Newport-bound DJ Mark Knight Makes Even a Record Label Look Modern

Mark Knight auditions for the 2009 revival of Max Headroom

House Rules
Mark Knight can make even a record label look modern

The dance-music scene has always been a few years ahead of the rest of the record industry. DJs invented the 12-inch and the maxi single, foreshadowing today’s anti-album movement on iTunes, and they shared bootlegs, promotional copies and mix tapes long before online file sharing challenged the major record labels’ business model.

Today, dance-music acts often give music away in order to promote their club shows—where the real money is. And the commercial mix CD, long a staple moneymaker in dance music, has given way to free DJ-mixed podcasts of other folks’ music. If this is where things are headed, you can probably give the recorded-music business one last kiss goodbye.

Or can you?

Curiously, one of the hottest labels in house music, Toolroom Records, has driven full-bore into the retail mix-CD market at a time when even its founder, DJ Mark Knight, admits its artists have to give away music to stir up business. Strange, but it seems to work: Toolroom is the best-selling label on top online dance-music retailer Beatport, and its Toolroom Knights DJ compilations—from the likes of Benny Benassi (of “Satisfaction” fame), Gabriel & Dresden, and Dirty South—are one of the most prestigious mix series in dance music. Artists such as Deadmau5, Underworld and David Guetta have also recorded for Toolroom. If there’s a juggernaut label in clubland, this is it.

“There’s so much music out there you can get for nothing you have to make a big statement with your output,” says the 36-year-old Knight. “People buy into the whole idea of what we do. It’s part of a lifestyle. We get exclusive tracks, so they stand out.”

Knight is like the Hair Club for Men president, too: He doesn’t just talk about it; he is about it. Along with running the London-based label, the DJ produces music and tours. He compiled and mixed summer’s Toolroom Knights 2.0, and he and British DJ D. Ramirez paired up for a rare collaboration with English duo Underworld. The result, “Downpipe,” was released late last month, but it has already seen plenty of action in global DJ booths as a result of promo copies floating around cyberspace.

“Myself and Dean [D. Ramirez] were in the studio thinking, ‘How [are] we going to take this to the next level?’” Knight says of the track’s genesis. “We need to make a big, stadium-festival record. We need to out-Underworld Underworld! Why don’t we call Karl [Hyde of Underworld] and get them involved? So we wrote the track, sent it across, and Karl said, ‘I love it.’ He put the vocal on, and we spent a couple of days in the studio with Rick [Smith, also of Underworld]—and it just happened. They’ve never collaborated with anyone before.”

He also recently completed a remix of U2’s “Moment of Surrender” that’s due at the end of the month. With a six-times-per-year residency at Hollywood club night Giant at Vanguard, Knight is a West Coast frequent flier, too. He’ll be at Code in Newport Beach to demonstrate Toolroom’s state-of-the-art dance music, which is a little progressive, a little tribal and a little techno. “I have a big responsibility to make sure my music is the best it can possibly be,” he says. “So far so good.”

Indeed. Knight launched Toolroom in 2004 after having been a DJ for five years. At first, it was intended to be an outlet for his own productions, but it quickly became one the world’s top dance labels. Its rise came at a time when other labels and distributors were going out of business by the dozens.

“We married the principles of a good business ethic with a passion for music,” Knight says. “We had the right people doing the right job. And we set out from day one to be the best.”

Though he has brought new life to the old hard-copy mix CD, Knight still finds that he has to give away music, including his own monthly podcasts. “It’s part of the new model of being a DJ,” he says.

Does he have a problem with other people using Toolroom’s music in their podcasts? “Theoretically,” he says, “you should get permission. But as it stands, it’s a bit gray. And that never happens, in all fairness.

“Our stuff is all over, and in some ways it’s good promotion,” Knight continues. “Hopefully, you’ll go out and buy the songs you hear.”

Mark Knight at Giant at Code, 4421 Dolphin Striker Way, Newport Beach, (949) 660-0888; Thurs., Oct. 15, 9 p.m. Free with RSVP; $10 for express entry. 21+.

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