It has been twenty years since the label, Alfa Matrix, started to issue material from its base in Belgium. From the trip-hop of Hungry Lucy through to the solo projects of EBM’s godfathers, Front 242, the label has covered a lot of ground. Artists on their roster include Nitzer Ebb, Recoil, Psy’Aviah, Leaether Strip, and Kant Kino. Sweden’s Circumpolar rub shoulders with Germany’s Armageddon Dildos in the Alfa Matrix catalogue, nestled alongside local synthpop champions, Metroland. Chances are, if an EBM, dark wave or industrial artist has hit the radar, at some point they will have passed through the Alfa Matrix offices.
Founded by label and artists manager Séba Dolimont, promo manager Bernard Van Isacker, and head of design Benoît Blanchart, Alfa Matrix has survived the transition to digital platforms and the evolution of trends. We spoke with Van Isacker about the label, its role as a champion of alternative music, and his experience of the past two decades.
Going back to the beginning, what were your ambitions for the label, and are there any still to be fulfilled?
Séba, Benoît and I basically wanted to create a label that was fair to its bands and that also gave a platform to new talents next to bands that already had a following. Even today, these are still the core ingredients in how we work.
We started in 2001, when more labels were closing doors than actually started; and, actually, back then several people considered us foolish to do so. Over the past 20 years, we launched a lot of new bands from electro and darkwave to even gothic metal acts like Lovelorn Dolls and Star Industry – which are post-punk avant la garde, to be honest. I must say that, in the first half of our existence, we were limiting ourselves to the more electronic acts.
Alfa Matrix has handled releases from some legends of the scene, including Front 242 and Recoil, and broken a number of new artists, but it is still a select group. How have you chosen who to work with?
With Front 242 and Recoil, it was all about trust. Seba knew the Front 242 people quite well, and I had dealt with them in the past – I did their online merchandise sales when I worked at an e-commerce start-up. So they knew they could trust us. With Recoil, aka Alan Wilder, it was a long friendship which culminated in a collaboration. Other bands were projects by friends: Nebula-H had Stephane Froidcoeur as the singer, and he has always been writing for Side-Line; Metroland’s Andy and Sven are longtime friends, as well; thesame for Implant’s len Lemeire; Steffen Gehring from Technoir is a friend of my ex and I, and so on.
Since Séba had done A&R for various labels in the past, it was not accidental that some of his contacts would, one way or another, also land with us. Other bands sent us demos. Once we agree – all three – then we offer them a deal. I don’t think we are hard chasers, as such. We see what appears, and we keep our eyes and ears open for talents.
What are you most proud of, looking back across two decades of releases?
That we have built up a legacy. I never expected this to become so big. As it stands now we have constantly been in the top three of all labels active in the dark wave scene, although we never have been boasting about this, nor have we ever planned to live from it. We all have solid jobs – as a result, we can invest more in the label.
There have been a number of structural changes in the industry since you started, such as the shift to streaming services. What would you say to someone starting a label today?
Keep your costs under control and be realistic. I think that, as a starting label, it’s wiser printing 100 CDs or vinyls and selling them all than sitting on a pile of stock which you will never get rid of. Apart from that, invest heavily in data and make sure you own your own data, via your own shop or Bandcamp. I do think streaming will be the biggest digital platform, as such, but you are very dependent on what they do. And you are too dependent on their algorithm, which is not very favorable to young bands on indie labels, if I may say so, as the algorithm is triggered by the initial boost a track gets. So, it may take a while before you will see any traction unless one of your bands suddenly breaks through – and that is roughly 1% of all the bands active. Even less, actually.
But I welcome new labels as they often have the tendency to discover bands nobody knows. And it’s in the end all about getting to hear good and interesting music
There have been some scandals in the scene over the past two decades – from festivals where the money disappeared to kickstarters that never delivered and badly behaved groupies. What are the lessons we should take from those experiences?
There have been even way more scandals…! The lesson I learned personally is, first of all, this: never, ever trust people when your gut feeling tells you something is off. I lost a lot of money because I wanted to believe the people I worked with. I should have known better, as my gut feeling said, “Back out of this, Bernard. Something is wrong here.”
Secondly, bands who do kickstarters and never deliver the goods are pure thugs. I have seen this happen a lot, and it happens again and again. Each time, I saw alarm bells going off with these kickstarters, but the fans didn’t notice those signals. And, as far as groupies is concerned, I would advise everyone who has some kind of ‘leading’ role (as a band, as a label owner, as a writer) to vet every possible date you pick up inside the scene. You’d be surprised what the real agenda is, and you will not be the number one on that agenda! 🙂
What is next for the label? Another twenty years?
I’m 47 now, so when I’m 67 I think I will have entered into a more jazz and blues direction. I will have set up Rednote Records, maybe :). But your question shows how fast time goes by. A lot has happened: two marriages, two kids, lots of nice things, a few less nice moments. I guess you have the same sentiment as you are more or less my age. I’m the youngest of the three label owners – the others have jumped on the wagon near 50. I think we still haven’t completely unearthed what we are capable of, so who knows.