THE SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE
The story of the independent record label in opposition to the majors isn’t necessarily the story of capitalism versus socialism. It is, instead, the story of capitalism versus intimacy, family, and the potential for iconicity, and the ability to inspire obsession and devotion in the collector and follower.
But where to start on what is potentially an epic story of the spirit of independence? The ideal place to start may be with two specific records. Two very different sounding records, with similar stories behind them ”â the Buzzcocks “Spiral Scratch”Â and The Normal’s “TVOD/ Warm Leatherette.”Â
Both of these record were released in the nineteen seventies. James Callaghan had come to power in May 1976 and in choosing cabinet members such as Anthony Crossland, who wrote pro-capitalist polemics, he was quickly removing the Labour Party away from everything that it originally stood for. The music industry was just another part of the business mentality, which further enhances the status of these two records. So fraught were capitalist issues with the major record labels that when Daniel Miller (under the pseudonym The Normal) created his debut record, he turned down all major record label offers. The record had come into fruition when, after reading a Melody Maker feature on how easy it was to make a record, Miller had bought a second-hand KORG synthesizer for ÃÂ£150 before working overtime at his film-editing job until he could afford a four-track mini-studio. In the solitude of his North London bedroom, he created “TVOD/ Warm Leatherette.”Â “TVOD”Â is a groundbreaking piece of work, with its repetitive, fast electronic beat and lyrics of “I don’t need a TV screen/ I just stick the aerial under my skin/ and let the signal flow through my veins,”Â prophetic of our intimate relationship with technology.
However, it was the B-side, “Warm Leatherette”Â which was seized on by the clubs and truly bought The Normal to wider attention. If “TVOD”Â sounded groundbreaking, it sounded almost conventional in comparison to “Warm Leatherette.”Â The feel of this record is perfectly summarised by Simon Reynolds in his book “Rip It Up and Start Again”Â- “all harsh stabs of analogue ”âsynth distortion and dispassionately perverse lyrics .”Â The theme of those lyrics is the eroticism is car crashes, directly influenced by JG Ballard’s brilliant novel “Crash.”Â Some find his starkly delivered lyrics uncomfortable (“the handbrake penetrates your thigh/ quick, lets make love before we die”Â) although in 2010 he told the BBC4 documentary “Synth Britannia”Â that, “There’s humour in it, I hadn’t intended to make anything disturbing.”Â But all the same, this seemed to lack any commercial viability. Miller was taking a further gamble by not approaching a major label, something which he never even contemplated. He told the NME in 1981 that “I’d never thought of approaching a major label. I didn’t like them because they’d ruined quite a few of my favourite bands ”â like Virgin had with Faust, Can, and Klaus Schultze.”Â However, the record was a surprise hit, selling 30, 000 copies, and Miller was now quite accidentally CEO of his own record label, Mute, the record having been put out with the catalogue number MUTE 01.
We shall return to this shortly, after going back a year and looking at the other “key record”Â of the DIY movement, the Buzzcocks aforementioned “Spiral Scratch.”Â This is a hugely important moment; the first self-released punk record (and only the third punk record to be released in the UK, having been preceded by the Damned’s “A New Rose”Â and the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK.”Â “Spiral Scratch”Â had been an almost slapdash affair ”â singer Pete Shelley says that it took just three hours to record the tracks. The lack of record label support meant that the band had to borrow ÃÂ£500 from their friends and families to pay for the records production and manufacture. When the record was released on 29th January 1977, it was done so under the name the band gave to what they had created as their “own label”Â, (much like Daniel Miller and Mute) New Hormones. The record was another surprise success, quickly selling out its initial print run of 1,000 and eventually breaking the Top 30.
Of course, the iconic content of the record also helps ”â the EP’s best known track “Boredom”Â in particular, is an iconic slice of musical minimalism and lyrical wryness. But the influence of “Spiral Scratch”Â actually goes significantly beyond content. The DIY idealism was all part of punk, but were other punk bands had merely shown thay anybody could be in a band, the Buzzcocks had proved that anybody could release a record, regardless of whether they had a record label backing or not. The Buzzcocks Manchester location means that the record is also often seen as a “regionalist blow,”Â to the London-centric music industry, and in its wake a whole crop of independent labels began to appear in both Manchester and its neighbouring Liverpool (the most notable being Factory in Manchester, established by Tony Wilson and signing Joy Division, the Durutti Column and A Certain Ration, and Zoo in Liverpool, established by artist and musician Bill Drummond and industry figure David Balfe and signing Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes and the Mighty Wah!, bands who all linked together as part of a definite scene.
It is not mere speculation to view “Spiral Scratch”Â as the direct inspiration for many small labels ”â many directly cited the record, and it is surely no coincidence how many appeared in 1977. Bob Last founded the Fast Product record label in Edinburgh immediately after the release of “Spiral Scratch,”Â saying that “I had absolutely no idea there’d been a history of independent record labels before that. Spiral Scratch just turned my head around.”Â
As well as internal influence within the music business, “Spiral Scratch”Â is a key record within the study of music as material culture. Simon Reynolds points out that “people were buying Spiral Scratch ”Â¦for the sheer fact of its existence, its existence as a cultural landmark and portent of revolution .”Â And they still are ”â a coveted collectors item, copies of “Spiral Scratch”Â are now worth forty pounds.
Before we return to both New Hormones and Mute in order to follow their remarkable stories, there is something else which we cannot afford to ignore ”â the role of the distributor. Independent record stores in Manchester were part of the success of Spiral Scratch, but other key figures were the distributor for both “Spiral Scratch”Â and “TVOD/ Warm Leatherette,”Â the iconic home of Do It Yourself, the London record store Rough Trade. These days, the name Rough Trade is associated with its own record label status (it is almost the indie National Treasure of record labels) but it did not start actually operating as record label until 1978, operating solely as a record store (and mecca for musical DIY enthusiasts), set up by Geoff Travis to sell vinyl he had collected all over the world. It is difficult to imagine the story of the independent record label without Rough Trade.
The 1970’s as a whole would become a productive time in general for exciting “niche”Â labels in Britain. The role of family and friends in terms of financial support was another key; as with “Spiral Scratch”Â and other record labels such as Stiff, which was started with a ÃÂ£400 loan from Dr. Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux, by Andrew Jakeman (renamed as Jake Riviera) and Dave Robinson. Like Mute and New Hormones, Stiff had managed to create surprisingly swift success; its first release on August 14th 1976 ”â Nick Lowe’s “So It Goes ”Â – had sold 10,000 copies. Rather than having the expected STIFF1 catalogue number, it had the more potent catalogue number BUY1. Witty marketing ”â particularly their humorous slogans, was what marked Stiff out from the rest of the labels around. In a way, it had also gone some way to opening the door for the Buzzcocks to release “Spiral Scratch”Â; at least in terms of musical context. Punk was an important live scene but as it continued it seemed potentially doomed to never commit itself to the material world, as the music in physical, material form was taking an extensively long time to materialise from the scene. It was a Stiff release that changed all this , in August 1976 ”â the Damned’s raw and feral classic, “A New Rose”Â, the first single to be marketed in the UK as punk. Whilst the Sex Pistols signed to EMI and the Clash to CBS, it was this small independent label that was truly ahead, and certainly seemed a more ideal home for such music to thrive ”â they worked at a rapid rate which fit the speedy ascendance of the scene. (Jake Riveria approached the Damned for the first time. at Mont De Marson festival and ensured they were in the studio the following week.)
However, Robinson and Riveria were already industry entrepreneurs. Some of the other independent labels we have talked about were run by people who simply used the force of being interesting characters, rather than business people. This gave the labels in question a greater sense of freedom. Fast Product and Factory, in particular lent a sense of Situationist playfulness to the independent label movement ,the inspiration for it all, Mute and New Hormones, had reached unexpected new heights. When “TVOD/Warm Leatherette”Â was released, people thought that Mute was a “proper”Â record label, specialising in the kind of weird electropop that Daniel Miller himself had created. As “TVOD/ Warm Leatherette”Â had Miller’s home address printed on the back, within a week of its release, a wide selection of demo tapes began to arrive through Miller’s letterbox. “Fad Gadget was the first one I liked enough to want to put out,”Â he recalls, “before I knew it , I was running a record company ”â working from home, with no staff or anything like that, but a record company nonetheless.”Â Miller had never set out to achieve this ”â it had had happened that easily. (Mute would grow to incredible proportions throughout the eighties when Miller signed and produced commercially successful acts such as Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure.)
New Hormones development was less accidental. The success of the Buzzcocks meant that they moved to a bigger label, United Artists, whereas the manager Richard Boon actively decided to continue New Hormones as a label. New Hormones second release, however, was not a record but a book created by Jon Savage and Linder Sterling ”â a gamble, and the kind not likely to be found within the confines of a major label .After this point, though, New Hormones began to thrive as it received more promising demos. Richard Boon says “people started getting in touch. A group from Newcastle called Penetration called and I said “you put us on in Newcastle and I’ll put you in Manchester. It was grassroots networking.”Â
In the two years that followed the release of “Spiral Scratch”Â, New Hormones made twenty-five releases from a range of interesting artists. Boon says that “we wanted to work with people who had sympathetic ideas. There were these pockets of enthusiastic people around you, who you had something in common with.”Â He also notes that, “in Manchester it was very important to have a regular venue. That’s were the Russell Club came in.”Â The regular venue, or general location, has played a key part in the history of independent record labels. Later, the Living Room would play the same role for Creation, and Factory would establish the Hacienda, one of the most iconic nightclubs of all time. Having this kind of link meant that the labels in question can reach into the everyday lives of the buying public who choose to spend their time there. The Hacienda could be the finest example of this. A friend of mine who spent nearly every night there for three years reinforces the role that independent labels can play in the material culture of its fans by now being an obsessive collector of Factory-based memorabilia, with a whole room in her house dedicated to it. For the Rough Trade label, of course, the prime location was (and still is) the Rough Trade shop itself. The original Rough Trade shop was situated in Kensington Park Road, within West London’s Portobello District.
This location was picked for its association with the bohemian community. “I started the shop on the basis that a record shop could be lot more than just a place were you bought records, as though you were going into a chemist”Â said Travis in 1979, “the shop was set up in a way which would encourage people to stay for a while and talk, sit down , with a big table in the middle of the floor, and the shop was stocked with the kind of music that I personally really liked.”Â Rough Trade certainly fulfilled Travis aims there, and as its role within the industry grew then it became apparent over its first influential two years that it was doing the work of a record label in all but name. It was the French band Metal Urbain that pushed Rough Trade to make the progression from shop and distributor to fully fledged label, as Travis recalls: “They came over from Paris one day, the whole group. They gave me a tape of what they’d just recorded, which was “Paris Marquis”Â and said, “can you help us do anything with this?”Â So that was really the moment ”â it was them asking us that made us do it, really. I don’t think we were running a masterplan to run a label. It was a natural thing to do, like, why aren’t we already doing it?”Â
And so “Paris Marquis,”Â became the first official release for Rough Trade records. The label gained further strengths when Geoff Travis’ father lent his son ÃÂ£4000 to cover the startup costs of buying new stocks and equipping the office. It was shrouded in ethics, particularly in terms of the relationship that it had with the bands it signed ”â the most significant element of this being the 50-50 deal. As a continuation of the way the distribution business had worked, the artist would receive equal shares of their profit, after manufacturing, distribution and publication costs had been met. Nobody was expected to sign a binding contract, and deadlines were unheard of. Travis saw this as more psychologically productive as the bands developed as their own speed. Stephen Mallinder (of the Sheffield trio Cabaret Voltaire, signed to Rough Trade) says that “the 50/50 deal was as unheard of then as I’m sure it is now. We weren’t Thatcher’s children, we didn’t have a business plan. The ability to release something had greater value in the pre-digital age.”Â One of the labels key acts, Belfast-based punk band Stiff Little Fingers, even showed their gratitude by writing a song entitles “Rough Trade”Â running , “were gonna do it our way/ We’re gonna make it on our own/ Because we’ve found people to trust/ people who put music first.”Â Stiff Little Fingers first album, the brilliant “Inflammable Material,”Â is a key album for Rough trade and for the story of independence as a whole. Packed with edgy, confrontational anthems such as “Suspect Device”Â and “Alternative Ulster”Â ,perfectly described by Rob Young as “blazing Molotov cocktails lobbed from the frontline of the Anglo-Irish armed struggle.”Â What few could have predicted was that this album would enter the sales chart as number 14. Whilst the idea of small labels having such a success seems more familiar now as labels themselves seem increasingly irrelevant (a notable example being Arctic Monkeys debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”Â selling 353, 577 copies on the independent label Domino) at the time this was unheard of, making “Inflammable Material”Â the highest charting album of all time on an independent label.
Rough Trade would go from strength to strength, as it signed increasingly iconic bands such as The Fall, and most significantly in 1982, the band that would go on to define the music of the eighties like no other, The Smiths. In spite of its success as a label, Rough Trade never forgot it’s a original role as a shop and distributor , spawning the iconic 2-Tone label and, in the early eighties, acting as a distributor for two more iconic labels, Creation and Postcard. ( Postcard’s founder Alan Horne actually wanted little to do with Rough Trade, claiming to dislike their “brown rice”Â attitude, but their relationship was necessary to their success.)
Postcard was, like Mute, almost accidental, but in a different way. Nineteen year old Glasgow based Alan Horne had created the label after seeing the band Orange Juice play live, and it had formed slowly around them to create its own scene and sound. Horne exerted enough of himself to create this kind of unified “Postcard sound.”Â Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins says that “all the bands on Postcard were influenced to a certain extent by his taste .”Â Horne’s role was somewhat all-encompassing ”â Collins also says that he “sort of managed all the groups on Postcard. Or liked to think that he did.”Â But what Postcard ended up creating did not reflect the fact that it was largely the product of one mans megalomania. Instead, the groups on it reinforce the idea of independent labels as almost like small families or scenes in themselves, like the aforementioned relationship between bands on the Zoo label in Liverpool or, to some extent, the Factory label in Manchester. Paul Haig, frontman of the band Josef K, even went so far as to describe his musical contemporary Billy Mackenzie (lead singer of the Associates) as his “absolute soulmate.”Â
Postcard brimmed with complicated characters- but the scene and sound created by the label is often classed as single-handedly bringing joy and positivity back to the sounds in alternative music after years of depression and gloom. Once again, an independent label (and another “regionalist blow”Â with its Glasgow base) had moulded the shape of music in a way a major could only dream of. Another important label that Rough Trade acted as an initial distributor for in the early eighties was the successful and iconic Creation records, also with its roots in Scotland. Creation label boss Alan McGee seemingly had an effortless knack for finding the right bands for the right time; the record which really brought Creation to attention was the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Upside Down,”Â a glorious riot of feedback and noise which sold copies.
Many of Creation’s releases sound like the true essence of “indie”Â distilled ”â take for example the twee joy of The Pastels, all innocence in the age of Thatcherite aggression, or the rain-fixated indie Englishness of the Weather Prophets. The label is also responsible for some of the most important albums of the early nineties (witness in particular Primal Screams “Screamadelica”Â and My Bloody Valentines “Loveless”Â) but it would also hit on enormous commercial success when it signed the phenomenally successful Oasis. The label became defined by the band; a point had been reached were it was it was debatable whether Creation could be seen as a “small label”Â anymore.
Which leads us on to the question of what becomes of all these labels in the modern world, the world of downloading, YouTube, television talent shows and vanishing record stores. Is there a happy ending for this mostly inspiring story?
Sadly, most of the labels I discuss here came to somewhat tragic ends, and long before the digital age can be blamed. The conflict facing so many of these small labels seems to be “sell out or cave in,”Â a turn to the “majors”Â for support the only way of avoiding collapse. New Hormones had to turn down bands such as the Smiths, who it would have liked to sign, pointing them in the direction of Rough trade instead, for financial reasons, before collapsing completely. Daniel Miller sold Mute to EMI for ÃÂ£23 million, but had to pay the price of having one in four of its acts dropped. Fast Product also sold off its four major acts ”âThe Mekons, the Human League, the Scars and Gang of Four ”â to major labels before eventually signing its entire back catalogue to EMI, whilst Creation was sold to Sony and still collapsed. David Balfe sold Zoo and created Food Records, most famous for signing Blur, before also signing this off to make considerable gains. Factory boss Anthony H. Wilson maintained his integrity to the end, but this meant the financial death knell for the label, which had spent beyond its means. Stiff sold fifty per cent to Island in 1983, and ironically in this case it was the successful independent which enabled the survival of a struggling major.
I have focused on a few key labels, but there are many more, and a great deal of interesting new ones still appearing. But the cultish status of the small record label, and the scope for its survival, seems more distant.
Independent labels have the same relationship with fans as independent record stores, and these to are vanishing from the landscape. Chain record stores, meanwhile, choose to focus more on digital commodities. The age of downloading has caused a certain level of damage; the collector-status given to independent releases loses its value somewhat when the music is a mere download.
But the spirit of independence will not die without a fight. The issue of high versus low culture which has dogged cultural studies ever since its birth (often traced to Raymond Williams ”ËCulture Is Ordinary”Â, which assured us we did not have to choose between the two of them) becomes almost irrelevant in this debate ”â it is an otherly, counter-culture. But countercultures are to often appropriated by the mainstream. In the case of independent record labels, this has been as much through financial necessity than the usual cultural bandwagon-jumping.
But there are happier conclusions ”â Postcard and Rough Trade also both collapsed under dire financial circumstances, but were successfully resurrected and both still operate and release records. In fact, Rough Trade’s resurrection then saw it go from strength to strength, most significantly in its signing of the Strokes and the Libertines. The Rough Trade shop is still always busy, and for proof of how iconic the label is see its further extension into material culture by the array of products (pens, mugs, even teapots) bearing its logo that it now sells on its website, irresistible to the collector who may want to flaunt their love beyond ownership of the records. Rough Trade have been either the cleverest label or the luckiest when it comes to survival in the current climate and current conditions of general music purchase. Music sales on the whole have dropped drastically in the UK, even with the inclusion of downloads, but it is the download form which is now the most popular. Illegal downloading is widely used ”â another factor in the slow death of independent record labels ”â but the most popular legitimate downloading “tool”Â is iTunes, due to its links with what is by far and away the most popular model of MP3 player, the Ipod. Itunes has a “shop”Â section which includes the “Itunes essentials”Â section, which operates like a standard record shop as the consumer can browse a range of genres and subsections, all clearly labelled. One of these sub-sections is “Rough Trade.”Â
Rough Trade may have often been mocked in the past for their hippie attitude, but they have always had a willingness to progress into modernity and this has help to enable their survival. Earlier this year they also began a foray into book publishing ”â they are more than a record label, they are a fully fledged franchise.
The internets relationship with music may be the main thing changing it, and many would argue that now is actually the perfect time for DIY to accelerate once again. Video sharing websites such as the enormously popular YouTube can bring unknown musicians into public consciousness very easily; but major record labels can quickly see potential in such acts, and they will be the ones who snare them in the end. DIY might be as alive as ever, but its glory period appears somewhat faded.
Speaking on the glory age of DIY independent labels, Daniel Miller summarised the feeling perfectly by saying, “the thing that united us is that none of us knew what we were doing! We were huge music enthusiasts, though, with a strong idea of what we liked and what we wanted. I had no business grounding whatsoever. But all of a sudden you realised that you could have access to this industry that always seemed very mysterious. The record industry went from being pretty closed, which it was even during the first wave of punk, to totally open. And that encouraged a lot of people like me and Tony Wilson ”â not obvious record company people by any means ”â to get involved and make our dreams come true .”Â
And is this era the end of “dreams coming true”Â, of independent labels being a subject of obsession for collectors and music fans? A cynic might say so, but, considering there will always be obsessive alternative music fans, I wouldn’t bet my copy of “TVOD/ Warm Leatherette”Â on it”Â¦
Rip It Up and Start Again: PostPunk 1978-1984 Simon Reynolds Faber and Faber London 2009 (particularly the chapters “Autonomy in the UK ”â Independent labels and the DIY Movement”Â and “Fun and Frenzy ”â Postcard and the Sound of Young Scotland)
An Oral History of Punk John Robb Ebury Press 2006
The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 John Robb Arurum Press 2010
Rough Trade: The Story of the Record Label Rob Young Black Dog Publishing 2009
Rough Trade: An Eyewitness document Neil Taylor Orion 2010
Totally Wired: Post Punk Interviews and Overviews Simon Reynolds Faber And Faber London 2009
Factory: From Joy Division to New Order Mick Middles Virgin 2009
My Magpie Eyes are Hungry For the Prize: The Creation Records Story David Cavanagh Virgin 2001
Sound Moves:Ipod Culture and Urban Experience Micheal Bull Routledge 2011
Organized Disorder: The Changing Space of the Record Shop from “The Clubcultures reader: Readings in popular cultural studies”Â (edited by Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne and Justin O’Connor) Blackwell 1998