Touched Music is unlike any other label I think I’ve ever come across. This is a statement you probably see and hear all the time. Hell it’s something I say all the time. But almost always it’s an exaggeration, usually to try and convince your mates to actually listen to that tune you sent them. But believe me when I say that Touched Music is completely, utterly and categorically unique.
What if I told you that Touched Music was a non-profit label that had raised over £77,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support? What if I told you that it regularly releases compilations that have totalled over 250 tracks? What if I told you that it has released music from music titans as large as Autechre, Future Sound of London and Plaid, as well as some of the most exciting talent in electronic music such as Murya, Ariadne’s Labyrinth and Keiss? And what if I told you that the home of this label – the most exciting and frankly the best IDM and electronica label in Europe – is nestled amongst the rolling hills of Pembrokeshire?? Yes, Touched Music is unlike any other label in electronic music, and I spoke to Martin Boulton, the founder and label head of Touched Music, to find out a bit more about it…
Pembrokeshire is not really a place that’s usually renowned for electronic music, so can you tell me how electronic music has affected your life? How did you get into it, and how big a role does it play in your life?
I suppose it’s always been a big part of my life, even from when I was a kid watching Star Wars. I liked the music in it and I liked the cool noises and all those space age things, and I always liked theme tunes of things like Bionic Man, The Equalizer, Miami Vice and loads of other 1980s themes. But the main thing that got me into electronica was in Secondary school when my art teacher used to do a class where he would shut the blinds so it was a dark room and he’d play some music, you know, Jean-Michel Jarre, Equinox, and he’d get us to paint what we thought we heard. A lot of that music, it sounded like bubbles and spaceships. Jean-Michel Jarre was a big influence in the early days.
Do you find that there is a big connection between art and music because of that?
I always appreciated art because of that. I do a lot of art with my clients where I work, in cyber art, for those with learning disabilities and with mental health issues. I like to see what they come up with, but I don’t actually do art myself, except for music. Going back to my music interest, it went more electronic when I listened to people like Depeche Mode, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the Beastie Boys. The other massive influence was when I got into Bjork, Orbital and The Orb. That would be in the early 90s and I would have been a teenage boy by then and I also started to get into Primal Scream and the Future Sound of London. I know a lot of my friends always used to refer to this compilation called Trance Europe Express, and that had artists like Orbital and it was the first time I heard Black Dog. Bjork said that that Black Dog’s Spanners was her favourite album of ’95 and I thought that if she likes it, I might like it. So I went and bought it and I haven’t looked back since, because Black Dog then became Plaid, who are one of my favourite artists and from Plaid came my obsession with Warp Records, which introduced me to Aphex Twin, Autechre and B12.
Do you think that your Pembrokeshire roots affect your music taste at all?
Yeah, it has definitely inspired me, being in a place of beauty, by the sea and in the middle of nowhere. But growing up none of my other friends were ever into any of the music I was into. They all thought I was a bit weird cause I listened to music without singing. I would get a new song in and would listen to it and be in awe, and then my friends would have this blank expression on their face, like ‘what is this shit?’
So I’m quite curious, I think that when you look at Touched and all the other labels that you run, although there’s a lot of electronica, there’s also a lot of club-focused music. Pembrokeshire is not really a place that would have a lot of clubs that are focused on this sort of music. So I’m interested in how you can gauge whether a track would work in a club when you don’t have many opportunities to experience club music?
So around about ’97 or ’98 we did have a club in Tenby (Pembrokeshire) where everyone would go to and where a lot of people had their first ecstasy experience. Everyone would wear the same clothes, like these really shiny shirts. It was Wales’ version of clubland and it was just… awful. I probably went about 5 times and I always wanted to go to the chillout room cause that was where they were playing the better music.
That’s interesting, because the music you produce as an artist is more on that downbeat, chilled vibe, and so is that the sort of music that you lean towards as your favourite genre of music?
Yeah definitely. Slow tempo, more melody based and something with a bit of ambience, a bit of beauty more than dance music.
So where do you think that comes from? Is it Selected Ambient Works or other artists, who’s the main influence there?
Boards of Canada possibly, Future Sound of London, early Autechre when it was drones and nice soundscapes. I would rather dance in my head than with my feet.
You’ve mentioned Autechre and Future Sound of London a few times. These are quite big names, and these are artists that have released on your label. I wonder how you got in touch with them and forged that relationship? And how does that mean to you on a personal level, as these are some of your favourite artists?
Well the person I’ve made best friends with and chat to on a regular basis is Brian from Future Sound of London, which is weird really, cause I used to have a poster on my wall of Lifeforms and whenever they put something out, I had to have it. I first reached out to him for Touched 001. I reached out to them loads of times unsuccessfully, and then I was told by Androgynous Anthropoid to get in touch with his personal Facebook page. So I did and got in contact with him. He thought Touched 001 was a great idea, as his Father had died from cancer, so it was personal to him. I was really looking forward to the track he was going to send me, but I was really underwhelmed by what I was sent. It wasn’t that good, it was just like a river flowing with some nice keys over the top. I didn’t know whether to be brave and tell him it’s not good enough. But I did eventually, I told him it’s great, but considering you are going to be one of the biggest names on the compilation, I was hoping for something a bit more epic. He could’ve turned around easily and said ‘you’re being too cheeky, I’m giving you a track you should be happy with it’ but he was really lovely about it and he said that I could pick any track I like from Archives 1. So I picked Lizard Crawl from that.
One of the things that struck me about Touched was that the first release was a 123 song compilation. The work that must’ve gone into that to curate that compilation and the amount of artists that you reached out to and, like you said, to pick out songs that is quality, not just take anything that’s given to you. Could you tell us about your process in compiling a playlist like that?
I think after being a music fan for so many years, I know what I like within maybe 30 seconds whether a track has a certain feel or colour that I like. So it was easy to get people to contribute songs to the playlist, but they would ask me what sort of track would you like. I asked them to send me 4 of their best songs, and I would pick one of them. But it would be hard because some people would just send me a link to their Soundcloud page and they had so many songs on it that it would be overwhelming. So I asked people to send me 4 tracks. Even then a lot of people only sent me a single track, and at first I didn’t really get it, and I would keep playing it and playing it until it slowly seeps into your psyche and it would make more sense. But yeah, doing compilations is just about going for what you love. I’ve turned down a lot of people and I’ve upset a lot of people by saying that their stuff wasn’t good enough. And a lot of artists have big egos.
But obviously it’s important to maintain the quality of the release. You don’t want to compromise the quality of the music just to satisfy an artist.
Yeah, just to keep them happy there’s no point. I’m more interested to keep myself and the fans happy.
So it sounds like that process is quite an individualistic process, so how do you go about compiling releases with other people? The notable example here is Touched Electronix, which is a collaboration between you and Furthur Electronix boss Anil.
So I first contacted him because he put out a Brainwaltzera release and I couldn’t get a copy.
Classic outcome with any Furthur Electronix release…
Yeah, so I reached out to him for a copy and he was like ‘ah cool you’re the Touched guy’, and I said that I wanted to do a label with someone else who we could just do vinyls and he said that’s a great idea. So I said how about we do a vinyl each, I’ll pick 30 minutes of music and you pick your artists and do 30 minutes. It was part Touched, part Furthur Electronix, part me, part him. It didn’t matter to me whether an artist’s track had 10,000 plays or 40 plays, if I love it I’m going to put it on vinyl. It wasn’t about the fan base.
So you do find the process more rewarding when working with other people?
Well I suppose Touched Electronix is a collaborative process, in that I pick my tracks and Anil picks his tracks, The artwork is done by David Watson aka Grid Pattern who is the guy who does most of the Touched artwork, and mastering is done by Loz Grover, who is the Touched engineer. We plan to do 5 Compilations and then a few EP’s and LPs.
Do you think Touched and Furthur Electronix have a similar approach to music, and a similar style?
Yes, definitely, I would say a 70% match. But Anil is more into Acid, Techno, all sorts really like me, Kosmik Kommando and the 303 acid driven stuff, where I’m just like if you sound like Plaid FSOL Autechre, you’re gonna be on it.
So would you say that the Plaid style is the ‘sound’ of Touched Music? I mean obviously you don’t want to limit yourself by defining what the sound is, but there is a vibe…
Yeah exactly, I like happy, melodic music with intricate beats, like the sound of Murya…
Yeah I was gonna say Murya, I’ve been absolutely caning his stuff recently.
Yeah, and his alter-ego also, Busbin Jieber.
Oh is that the same guy?! Yeah I know Busbin Jieber, he was on Touched Electronix 001 wasn’t he?
Ah I guess that makes sense now, cause the melodies are very optimistic and I dare say euphoric, but yeah that makes a lot of sense. So we’ve talked about your influences in music, but do you think your influences as an artist differ to what you listen to as a label head?
Well as an artist, I always want to make the music that I like, but that never seems to happen. I would love to make tracks like Karsten Pflum and Murya but whenever I sit down and fire up the keyboard, nothings sounds like what I want it to sound like. And I think that since Touched I really struggle to make music now, because I hear such great stuff on a daily basis.
So you do struggle to compartmentalise being an artist and being a label head?
Yeah, because before where I could make a track in a day and be happy with it, now since hearing how much effort these guys put into their tracks, you know like spending a whole day on a drum loop, that I feel that I just can’t do it. I haven’t got the time to pour into making a track anymore. I used to be happy with a track that doesn’t have a beat, if I could make a nice string sample I would be happy with it, but now I just feel like I can’t do anything half as good as the guys that I work with.
So are they full time artists or do they have other jobs?
I think that with the way the music industry is going now, with electronic music, I think most artists have jobs because there’s not that much money in underground music anymore. I can’t speak for the artists who are well-known, I know a lot of them don’t have a regular 9-5 job.
Yeah I think the music industry has moved from having to tour in order to promote the album, to having to do an album to promote your touring, it’s turned to that culture where people don’t buy music but they go out to see artists live.
Yeah, it’s totally changed. Where 20 years ago I would buy a record and I would listen to it for maybe a week, I would get to know every single part of it and your brain would remember it. Now your brain is overloaded with so much music, now I buy something, listen to it once and put it in the rack.
Yeah I agree. I also find with vinyl, the physicality of it, you need to know which song is A1 and B2 and you need to know the music a lot more because if you’re DJing you need to know where the breaks are and how long the song is. But when you consume music electronically and you can see that it’s got 2 minutes left and you know the BPM etc you don’t need to know music as much.
Yeah that’s true haha.
So what other labels do you turn to for inspiration?
Well obviously the classic Warp. I always like to think that Touched is kind of like a new Warp. A few people have said that Touched is like Warp before it got crap.
Hahaha, so when was that, like 2007?
Around that yeah. So you can say that Murya is Touched’s Plaid. Exm is Touched’s Autechre.
And who’s your Aphex?
It’s gonna be Karsten Pflum or Velum Break. He’s got an album coming out in 2/3 months for Touched and it’s out of this world.
I look forward to hearing it.
On Touched Electronix 2 there’s an artist called user364304579, he’s very Aphexy also.
I think I know that song, because I’ve got the promo for Touched Electronix 2 but because it’s a blank vinyl I’ve got no song titles. It’s nice in a way because forces me to listen to the music for the music, without knowing the song or artist. But it’s been a pain to mix with them because I can’t remember which song I really liked and whether it’s A1 or B1 or whatever… So are there any other labels apart from Warp?
Skam, Morr Music. Actually let me just have a look at my rack quickly… I like Kranky, you heard of it?
I haven’t actually. You’ll have to forgive me I’m only 23 there’s still so much music for me to discover.
Well in the early electronica days there were labels like AI Records and Toytronic and City Centre Offices. All these guys were big influences on me, liking IDM, if you wanna call it that.
Ah yes, the vague IDM, which can mean basically anything.
Yeah, like when someone asks me what style of track should I send you, and I say IDM, a lot of the time they just turn off.
I always like to say that’s there are only two types of music, good and bad.
Yeah, I should just say to them send me some good stuff!
So are there any labels that you’ve learned from in terms of what not to do? Any labels that you thought have gone a bit shit or are not what you want Touched to be like?
Well, the good thing is I can’t really think of any.
Well you mentioned Warp earlier, so has Warp taught you about what not to do as a label in a sense, because you’ve seen a decline in its quality?
Yeah, well what I’ve seen with Warp is that they keep branching out to different styles. Like with artists such as Rustie and all their downbeat, hip-hop stuff.
So do you think that it is important that a label confines itself somewhat to a certain style of music to keep its ethos pure or… because you can argue that Warp are just trying to branch out and experiment and you know, some of them may not work, but do you think that it is important that a label does have limits?
Erm, I suppose that if they’ve got a fanbase… If you think of Warp then, they’re obviously the label everyone wants to be, and you can arguably say that they have the 5 best electronica artists in that area – you know, Aphex, Boards of Canada, Autechre Plaid etc. and for them to do something like Red Snapper, which is more jazzy, the people who are into electronica now know of Red Snapper. So I suppose it’s important to broaden musical minds, but I certainly won’t be doing a jazz album on Touched.
Ah dammit, that was gonna be my next question, when is the Touched Jazz album coming out?!
Haha, well I only do stuff that I like, and I like what I like.
Yeah I understand, and if you have a dedicated fanbase and then start to go a bit off-piste, people will eventually lose interest, because they know that they’re not going to love every release.
Yeah, and the lucky thing with Touched is that by releasing a physical number of copies, I’ve got people who will want every single thing, and will do it no matter what price I do it. And even if it is not something that they would usually listen to, they will still usually trust me and buy it.
I guess that’s one way of looking at it. But do you feel that exclusivity can be annoying for fans? My example is Further Electronix again, because it’s a nightmare trying to get anything that’s released because they release 300 copies but there are far more than 300 fans. So do you think there is a bad side to that?
Definitely, and I think that there could be a better process of doing that. I think that trying to sell them on Facebook is a nightmare. You know he goes ‘I have 10 copies left of this release who wants one’, and then gets over 200 emails asking for it.
Yeah, I know he’s got that Lou Karsh album coming out soon and I’ve put his Facebook profile as a favourited page so it will always come to the top of my feed and I can get it as soon as it comes out, and even then I doubt I’ll get it, which is very frustrating…
So on Touched, do you ever have a maximum number of copies to release or do you produce as many as you think?
Well, it all depends on the artist. When I did the Autechre vinyl I got 1000 pressed and people were asking for more. But when I did Covert II on vinyl, and B12 on vinyl they would be 100 only, and they took maybe 2 weeks to sell out. Autechre took like 2 days. So it all depends on the artist.
(Martin then proceeded to go off the record and tell me an amazing story about a certain artist buying a synthesizer of another certain artist, and they’ve agreed to meet to exchange the synth and to make some tracks and Martin has asked to release whatever they come out with. The artist collaboration is guaranteed to make your jaw drop, and if they got pressed it would be in the 5000+ mark.)
So coming back to labels quickly, do you have any advice to anyone reading this who might be interested in starting a label?
You must only release what you absolutely love. And you should get a mailing list or a fanbase established that guarantees you to sell a certain number of copies. There’s no point releasing an album and 5 people are following it, you’ve gotta at least get interest in things.
Would you advise people to follow the route that you’ve taken in making it a non-profit for charity? Because there are so many people that would love to do something for charity but don’t think that starting a label is a viable thing, so they end up running a marathon or something. But I think that Touched is quite pioneering in that sense as it is a non-profit for a charity. Do you think that is it something that other people should be considering?
Touched is 6 now and I have helped about 5 or 6 people do other charity albums. I’ve helped put them in touch with certain people and charities. I’m kind of the go-to guy for help with this stuff really.
It is lovely to hear that people are coming to you and I think that running a non-profit label is really noble. Going back to Touched, do you have a particular favourite Touched release, both in terms of symbolic significance and pure quality?
Well the Carbinax one that is coming out (and has now been released) is Touched Music 56. So that’s 56 albums out. I couldn’t really pick a favourite out of all of these, although there are a few that I do go back to every now and then. A lot of people’s favourite album is Covert II.
Interesting, because that’s my favourite release from you. That We Are Not Alone tune from that is amazing (and was also included in our January 2019 Tracks of the Month). So do you ever listen to music that isn’t really focused on Touched, and is just for your own listening pleasure?
Yeah, all the time.
So what is focused on? Electronic stuff or other music?
It can vary from anything. I went to a gig in Bristol a couple of weeks ago and some guy was selling a load of CDs for £300 so I bought 700 CDs, brought them home, cleaned them and replaced the covers so they were all restored to mint condition. Then I made a pile of what I’ve already got, stuff I want to sell and stuff I want to keep. So I’m going through all sorts of stuff from it, from Radiohead to Malcolm McLaren. If it’s good and it’s got a nice feel to it, I’ll probably like it. I’ve still got about 300 to listen to! My drive to and from work takes about half an hour so I get through about an album a day.
So when you listen to specifically electronic music, do you listen to that for your listening pleasure as well or is it always with your Touched cap on?
No, I’m also an electronic music collector. There was an xxxxx (sorry folks but the identity of this guy has to be kept under wraps) 7’’ that came out on Bleep a couple of weeks ago. The 6-9-12-13 release.
Adding that straight to my discogs want list…
Haha, so things like that I’m always buying and collecting and it’s not because I want that artist on Touched but because it’s really good. For my week off I’ve got a load of vinyls that I haven’t played yet which I’m going to go through. You know new Autechre, the new Brainwaltzera.
Ah I love Brainwaltzera. I first heard him on Analogical Force on the Bunker EP, he’s quite a recent discovery for me but he’s so sick. He was on one of the Touched Electronix releases wasn’t he?
Yes, he’s on 1 and 2 and I’m talking to him about releasing more stuff on Touched.
So what’s in your bag at the moment?
Helios – Veriditas
Keiss – In The Same Place EP (unreleased)
Karsten Pflum – City of Thieves EP
Milieu & Coppice Halifax – Sun Cast
How do you think Touched has evolved as a label since it started in 2013?
Well when it started it was just going to be that one compilation. I didn’t expect it to turn into a label and didn’t expect to be doing vinyls or limited edition CDs and even organising two Touched Live music festivals. So it’s gone from a tiny idea to something that people have travelled across countries and continents to come and see. It’s pretty unreal, because I’m at the centre of it, I can’t really see it for what it is. I was at 23 RPM Festival in October and there were all these people chatting, and someone came up to me and said “How come you’re at the centre of everyone’s conversations?” I’ve got so many contacts and everyone who sends me music I end up chatting to them and treat them like they’re my mates.
Well it’s an industry that’s built on personal relationships.
Exactly. Nearly all my friends are my friends because of their taste in music.
Mine too. So, taking 2013 as a starting point, how do you think music in general has changed since then and do you think that Touched reflects these changes?
When I did the first compilation, IDM and electronica was maybe at its lowest point. Not many people were into it and loads of people weren’t really big fans of it anymore. Since doing the big compilations like Touched 2 – which has sold the most copies of any release and is seen by some as the best release, and it has 255 tracks on it. But it had people like Orbital on it, and things like that help. Having those big names and having the online music magazines knowing that Autechre and Orbital were on it just helped snowball it.
And that then gives greater exposure to all the unknown artists who were on the album as well.
Yeah, well that was the reason I started Covert actually. I knew that most people who bought the Touched compilations were probably going straight to the artists. You know, they download it and go to straight to 808 State or whoever they know, which is fair enough. But then there would be someone who is unknown but has made a better track. So I thought how can I get people to hear these people’s music? So Covert has no names, no one knows who made the tunes, it is just about the music.
So where do you see Touched in 5 years time? I think the obvious benchmark is 100 releases but what other goals do you have?
Well I hope that we would have smashed £100,000 raised for Macmillan in 5 years, we’re at £76,000 or something now.
Well that’s much more than you would get for running a marathon!
Yeah, but if you ran a marathon for 5 years you would probably get more.
Where do you see electronic music in 5 years time?
Well CDs will have almost died out. Vinyl and downloads are popular but the CD is slowly dying out. But the hardcore fans of the CD still want something to buy. I would rather buy a CD than download something, because you have something to keep and if your computer crashes, you can still listen to it. I also think more and more people will be making electronic music, because it’s so easy to do now. You know you can buy Reason for £300 and have all the synths and drum samples you will ever need. It’s just about how you use it. So more and more people will be making music, but it’s harder and harder for it to be heard.
Although this might be true, there is no doubt that Touched Music is making itself heard amongst a scene that is plagued by homogeneity and superficiality. Here’s hoping that Touched Music continues to define what it means to make IDM and electronica in the 21st Century and that Martin can continue with his passion and see Touched Music 100 become a reality.
If you have been Touched by Martin and his cause, then please feel free to donate to his Just Giving page here. All proceeds go to Macmillan Cancer Support. Or better yet, buy some, most or all of Touched Music’s releases. You’ll be so spoilt for choice, you’ll end up buying them all to save you having to make that decision of what not to buy…