Interview: Toby Brundin (Svetlana Industries)

The owner of Svetlana Industries talks about the shady business of running an international music label from Belgrade via London, the art of slipping through borders and how to market upcoming artists from Eastern Europe

I first met Toby Brundin at a Kompakt records party in Belgrade’s SKC club on a late Friday night in 2008. I remember him painting my face with glitter, as I tried to remain on my feet after having one too many vodkas. Later on I kept going to his own ‘Trashcoteque’ parties, witnessing his skillful mingling through the youthful crowd that he managed to mobilize in such a short time, the way he understood and misunderstood a lot of Belgrade’s features. I watched him having to deal with the bouncers and suspicious club owners, the undiscovered prodigies and local ‘stars’, before launching his music label Svetlana Industries, specialised in bass and wonky electronics, most of it originating from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Artists from Svetlana’s catalogue, such as Bosnian Filtercutter, Bulgarian 1000names, Serbian Piece of Shh or Hungarian Polyklinik – all curated by Toby’s trained ear – have become a prime showcase of modern beats this side of Europe.

A Cambridge graduate and ex-music advisor for the British Council, Toby has been living the life of a true music vagabond, drifting from Eastern Europe to Asia, never really comfortable to settle down in any of these places. Eventually, he spent three years living in Belgrade, before moving back to UK last November.

Cycling down to Elephant and Castle in London, to meet this English guy I know from Serbia, my first thought is how certain places transform people and how ultimately people transform places. As I approach Toby’s flat just off Walworth road, an area slightly derelict but with a busy, vibrant feel to it, for some reason, it reminds me of home.

There’s something about certain parts of London, particularly around Elephant&Castle that reminds me of a little bit of Belgrade. Would you agree on that?

Not specially. Mostly Belgrade reminded me of Belfast where I used to live. I find the atmosphere in London really different on the whole. The smell in the air is different. But don’t forget this is familiar for me and Belgrade is foreign. Why do you think it’s like Belgrade?

I wasn’t thinking on the whole, mostly in some details like the Elephant roundabout, the shopping centre or some of the the dilapidated social housing like the Heygate Estate. What did you find similar in Belfast?

I think it’s about the people. There’s an attraction towards uniformity in Belgrade, so that even non-conformists are sort of uniform in their non-conformity. Generally people dress the same, Serbian restaurants usually have the same menu. I think people basically like it like that. Belfast was similar. A sort of homogeneity that was either reassuring or aggressive depending how you felt about it. I think that’s probably how people are everywhere, that’s why they like chain stores and buy Coldplay records. So it’s probably about city size, and it’s only in proper metropolises that you can get this bubbling of individuality. Also Belfast had a kind of omnipresent tense national politics so that felt familiar in Serbia [smile]

Yeah, people in Belgrade dress like shit. What made you move there?

Really and metaphorically it was because I hate wearing seatbelts. But then they changed the law, and they wanted you to drive with your damn lights on so I realised I might as well come back.

Interesting. I always thought driving there is a nightmare, with or without seatbelts. What made you stay for three years, apart from relaxed traffic laws? Did you have the idea of starting the label before you arrived, or that came up while in Belgrade?

I did have a vague plan to do a label, but when I came it wasn’t foremost in my mind. I’d been working musically across Eastern Europe for a few years and been involved in bringing some artists to global conferences and things like that. But when I came I intended to live for a bit. And while I was there my son was born and he was growing up. I really came back to the UK when the money ran out at the same as I was starting to get bored, so it was appropriate. I am a little bit footloose anyway and have a habit of getting bored after a few years anywhere.

To clarify, Belgrade itself wasn’t really a significant factor in my decision to move there – at that time it was more about leaving London and getting some fresh energy.

Who were the first artists to supply that fresh energy?

It wasn’t really artists as such. It was a combination of the natural boost you get by moving somewhere new, all the stimulation you get from that, plus the pressure of trying to get up and running in a foreign culture where you don’t speak the language. Also, and very important, was the fact that late 2007 early 2008 was really significant for me musically, when I came into contact with dubstep and then the beats scene both in the same year. The early 2000s was barren if you weren’t into Franz Ferdinand or the White Stripes so this was great to find something I felt genuinely enthusiastic about again.

Giving a speech at SHARE Conference (Belgrade 2011)

How did that enthusiasm at the time interact with Serbia? 

I wanted to go out and find artists and find out what was going on. I’d been working for the British Council producing projects all around Eastern Europe, from Slovakia all the way to Kazakhstan, and I’d started working with different artists I’d found along way, helping them, hooking them up with other people etc. Sometimes there was real talent. Also, I was now living in this place ‘Belgrade’ so I wanted to get out there and see what was going on around me. Especially because most of the higher profile stuff seemed boring and stuck in the ‘90s, so I was keen to dig a bit and find out what was going on underneath and whether people knew about the newer sounds.  I found the little dubstep community there and got to know them, started with working with some of the artists like Filtercutter. This guy Milos who called himself Boylah was doing little gigs in an attic called Zica which I liked and had done other things before I arrived. At the same time my friends in Bulgaria 1000names had introduced me to modern abstract hip hop so I was introducing that to people in Serbia who didn’t seem to know about it back then (early 2008).

I also noticed that Belgrade seemed really tribal and that wasn’t helping people to advance since there was some hating going on, which is really unhelpful in a tiny scene. I organised a biggish dubstep gig in April 2008 with The Bug and that was partly an attempt to bring related scenes together and make a bigger splash.

You’ve founded your label in Belgrade. How is it doing music business down there, both on the level of events and records management?

It’s very hard doing business down there. I mean it’s hard to make anything pay in the arena we are working in, basically. There’s no real record distribution network, and although there are a few record shops actual sales are really minimal. When I looked into how the charts are compiled on B92, for example, they told me they have a few “chart editors” who select what the charts are. i.e. It’s not based on sales or any kind of objective judgment, just on the personal preference of a few individuals, which may account for why a narrow band of similar indie-ish bands are always in the charts there and don’t actually represent what is popular in the country, which is cheesy folk pop [smile].

Similarly, you can’t really make money from gigs because people generally don’t want to pay them, so most of them are free. If you charge like €2 your audience halves from what it would have been. I remember bringing this quite big DJ to Belgrade and paying him €600 or something, then charging 100 din on the door which is about €1. I mean I was already making a guaranteed loss, I just wanted to minimise it a bit. Then all these people turned up, discovered it was 100 dinars and were like outraged: “What the fuck? I’m not paying that!” so they turned on their heels and left. I’d been running this club every week and it was always full and the one time I charged 100 dinars it was really empty. After a couple of those it’s hard to be arsed organising stuff, although I did keep on doing things.

Most of the venues are run by minor gangsters as some kind of tax dodge or a place for them to show off to their chums. That’s a bore because they don’t stick to the agreed deals and try to rip you off in tiny ways, and you basically need to pretend to be their friend for the gigs to run well which is tiring.

Picking up the mic at Rimming Show party, Belgrade 2011

You mention on Svetlana’s website about learning “to live like Chinese dissidents and to bypass the red tape and slip through borders…”. Sounds like Cold War, although it’s 2009.

The comment about slipping through borders is about a specific incident. Serbia has an extraordinarily archaic attitude to imports and exports. Getting things in and out of the country officially is very difficult, long and expensive. It’s like they want to cut themselves off, and the result is that stuff is really expensive in Serbia, from French cheese to clothes. Growing up in the EU this amazed me when I first ran into it, but then you have to devote your energy to how to get round it, which basically means smuggling.

When we cut out first record we were sent the test pressings to check but they never appeared. After I chased them up I discovered they were impounded at the Serbian/Romanian border. Then there was a period trying to find someone to talk to when the courier company passed up responsibility. Finally I got some customs official on the phone and he said they couldn’t be delivered to me because I was a visitor and not registered on the Serbian system. I asked if I could get them sent to my friend, and he said only be returning them to London and having them resent from there to someone else.

So I asked him “look, they’ve come all the way here. how can I get these into the country? There must be some way” and he said “it is impossible”. I said “nothing is impossible” and then he laughed very cruelly at me down the phone [smile]. The final thing was they wanted €200 to “import” our ten test pressings, so I told them to send them back to London, which was free, and then it was cheaper to fly to London myself. They arrived back in London I think three months later, and when I asked the guy why they hadn’t been sent before he said “there was no room on any trucks”. This is a rather small package you understand.

Whenever we sold a t shirt we were officially supposed to obtain and pay for a certificate of export from the government which cost more than the shirt. If you’ve ever tried to get any document out of the Serbian government you’ll know that you a) usually have to pay a bribe, and b) usually have to sacrifice a huge amount of time and effort. So we just bypassed the whole process by smuggling stuff into the EU in hand luggage and redistributing from there. Sorry, long answer, but you get the picture. It is like the cold war. Is it any wonder the Serbian economy is in bad shape when the government hampers business in this way?

Hamper, then monopolise, it’s the old Serbian rule. Works well for a tiny majority, though. Was this unfriendly business climate the reason you moved back to London?

The primary reason for moving back to london was inability to make ends meet. I was making a smidgin from the label, but mainly earning money from gigs and from advertising work. First the ad sector went broke and that work dried up, then we were usually paid a bar percentage for gigs, and people were buying less and less beer so we had less and less money and I basically had to come back. We (me, my Serbian gf and mixed-up son) were planning to come soon anyway.

With Brey and Andrea 3000, Belgrade 2011

How do you find the local bass/dubstep scene in London today? What is different now to 2008? 

It’s gone overground! I mean there’s tons of gigs, it’s in all the festivals, the nights are full of students. When I went to Outlook festival in maybe 2009 it was really small, all in one nightclub on an island. Before then there really weren’t many nights going on. Now it’s huge. It dominates. Everyone’s at it.

Svetlana Industries has just released a new record The + EP by Budapest based Polyklinik. He has a quite unique sound, obscure and fresh at the same time. Is that the blessing of coming from the margins? 

It’s a blessing and a problem. It’s easier to market music that fits easy definitions. I think that’s partly why genres develop – it just helps people talk about things, and marketing is talking about things. It’s also really hard to market artists from Eastern Europe, it’s a lot easier to get magazines to write about people they’ve met and a lot of UK/US artists do a lot of their own marketing, going to gigs, chatting people u etc.

I found that being in Belgrade did allow me to filter out lots of crap and not worry too much about what the buzz was about. At the same time, I think you have to be strong to have your own sound. A lot of artists are really derivative, and they can even be successful with that – look at Mr Brainwash! But being original is more difficult, even if it’s by accident. Polyklinik is very up on the scene, though, so it’s not ignorance. It’s just he’s a stubborn being and does his own thang.

Always good to be on a label that lets you do your own thing. What’s next for Svetlana?

Next is our first big party in London. I got a date in a really good club but I got scared doing it alone so we’re sharing the line-up with a great label from Brighton called Well Rounded. We have a new label launching when I get time to get it together. It’s called Woetone. And finally some new t shirts getting done. I’m off to Serbia to pick them up so they are a reality. We’re being featured in a festival in Austria so it seems like things are finally moving somewhere after a lot of work. We’ll see… The main problem is always cash flow. So please buy our shit and keep us going. Thanks.

*SVET006: The + EP by Polyklinik is out October 10 2011

SVET006: POLYKLINIK – The + EP teaser by Svetlana Industries

Svetlana Industries & Well Rounded Records: Brighton vs Belgrade, Friday November 4 2011, Rhythm Factory, London UK. Tickets £5