Tony Cummings spoke to Keith Dixon to get the history of a tiny record label, PLANKTON RECORDS
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Tony: Tell me about the group ECHO. They're still with you now, aren't they?
Keith: Yes, they're still with me now. I can't get rid of them! Our connection with ECHO comes primarily through their bass player, Greg Nash. I've known Greg for years. I worked with his band Medals that he was working with. They wanted a sound guy and, for want of a better term, a manager. I would say more of a booking agent. I was doing that for them, and that's how we got contact with Plankton Records. We were in the same area as Plankton, and they got to hear about us and came to see us and said, 'Would you want to do a release with us?' We said, 'Yes.' Then the rest was history for me: I became a partner, blah blah blah. After Medals disbanded, Greg played for Fresh Claim. He had to drop out of that for work commitments and stuff, but he came to me and said, 'You know the film Sister Act?' I went, 'Yeah.' He said, 'We've got a band together called ECHO, and we're doing a similar thing to soul and Motown music that they did in Sister Act.' I went, 'Really? Do you think that's a good idea?' He said, 'Come and see us!' I went to see them play. I don't know where it was - it wasn't a church, it was a pub or something - but the fantastic thing about it was, some of these soul songs, you don't have to change much of the words, if any, to make them Christian. But because the crowd knew the songs - fantastic rapport with the audience, and I just loved it. The initial thought didn't fill me with joy, but it's fulfilling everything that we want artists from Plankton to do. We said, 'OK, let's go with it.' They did an album with us in 2014, and they released their second one with us last year. The first album has been our biggest selling album of recent years.
Tony: Tell me about The Nine Beats Collective.
Keith: It is technically a sort of various artists. It's a coming together of writers, musicians, singers, poets, troubadours, activists. They've been inspired by the Beatitudes, the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. They have come together for that. I got involved initially with the project through being asked to come on board to provide some copyright and music legal advice to the guys, then they wanted a label and someone said, 'Keith's got a label.' I said, 'It's very, very small,' but they said, 'No, that's what we want. We want somebody to work with. We don't want to sign with somebody who's wants to try and control what we do. We want somebody who wants to work alongside us.' I found it really inspirational. It's not written for the Church, so it's not like nice worshippy music, based around the Beatitudes. The whole album - a double vinyl and a long CD - is a journey from someone who is questioning God and what's going on with the world; then it's an encounter of God and the Beatitudes, and then the influence of the Beatitudes on people after that. It's written and done in various music styles.
The reason it's various artists is people have come together and written together. We've got Ambassada from Uganda, who writes and does stuff with us. We've got guys from America - Heatherlyn, Rev Vince Anderson who's a whirlwind on legs; we've got Mikael Andreasen from Denmark and guys from the UK come together to create this album, and now we're taking it out on the road. It's just been launched in America with a label. We're looking after it in the UK, and digitally worldwide, but it's getting a physical release in America with a label that's an equivalent of Plankton, not one of the big labels. We have a guy called Antoine in France who used to head up Motown France. He's now retired from that but he is, at this moment in time, going around Europe trying to get deals to get the album released over there. A song that Cross Rhythms featured heavily last year - "Wild World" from the album - a remix has just been done for the European market and might be coming out in a couple of months' time.
Tony: It's unusual that you've been going such a long time but haven't got into either record shops or Christian bookshops: it's the artists themselves selling the copies.
Keith: Because we're not regarded as one of the big Christian labels - and there's not many left now anyway - we've never been able to secure distribution with companies: they've never wanted to take the chance.
Tony: These days they probably wouldn't be interested unless it was worship music.
Keith: Well, I'm going back in history now. Today we wouldn't get anywhere, because we don't release worship music. There are some worship songs on there, but we don't do worship albums as such. We've never been able to secure distribution with anybody. Part of the thing we do is we haven't necessarily chased that. You know how the music industry works - as soon as you get distribution, you lose a bit of control, you lose a bit of money. What gets me, what really winds me up with a lot of Christian music is how people wrap statements up in faith and the movement of God when, basically, the bottom-line behind a decision is to do with finance. We've never shied away from talking about finance. When I came on board, the way Plankton made money was at gigs, when people were buying cassettes. We eventually got to CDs when CDs were more affordable to manufacture. Now vinyl's coming back in, but we haven't done much vinyl yet because that's quite pricey. In those days it was selling physical product at a gig. Now, most of the artists we work with tend to appeal to older audiences, so we still have physical sales at gigs, but now you've got the whole digital world and streaming.
Tony: Are all of Plankton's releases available on iTunes and the other download sites?
Keith: Most of them, yes. Everywhere in the world. I have a side-line doing aggregation for people, but that came about because of the stuff I did to get Plankton released. The albums we've talked about - the two single albums of very long title, and the double-CD pack - will be available digitally as well.
Tony: Looking back, you must be proud of what Plankton has achieved musically and spiritually over the years.
Keith: Yeah. Some of the things we've released have not been brilliant quality, as in the money we could spend on the recording, but I am immensely proud of every release we've done because I know what the story behind it all was, the ethos behind it. The important thing is to help artists communicate with people outside of the Church the message of the Gospel and the message of God. We've never been interested in people who are primarily fame and fortune seekers. It's great for us if albums sell, because it helps us fund the next album, but that's never been our prime or ulterior motive. I'm proud that we've stuck to our ethos and our belief, the way we work; I'm very proud of all the people that we've worked with. I've also been immensely frustrated: I think some of the guys and some of the material deserves, on a musical merit, much more exposure than it's got.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.