Name: Sean Brosnan
Occupation: DJ, curator, compiler, label owner at Needwant and Future Disco
Recent release: Future Disco - Mirrorball Motel, the latest instalment in the long-running series is out now via Future Disco.
I've recently enjoyed exploring some of the more obscure downbeat compilations from the 90s, many of which have really intriguing concepts and tracks that can not be found on streaming services. What are some of your own favourite compilations?
I grew up listening to compilations in the 90s so I’m 100% with you on that feeling.
My first love were rave tapes, which were essentially live DJ mixes from raves like Dance Planet or Fantazia in about 1992. Then record labels started to cotton on to the demand and the official dance compilation was born.
It’s hard to under estimate the influence these albums had on culture at that time. A few of my favourites from memories, Groove Armada’s Back To Mine, Café Del Mar 1-5, The Fantazia House Collections, React’s Real Ibiza and I have a few great compilations that came with Muzik or Mixmag magazine on CDs. One that stands out is a Layo & Bushwacka Ibiza Mix.
There are loads more but those are the ones that jump out in my memory.
How important do you feel is the act of curating/compiling content compared to actually creating the content?
You can’t curate without the content in the first place so there’s no getting away from the fact we need brilliant creators and artists.
But what a great curator does is create context for music. If you look at say those early Cafe Del Mar compilations compiled by Jose Padilla, what he did was take music from all corners of the world and bottled it into a sound, that then became the 90s chill out sound or at least the basic blueprint for that movement. That is what a great curator does, pull from different directions and bring people to the music around a theme.
It’s why DJs are often great compilation curators, because as a DJ you are a magpie by nature. You can play a pop disco track or the most underground techno record, played at the right time, in the right setting it can wow people when they least expect it (or be a disaster too in the wrong hands).
I believe great curators try and surprise and intrigue the listener without losing their attention. Anyone can put the top 20 latest dance hits in a mix but great curation is about a journey. A great mix for me is a window into a new or old artist, that the curator has showcased or introduced to you.
So for me curation is very important, maybe more important than ever when we have so much music out there. But probably a little undervalued and the dial has tipped in the artists' favour with streaming of music.
Saying that, a curator is only as good as the content so the original material will also be the most important.
At their very best possible, are compilations as artistically satisfying as an artist album? Can they be compared at all? What can a compilation do that an album can not?
I’ve never written an artist album so it’s hard for me to judge. But having released lots of artist albums, I would say an artist album is a very personal and laboured process. I think they can be compared in that you want to connect to the listener. But the reasons for doing an artist album I think are more personal and self-reflecting than a compilation.
It’s interesting in dance music that compilations tend to work much better than artist albums to connect with an audience. Electronic music seems to work better when DJs or selectors pick the best of what’s available to create a sound.
Electronic artist albums traditionally haven’t really done that well (though I have many great albums I love) and I’m not sure why that is, but maybe because electronic music isn’t so obsessed with songs and body of works and much more the 12inch single style format. For electronic music; compilations / playlists / mixes really play a key role in the entire eco system.
The great thing about dance music is you can do a mix, a playlist, a single, a remix or an album and they all make sense. As a genre we are actually very free and creative, too.
Mirrorball Motel is, I believe, already the 15th installment in your compilation series. Tell me about how you put this one together, please.
I can’t believe it’s the 15th. When I got to ten I thought I may stop there and I’ve kept going and here we are at fifteen.
I’m always compiling so this was the same action of pulling tracks into a folder each week and then whittling it down to the final selection. I like to think I do the hard work for the listener so they don’t have to, in finding the cream of the crop. I really appreciste that people trust me to do this job also.
For this one I also really wanted to edit a couple of tracks which I’ve managed to do. It also came together just as we were coming out of lockdown fully also. Maybe the motel theme is a nod to that, we can stay places again, party and I tried to capture that party feeling with the mix too.
Some compilation/sampler series are mostly an overview of a scene’s output over a period of time, others take a more creative and open angle. Where do you stand on this?
I definitely fall into the snapshot angle with Future Disco. I think if you went back and listened to each album you would get a fair overview of where the music is with each year or release and a showcase of some of the scene’s rising stars.
That was actually the original concept, to shine a light on this movement of music that was reinventing disco music for a new generation and the artists I was into. At the same time I try and be creative and bring a variation of sounds so it’s interesting for me and the listener. I like to think the albums aren’t linear but unique in their own way.
Do the titles of these compilations just sound nice or is there a connection to the music featured on them?
A bit of both.
I’m compiling all the time but then I start to work on a new one I have an imagination of how I want it to sound and the imaginary space I’m trying to create. I guess a bit like DJing, I often visualise when I’m sorting records for a gig, where and when I may play them, and I see compiling the same. So I imagine the mix as a warm up or peak time or as the lights come up. When I’m doing a poolside comp for example I think of the mix like 6 hours by the pool bottled into 70 minutes from the heat to the sun going down.
The subtitle names were actually as a throw back to disco, as 12inches always used to have extra long remix names or versions and I wanted to provide that same feeling, more descriptive and emotional.
For this one, I liked the idea of creating a party in an imaginary Motel. Maybe because I have been playing at Pikes in Ibiza lately and that’s the kind of feeling I get from there; a giant house party where you feel free to take the music up and down and the crowd are trapped for a wild ride.
How much time will you spend selecting tracks for your different compilations? What makes you see connections between the pieces and what makes them a good fit for one of the different series (such as Future Disco and Poolside Sounds)?
I can spend anything up to a year working on a compilation. I just find I have an instant connection with a track I hear and I know I want it to be on an upcoming album.
I guess I’m directing it, but I just have this instinct for which series a track should be on. Future Disco series is more Disco, where Poolside I see as more loungey house.
As for connections, it can actually be quite hard to fit different tempos and styles on one mix. A lot of mixing tricks and work goes on to make the music fit together. Sometimes that’s the beauty of the mix also when two tracks work that shouldn’t.
Compiling the music is one aspect. Then, there's licensing, sequencing, artwork etc. How important complex is this latter part of the process?
Licensing is always complex. It’s a painful process of finding the rights holder and then negotiating to include that track on the mix. Same time there’s a joy in connecting with the labels or artists who have released the music, and often shining a light on what might be quite an obscure piece of music.
Artwork is also very important. We spend a lot of time discussing this. I think if you think back to any album you have loved, artist album or compilation, the artwork plays a key role in your memory, so I continue to devote a lot of time and energy to artwork and the campaign in general to get the message across.
Music isn’t just about the piece of music but the entire culture around a release. One doesn’t exist without the other.
Do you have any experiences of your own with AI curated content, from playlists to “weekly track recommendations” etc? How do these stack up to traditional samplers and compilations?
I think they are very clever. I use Spotify personally and the Release Radar and Discover Weekly are really great and powerful tools. As I mentioned earlier compiling and curation is a lot about discovery and these AI lists are aiding that. And if these lists provide me an artist I’ve never heard of but the music is great, then what’s not to love.
I liken it more to a record shop where you would go in and the guy behind a counter would recommend some music based on what he knows you like. In those days you may buy one or two of those records, now we have thousands of tracks at our finger tips and we may pull one or two into our playlist.
We actually need more help than ever in guidance for new music and new artists. The downside of AI is it can give you a tunnel vision that keeps giving you more of what you like and you never break into new sounds or artists. I believe if you are into music it’s important to search. And each week I spend hours searching out new music.
I think there’s still a place for both weekly recommendations and compilations as they come from different places. A compilation is from that curator providing a picture of what they recommend. A weekly generated list is based on what you like, being fed back to you. I think there is room for both.
How are human and AI / statistically generated content different? What can humans do in terms of curating that machines and algorithms may not?
I would say the obvious thing is human provide emotion and context. We could see robots DJing. But we don’t, because while they may do a good job it’s probably so good it’s boring. The emotion is that the sun is going down at that moment and a track makes sense the DJ plays, is what AI can’t do (or not yet anyway).
Humans can champion a record like what happens with radio and I believe that’s important. Music and emotion are intensely linked and I think we are some way from the two being the same, it just compliments for me AI and humans.
You will always need people though. Recognising talent, it’s not just about sound it’s about being an artist and there’s a big human connection that comes with being an artists and not just soundwaves.
One thing I do appreciate about machine recommendations in music is that they can sometimes be less dogmatic. They look at what people listen to, which isn't always very obvious. If someone asks you for a recommendation based on one piece of music, how would you come up with suggestions, would you say?
Maybe machines look at the user and base it off that learning. but a human would also do the same, like a DJ you look at the dancefloor and you have to make a judgement on the crowd. You may play different tracks at Berlin at 3am Sunday morning to a big stage at a festival on a Saturday afternoon in Essex for example. So it’s about context.
But I would like to think if you are being asked for a recommendation they are looking for some ‘taste’ also, because they trust you to provide something they may not know or you may have heard before them.
I think it’s really interesting about the eco system of music and you have DJs, presenters or curators that obviously listen and consume far more than the average person so it makes sense that they recommend music based on their judgement or expertise. Machines can do the same but for me with less personality.
Personally, what I really like about compilations is that they fix a particular moment in time. It's both an overview of what someone thought was worthwhile and representative of that time and a statement of taste. In terms of “future disco”, what is your personal assessment of this moment in time right now and what music may survive beyond the super short lifecycles of most people's attention?
It’s a good question and it’s how I definitely feel about compilations and that it represents a moment in time. I see those albums are trying to select some timeless music. I try my best to find tracks that become timeless in a Future Disco sense and my aim is always that I can listen back to the albums in ten or twenty years time and the music still sounds good and remember why I picked that certain track.
Right now, there’s lots of brilliant music around and also a lot of not-so-great music. For me timeless music is when it breaks new ground, not just a rehash of an old track but something that genuinely sounds fresh.
That’s my eternal holy grail and what keeps me interested every day, trying to find the future of disco. It’s for others to judge if I’m achieving that or not.