Brand Builders: Bargrooves

In repackaging dance music for ageing ravers, bargrooves oozes style and sophistication, writes Daniel Rogers.

Dance music ain't what it used to be. But then Ben Sowton, creator of bargrooves, would argue that it doesn't need to be.

The quintessential house music experience 15 years ago meant eluding the police in search of a disused warehouse rave somewhere off the M25.

Ten years ago it meant dancing all night at a 'superclub' such as Ministry of Sound or Cream. But since 2000 it has been more about justifying one's passion in the face of a rock music renaissance.

Sowton believes house music now feels as happy in a cocktail bar or the lobby of a boutique hotel as in a nightclub. This explains the strapline for his collection of 11 compilation CDs and growing portfolio of events, 'bargrooves: the soundtrack to bar culture'.

The sound is funky, soulful house music with a tempo more likely to get feet tapping than set dancefloors alight. 'The generation at the heart of the house music revolution has gone through many changes,' explains Sowton, 38. 'Thirtysomethings are less likely to go clubbing and have become more sophisticated. They think nothing of paying £8 for a cocktail.'

Bargrooves repackages house music for a 25- to 45-year-old audience.

It eschews fragmented graphics and drug culture for premium packaging, a contemporary colour palette and in-vogue Japanese-style iconography. Album titles such as Mimosa, Terrazza and Indian Summer evoke cocktails on a Mediterranean terrace, and a bargrooves CD is as likely to be found in the Conran Store or Harvey Nichols than in a backstreet Soho record shop.

Developing the cocktail theme, bargrooves is currently sharing an upmarket party tour with Bombay Sapphire gin and recently produced a branded mix CD for single malt whisky Glenfiddich. 'Bar culture is strong worldwide,' says Sowton. 'As soon as someone rebranded barmen as "mixologists" it became clear they were becoming the new DJs.'

Despite his role as an arbiter of style and a respected house DJ, Sowton bothers little about his own sense of cool. Sitting in the company's pokey offices off a South London high street, he is decked out in bog-standard jeans and T-shirt. His straightforward, home counties diction is devoid of pretence.

The brand, which comprises the operations of music label Seamless Recordings and events company Atomic, is run by Sowton and label manager Amber Spencer-Holmes. But with forthcoming tours to Manila, Bangkok and Singapore, they are close to recruiting a full-time international events manager.

'Dance music is struggling in the UK, but it is incredibly strong in Asia, and many parts of the world are on the brink of discovering it,' says Sowton.

There's the nagging feeling that bargrooves is not unique. Its imagery, compilations and tours draw heavily on Jazz FM spin-off Hed Kandi. And the concept is surely influenced by Paris institutions such as the Buddha Bar and Hotel Costes.

But Sowton's singular energy sets the brand apart, and he insists his enterprise will not become overshadowed by egos. 'Hed Kandi and Ministry of Sound have become overtly commercial, but bargrooves remains niche,' he says. 'No artist is bigger than our brand.'

'There's bucket loads of rubbish that's not mastered or produced properly,' he adds. 'Anyone can believe they are a dance music producer from their bedroom now, but few can produce fantastic music and support it financially.'

With his target 50,000 sales of each release and lucrative worldwide tours, Sowton is already looking at further brand diffusion. He is in talks with a radio station about a weekly bargrooves show and is planning a student initiative to 'reintroduce house music to the younger audience'.

'We hope to hit £2m turnover within three years,' he enthuses, saying he is happy with the current level of investment from shareholders (who own 70% of the company between them).

And his ultimate ambition? 'To sell out within five years and make vast amounts of money,' he candidly admits.

TIMELINE

1996: Ben Sowton leaves his career as a planner at Initiative Media to set up Atomic Events, which promotes club nights and other parties.

2000: Sowton and partner James Lohan open the White House, a private members' club and cocktail bar in the Clapham Common area.

2002: Inspired by the rise of 'bar culture', Sowton launches the Seamless Recordings record label. The first bargrooves dance music compilation is produced.

2003: After a New York licensing initiative, bargrooves' Al Fresco compilation climbs to number 18 in the US Electronic Billboard chart. It stays for 50 weeks.

February 2004: Bargrooves has its first licensed launch in Asia with the Terrazza compilation going on sale in Taiwan. Each CD release is now selling more than 45,000 copies.

Autumn 2004: Bargrooves links up with Bombay Sapphire, style magazine Wallpaper and Harvey Nichols for the Inspired tour. Seamless Recordings finalises its first single/EP release, Solaris, featuring Yvonne. Annual turnover stands at £500,000.

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