Industry Insider: Lee Spence On Building A Lasting Event, Label & Management Brand With Kaluki

We also talk the economics and strategy for dealing with rising booking fees.
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Lee Spence Pirate Copy

Lee Spence

Building a lasting event brand requires more than just money and good shows. It requires luck, the ability to evolve and creating an identity that fans and others in the industry are attracted to. Lee Spence, also known as the DJ Pirate Copy, has been able to create that type of rare balance with his business partner Nick Yates in creating Kaluki. Another helpful factor is to expand into other sectors of the business. Kaluki started as an idea after a Berlin trip in 2005 or 2006 and has since expanded into an events company, record label and management company, K1. They have artists like Kinnerman, Tuff London, George Smeddles, Alisha and Del-30 under their management wing.

Considering the difficulty in remaining an independent events brand in a world where Live Nation is gobbling everything up, we thought it would good to see how it is done. We chat with Lee Spence about the evolution of Kaluki and how it has become the powerhouse it is today. He dishes on booking fees and how they manage them for A-listers, festivals and more. He also gives some good advice on how to stay in the business, noting “if you’re going to chase the party over your job, then it’s not going to work.”

Read on to learn more about Kaluki, it’s roots and what it plans to do for the future.

How do you choose the artists you want to work with at K1? What do you look for in the artists?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, but other than the obvious which is talent, we look for something unique and different – it’s a bit of a cliché non-answer in a way, but that special thing / vibe / energy / whatever which nobody else has is essential for any artist if you’re going to stand out amongst the crowd. When you combine that with pure passion, you’ve got someone who we can hopefully work with and help grow.

What are some of your early memories of attending electronic music shows and how did that inspire you to start Kaluki?

I can tell you exactly what inspired Kaluki – it must have been 2005 or 2006 when I went to Berlin for the first time. We went to Berghain about seven times in a row and the place just blew my mind. It was when the minimal sound was big, so we were seeing people like Chris Duckenfield, Margaret Degas, Paul Woolford and Ricardo Villalobos in there and in the Panorama Bar. I came home and Kaluki started not long after that at Sankeys Soap in Manchester, and we were booking all those same guys that we’d seen in Berlin, trying to recreate that vibe on our own terms.

There has been talk of independent party promoters getting squeezed out of the business. What is your secret to longevity?

From a brand-specific point of view, I think the fact that Kaluki has got a tight-knit family which supports everything we do has been a key factor in helping the brand grow and expand. Me and my business partner, Nick Yates, have stayed true to the music and artists we believe in from day one, and that has resulted in friendships and business relationships that have lasted over a decade – you can’t buy things like that, so organic growth is essential to longevity.

Lee Spence Nick Yates Club

Nick Yates Lee Spence

From a general business point of view though, it’s always difficult for small independent businesses to compete with the big names, and it’s the same in the music industry – that’s why you have to evolve and be creative. You’ve got to create a brand identity that sticks, otherwise why would be people want to support you? In our own experience, it’s important to create your own opportunities to grow, and sometimes that means partnerships with what might be classed as competition; for us, it was working with the Warehouse Project and Parklife in our hometown of Manchester. Rather than fight against this other brand, we created a way to work with them – to turn them into allies. I know some people might dislike the idea that they’re going against some kind of ideology or “selling out,” but if you’re running a brand as a business, you have to make business decisions.

How do you differentiate booking for club shows and festivals?

They’re completely different beasts for sure. With festivals, you have to go big. You’ve generally got a much bigger budget and just have to throw the kitchen sink at it, so you end up with a line-up that matches the scale of the festival. With club shows, you can be a lot more experimental, test out new acts and help develop them at grassroots level so that one day, you’re able to book them for the festival stages.

Parklife 2018 Kaluki Festival Crowd

How does Kaluki influence your DJing and vice versa?

Kaluki has opened up doors for me as a DJ, as it’s taken me to countries and venues that I never could have imagined playing when I first started. Obviously, the music I like to play out is a good reflection of what Kaluki is all about in general, but being exposed to different scenes, artists and cultures through the Kaluki tours has no doubt influenced my own style and sound over the years. The Kaluki label has also exposed me to so much new music. It’s opened my inbox to all these new producers who send us demos for the label, and as a result I’m in the lucky position of having access to hundreds of unheard tracks each week that I can road test in my sets.

What are the main factors for you guys in signing a song to your label?

I’ve always worked to the idea that if you have to convince yourself that a track should be signed, it’s not worth signing. Some labels get caught up in signing a name when I feel it should always be about the music first and foremost. If the track makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you’re feeling it when you play it out, then that’s a god enough reason to get it signed.

How do manage rising booking fees, notably for festivals, as a promoter?

When it comes to festivals, we’re more curators than promoters (though there are plans brewing to change that) – but even so, at club level and at festival level, the situation with artist fees is pretty similar and something we’ve had to deal with since day one. At the end of the day, if you’re an A-list talent and you have the right management who can get you big fees, why wouldn’t you take them? The issue is that it sets a precedent and people talk, so when one person is getting paid, say £100K for a festival slot, then similar DJs will start wanting the same and once you pay those fees, it’s very hard to go back.

That said, no promoter is forced to book an artist at any price, and if they don’t have the value in terms of ticket sales that their agent is asking for, then they won’t get booked – that’s just economics. So if you’re able to get these fees, then there’s the argument to say that you deserve the fees too. It’s escalated a lot since we first started without a doubt, but now DJs are like rock stars and when you’ve got a DJ-led festival with 80,000 paying guests – someone is going to make a lot of money, and it’s either going to be the promoter or the DJ.

What does the future hold for Kaluki?

We’ve been doing this for over 13 years now and we still feel like we’re just getting started. We’ll continue to expand the Kaluki tours, and we really want to keep pushing the label and make sure it is the hub for helping develop the Kaluki family and K1 roster. We’re now on the 40 episode of the Kaluki Radio Show, which is syndicated across the world, and we recently launched an exclusive radio show on board every British Airways flight worldwide. We’re looking for every opportunity to turn Kaluki into a truly global brand. As mentioned earlier, we’ve definitely got ideas being discussed about a Kaluki festival and we’re scoping out some possible locations in Europe and South America. One of the main things we’ll be pushing for next year is a bigger presence in Ibiza – we’re back for our second season at Privilege this summer, but our plans for next season are on another level entirely.

How did you get into the music business?

I’ve always been into dance music but my earliest role working in the industry was working for the legendary Sankeys Soap in Manchester. I was promoting Tribal Gathering and then became a resident and after that I started getting involved in the event programming for the club. Kaluki started off as a one-off event to fill a gap in the club’s calendar but was so successful, we ended up carrying it on. Thirteen years later, here we are!

What skills and attributes do you look for in potential employees at Kaluki?

It’s funny because I’m just writing a job spec for a new intern role we’re going to be recruiting for soon, so this is something we’ve had to think about recently. Above all else, I think that as with any job in the music industry, you have to love what you do, and more importantly, love the music. It’s not exactly a 9-5 job, so if you don’t love the industry, you’re going to quickly burn out and resent it. As well as being passionate, you need to have a strong work ethic because there are so many distractions when half your job is based in a nightclub or at a festival, it’s easy to get led astray and if you’re going to chase the party over your job, then it’s not going to work. 

Vote for Pirate Copy at the DJ Awards in the Breakthrough category.

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