Following up on our recent label anniversary compilation release, we want to shine some light on what we do as a record label – and what we did in the first ten years. We invite you to learn a little more about us through this conversation between former label manager Nick Höppner, art director Yusuf Etiman and present label manager Jenus Baumecker-Kahmke.
NICK HÖPPNER: The first time I had the idea to found the label was during the old OstGut days. It was around 2001, I had just become a resident and I played there during the club’s last year and a half of existence. The idea of the label was already in the air. There was the André Galluzzi CD …im Garten which eventually was released on Taksi. André ran the label or had someone running it for him, and because the infrastructure already existed at Taksi, …im Garten came out there around the end of the old OstGut and we helped release it.
At the same time I also worked at Groove magazine and then eventually went to work for the label Morr Music in 2002. That was a cool job but not the right fit for me. I just wasn’t happy there. For a while, after the old OstGut closed, it was unclear whether things would continue or not. Pretty soon the rumors started to spread that they wanted to open up a new club and in spring of 2004 I was taken for a tour through this former power plant. What today is the Berghain floor was covered in coal dust, though Panorama Bar had already been gutted and cleaned. And then, all of a sudden, the club was scheduled to open that fall. That’s when I stopped working at Morr and founded my own small business. I also formed MyMy with Lee Jones and Carsten Klemann.
Then, after Berghain had been running for a few months I approached the club’s management and asked them if they still thought doing a label would be a good idea. When they said yes I told them, “I could probably run it for you.” That’s how it started. In the beginning the idea was to release CDs, which we kicked off with Berghain 01 by André Galluzzi, who at the time was the biggest name and therefore the most obvious choice. In the summer of 2005 I started licensing the mix without having a clue what I was doing. And while it all worked out, there was one stupid mistake: one of the tracks had been mistitled. It all happened last minute and we didn’t have any time to prepare for promo. While I didn’t have a large network, I eventually stumbled upon Melissa Taylor. We met up and she then promoted it. It worked out well, and then that was it for a little while. Eventually Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock gave us some music and so this became the label’s first 12-inch.
YUSUF ‘YUSI’ ETIMAN: A flyer by Peter Knoch had been picked for the artwork. It actually took a while before I made decisions regarding the artwork.
NICK: At first I was more the person executing decisions. I took care of membership in the Independent Label and Distributors Union [VUT], as well distribution, the first pressings, and doing general organizational stuff. With the first 12-inch Dawning / Dead Man Watches The Clock we decided also to rename the label from Ostgut Tonträger to Ostgut Ton. It just sounded better. As a then unknown label with only modest promotion we were very surprised at the amount of responses we received from all over. I remember an email from Steve Bug that was full of praise for the Dettmann | Klock release, even though in my opinion it wasn’t really his sound. The second release was a 12-inch by Paul Brtschitsch (Twirl / Under, O-TON 02, 2006). After that Dettmann, Klock and Len Faki were the ones who really set the pace and got things going. Back then, I was mostly making sure that things got done on time and properly distributed. Promotion essentially consisted of making fifty test pressings and whoever came through would get one. That was it.
And still, the bigger picture was clearly defined: Ostgut Ton was the club’s label and should reflect that, particularly in its visual aesthetic. The first covers were reused monthly flyers from Berghain, and even ones from the old OstGut. Back then it was rare that art was created or commissioned specifically for the release. And while the label was open musically, the only rule was: keep it in the family. Which meant residents and close friends only.
YUSI: At the time, the office was made up of five people, which is totally different than today. The club and the label influenced each other much more. I would design the logos and suggest the flyer formats. Then the label was announced and Wolfgang Tillmans’ photos that were installed inside Panorama Bar were chosen to be on the first compilation CD’s cover. Shortly thereafter we had our first Europe-wide scandal with Wolfgang’s pussy shot, nackt (2003). None of the printing presses wanted to print it, and there were only maybe three printers in Europe that had a license to produce Digipaks. The explanation they gave was that they didn’t want to force their employees to have to look at the picture. So we actually had to change it.
NICK: That kind of thing happened a couple of times, like with the cock on the cover of Fünf. Or with the cover of Serenity by Murat Tepeli and Prosumer (OSTGUTCD04/LP01, 2008), which was a reenactment they did of an Ike and Tina Turner LP cover eating a watermelon. After some discussion about the artwork with our distributor we finally went for a text only cover.
YUSI: When I look at the first ten Ostgut Ton records, it’s essentially all there: elements from the club, co-workers, found objects, Viron Erol Vert’s drawings for the release of O-TON 02, photography et cetera. Murat and Prosumer were the first to have a clear idea about how their record was supposed to look. And then there was the Fiori bouquet collage made up of screenshots taken from the video recording of the ballet Shut Up And Dance! (OSTGUTCD03, 2007). What we hadn’t yet done at the time was think serially by offering individual musicians a consistent and corresponding graphical identity with each release. It soon became clear however that we only wanted portraits on the mix CDs and that Sven Marquardt should take them.
NICK: Everything just naturally took its course and fit together. Even though back then it was all much smaller and done at a more leisurely pace, the office was still a creative microcosm that allowed for making connections and using these connections for new projects. I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing but I was given a chance. The expectation was that the label shouldn’t cost the club any money, which is a goal we easily achieved.
If I had been alone, I would have had to rent an office and pay for electricity, computers, furniture, internet, a graphic designer and all sorts of other stuff. Here, that wasn’t so important. And it was also clear that if anything went really wrong—say a record didn’t sell, or there was a massive production mistake—then the label wouldn’t be destroyed. That provided an important sense of comfort. The first time I really exercised my creative voice was with Cassy’s Panorama Bar 01 mix CD (OSTGUTCD02, 2006). We weren’t really feeling the first version and not sure it would be the right fit. The same thing happened with Tama Sumo (Panorama Bar 02, OSTGUTCD10, 2009). Both of them had felt under pressure artistically because of time constraints and approaching deadlines. That’s when I said fuck it; we’re not relying on the sales in order to pay for something new. Let’s take our time and do this right. That of course meant more work for me, because I had to completely redo the licensing for both compilations. But in the end it was worth it because they both resulted in better releases.
In the beginning it happened often enough that I didn’t even listen to the music beforehand. The artists marched over to Dubplates & Mastering, got the music mastered, I got the test pressings and then listened through for noise, pops, clicks and skipping, but not for musical quality.
YUSI: At the time, Nick and myself were not much involved in listening to and articulating the needs and desires of the musicians. Some people were very engaged in the artwork process, others were more apathetic. How the records looked changed over time, but the foundational aesthetic was recognizable from the very beginning. That also goes for outside influences: I always tried to avoid looking at what other labels did. I didn’t even want to consider what was supposedly cool or in at the time. The real question was: what does our thing look like?
NICK: Had you actually designed album art before?
YUSI: No, the first artwork specifications I saw were from Berghain 01. During the design of the compilations it became clear we wanted one side of the brackets from the club’s logo for the Berghain mixes and the other side for Panorama Bar mixes. Back then none of us were thinking in terms of catalogue number 02, EP 93, LP 20, or CD35. We weren’t thinking that far ahead. Everyone was just traumatized by the old OstGut club having been closed after such a short amount of time. And even though it was clear that the Berghain building wasn’t being renovated just to close in two years, it wasn’t clear what the label’s future perspectives were. It was more like, “Hey, we need a Christmas card, make a sign for the bathroom, and by the way: do another CD cover.”
It took a while until I actually listened to the music. When it finally reached the point that we weren’t just carrying out orders but rather coming up with ideas ourselves, Nick started sending the music to me in order to communicate the feeling of the album—whether it was dark or something more colorful. In the beginning all of the flyers and cover art were two-tone, which was clearly a stylistic decision. I then had to think about whether it should be blue, green or red, depending on what best fit the music. From catalogue number ten onwards, I started listening to the music, but only as a form of abstract inspiration.
Was the music quiet or wild? Psychedelic or monotone? That’s when we started thinking about whether we should use a photo or an illustration or something else entirely for the artwork. When I was listening to the Âme 12-inch (Fiori, O-TON 10, 2007) I thought we could do something floral because, ultimately, as the track name “Fiori” would indicate, the music has something organic about it. The single and EP versions always included variations of the LP cover design.
NICK: At some point the club just kept getting bigger and more well known and stayed open longer. That meant new tasks for everyone. Yusi and I were increasingly in demand and eventually the machine was running, things took on a new level of importance, and we both just assumed responsibility.
YUSI: As in most businesses the time eventually came for other people to start assuming responsibilities. The first release where that was the case for me design-wise was Friction / Yaki by Marcel Fengler (O-TON 17, 2008).
NICK: Things started changing when we started doing things ourselves. And then, all of a sudden, Berghain was voted the best club in the world. A year later in 2008, Ostgut Ton was label of the year on Resident Advisor. That’s when things really took off, which took me by surprise. That’s also when I started having anxiety about not being able to live up to the people’s expectations of the label. Not in the sense of sales, but rather to the extent of being the darling of the critics and being the subject of discussion everywhere. Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk with someone from the club. I did it, but only under the condition of not discussing the club. Almost always the second question was something idiotic regarding the club’s door policy. We had just become independent in running the label and then things shot through the roof.
JENUS BAUMECKER-KAHMKE: I’d known Yusi for a long time. He was the first person that I got to know after I moved back to Berlin from London. At the end of my time in London, I’d had it with the clubs. Things were only getting worse. At some point I didn’t even go out anymore, which also didn’t change when I got to Berlin, at least not initially. I was mainly involved in the art scene and going to concerts, but not to clubs. For me, Berghain was a gay club, not necessarily a place known for music. At the time I had a gallery in Neukölln and Yusi worked on the exhibition flyers with me. Only later did I notice the extent to which Yusi was involved at the Berghain and the label. Not so long after that I met nd_baumecker, who, together with Sam Barker, later put out the first Barker & Baumecker 12-inch (Candyflip, O-TON 40, 2010). I had gone with nd to a party at Wolfgang Tillmans’ place, and he had these photographs of monkeys hanging on the walls – they’re actually tarsiers, to be precise. So when we were trying to come up with the artwork for the 12-inch I suggested those monkeys. I had some small part in the release, which I thought was really interesting. And then I got to know more and more people from Berghain. Around two years later I started working at Ostgut Ton. Nick had tons of work with the label and was looking for somebody to help him with the workload. I had wanted to do something new and I was sick of the art scene. Both the musical and the visual aspect of the label interested me, as well as how the label functioned internally. As a consumer I’d always sorted and bought records according to label. Also, Ostgut Ton had a pretty strong identity. I started out as Nick’s assistant and was mostly doing intern stuff. Slowly it got to be more and more work until eventually we shared all duties.
NICK: When my twins were born I increasingly pulled out of label work. It just wasn’t possible any other way. That’s when I actually asked myself what I really want. It was clear that I wanted to focus more on my own career, on DJing and production. With the label I had the feeling that I’d achieved everything I could and set out to do. Also, with the success came the feeling of being more vulnerable to critique. The distance I’d personally established to the label, which initially had been good for the label, began to take its toll when I tried to bridge my roles as both label manager and artist. Things can easily go wrong when it looks like the boss is trying to push his way into the limelight. But as an artist I didn’t want to hold back anymore. Also, there are very few examples of label managers who are also good DJs. For a while I also didn’t want to put all of my eggs in the DJ basket. But then eventually the time came and that made producing and DJing much easier.
JENUS: My job was first and foremost to continue running the label as it had been run in years past. But the difficult thing is that you can’t run a label by always doing the same thing. External market conditions, the way people listen to music and the club itself are constantly changing. And these changes have to be factored in. That was a challenge for me. At the time I found it very demanding to have such disparate artists fit onto a single label. But the potential of these different DJs, characters and personalities was extremely enticing. If everything had simply operated in a casual fashion like it did in the label’s first few years, I might not have been so interested. But I had the impression that there were things that could be done. The question was how things should continue.
YUSI: You definitely looked at our output from a different perspective. Covering the Barker & Baumecker releases with animals was your initiative. Individual artists received a much stronger story line through that kind of visual identity.
NICK: With Luke Slater’s releases we wanted to have Viron do the design exclusively.
JENUS: I had noticed that occasionally the label matched up specific producers up with specific designers or artists. For me, those records always produced the strongest narrative. I wanted to try that with other artists as well.
NICK: Jenus, you were also another step in the label’s professionalization. Until that point I had these multiple roles DJing, managing the label and doing all sorts of other stuff. With you as my assistant it became clear that you would eventually be solely responsible for the label. That way everyone would be able to work and achieve things in their individual fields.
JENUS: What also played a role was the fact that I was totally unknown. The only person who knew me well was nd_baumecker. That’s why I had high expectations for myself in earning everyone’s respect. I especially focused on the gaps that needed to be filled but for which Nick didn’t have the time.
NICK: Or it was stuff I just didn’t want to do. Jenus’s first big thing was the web shop and the limited editions, as well as social media. Those all came from him. I don’t know if I would have had the nerves to be able to deal with the pressures of all the new digital innovation. I would have had to really sit down with it, and I just wasn’t able to. Thousands of emails were collecting in my email account and even with maximum effort some of the most annoying ones were impossible to ignore. There was no more room for making mistakes and it all became too much for me. Managing a project like Ostgut Ton | Zehn would have made me lose all of my hair. With Fünf (OSTGUTCD15/LP07, 2010) I was already losing it.
Initially I didn’t have any real overarching concept for Fünf. I wasn’t interested in doing a retrospective, but I definitely wanted to include the club in a big way. The concept of working with samples was ultimately suggested by Emika, which I was delighted to accept. I organized for her the times when she could do her field recordings in the club—that is, set up her contact mics without annoying anyone. She collected her samples and then sent them out to the artists who would be working with them. We then set up a deadline. The reason I’m telling this story is that it was a defining moment for me. The box had already been printed, the music and the sleeves were done and we were just about to assemble everything and get it ready for distribution. I was lying in bed on a Saturday night and all of a sudden the idea came into my head that I had accidently switched two sides on the records. Then I got up and went over to the seven test pressings and tried to find out if I had made a mistake or if I was completely crazy. I called our manufacturer Handle With Care and screamed into the phone, “Shit! I made a massive mistake!” I completely flipped out but not long after it turned out everything had been done correctly. The project just had such a huge potential for failure that right before we were done I thought it had all gone wrong. As releases go, with Fünf there was just so much more music, so many more records, so much more artwork, so much more everything than usual.
JENUS: The problem is that even though you have a few more weeks to deal with problems if something goes wrong, you actually need that time to be working on another release. You’ve already planned your time for other things when you’re forced to troubleshoot. With Ostgut Ton | Zehn we found most of the mistakes in time, but I understand what Nick went through. With thirty tracks, titles, credits and all sorts of metainformation, it’s a different league in terms of the amount of work and level of complication. The information is just swirling around in your head. But the work you put into it pays off. I can say as someone who wasn’t involved in the production that I was truly impressed by the Fünf boxset. And also for the younger generation of Berghain clubbers it was really something special. It offered a good overview of all the different, extremely talented artists involved in the club and label.
NICK: When I first presented the concept of Fünf to everyone, they all thought it was too artsy-fartsy. Later, after its release, it became clear that everyone saw the compilation in the exact opposite way. For most of the artists that contributed, working with a pre-established concept was a total exception to what they normally do. They weren’t used to it. With previous releases they handed over the music and that dictated whether the art should look like this or like that. With Fünf it was the other way around.
JENUS: I was totally impressed by the artwork, especially by the idea that you could place 7 sleeves side by side and it would produce a larger image.
YUSI: We worked on the art with Viron. In our studio, basso, I got together with our Berghain co-workers Denise, Johannes and Thomas and had them pose naked in front of a white wall. I then photographed them with a small compact pocket camera. At some point I noticed we were still missing one model. So I put the camera on the table and took pictures of myself with the automatic timer. Viron then took those photographs and made a collage incredibly fast. Of course, everything had been planned and prepared, but the details somehow turned out… differently than expected.
NICK: But that’s a beautiful example for how the club finds its way into the label on so many different levels. You can look in any direction at what we do and things always point back towards one another. It’s like a rhizome that constantly references itself.
YUSI: In terms of the art, we couldn’t just ask outsiders to pose naked for the record cover but not allow them to say how we would use their images. You can only do that with people who were close to the club. There’s a mutual sense of trust and understanding that’s absolutely necessary.
JENUS: But you also need courage to approach things fresh. The Berghain and Panorama Bar compilations that marked the beginning of the label still exist today, but they’re a fully licensed free stream and download now. Still, it remains a huge investment of both time and money, especially with licensing.
NICK: By switching to distributing the mixes through SoundCloud instead of CDs the range of our audience drastically increased. Now far more people are coming into contact with Ostgut Ton.
YUSI: I always had a love/hate relationship with the mixes. And the fact that the artwork of the 12-inches with the mixes’ exclusive tracks are related to the artwork from mixes that only exist online hasn’t made it easier. For example, I don’t know if people see that the ripped cushion on the cover of the 12-inch for the artwork to Function’s Berghain 07 exclusives (O-TON 88/89, 2015) is from the same photo-shoot as the artwork for the mix. Besides the fact that we worked with the photographer Jimmy Mould instead of Sven Marquardt.
JENUS: Whether it’s a mix or an individual release, you always have to ask yourself how you put it out and which format is the most relevant for what’s happening now. Albums, singles, remixes—do we need them all? How important is it for album sales to release a single first?
NICK: But in the beginning we didn’t give a shit! Murat Tepeli and Prosumer were total unknowns and we put out their record anyway. I think people also saw it that way from the outside as well. And even when there’s still a lot more to consider these days, a lot of things have remained the same. My debut album Folk (OSTGUTCD33/LP19, 2015) couldn’t have been released anywhere else in the same way. Another label would have wanted three 12-inches a year for the next three years in order to strategically build up my name and reputation. And then they would need some superstar remix.
Then, if the first album wouldn’t sell, would I be allowed to make a second? For us on the other hand, the most important question is first and foremost whether the album is good or not. The artist and the music is always our focus in decision making, which is why we don’t have to pay too much attention about which way market winds blow or the practical constraints of the dancefloor.
JENUS: But you have to be careful not to always be doing the same thing. When records on other labels start looking like Ostgut Ton records, you know it’s time to take the next step. A label should stay true to itself, but not repeat itself.
NICK: Unfortunately, the subtleties, which often appear to you as milestones, are only seldom perceived as such on the outside. That’s why I find it incredible that an image, a reputation can last for so long. For most people, Ostgut Ton is still purely a techno label! From the inside, things look a lot more dynamic, but from the outside you’re really making waves when you switch from CDs to downloads and streams. And nowadays I only look at things from the outside. I’ve noticed though that with artists like Kobosil or the boys from Σ [pronounced ‘Summe’] on Unterton the label has been rejuvenated. People like Martyn also add diversity. Now, new faces can appear alongside label figureheads like Dettmann and Klock. Also, in terms of house, there’s a lot more happening, which in the past wasn’t the case only because the house producers amongst us at the label weren’t so productive. Nobody here ever said the music had to go in a specific direction. Whoever had music completed was allowed release. And that’s why initially there was such a focus on techno. The techno producers simply had music ready to go.
JENUS: You can also develop these things as well. The first Tobias. record (leaning over backwards, OSTGUTCD18/LP08, 2011) had a specific audience, which is why with the single (Freeze / Perfect Sense, O-TON 57, 2012), and the second album (A Series Of Shocks, OSTGUTCD30/LP16, 2014) it developed into something bigger. You need the courage to be able to take these things on, as well as an interest in continuity and development.
For the Ostgut Ton | Zehn (OSTGUTCD34/LP20) compilation for example we thought about the concept quite a bit. Fünf was hard to top, which we understood. It worked so well, and the concept gave the package its whole identity. One option for …Zehn was to come up with an entirely new concept that the artists should work with. But that would have really been following in the footsteps of Fünf. So I thought it would be good to do the exact opposite, to put things on a very different trajectory. The idea was to increase the amount of musical freedom and make space in the artwork for all kinds of art—photography, painting, drawing and graphic design. The compilation was also supposed to reflect all the different forms of techno, house and other genres that get played over the course of a weekend club night. Bringing together all of these things in a single release was something I found exciting. But this was only possible because the artists involved were very motivated and wanted to celebrate the fact that the club and label have been around for ten years.
YUSI: We actually developed the visual concept in a single evening. We wanted to count from one to ten in an abstract way with black and white images using the ten records—one ear of grain, four naked people, nine shutters, and so on. Jenus convinced Wolfgang Tillmans to allow us to use his current Panorama Bar picture for the outside cover, which I first found strange because it’s not black and white but very colorful, but then it made sense with the color code on the ten records.
JENUS: The colors in Wolfgang’s picture appear because it’s a photograph of a color TV screen.
YUSI: And everything’s coming full circle with this—the ten-year anniversary artwork using another Tillmans picture, drawing reference to the very first release of the label’s existence.
JENUS: I found the whole conceptualization process truly beautiful. We sat down a few times at the bar in the club and talked about things we liked and who we knew who could contribute an artwork. Those conversations were mutually inspiring. When the club inspires you in everyday life, that’s a wonderful experience to have.
Interview: Walter W. Wacht
Translation & Editing: Alex Samuels