Labels Interviews: File 3: Seba Dolimont & Bernard Van Isacker / Alfa Matrix: ‘We Keep Anticipating New Trends In Order To Stay Relevant And Future Proof’

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Seba Dolimont

Alfa Matrix has been set up in 2001 by three friends. Séba Dolimont, Benoît Blanchart and Bernard Van Isacker were all involved with Side-Line magazine, but decided to start an Electronic label. The label became a home for artists dealing with EBM, Dark-Electro and Electro-Pop, but throughout the years the label welcomed other genres like Gothic, Ambient and Industrial. Front 242, Ayria, Pouppée Fabrikk, Plastic Noise Experience, Armageddon Dildos, Unter Null, Acylum, Implant, Metroland,  Zombie Girl, Helalyn Flowers, I:Scintilla, Mentallo And The Fixer, Leather Strip, Star Industry, Alien Vampires and many others joined the ‘matrix’. And I nearly forget to mention Aiboforcen which was set up by Benoît Blanchart and Séba Dolimont.

(Stéphane Froidcoeur / Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)

Q: Was there a kind of ‘philosophy’ when you set up your label and did it evolve over the years? How would you define your label activities today?

Seba. Alfa Matrix was created in 2001 with 2 key values: running the label from an artist perspective in our collaboration approach, and focusing on a direct servicing of our customers. All this with the aim to support and market underground Electronic music with attitude with an eclectic approach. Twenty years later, and although the music market situation has drastically changed, we are still active on the same Indie music scene, we still dare signing newcomers and our repertoire confirms our quite open-minded sound range of interest. We do run the label in mutual respect and care with our roster of artists and developed a quite strong direct sales approach for both digital and physical releases.

So we quite sticked to our original mission and simply adapted our operational mode to the constantly evolving music consumption habits and we keep anticipating new trends in order to stay relevant and future proof.

Q: I can imagine you must have specific and explicit criteria to sign an artist/band. Can you give us more details about this aspect and how important is it for you to know the person(s) hiding behind the ‘artist(s)’?

Seba: Through the years, it has become harder and harder to open the gate of the ‘matrix’ simply because we want to stick to a certain maximum number of bands, but also because any new signing to the label should bring something new to the label family, add a new color to our sound/artistic palette. Also important for us is that any new addition to the label must get the green light form the 3 members of the label management team.

The art must touch us for sure, but personally, in my role of artists manager, I pay a lot of attention to the personalities of the artists, probably more today than 20 years ago! Simply because we believe in long term collaborations and to achieve such goal we better construct our relationship on solid foundations and values. So that personal click is also something I need to give my vote…

Bernard: Nowadays it takes time to launch a new unknown artist, and we work slowly, but steadily to get their music heard to the public. There is no magic formula to create instant success, it’s continuous work both by the label and the band. The first has to use the best channels to create the best value for the band while the bands have to work on social presence, and the interaction with fans on several platforms. It’s also why we have started releasing lots of singles, so bit by bit we reach a bigger audience this way via all platforms.

Bernard Van Isacker

When we started the music market was already in decline so we had to start early on with a new model to get the word out. Know that there are many bands out there and if you actually look at it, too few labels to manage all those great talents.

Q: You are already active for numerous years now so you must have seen a lot of things changing and evolving; think about social media, streaming platforms, Youtube channels… but also economic crisis etc. What are the pros and cons of these changes/evolutions and in, which way did you had to adapt/change your strategy and activities?

Seba: As owners of a company several dozens of artists gave their trust to, the least we can do is running this company professionally through a strong overall financial management and anticipating business and market evolutions to remain future proof. This is why Alfa Matrix was one of the first labels from our scene to be on digital platforms, and I even remember some were laughing about us, especially when we decided to invest a lot in streaming that is still seen as a danger by some today. Like other labels we also went through some tough economic challenges when we faced several bankruptcies from big CD distributors in Germany or in America. But with our strategy of focusing on an international market rather than putting all eggs in one or two baskets, it was easier for us going through all this, and especially with the unmatchable force of having a strong fanbase buying in direct from our e-shops and giving us more financial independence.  So the decisions we make are more guided to the way we adapt our ‘go to market’ strategy: changing distribution channels, deciding how we spread our budgets and investments, etc…

Bernard: In respect to that, we have been continuously checking out new platforms to vet if they were adding value to our media mix or not. For instance Facebook was quickly used by us, but we also knew that this free ride would not continue and that at some point Facebook would close the open gates and restrict the organic reach from their pages. That happened, a bit later than we anticipated, but it did happen. The same for Instagram for example. The free rides are over and done and you can no longer count on getting free unpaid reach for every communication you do. During that process we continued to work on a direct relation with customers. So while some bands and labels have gone that far to only have Facebook as their window we never neglected the own properties we can manage for the full 100%: an own e-shop, a very active Bandcamp page which both have given that what we are looking for, namely a direct link with the fans. So, suppose that Facebook or any other social media platforms stops their activities, we won’t feel any impact as we have a direct link with customers. This under the hood approach has been working very well for us and is something we will continue to do. Social media for us are a nice extra, but nothing more than that, the real value lays elsewhere for us.

I also strongly believe in the streaming market for the future, it’s how most of the music will be digested by music fans alongside HQ audio which people will find on Bandcamp and via physical products. As far as YouTube is concerned, I share the same comment and idea which Dave Heckman made earlier this week to you. This Google moloch pays really peanuts, 10 times less than Spotify, it also offers poor audio, but surprise surprise… everybody wants to be on it. It’s maybe good for the image but not so good for your wallet in the end if you consider the production cost of a video versus the extremely low return you get from it. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to be present there, but I seriously doubt that a lot of money should be thrown at it, it’s not our preferred medium.

Q: The ongoing pandemic has affected all artistic life and activities so what’s the true impact on your label activities and do you think it will also affect your long term objectives?

Seba: First of all the pandemic affected every person behind our Alfa Matrix bands and the label staff itself, most probably first on a personal level, cos they themselves struggled against Covid-19 or lost loved ones around them. What obviously hurts the most is the recurrent cancellation of tours, festivals, shows… this is hard for all bands. The stage remains the ultimate place of communion between artist and fans. The duration of the pandemic crisis also makes it more and more complex for artists releasing new albums and not being able to perform the new songs live.

Economically, so far we have been working hard and increased our promotional efforts to support the bands. As a result we actually managed increasing our label turnover between 2019 and 2020 with over 15% although the lockdown hit us all heavily. It was a combination of efforts: we continued to deliver CD’s to shops in direct -when some of our distributors were obliged to keep doors closed for example, but also from our bands who released more digital music to also bring some nice entertaining moments to their fans in these difficult moments, but also from our fans who continued supporting us massively.

Now unfortunately we all know that the economic crisis that will follow will hurt at all levels, but we will only start experiencing the real impacts in the second half of this year. It’s then that more and more people will continue loosing their jobs, loosing a portion of budgets they usually put into art and leisure. I also hope that this sanitary crisis will lead more people to pay more attention to their health in general. So yes, the world will change for sure, and we will all need to adopt and adapt at some point.

Q: Do you think media (magazines, online platforms etc…) still have an impact and a role to play today? What’s your relationship with ‘journalists’ and how important is their work?

Seba: Media changed a lot in 20 years indeed! Print magazines have been going through tough times. The major challenge is remaining relevant as a print magazine coming out monthly while online news get published instantly and spread a few clicks further. Combining digital with print is not easy. Integrating social medias, streaming platforms, etc… in the overall journalistic equation is tricky.

It’s just like for music, the new generations tend to consider that art and information should be free of access. As a label, of course journalists still play an important role for a certain portion of music fans who still enjoy turning pages while reading and enjoying the pleasure of holding a magazine or a book in your hands. They then also reach out to the digital audience via their blogs and other websites. But the readers tend to identify themselves less than before to some specialized journalists, but will rather trust and follow the advise of some friends posting on social medias, other buyers leaving comments on webstores or other influencers. They also tend to trust themselves more and more and believe in algorithms recommending them the next music to play on their own music radar.

Bernard: Many online magazines do not publish news daily or even regularly which makes it difficult for them to stay relevant in these days of social media. In the past we were able to work with a lot of great web magazines, but these days we have to work with hundreds and most really have a very very small readership, while others have been smart enough to evolve, develop, stay relevant. Those online magazines from the past who did not evolve have seen their visitors go to Facebook and never have seen them back. Most also ceased all activity. It shows clearly that Facebook for instance is not the booster that most had hoped, on the contrary, and it also explains why many magazines are increasingly negative towards Facebook because they have now largely decided what you get to see, what you discuss about etc..  

As a label we must combine all these elements to reach out to our customers/fans and make choices based on gathered experience and acquired know-how, while exploring new grounds… 

Q: What do you consider as your biggest accomplishment(s)? Do you have specific goals/dreams you want to achieve and how do you prepare and see the future of the label(s)? And what are your biggest regret(s)?

Seba: I think our biggest accomplishment is to be talking with you today and celebrating 20 years of Alfa Matrix, each release from our music repertoire between 2001 and now each contributed to this success, from newcomer acts to living legends from our beloved music scene.

The only regrets I might have are first of all not to have 10 days in a week to do all I’d like to do, and maybe having put a couple of friendships in danger by starting a label collaboration with friends without having been enough aligned and synched together on strategic elements. As far as the future, I hope we will still be able supporting talents as long as possible and having the chance to release the great work from our artists, and working with experienced music supporters like you…

Bernard: I personally never expected that this story that started as an idea amongst friends would turn out to be that successful and long-lasting. Seba had the basic idea and then pitched it to Benoit and me. Since I knew Seba as a very trustworthy guy (you introduced him to me remember!) it didn’t take long for me to decide to get on board and invest in it.

Benoît Blanchart

As far as the future for the label, or any label, I guess that the love for what we and the bands do will be the biggest power behind it all. I still discover great music in this scene so we are not in desert modus. The biggest challenge will be to keep on making new people warm for this scene’s music. Not a simple task, but we’ll manage alright I think.

My biggest regret… we all know it’s very time consuming and it’s not always easy to find a good balance between family life and work. As far as my two colleagues is concerned, I know how to separate my private life from work, so even if we have some catfights about certain things (we have to agree all 3 on something or it doesn’t happen), we remain loyal friends above all. And as far as how we function together, you can say that the structured thinking of Seba combined with the fuzzy logic style of thinking of Benoit and myself is an ideal breeding platform for great adventures!

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Inferno Sound Diaries

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