Updated: Apr 8
The clear and distinct craving for all things retro-futuristic après the success of 'Stranger Things' and the lightning rods that were the movie 'DRIVE' and the eternally brilliant featurette directed by David Sandberg 'Kung Fury' attracted a dominant audience that could no longer be ignored.
This neon army in Flamingo Shirts, Pit Viper Sunglasses & natty Leather Jackets began in unison to swallow whole everything 80's orientated and suddenly those artists on the 'My Space' fringes became celebrated and revered for their unassailable talent in emotionally connecting us to a decade that only few actually experienced. The advent of these defining moments birthed a micro-genre 'Synthwave' (also called Retrowave, or Future-Synth).
Cultural origins aside there was an inherent burning desire for live events, where like-minded souls could gather and bathe in the Neon light as their favourite artist swept them up and carried them on waves pure emotion. 2017 was to be our year.
Step forward Stuart McLaren & Brett Simpson. With their finger on the pulse akin to the best of Synthwave Drum Patterns they began their journey to becoming an indomitable force on this beloved scene. And thus Outland Synth was created. Having had experience in organising live events to a degree this company is at it's heart ran by fans for fans of the retro-futuristic genre and this truth is self evident in every flex of their now legendary live events with experiences ranging from Synthwave Cruises on the London Thames to events with the crème de la crème of Synth Artists from all over the world with their live series being held in Glasgow, London & the still being talked out festival they organised in Toronto, Canada in July 2019.
It'll come as a surprise to no one that I've been championing Stu and Brett's journey from the very start. Their foray into managing artists and thus creating a Synthwave label seemed a natural progression for the guys being such a revered presence on the Scene.
I was super-excited to catch up with them for this Spotlight Series, chatting about all things Outland and their visions for the scene, take a look...
Thank you for being a part of the Forged in Neon Spotlight series, so happy to have you guys
on board. As a label how do you feel 2020 has gone for you?
Stu - Thanks for having us Ashley and it's wonderful what you're doing with Forged in Neon. It's only our second year running the label and the end of 2019 consisted mainly of pushing our first signing and the album that went with that. Then Christmas came and by the time the music industry machine start moving again, it was March and we all went into lockdown and the surreal limitations around that. Having said that, if we didn't take the leap in starting the record label, Outland would have nothing positive to say about much this year other than continual event postponements.
We feel the Outland brand on the whole has been given a new lease of life considering the live events have all but fizzled away. We didn't plan for a pandemic so we're very lucky we took the leap with the label when we did.
Brett - Hi Ash, thanks for having us… Delving into the label was an inspired idea, and a necessary one. With Stu’s background in the industry it almost seems on retrospect, to have been inevitable. But yes, we are very lucky. We really do believe the genre has vast potential and we still want to see Synthwave take over the world!
Can you give us a little introduction to what Outland Recordings is and what you’re all about?
Brett - Outland’s mission has always been to showcase the music/genre. Outland Recordings as a label was born out of Outland Synthwave Events, which was itself born out of a love for all things Synthwave and Retrowave. Outland’s live events, artiste management and recordings arms, all form a cohesive platform, which seeks to represent and showcase, not only the music, but the artists themselves. It’s all about the music and the artists.
Without a shadow of a doubt Outland have become a shining beacon on our beloved Synth
Scene. What is the Outland ethos and philosophy when it comes to running the label itself?
Brett - Outland has always been about showcasing the music. First and foremost, we are both Synthwave fans. So, think like a fan… What do the fans want? Start there. And then the artists, we know about the passion and also about the hard work it takes to create. Stu’s been on the other side himself, and so therefore we understand and try and do right by our artists. We’re constantly looking for new ways and new avenues to support and promote our artists, and expose the genre to a wider audience where possible, for example, the recent Retro Drive game collaboration.
Available on iOS and Android FREE - 'Key Word: Retro Drive'
Stu - Thanks Ash. We appreciate that assessment and continue to try support and champion the scene as much as we can, though likes and social vanity stats aren’t any measure of success in my opinion. I think the three pillars of what we built the brand on in the first place has helped forge the labels path. Support, honesty and good work ethic is foremost. There has to be a trust between artist and label else things can quickly turn to shit. Artists need support but there should always be sense of mutual respect of the time and effort each party is putting into the project. I'm a firm believer in the old adage that hard work pays off and it's no different here.
We appreciate every new follow and every new press article on the brand, because it only helps the artists we're essentially working for and represent.
Tell us a little of who you have signed to your label and have you your eye on any other
Stu/Brett: We jumped into the deep end with New Arcades in 2019 and we're exceptionally proud of working with them through the entire process of their debut Returning Home.
Morgan Willis was our second signing for a single album and Dreamer is a true opus. We had a small world tour pencilled for him this year to support the album but COVID put pay to that.
We have the amazing Dana Jean Phoenix and Powernerd with their album Megawave, as well as two album deals with UK acts Lost Outrider and Taurus 1984. Sadly we have had to put any Polychrome releases and content on hold due to Covid-related pressures, but we have signed two very exciting ‘discovery’ acts - pure synthwave if you will. Both The Future Kids and The Last Concorde are really exciting and it's telling already as the The
Last Concorde’s first single Last Call hit NewRetroWave’s Top 25 Spotify playlist.
There’s also cyberpunk synth act Kodachrome Cowboy waiting in the wings. Then, a most exciting brand-new signing awaits in Laura Dre. It may not come as a surprise to some, but we're always on the lookout for artists with exceptional production quality and song writing with mainstream appeal. With one foot in synth and the other out there in the more contemporary side of modern synth pop, Laura ticks all those boxes. It's a kind of female lead Trevor Something-esque Synthwave that we think anyone can get into, and which should keep those who wish to see some sort of evolution of the genre in a happy space. Her first single Moving Spaces releases in January 2021.
We play a precarious game though and it sometimes feels we’re under scrutiny for who we sign and promote. Opinions are never directed at Outland but we have noticed mutterings of dissatisfaction from some within this scene…a bit of moaning and groaning going as to where Synthwave is right now. For our part and as a label we try to release pure style instrumental Synthwave from discovery artists but we also have to experiment by releasing artists that may exude some Synthwave elements, but that are very far removed from the Miami Nights 1984 sounding stuff. We do this because there’s ultimately more mainstream appeal with crossover. The genre is evolving but some people still seem to take issue with that in one breath and in the other slam anything new that represents the Retrowave
of old, exclaiming that it’s bland and unoriginal.
It’s disappointing sometimes to see negative commentary on social media and that’s why I guess Synthwave remains somewhat something of a cottage industry where some prefer to keep the circle small. Inflated opinions and unhelpful debate hardly ends in any form of constructive outcome. We’ve found that focusing on the people and artists who are positive and proactive is what counts – and one of the reasons we try not to get involved in
negative online commentary around the genre itself.
In pursuing talent for the label what is your drive? Do you sign based on how great the music is, the potential perhaps? Or do you prefer to also ensure they’re also great team players?
Stu - Great question Ash. First and foremost it's the last facet you mention - both Brett and I know what people want to hear, we're Synthwave fans after all, but we also know what works and what doesn't. We like to be involved in everything from artist identity and social media management to song choice and track-listing/order for an album as well as the design. When everyone's working as a team within the constraints of a working day then magical things happen.
In the past, we've been lucky to onboard the artists we have due to the trust element as mentioned before, but now, it's a matter of reading all the email submissions we receive and going from there. We haven't actually pursued talent, but have rather responded to talent pursuing the label, which is a bit arse-about-face but then again, the whole music industry seems to be that way since the good old days...or it could be that we're working in an entirely different micro industry that is the Synthwave scene!
At the moment, we've had to pull the reins up on new signings so that we have the time to focus on all our little children, but every now and then, another comes along that grows without much coaxing and if we've helped nurture that talent and placing it in the marketplace, then our job's worth doing.
Brett - Again, it’s all about the music. We welcome submissions, and try give everything an ear. There are only two of us, so there’s only so much we can take on and do justice with at a time. That said, if we hear something we like, we will reach out and go from there. Stu and I make a great team. We kind of form two sides of the same Synth-coin so to speak, so the
various sides of the genre get represented. Where I am more of a classic Synthwave and Outrun enthusiast, Stu loves his Retrowave/Synth Pop vibes. We both enjoy a bit of Vapor and Chillwave also, where we meet in the middle… There’s a bit of competition going on also, we get a kick out of sending cool new tracks we’ve discovered to the other just to say, “Have you heard this!? (I heard it first, I win)”.
Obviously Outland has become the MVP’s when he comes to putting on some of the scene’s
most talked about Synth Festivals, why did you feel you needed to branch into running a
Brett - For Outland as a brand to be sustainable and remain relevant, we had to branch out and expand. Live events require a ton of work, and on a good day, pay for themselves… but they don’t have the reach of a label. Passion is one thing, but for this to be sustainable long-term and allow us to pursue our mission, it has to be viable. Also, this is still very much a niche genre (although it is growing…and expanding) and as such, there isn’t much by way of artist support. It’s a full-time job producing amazing tracks, let alone everything that goes on behind the scenes. And that’s not to mention all the other media exploding into the world every second, vying for attention...it’s no easy task standing out above the noise and having your music heard.
We want the genre to be sustainable, so we decided to step-up and create a platform to help and support the artists, freeing them up to focus on the music! The label brings a sense of control also. We get to work directly with our roster artists on the music, their branding and with live events. So, this way, we get to have some small influence in how Synthwave develops, like guardians as it were.
Stu – Yeah so to elaborate on what Brett said, Outland started out as a live events promoter back in 2017 to help promote live Synthwave. We felt the genre needed to be presented across the live scene: to venue managers, ticket agents, other promoters, music press etc. It involved digging deep into personal credit cards (we still do!) and investing in the idea that Synthwave needed to be heard, and seen, by more people. The bums-on-seats model really does work to prick up the ears of mainstream movers and shakers. The investment in this passion far outweighed any return and running live events is still risky as ever, even more so now. I proposed the label idea to Brett thus, that in order to push the genre beyond the boundaries of the fans and the live scene, that we needed to promote the actual content over a longer term, and the only real way to do that, is to own the content over a longer term. A live show or event only produces a small wave of interest with a relatively small ripple effect across the world through promo press, whereas a content and promotional strategy
around the actual release of the music itself produces a more engaged and committed plan from all the players involved with far wider-reaching consequences both pre-release and post release.
We already gained trust with most of the big artist names in the scene so it seemed a logical progression to launch Outland Recordings and engage with some of those more closely. Of course, label management involves so much more than event management and we don't profess to know what Daniel Miller (Mute Records) does about running a successful indie label, but luckily with the knowledge gained within the music industry before Outland began, we've been able to apply that to management of the indie, and we're learning new things every day. It's honestly a joy helping nurture and promote our crop of roster artists to both the synth scene itself, as well as learning how the wider music press works.
How do you balance running Outland with your own day jobs/family?
Stu - I quit the IT rat race in 2012 a year after my twin sons were born to focus on raising them, as well as exploring my love of music as a viable secondary income for the family. Playing in function bands, event promotion and tour management followed and now, the day to day of Outland including the label management is pretty much my day job. I'm not sure Outland would exist in its current form if that were not so, because it really is a ton of work. Brett has always been Mr Ideas Man and the visualizer, while I've taken on the role as the materializer. It's a great combo, but it does help we grew up together surfing monstrous icy waves off the west coast of South Africa, so there's always a trust element. Brett has a high-pressure job working in graphic design and as always, helps guide the visual element of the brand, copywriting, as well as some of the more humorous social media promo posts.
Brett - How do you balance this…it’s actually a tough one. I think sometimes balance goes right out the window. Passion has its own agenda, and won’t be held back. Often things just need to get done. It gets stressful at times, but it’s worth it. Personally, even while I’m working the day job, I’m constantly thinking, creating and forming ideas… scouring the inter-web in free time, for inspiration and tapping in to ‘new’ developments… and of course listening to the music! Often, Stu and I will be on the phone catching up, both in the middle of cooking or something. Sometimes I don’t know if he’s talking to me, the kids, or the cat lol.
There’s always a ton of practical stuff that is so time-intensive; research, strategizing, design, art working, copy writing etc.. Yeah, I don’t know about ‘balance’. Secretly I think Stu has a secretary he has not told me about.
What would you say is the hardest aspect of running a label which such a superior growth as
Brett - Balancing with life and wanting to do more. I’m impatient, I want to forge ahead… I have so many ideas and things I’d like to do with Outland. But I’m also a firm believer in being grounded, and building a strong foundation from which to launch out from. And we’re doing exactly this.
Stu - Time, Time and less Time. We're still a fledgling indie label and there's still so much to learn and implement in our ever-growing quest to represent our roster in the best way we can. Time is a serious limitation to label management and balancing the R&D of it all. We're a small enterprise and every indie started as a home business. We’re also relatively small if you compare the output of other Synthwave labels, but we're trying to differentiate ourselves from a purely distributor-based label like most in the synth scene are and encompassing other aspects like artist development, release strategy, mainstream press recognition, rights management and tour support.
What advice can you give to emerging Artists who are trying to break into this scene?
Brett - Listen to the music. Listen to the best artists and try and replicate their sounds and work out how/why they do things…but then most importantly, make it your own. There’s a reason artists like Gunship and The Midnight are so popular. Listen to stuff from the 80s, especially movie soundtracks. Find where your interests and strengths as an artist fit best; straight up Synthwave, Modern Synth Pop, Retrowave, Outrun etc… Find your niche and your own unique sound. Never settle or think you are done. Don’t rush the music. If inspiration strikes, crack something out, and then come back to it. Polish it. Share it, get feedback… Be open to constructive criticism. Production value can’t be underestimated.
And please, please…. Consider your name. Give it thought; find a name that has meaning and reference, but that also makes sense. We see so many weird, odd-ball names, that may be funny or ‘clever’ after a pint or 12, but I find many artists have no idea about branding themselves.
The music is most important yes, but your artist name, and your logo (the visual element of your brand and music), is huge! How you represent yourself can’t be underestimated. There’s too much fluff and noise out there in this modern age of media and its far too easy to get lost in the media-haze.
Take every opportunity to promote yourself. This is a small, niche genre, there’s not a lot of money in it… yet. Just because you have a great track or album, don’t assume people will hear it. There’s so much being thrown at everyone all the time. Be smart. Getting your music in front of people is only half the battle, impressing on them visually and nurturing that interest takes effort and work.
Finally, be positive and collaborative with your label, if you align with one. Recognise where
Synthwave currently is, as a genre – it’s still only a small speck in the world, but its growing, so be realistic, collaborative and pro-active, and choose to be a part of its development and growth.