IDOL Insights: meet toucan sounds
In the early 2010s, Robert and his brother David played all over the world with their electronic dance band French Horn Rebellion. After a first single selected on Kitsuné’s compilation, they self-released their first album The Infinite Music of French Horn Rebellion. The brothers then decided to put their touring career on the back burner and refocus on Brooklyn where they built a music studio, YouTooCanWoo. They got involved in the indie pop Brooklyn scene, with labels like Neon Gold (St. Lucia, The Knocks) and bands such as MS MR. From there, they started the toucan sounds label in 2017.
Could you tell us about you and toucan sounds in a few words ?
The music studio YouTooCanWoo always had two parts to the business: On one side, we’re writing for ads, film and TV. On the other side, we’re making music with our friends. The studio has an open door policy: musicians are coming in all the time to make music, some pay for the hour, but most of them come to collaborate with me, my brother David, my sister-in-law Deidre, or the internal crew.
With the studio growing, it became clear that we wanted to make a label that resembled what we saw was happening around us in Brooklyn, in our music studios direct vicinity. We wanted to be a community spot where people can come and feel they can be free creatively and so the music has become an expression of the geographic location of the studio.
You recently went through a rebranding. Why did you feel the need to redefine your label?
The studio has a really diverse array of clients: punk rockers as well as Apple consultants, different people with different goals. But a really great label needs a very specific curation, that’s why toucan sounds was created as an offshoot. We tried to think about what we were really good at, and historically French Horn Rebellion has been in the indie dance nu-disco world. So we released things with Yuksek and with Louis La Roche…
We then started going out, going to the clubs, checking out the scene, and listening to what the young people were doing… That’s where we realized that indie dance nu disco does not represent what is happening around us!
We could have decided to do what we knew best, but it’s just not what’s happening in Brooklyn. What we want is to get the most talented people in the area, so we started working with musclecars, who have a weekly residency at Nowadays – the coolest club in Brooklyn, and with Haruka Salt, who’s been a DJ in the city for 15 years. What happened was that it was so much better than the music we were doing, so we continued.
What are the values of your label ? What specific aspects of your projects are you trying to put forward and how ?
The reason we were able to do it is because the studio operates a little differently probably than most studios. There are a lot of family members: my brother obviously who’s the boss, David, and his wife Deidre, and her brother, and then their childhood friend… We are not trying to get the next hit, and try to hustle our way to the top. We’re trying to create a real community.
We are driven by love, honesty, curiosity. These are the reasons why we take certain projects on. You have to ask yourself these hard questions, even though you might not like the answer. And then you realize you have a lot of work to do! But it’s better to do the right thing than to continue doing the wrong thing for short term success.
The reality is that from a label perspective, we’re trying to sell masters but music has always been way beyond that. To have a meaningful impact, the records need to get 100 million streams… So you’re aiming at all these short-term gains for what ultimately isn’t even a whole lot of money at the end of the day. That’s why we need to think long-term.
What are your main strengths (as an independent label) ?
At the studio, there’s a balance between culturally relevant projects and music for TV, film, or video games. Those projects fund the space, and allow it to become a safe space to create music. It’s a cycle.
Ten years ago, it was punk rock to say that corporations suck. Fast forward to now, everybody’s trying to get into licensing, because that’s the only way to sustain creativity. These corporate projects may be difficult… For instance we did the whole score of a video game “Just Cause 4”. It’s a very cool project but it’s also a lot of work. But in the end, we’re doing that to maintain a balanced environment.
It’s been going really well the last couple years and it seems that we’re on a really good trajectory. We got this new studio space, we plan on holding regular events to get people together. The music is really just one element of a much bigger picture. The community is more important than the type of music we’re making : it’s more about nurturing people and helping them blossom.
What differentiates you from other similar labels?
To differentiate, we’re trying to have real musicians in the space. We have amazing performers and players, we can actually do house music with a real jazz guitarist, instead of samples.
But what’s actually been a huge challenge with the label, is that many artists come in thinking their song is catchy so toucan sounds will want to release it. But their music sounds like a thousand other catchy songs. The question we want to ask ourselves is: Why is this music important? It’s like basically unlearning what so many artists have learned over the years.
In the last decade we’ve been in this industry, we’ve seen artists with no listeners suddenly score millions of monthly listeners. The difference is that they found something special about humanity, and they were able to express it in the music. That’s why people get excited about their music and share it with their friends! It’s as simple as that: the most important thing is not whether or not the music is catchy, it’s ultimately something much deeper.
Why do you think Independence Is A Strength?
Being independent allows us to make these decisions about the future of the company. If we were a subsidiary of a major label, there would be expectations on sales. But chasing the next quarter prevents us from really creating culturally important works. For instance, we couldn’t actually have real musicians, because samples are cheaper.
Independence is everything basically. Take Francis Ford Coppola, with Apocalypse Now. That film was able to be created because of the commercial success of The Godfathers. Coppola put that money into his own independent film company to create Apocalypse Now, and the result is one of the greatest films of all time. And the only reason it was possible was because of independence: he didn’t have a movie studio telling him anything about the script or the budget.
It’s not like we’re going to make the next Citizen Kane: it hasn’t happened yet and maybe it’ll never happen but at least we’re trying. We’re trying to create an environment where something like that might happen.
I mean… how many more superhero movies do we need? They’re really fun, but they are kind of all the same.