Over the past decade, Sweat It Out has been one of the strongest labels in Australian music, exporting artists like RÜFÜS DU SOL, What So Not, Anna Lunoe, Wax Motif, Motez and Yolanda Be Cool across the globe. Founded in 2008 by Matt Handles (one half of Yolanda Be Cool) and Adrian "Ajax" Thomas, the label has gone on to become a global force, pushing free spirited and fun Australian electronic music to the world. Ajax tragically died in 2013, but his legacy lives on through his music and the label. The label is releasing a 10-year anniversary compilation and a posthumous release from Ajax “I’m Hot” will be a part of that. We spoke to Matt Handles to find out a little more about putting together this release, how they plan on putting out Ajax’s music the right way and about his journey into the business, which has gone on some interesting twists and turns.
How did you get into the music business?
I started DJ’ing when my friend left his decks at another friend's house after a New Year’s Eve party. I was 20 and literally played on them all day until I couldn't stand up. I was hooked. But I was also very average, so it was a very slow and gradual burn from begging to play at friends BBQs to actually having an idea what I was doing!
My first job out of university was a lawyer for a big law firm and I hated it, so after two years I moved to Brazil and came back a year later (penny-less). A friend of mine found an attorney job at Central Station Records, I figured I could deal with law under those circumstances so that's really how I started. It also didn't hurt my DJ career, which helped supplement the minimal wage I was on. It's also how I first met Ajax as I was doing all the licensing for his mix compilations that Central Station put out.
Why did you start the label?
We decided to start the label because Ajax was the biggest DJ in the country and was always getting sent incredible music, and he wanted an outlet to put some of it out. The plan was also to put out his own music. He was the brains behind the whole thing and remains so to this day.
If you weren’t in the music business, what would you be doing?
Not law! The last few years, I have gotten right into mediation so I wouldn't rule out becoming a meditation teacher... I love seeing the benefits it gives to anyone willing to give it a go! It's crazy how busy our minds are, and it's amazing how much we can benefit from slowing them down a couple of times a day.
What is the key to longevity in this business?
I think integrity really. Trends will come and go, so I think it's more important to stick to what you believe in and do it well because whatever is ‘hot’ right now, likely won’t be by the time you chase after it.
I also think it's super important to be nice. It's a pretty small industry at the end of the day and as cliché as it sounds, it's fair to say that the people you pass on your way up, they are the same people you will pass on your way down. And why not be nice anyway? Spread good vibes and they have to come back to you, it's a law of nature.
How do you balance producing, DJing (being an artist) and then handling the business side of things?
I don't watch much TV haha! I tend to split it pretty evenly really. Some days I will work all day in the studio on stuff with Andy for Yolanda Be Cool. Other days I will spend working on the label. And then quite often, it’s a bit of both. A little yoga or a surfing, and my meditation practice twice a day is what actually helps me free up the time I need to get all the work done without stressing!
What are a few things you know now that you wish you knew when you started the label?
The biggest change on the business side has been the long tail that comes with streaming. It used to be the case that if you had a hit, 95% of the income would come from the first year and then it would slow down rapidly whereas now it's all about streaming which is generally slower, but also generates income every single stream (minimal as it may be).
We could obviously talk about some of the acts we didn't sign... But a wise man once said: “Worry about what you have signed, and not what you haven't”… So no need to go there!
How does a label do a posthumous release without making it seem like they are cashing in on the legacy of a dead artist?
Considering all the profits from this release will go to Ajax’s family, the first thing that needs to be said is that we won't be "cashing in" at all in that sense. Furthermore, Ajax's family are huge supporters of what we do and are literally part of the Sweat It Out family, and partners in the label, so they are direct recipients of any financial success we have as a label. Furthermore, the whole ethos of the label is built around upholding, respecting and illuminating the legacy of Ajax, so "cashing in on the legacy of a dead artist" is not something we consider we are even close to doing by releasing a song of his.
The song is basically as he made it - with amazing polishing of it done by Sam Littlemore (thank you so much Sam!) who worked closely with Adrian on this song and many others. We are very confident that when people hear the song, they will hear Ajax.
We also have a remix pack coming that reflects what he meant to people. People like K.I.M from The Presets, Sneaky Sound System, Crookers etc. It's all about upholding his legacy and remembering a man who stood for everything good. A guy who was admired and loved by all, and was as cool, considered and classy as anyone that ever walked.
We’re throwing a party too where the friends of Ajax who he used to play and collaborate with are coming down and jumping on the decks; all in loving memory of him.
What do you look for in demos?
To use one of Ajax’s words: ‘shtick’ i.e. What does a song or an artist have that makes them stand out from the rest… What is their ‘shtick’? There are so many amazingly well made clones of what is already hot. We look for the ones that maybe are a little rougher (can always polish them later), but first and foremost... They got to have shtick.
How has new technology (streaming, social media, VR, data analytics, blockchain etc) helped and hurt running a label?
Social media is a funny one... As much as it is kind of painful, it's definitely democratized things. Anyone with an Instagram or Facebook or Soundcloud can upload something, be shared and ‘become’ something. And with the costs of releasing music coming down, it's definitely more competitive. But for us, that feels like a good thing. There's so much music out there that it comes down to that can find the diamonds in the rough and we pride ourselves on that.