.
Grant had been managing trance titans and Anjunabeats founders Above & Beyond -- a trio that includes his brother, Jono Grant -- for a few years when he decided to launch a sublabel. More than a decade later, his “little side project” boasts a roster of 80 artists, hundreds of thousands of fans, and events including 7,000-capacity gigs in New York and London, as well as a six-day summer festival at an Albanian beach resort.
The label is a hothouse for talent, with the likes of Lane 8, Luttrell, Yotto and many more effectively launching their careers through Anjunadeep. It also attracts more established acts such as Eelke Kleijn and Jody Wisternoff, who came on board to co-curate Anjunadeep 06 with Grant in 2013 and who Grant describes as his “musical soulmate.”
They’re now up to compilation number 11, and as usual, the effort is a dreamy, emotive listen that works as well for headphones-based introspection as it does for open-air parties. Having cleared more samples than in previous mixes, including philosophical quotes from Alan Watts and Don Miguel Ruiz, Grant describes Anjunadeep 11 as having “the most character” of their compilations to date.
The Anjunadeep imprint has introduced a distinctive, modern strand of deep house to a new generation, and both the trickle-down effect of the EDM boom and the huge reach of Anjunadeep’s parent label has helped its unique sound connect with audiences in all corners of the globe. On the eve of the Anjunadeep 11, which comes out tomorrow (Feb. 7) and an attendant tour in the US and beyond, we asked Grant about his label’s phenomenal expansion -- and why he doesn’t view Anjunadeep as a “guilty pleasure” anymore.
Anjunadeep releases are probably never going to bother the charts, yet you’ve managed to carve out a niche for yourself, and you’re still growing, with a huge amount of artists now on your roster.
It feels like an exciting time to be running an electronic label of this size. If you're Calvin Harris, you go to a major label because you're having hits week in, week out. If you’re a lower-profile, credible dance artist then I think we're a great home for that. Those sorts of artists don't really want to sign to majors anymore, because unless you're having hits, I'm not sure you can get the love and care from a major label.
What was it that led you to launch the sublabel?
When Anjunadeep started in 2005, the A&R policy was just anything that we're into that doesn't fit on Anjunabeats. Anjunabeats was stuff that Above & Beyond might play in their sets, and Anjunadeep was everything else. There was no agenda or master plan. That’s always been our strength, we’ve just signed music we love and put it out. We don't think, “Oh, is this going to do well commercially or go on the radio.” It's just stuff that we're into. That's a huge advantage over major labels who are under pressure from shareholders, or whoever it may be, to have hits.
As well as mixing the compilations, you also DJ and occasionally co-produce tracks for Anjunadeep. How did you come to be part of the Anjunabeats operation initially and how has your role shifted to a more creative one?
When Jono and I were growing up, I was always out in the garden playing football and he was always learning the piano. One regret I have is that I never learned an instrument, but I’ve always been hugely into dance music. I studied law at uni, then started working in tech and internet PR, but I hit a wall with it and I thought, “Right, if I don't do something I love, I'm going to be miserable.” So, I asked Jono, Tony and Paavo if I could help with the business side of things at Anjunabeats.
It’s worked out, because I've got a set of skills that's proved to be useful to the setup here. If I was distracted by making music that whole time, this probably wouldn't have happened. It was only really once we started Anjunadeep that I had to learn to DJ but even then, it was very much a hobby, it wasn't something I was looking to really get into. Even now, I don't actually DJ that often because I've got three children and my priority is to try and be a good dad for them. And I can't travel much because I've already got to travel a fair amount with my Above & Beyond duties.
Presumably though, you could hand the management of Above & Beyond to someone else and just concentrate fully on Anjunadeep?
I guess technically I could, but I actually like the balance of the two roles. Firstly, it’s not on the cards at all, because Above & Beyond is really what powers this whole operation and they spearhead everything to do with it. The [Above & Beyond] radio show is what helps promote the music, the big Group Therapy events provide that platform for the artists. Above & Beyond are absolutely integral to Anjunadeep. I love that we get to do so many exciting things with Above & Beyond at such a high level -- I wouldn't want to give that up.
The Anjunadeep sound and vibe is quite different to Anjunabeats. How have the labels worked together to enjoy a symbiotic relationship?
We do Group Therapy radio events. We did the 100th episode event in New York in 2014, and back then it was Above & Beyond and Anjunabeats in Madison Square Garden on Saturday, and then we did an Anjunadeep afterparty at Pacha on Saturday night, which was relative to the size of the imprints at the time. When we did The Gorge event in Washington state in 2017 -- it’s one of the most beautiful natural venues anywhere in the world -- we had Above & Beyond on the main stage and then we did Anjunadeep in the meadow and we probably had 25,000 people for Above & Beyond and about 17,000 people stuck around for Anjunadeep on the Sunday. That was really a moment where suddenly it was like, “Wow, this thing has huge potential in its own right.”
When we went back to The Gorge last summer, we had both Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep acts sharing the main stage on Saturday and Sunday. Having both labels allows us to program more interesting events. Anjunadeep provides more music to Above & Beyond for the radio show and it just gives us a bigger and better community of artists to work with collectively.
Do you think the rise of EDM, especially in the US, harmed or helped the label?
It certainly didn't harm us. We weren't concerned. We were just busy doing what we do, and we knew that eventually, people would dig a little deeper and discover some of the subgenres within electronic music. It was just a game of patience. We don't think of Above & Beyond as one of those core EDM names from that particular boom, but we did benefit from it, so we were busy taking advantage of that opportunity. Anjunadeep was just doing its thing, and we knew that eventually it had a chance of coming good over time.
How well has the business adjusted to the advent of streaming?
The interesting thing about us as an operation is that we've kind of grown up through the most turbulent times in the music industry. When I joined, the halcyon days of making loads of money from selling a CD were over. We've always had to adapt to whatever the prevailing format was at the time. When we started, Napster was doing its thing. There wasn't any money to be made from CDs anymore. You could sell a few [records]. We've always had to be nimble.
We did well through the download era, but we were slow on the uptake at the start of the streaming era. But we've caught up pretty quickly. We've actually just hired someone who was head of streaming at one of the big indie distributors. Of course, we still release physical and we still sell downloads, and DJs buy a lot of music on Beatport. But nowadays most of the dialogue and energy in the office is around streaming.
For many labels, stasis can mean death. But minus the slowed BPMs once Jody jumped on board, Anjunadeep’s sonic palette has been pretty consistent.
There will always be the same essence to an Anjunadeep release -- it’s melodic, emotional, and in my opinion, beautiful music. It’s for others to judge whether we've evolved enough. I know people like to see experimentation and development, but part of the beauty of what we do is that we don't really care what everyone's thinking about that sort of stuff. We just do what we do; we do what we love, and we're fortunate that we've got quite a loyal following that stick with us. We're slightly immune from whether or not Resident Advisor likes what we're doing -- that’s not a dig at Resident Advisor. Our signings aren’t based on commercial considerations, it’s just quite heartfelt in terms of, “Do we think this music is special, are we into it?” And that’s it, really.
You also say that Anjunadeep fans are the nicest in the world. Why do you think that is?
I think because there are no pretensions in the music. It just seems to attract the down to earth. And there's a sort of emotional openness to it all, and it just creates a certain atmosphere. Life’s too short for bulls--t. In the end, we’re all human beings -- let's just get along and have a good time.