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May/June 2021

by Richard Thorne

Celebrating 30 Years Of Rattle

by Richard Thorne

Celebrating 30 Years Of Rattle

When NZM last published a feature on Rattle Records, back in 2006, Kiran Dass reported that the three partners in the then 15 year-old label were still coming to grips with what was needed to make the label ‘work’. Another 15 years on Richard Thorne finds the streamlined label continuing to honour its original objectives, and even looking to extend repertoire as owner Steve Garden celebrates Rattle’s 30th anniversary year.

In the first 20 years of existence Rattle Records released a total of 18 albums, the very first of which was Gitbox Rebellion’s acclaimed introduction ‘Pesky Digits’.

Rattle founders Steve Garden, Tim Gummer and Keith Hill had a shared vision for an artist-focused label that would be an advocate for composers, performers and ensembles engaged primarily in acoustic instrumental music.

During the label’s third decade that output total has leapt to 160 albums – by any measure it has been a very active independent New Zealand record label, and by any commercial measure it remains an anachronism.

In 2021 Rattle is celebrating 30 years in the business of recording and releasing artful music, and as the label’s elegant website observes, there couldn’t be a more fitting way to kick-off the anniversary celebrations than with ‘Curveball’, a brand new two-CD album from Gitbox, the Nigel Gavin-led Kiwi acoustic guitar ‘super group’ that first got Rattle noticed back in 1991.

Also released this March, and perhaps more reflective of Rattle’s output in toto, is Anthony Ritchie’s ‘Symphony No. 5 ‘Childhood’’, described as ‘… an optimistic work that uses childhood as a metaphor for renewed hope and optimism for the future’. Ritchie’s work was premiered by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in celebrations for the re-opening of the earthquake-stricken Christchurch Town Hall.

As the Auckland label marks 30 years of commitment to diversity and excellence, so too does Rattle owner, sound engineer and drummer, Steve Garden. Personal differences eventually got in the partnership’s way and Gummer left the business in 2009, Hill not long after, by 2011 leaving Garden in charge as sole owner (and employee) of Rattle Music Ltd. It’s a position that has evidently suited him well.

The label’s current HQ used to be his Sandringham home’s laundry, before that it was the property’s garden shed.

“It’s just me. It’s my expensive hobby – although of course it’s more than that because it is a full-on every-day, every-night, every-week, every-month, every-year commitment. I wake up to Rattle and go to bed with it.

“My days are spent either recording, editing, mixing, mastering, writing applications for funding, working on cover designs with our terrific designer (Carolyn van Hoeve of UnkleFranc), liaising with our brilliant printer (Dave Trotter of Studio Q), filling orders, dealing with licensing requests, constantly updating the website, uploading digital files to online retail and streaming sites, setting up and attending launches, having meetings with artists about future projects, promoting the catalogue, answering emails from a seemingly endless stream of people who either want something or want to offer something… and that’s before my morning coffee.”

Yes that last bit is a joke, but Garden admits to being so distracted by his “hobby” that some days he gets around to breakfasting about midday, hence a coffee habit that stretches through the day.

Everyone involved ought to celebrate the actual launch of a new album, however in today’s ‘normal’ record label world the champagne celebrations likely stem more from digital streaming milestones, inclusion on influential playlists, radio plays, syncs and various associated chart placements. The tricky thing for Rattle is that, being art-music and album-based, none of its musical output falls into those kinds of readily measured realms.

With little expectation of resulting income, much of the cost-covering individual project funding is derived from Creative NZ grants. Garden says he seeks to ensure every project is, as much as possible, cost neutral from the get-go.

“The label can no longer pay royalties, because there are none to pay. Instead I make sure the artists get everything they need in terms of revenue for what they do, plus have stock to sell for their own income. I try to make sure we have the funding or support necessary, and where we don’t I pick up the slack, not so much with money as with my time. I’m happy to do a lot of work, like recording, or mixing, for nothing – that’s Rattle’s buy-in to the project.”

All Rattle releases still enjoy a printed CD with deluxe artwork and packaging that the artists can utilise for their own marketing / sales, but for the label itself strong international reviews, radio play and licensing returns (RNZ Concert has long been very supportive), the occasional webshop CD /digital purchase, and artist satisfaction are about it for the ‘sales returns’ column.

“I have to say that ‘sales’ is the last thing on my mind these days when it comes to all things Rattle,” Garden admits, with no sign of rancour or frustration. “It simply doesn’t factor into any decision I make, or any of the criteria I use to determine what projects to pursue. Revenue from retail is a trickle, and that includes sales we generate directly through Bandcamp (both CD and digital).

“I’ve said it many times before, but if we ran Rattle as a business (even from the start, frankly), we would have shriveled up and died a long time ago. From the get-go we wanted to provide a platform for people we knew and liked, and worked with, to present their music in a way that was a context for that certain kind of instrumental art music. And that ‘idea of Rattle’ has grown over the years, it hasn’t diminished at all.”

Ironically, he says, it’s the releases Rattle have committed to that no self-respecting, finance-focused record company would ever touch, that have been among the label’s most enduring and acclaimed releases.

“‘Te Ku Te Whe’ back in 1994 for starters, followed by ‘Te Hekenga-a-rangi’ (2003), ‘Tuhonohono’ (2004), ‘Te Whaiao’ (2006) and ‘View From Olympus’ from that same year.

“Then there’s the four Tania Giannouli albums, music by a Greek pianist whose albums have garnered increasingly wide and enthusiastic acclaim throughout Europe – particularly ‘Rewa’, an album of improvisations between her piano and Rob Thorne on taonga pūoro, and last year’s ‘In Fading Light’, which is also getting excellent reviews.”

One other valuable component among the non-monetary rewards is the seemingly annual inclusion of Rattle artists among the NZ Music Awards (now Aotearoa Music Awards) finalists and winners. The label has a proud record of 47 finalist nominations out of 160 titles (close on a third of the catalogue Garden notes) – of which 21 have been Tui winners, mostly in the Best Jazz Artist / Album or Best Classical categories.

“As hit-rates go that’s quite an achievement, and it’s all down to two things: committing to support good composers and performers without any concession whatsoever to commercial imperatives; and insisting on high-quality production standards, from the microphone choices to the shrink-wrapping.”

Rattle has played a very important role as champion of the recording of taonga pūoro by some of the nation’s most highly regarded modern exponents, and in turn the inclusion of traditional Maori instrumentation has become a significant feature of the Rattle catalogue.

A recent illustration of the label’s diversity is the 2020 album entitled ‘inst.19-20’ by Wellington electro-acoustic composer and audio engineer Jack Woodbury, derived from installations that ‘… explore and acoustically signify the compositional influence of the audience and loudspeaker’.

Acknowledging it’s an album that will likely appeal to only very few people, Garden says he loved that Woodbury was doing that specifically – putting all his creative energies into making those sort of sounds and compositions.

“It’s great. It’s deserving of being on a label like Rattle I think.”

Surprisingly he’s currently considering working with a young singer-songwriter who he says is writing what is essentially pop music, but very artful and unique.

“In most cases my decision to release those projects will still be based on whether or not it fits with Rattle’s general ethos or kaupapa. But that is broadening, probably in line with my own interests.

“I see Rattle as basically an art music label, there’s no need to limit it to say jazz, classical or our traditional musics, it can be broader. Over the last two years my attitude has changed a lot, along with the way that the recorded music industry has declined and sales have turned into streaming. If music’s going to be free predominantly, then how do I do what I do?

“Well, I approach it as purely a cultural thing, Rattle is just about culture, music and the artists we champion.”

Glancing across the label’s more recent jazz-based releases in particular it’s evident a number of projects are from academia-based artists. University tutors and lecturers likely fulfilling their own academic development requirements with the recording and release process – including names like Roger Manins, Dixon Nacey, John Psathas and Paul Dyne.

It was just that kind of academic outpouring that resulted in the label’s most disruptive period, during which the label changed ownership to Wellington’s Victoria University (VUW) then back again to Garden less than three years later. An important financial salve at the time, it’s evidently remains an emotive and touchy subject for Garden.

“Rattle released 24 albums in 2011, which was an extraordinary undertaking – literally two albums a month. This happened in part because Victoria University was coming to the end of its PBRF research cycle (six years I think), so there were a lot of composers and performers within university ranks who needed to get their work published before the deadline.

“Consequently, Rattle was offered lots of projects, all with significant funding. It basically saved the label, because it was in a rather precarious financial position. The PBRF projects sorted everything out. Rattle was back in the black.”

VUW evidently took note of the results Rattle delivered, and in 2013 bought the label, putting Garden on their payroll to continue running it… for nine months or so. By 2014 the university began insisting on changes that Garden says were counterintuitive, not least the “daft directive” to shut down the Rattle website and shoehorn it into the obscure and unattractive Victoria University Press site. Garden says his working life became unbearable, and for the very first time he found himself looking forward to Fridays.

VUW management subsequently called for a ‘review’ of Rattle, a clear signal he felt, that nails were being readied for the label’s coffin.

“They resolved to ‘divest themselves’ of the label in October 2015, with a settlement date set for December 20. Why? I have no idea. Why they offered to support Rattle in the first place, and why they told me to go away (putting it nicely) 33 months later, are mysteries to me.”

Extricating from VUW ownership left Garden stripped of finances and with a commitment to release four albums. The evidence of the last five years suggests that he found strength, and renewed success, through adversity.

“Somehow, we managed to get through it. We endured, and here we are now celebrating our 30th anniversary.”

And with some aplomb. Rattle’s increasingly diverse catalogue is showcased superbly online at Rattle.co.nz, and Garden points to a visibly growing international label reputation, with evident artist enthusiasm for the kind of supportive co-production model he offers.

But still, operating a music label at the very edges of financial viability is the kind of challenge that would wear anyone down. Having very impressively survived three difficult decades what lies ahead? Now into his 60s Garden says he’s not worried that Rattle really is Steve Garden – but that he is still ambitious for the label, and hopeful someone who shares the same kind of aspirations may in due course come along and take it over.

“What Rattle is speaks for itself, so if that happened, the person coming in would know what they are connecting themselves to.”