Clone Records and Serge's New Beginnings

"We are closed!" someone calls to me while I’m walking through the open door of the shop. I am in Rotterdam visiting the new store of Clone Records, underneath the old Hofplein station in one of the Hofbogens [a new urban project in monumental arcs in Rotterdam, ed.). Owner Serge Verschuur is still in the middle of moving. To the right, behind the counter, someone is putting a drill to a wall, to the left employees are lugging with boxes full of vinyl. "Sorry, I completely forgot that you would come by. Do you want a cup of tea?"

Once in the store, I walk through a hallway to the side of the arc, towards the back of the store. I choose coffee and not much later a warm cup of Senseo is standing in front of me. I pass some bookcases, at least 25m long, full of vinyl. The storage must have some 30.000 records. "Even though I didn’t count them", Verschuur responds when I ask him how many records he had to move. We sit down in his office and he continues: "This morning I rubbed my whole back with Tiger balm to loosen up my muscles. We have been moving the whole weekend. Especially the boys, I did the least actually. I suffer from a bad back", he laughs.

Acouple of days before our interview Clone moved after almost twenty years in the centre of Rotterdam, to the Raampoortstraat, just crawling distance from the newly renovated city central station. The whole neighbourhood around the station is being renovated, just like Verschuur’s new spot. "This used to be a really bad neighbourhood, but the city council completely fixed that. The other day a homeless guy was doing ‘chinezen’ here. Do you know what that is? I didn’t know they were still doing that. Chinezen. (Chinezen is a way of inhaling cocaine or heroine through a straw so as to avoid the use of needles, ed.)" Verschuur is a very down to earth guy. A man that is in all his honesty fascinated by the things that happen around him. "It’s part of me to analyse things. I just like doing that."

For how long have you been eyeing up this place?
About four years. I didn’t really feel the need to expand, it was more that I was looking for change. We have had the store for almost twenty years and at some point you start to want something else. In the old distribution office we were with seven people. Sometimes even ten people on forty square meters. That also included the stock. So we improved a lot: here we almost have three hundred square meters. We have the space for all our stuff and it’s easier to process the postal orders. We sell more postal orders than we physically sell in the store and that just needed more space.

Has the revival of the vinyl market given you a new impulse?
I don’t know. The vinyl sales per record are getting lower and lower. So yes, the market has gotten better. Yes, more records are released and there are more titles, but the sales of every title are actually getting less. If you have a really strong record, you used to sell 20,000 of them. Now that’s been reduced to a couple of thousand. Much more is being released and the production rate of the pressing shops is very high. That’s because the majors are pressing again. All the indie bands, the Stones, Pink Floyd, I think even Lady Gaga: everything is being pressed again. That market had died. Which guitar band released an LP ten years ago? No one. Literally no one. After that the market was only dance. Because so much is being released, it seems a lot, but per title that isn’t actually the case.

Is it a case of the one consuming the other?
I think so. Music is becoming more and more specialized, deeper and deeper into the niche. Now you have all these small labels that do their own releases and sell to a little network of stores. If they’re sold out, they’re sold out. Maybe they will press once more, but usually those limited editions become a cult thing. You can see that more and more small stores are popping up, and that’s a good thing. The only consequence is that the numbers stay low.

So its not per se a good trend for you guys?
I don’t want to judge. It is what it is. Commercially speaking it’s not good. Do the maths: in the nineties you could easily sell three thousand copies of one of your releases. Now you have to do editions of three hundred records, so you have to release ten records to get those sales numbers. That’s ten times the handling, production, mastering, cutting, artwork. Then you supply to these little shops that only order two copies. Two to Greece, five to Germany, two to that other shop in Greece, four to Porto, etc. Local distributors used to exist. You would send two hundred copies to Spain and they worked out the rest. But they have all disappeared, bankrupt. So that results in a lot of extra work. So no, commercially speaking it hasn’t gotten better. Oh well, I guess it means that you just have to work a bit harder.

How many records do you press of the average Clone release?
It’s very difficult to put a number to that. It differs a lot per title. Some titles sell four times the amount of other titles. It doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the music. If an artist is hot at that moment, or is right at that moment being picked up by the public, then his record will sell a lot. If you listen objectively to the music you think: nice record, but why it’s selling that much I don’t know.

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I point to the new release of Mood Hut owner Jack J, that’s lying behind me on top of a box, and make a remark about how it must be selling really good. "That’s a good record and it has the sound of this moment. If he would have released this five years ago, it would have sold a lot less. So strange, those things can’t be planned. Sometimes there are titles that, against all odds, sell out."

Why do you think that happens?
It’s difficult to really explain, but I think that now I kind of understand how it works. I could do a release now and think: it’s gonna sell well. You can plan a great release, but setting a trend is really difficult. But I don’t really want to deal with that now. If you do, you’re only releasing onto the market what people like. I have the character flaw that makes me want to go against that. That’s not always a good thing though. [laughs]

Youre just doing whatever you like?
Well yes. Those Mood Hut guys are a good example. They are doing something at the right time. For a long period there used to be lots of minimal and hard techno. At a certain point people start looking for good house records again, they are in search of some warmth. That search can lead to Jack J. Last year we had a release by Takuya Matsumoto on Clone Royal Oak that did really well. Those aren’t hands-in-the-air-club-tools, but good records that people would like to have on vinyl because they last longer than the hype. I can see that in the sales; especially in dance, people more and more are pursuing quality rather than functionality or hype. This has also been conveyed to the festivals, of which Dekmantel is an excellent example. They just molded their own taste into a festival. That’s just ballsy. And that’s something you need when you’re releasing a record. Quality, that is what I want to sell.

In 2009 Verschuur halted the label temporarily. It didn’t meet the expectations anymore, even though he says that was never a goal anyway. "It couldn’t go on any longer that way. We were too unclear, too diverse in everything we liked." It was the end of the old Clone records and thus started an era full of sublabels: Clone Jack for Daze, Royal Oak, Basement Series, Classic Cuts with the Dopplereffekt and Drexciya rereleases, Aqualung with Der Zyklus and the West Coast Series with Legowelt and Versalife. "If we want to release something and it doesn’t ‘fit’ in the existing labels, we invent a new sublabel."

"I see that DJs are being booked more often because of their reach on social media than because of what they really make"

"Look at my record collection. I have a section of obscure disco, the bookcase next to it is full of electro and techno", he continues. "Many people didn’t see the link between the genres, but that’s starting to change. Luckily quality is becoming more important than the genres or boxes that people use to qualify music. It’s not strange anymore to go from electro to disco or from afro to techno. But to us, that formed a problem for a long time. It wasn’t clear what we were. I wanted to do it differently, to keep liking it myself and to re-qualify everything. More in-depth, more connected to the younger generation. If you’re running a label for a long time, people will get certain expectations. They expect only hits and reputable artists. But that has never been a reason to start the label. I like working with young people, or new people that have potential."

Verschuur mentions the example of Sabre, two young Portugese guys that made his favourite release of the last year. "It’s one of our least sold records. Why? It’s no clubtool and it’s also not one of those house bands that are so popular right now. The band say: 'We aren’t social media heroes. There are many artists that you see everywhere. They network, they hustle, they make new contacts and they promote themselves. These are guys that just make music. They like doing that. That’s it. They don’t have that kind of visibility. They don’t have the ambition for a DJ career. They just want to make nice music. In the end it’s a marketing and hype machine that gets its fuel from social media. You can see who’s really clever in that and who isn’t. A guy like Palms Trax is very productive. He does his thing on the radio in Berlin, is constantly online on Twitter and Facebook, is busy here and there. He released a couple of really nice records and has a lot of success because he is so active online. Other guys aren’t that active, does that mean you shouldn’t release their records? I see that DJs now are being booked more often because of their reach on social media than because of what they really make. There are many good musicians that don’t get the attention they deserve.

"The market distracts from what is really happening. I like analysing and explaining that and then not doing anything with that knowledge"

That will always stay the same.
That will always stay the same, yes. But it also means that there are always many new opportunities. Look at Bicep for example, they blew up so quickly. Is what they are doing now the same as what they became famous for? For a booker they are very interesting. There are many DJs that are really active and ‘good’ online. Musically they do what you can expect. They use tracks that make you go: wow, that’s maybe a bit too easy. But you shouldn’t think about it too much. The market distracts from what is really happening. I like analysing and explaining that and then not doing anything with that knowledge.

In the end it’s the same as selling cars. It’s all about the market, also when we’re talking about DJing. One year you sell a lot of red cars and the next year suddenly everyone wants a grey one. There are many people that see a trend and follow it, and there are people that just don’t care. It’s kind of nice to completely detach yourself from that and to just do your own thing. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Is that the reason why you once started in a small corner of a skate shop and now you have your own Hofboog?
My goal was and is to develop my own taste, independent of everyone else’s. To sell music that I like. All the decisions I’ve made so far, have been made with that in the back of my mind. When Clone became too dependent of others I thought: you know what, I will do the distribution myself. I didn’t know that I would persevere for twenty years. I didn’t look that far in the future, but if someone would have told me everything would go the way it went, I would have done it exactly the same. By the way, that looking into the future-thing is still an issue for me. Maybe in two years everything will be different and this place we’re in now will be empty. That’s possible. But then we will continue happily with something else. Looking back that might be the reason that we are still here and other record stores that were located on the Binnenweg don’t exist anymore. Without criticizing them, but we were always the odd one out.

There were five or six import shops on the Binnenweg. They were all connected to their own part of the local scene. If a genre like that, a trend, ends, a shop gets into trouble. We have never had to adapt, and if you never have to adapt, you only need to keep the shop running and do whatever you’re good at. We have always done that with the littlest resources possible. We’re prepared for the fact that we could be set back to the numbers that we saw at the start of the shop. If you adapt your business to the highs, you will get into trouble when the market falls down again. No one that works here is driving a flashy lease car. It’s working hard for little, but never grumpily, as they say here in Rotterdam [laughs].

So youve never seen really bad times?
There have been times in which I asked myself if we would be able to carry on for ten more years. And did we even want that? It’s a lot of work, and heavy work at that. But these are the questions that everyone asks themselves from time to time. Do you know if this is what you want to do in ten years time? You just follow your heart. There are many different things I could’ve done. This used to be a hobby, it just escalated slightly.

What is the Rotterdam scene like nowadays?
It came to a full stop. I actually think that was a good thing. New people will show up to do new things. It’s a change of the guards, so to say. And it led to good initiatives. Transport, BAR, Bahn now as well. Young people that are doing good things. It’s good for the city, and everything has been done without outside help. We used to have Nighttown, but that was largely paid for by subsidies. The people that are developing things now, are using the weaknesses of the city. The city is changing, buildings are abandoned and those abandoned places are now being used. That’s actually the same as we’re doing here. This used to be a very bad location. It just had to get a fresh start.

What did this neighbourhood look like ten years ago?
It wasn’t a safe place, not something you would send your daughter to. It’s the city council’s job to revitalise places like these. Develop them. Rotterdam invested a lot of money. There used to be some clubs located in the arcs, but those were all pretty seedy places. The city council has given the place some direction. Now there’s Bird, and there’s someone like François Geurds who has more than one Michelin star to his name. And now we’re here as well. We left the centre. Our previous location made moving quite hard: the Binnenweg was the record store street. People would take a stroll on Thursday afternoon and visit all the record stores. If you were looking for the new Jeff Mills or Theo Parrish, you would start at Clone. If you were looking for the new Raresh, you would go to Basic Beat. If Gabber was more of your thing, Midtown would be your place. But with the arrival of the digital world, that walk, that ritual, has disappeared. I wasn’t bound to the Binnenweg anymore, so we left. That feels strange because for years it has been our home, but this new spot is actually feeling really good so far.

What has changed for you guys?
In the old shop, every millimeter was filled, but here everything fits together in one space and we even have the opportunity to expand. There’s more space for more genres and tastes. Every employee has developed their own taste, interest and knowledge and we want to show that in the shop. If you really love music, your taste develops through the years and you’ll discover new things constantly. I once tried to do the maths about how many records I own, and how much time it would cost me to digitalize all of them. The digitalizing alone will cost me more than two years. If you want to listen to everything, it will take you one year, one and a half year maybe of non-stop listening. That’s not possible, right? There are records in my collection that I will never listen to again. I can discover so much new music in my own bookcase that in theory I would never have to buy new music again. But still, you keep on buying, because you keep on discovering new things.

If you can’t show that development you will get stuck. You will alienate yourself from your customers that keeps on discovering new things. That’s why we also sell soundtracks, obscure italo, and funk. You will place yourself on a sidetrack if you don’t. I have a couple of customers that have started their own shop. The Rush Hour guys were the first ones to get their Theo Parrish records here and Tako of Red Light Records used to come by often as well. What Tako is doing is something I wouldn’t be able to do. It’s great. I can only support it. To my mind that is why we have such a broad scene in the Netherlands. 

The people that follow their heart stay relevant?
It’s starting to become a concept: following your taste. It didn’t used to be a fixed recipe. And now that’s the way to work. You shouldn’t think about it too much. The market distracts from what it’s actually about. Otherwise you’re doing marketing and selling concepts. Unless you can get really rich from it, then you can start turning it into a hobby. Maybe that’s a challenge, now that I think of it. Ha, I’ve never looked at it that way, maybe that’s much easier than what I’m doing now. Oh well, this thing is a lot of fun when it’s going well. It’s going well and this is what I wanted to do twenty years ago. Now that I’ve reached that goal, everything extra is a bonus.