In 1990, electronic musicians Matt Black and Jonathan More, who performed as the duo Coldcut, were nearly five years into their career and already felt confined by the major-label system. So, they founded their own U.K. imprint, Ninja Tune, and its publishing company, Just Isn’t Music.
Come 2020 — and with offices in London, Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles — the label will celebrate its 30th anniversary in a digital age where indie acts have more options than ever. “There’s much more awareness for the independents in the market,” says Marie Clausen, who was promoted to head of North America and global streaming for the label group this May. “That awareness is very important so that we can actually compete, to some extent, in the major market.”
As pioneers in the electronic genre, Black and More’s side project DJ Food — characterized by the use of break beats, samples and synthesizers — first landed Ninja Tune on the map with its now classic five-part series, Jazz Brakes (released between 1990 and 1994), which features loops and samples that can be used for mixing, remixing and producing. Clausen, 38, joined the label in 2016 following stints at Universal Music and !K7, and is now one of 10 women on a staff of 15.
Initially known as a tastemaker for jazz and hip-hop heads, Ninja Tune’s early releases include acclaimed albums from Amon Tobin, Kid Koala and The Herbaliser; the label’s first compilation album, Funkjazztical Tricknology, arrived in 1995. Following its early wins, the label continued to succeed by forming imprints like Big Dada (Wiley, Roots Manuva) and Counter Records (ODESZA, Kasbo), while also partnering with Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder since 2008.
This year, the label is celebrating four Grammy nods: Bonobo’s “Linked” (best dance recording); Soulwax’s remix of Marie Davidson’s “Work It” (best remixed recording); Georgia Anne Muldrow’s Overload (best urban contemporary album), which was released on Brainfeeder; and Tycho’s Weather (best dance/electronic album), co-released with Mom + Pop Records. The label also earned a No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Album Sales chart with electronic musician-neuroscientist Floating Points’ Crush. “We have the muscle to power big campaigns,” says Clausen.
In 2020, the label will toast its anniversary with a series of to-be-announced global events and tours from Little Dragon, Sampa the Great and Floating Points. The latter will return to the United States in April and has already sold out three shows at the 350-capacity National Sawdust in Brooklyn. Outside of overseeing the label, Clausen also ran to become a U.S. director of global digital rights agency Merlin Network this December, a position never before held by a woman. “I work on the bleeding edge of music and technology every day — and that’s where the future lies.”