Formed in 2011, during the boom of the Los Angeles beat scene, a little radio show by the name of Soulection was begun by close friends Joe Kay and Andre Power in the Californian sunshine. Fast forward six years later, and their humble effort to provide a platform for young emerging beatsmiths has organically evolved into a massive global phenomenon.
Their immensely popular party series The Sound of Tomorrow offers a tangible manifestation of their ethos, their record label is primed as one of the world's most influential imprints, and their collective of DJs, artists and producers represent some this era's finest creative talent. And of course, the Soulection radio show is still a cornerstone of their reach and content.
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So how did an online start-up, set-up during the pre-SoundCloud days of the Internet, gradually morph into one of this generation's most trusted brand for forward-thinking electronic music? Well, we sat down with Joe Kay to discuss exactly that!
The Soulection co-founder was in town recently to perform at Kilo Lounge, so we took some time to have a tête-à-tête with the man himself. Here, Joe candidly talks about his label's growth and growing pains, his philosophy when it comes expanding the roster, and why he thinks it's important for Solection to interact with their digital community in the physical world.
Hey Joe, congrats on Soulection’s 6th Anniversary. Take us back to the beginning. How did this all get started?
It all got started I used to do a podcast back in the day, around 2008. And I was about 17 or 18 back then - and I used to sneak into these places cos obviously everything’s 21 and over in LA - so I used to sneak into clubs or bars and network with people. Then I started doing a podcast and with that podcast, before it was Soulection Radio, I was able to meet other producers and artists.
I started gathering beats and making relationships with artists. Within the course of like three or four years I was able to build this network and relationship with other artists. That eventually progressed into Soulection, so when it came the time to, I always knew that radio was my background, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Soulection Radio was the root and it’s since grown to become a massive global brand. Could you describe how the podcast alone has evolved over the years?
I wasn’t trying to run a record label or anything, radio was always my background with the podcast, so it ended up being that when I transferred to university. That's when I launched Soulection Radio show #1, and we released a compilation at the same time. The compilation was from the artists and people that I was really inspired by over the years, the people that I made relationships with.
So I was kinda like here’s the radio show, and here’s the compilation, so let’s use the radio show to promote it. But I also play music from other artists that are not on Soulection that I felt needed a platform. It went from our den to a worldwide audience within that time, so took a lot of foundation within those three to four years.
The podcast within year one had 30,000 subscribers - and that was pre-Soundcloud, pre-everything, like Instagram. It was just MySpace back then. So the fact that I was able to gain that amount of listeners was like a message to me to be like "yo you gotta take this seriously".
And it was mostly through MySpace?
MySpace and blogs, when blogs were relevant. When I launched the show, I was only getting 50 to 100 listeners at a time. And then over a year – I just kept staying consistent. Over time, I think from doing releases with Taku and different artists from across the world, they just started to bring in a global audience and from each territory.
We started bringing in more listeners, and the music I was playing helped. Because it wasn’t just like okay – just because it’s Soulection radio doesn’t mean that we’re gonna play Soulection artists, it was anything. So I think that made us very universal. It went from Rinse FM, to RBMA Radio… so it went through this evolution from college to the big leagues.
How did Soulection grow from a radio show into a label, and what was the motivation behind that?
After we did the second or third release, which was more of a collaborative process with these producers, we felt just needed help to put out their music. The reaction and response we got from the people was just so strong, and so consistent that we realised that maybe we should take this a little more serious. It went from just being like something that was nonchalant to something that was "oh, we can actually do this" so around the second or third release we realized "okay, we should make this into a label".
Even back then, it felt like Soulection really saw the potential of the Internet in terms of reaching out to listeners, and burgeoning producers all over the world – was there a specific game plan or ethos guiding you guys?
No, everything was based off intuition and relationship. There was no contracts or anything, it was just based off of like, "I enjoy your music, I enjoy your art, your creativity, and your message – and let’s just put something out".
I think important to have great character and compatibility in addition to having talent. If you just have talent, you might have certain issues with yourself. A lot of the artists are introverts and don’t know how to deal with attention and success. Nobody teaches you that, so you kinda have to learn that first hand."
What about Soulection’s philosophy when it comes to picking up new artists and growing your roster?
Well it was different before. Because anything I heard that was great musically, I would just recruit them without knowing them. But then that backfired cos a lot of the artists and people that I brought on - I didn’t know them - I realised too late that both sides were not meant for each other.
I think important to have great character and compatibility in addition to having talent. If you just have talent, you might have certain issues with yourself. A lot of the artists are introverts and don’t know how to deal with attention and success. Nobody teaches you that, so you kinda have to learn that first hand. So as you start seeing these artists develop and grow, and get more exposure, and more people demanding them, they get more pressured and more depressed.
Whatever it is they’ve gone through in their life, they just have certain characteristics that don’t fit or vice versa. Maybe they don’t fit our style, or the way we work, or the way we communicate - so it becomes a problem.
Yeah, I used to bring on anyone that had made great music. And that was all well and good but when it came down to other things, we didn’t mesh well together. So now, I’m a lot more selective of who we bring on.
Yeah, you actually have to get to know the person before…
Gotta get to know the person, man. And even then it’s kinda tough cos everyone gives me their best behaviour cos it’s me, so it’s kinda tough to gauge who’s real and who’s not.
How do you get through that then?
Just really dig deep, get in their head, and ask them good questions. I’m pretty good at reading people and seeing through the fakes, so if somebody’s giving me a fake vibe, or being non-genuine, or being over the top, I can pretty much tell. I can read that. But aside from that, we’re also a very small team – so it deosn’t make sense for us to bring on too many people because we cannot oversee that many people. So whoever we bring on at this point needs to make sense.
Have you discovered any music from Singapore lately?
No, not yet. But that’s because I haven’t been informed, and also because I haven’t looked specifically in the region. But now that I’m here I hope somebody gives me a flash drive of music or something.
We’ll see if that actually happens. There are actually some pretty cool labels in Singapore.
Like Darker Than Wax...
Oh they’re here? I thought they were from Jakarta!
Nope they’re from here! They’ve been doing a lot of cool stuff...
Yeah, I know Dean. Never met him, but I know of him. I'll have to check that out for sure.
Back to Soulection, the label has some pretty marquee producers like Mr. Carmack and Sango. But more and more, it seems like Soulection itself has become the selling point, and not so much the “big names”. People have come to trust your output. Why do you think that is?
Because we’re very selective of what we do. I think if we oversaturate it – if we drop something all the time, or if we always post every flier, or flood people’s feeds, there would be no demand. We only post and release and make action only when it’s necessary. Everything from the curation, to the messaging and branding, the people we bring on - everybody and everything is well selected. That's why people trust us, because when we have something to say it means something, and I think people catch on to that.
Being able to travel and experience is one thing, but hearing these stories first hand, you feel like you’re an anthropologist or something. You’re in the lab, in the field, and you’re getting this research done and then we bring it back home and spread the knowledge with the people, and that helps us be inspired."
Amidst the success over the years, what was the one turning point or breakthrough development that either put Soulection on the map, or grew the label exponentially?
Definitely being on Apple Music's Beats 1 Radio brought us to another level of respect and expansion. But outside of that… I would say when we started touring, when Julio started taking over the booking side for us… started getting us into other countries and other cities, I think that was a turning point. It’s one thing when you hear us on SoundCloud, but it’s another thing to see or be there, experiencing the music live versus listening to it on your computer or on your phone.
Yeah, Soulection’s roster tours pretty regularly. Could you expand a little bit on the importance of bridging the online community built into the physical world?
Yes it’s very important! I think being able to come out and travel to different countries - not only do you learn about the cultures and people that live there, but you also get to listen to the stories from the people who are listening to music.
So the people who listen to Soulection, they’re sharing their stories with me or whoever they want to approach, and they’re opening up to us about how they were depressed at one point in their life and they listen to Soulection to help them feel more positive. There's just so many different stories how our music helped them.
So that’s when I feel it’s… being able to travel and experience is one thing, but hearing these stories first hand, you feel like you’re an anthropologist or something. You’re in the lab, in the field, and you’re getting this research done and then we bring it back home and spread the knowledge with the people, and that helps us be inspired.
Tell us a little bit about Soulection’s famed party series The Sound of Tomorrow. When did it start and how has it grown over the years?
It started in 2011 or 2012, during our third or fourth release by this producer from St. Petersburg, Russia - his name was Spacekid. Long story short, the beats he was making was very futuristic and I was trying ot think of an album title or name for his project. Because it was so spacey and kind of had like a futuristic sound to it, I tried to think of a wordplay that reminded me of what I felt.
And then I came up with the Sound of Tomorrow, because I felt like this is like very futuristic, this is where the sound is going. Then I ended up taking that name and making it into the name of our live shows. So that’s how it spawned – it was from the music, one of our artists at the time – then it progressed into something bigger.
Lastly, what are Soulection’s plans for the future?
We haven’t dropped that much music in the last couple of years - so we want to release more music and get back to our roots. And then the Soulection festival!
What’s the festival? Have you done it before?
No, this is the first one. Its going to be in Los Angeles during the summer of this year – so August September for us. We're planning for about about 5,000 to 7,000 people. It’s gonna be fairly large, our biggest show in LA to date if we manage to pull it off.
Interview by: QH Yeo