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March 21st, 2009
Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 06:42 pm

A potted history of every UK independent label ever: there's a flamboyant hustler guy who spends all day making deals on the phone, and a quiet boring guy who stays in the back office, shuffling paper, balancing the books, tapping at a calculator. The hustler guy aspires to be as big a pop star as the artists he handles, but never quite gets there, though he outlives and outearns them. The boring guy keeps the business afloat, but starts to develop issues about being undervalued and overlooked.



Do It Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade (BBC 4) tells a version of this story in which the hustler / accountant pairing is joined by a third element, the shop guys. A sharp, cool Cambridge graduate with a jewfro, Geoff Travis, is the hustler. He's also an idealist, though, inspired by the City Lights bookstore and the kibbutz movement. His distribution partner Richard Scott, a quiet hippy with glasses and a moustache who'd once managed reggae band Third World, is the bean counter, but a radical one. They're soon openly at war with one another. Meanwhile, the Rough Trade shop, started in West London in 1976 after Travis bought a heap of vinyl on a trip to America, soon shores off into a separate entity run by its staff, notably mild, kind Pete Donne.



The Rough Trade story excites me because it shows the "golden age of indie" with all its tensions -- between lucre and ethics, between artists and companies, between egalitarianism and the star system -- clearly delineated. It also excites me because I've glimpsed bits of it at first hand. In 1981, with members of my band The Happy Family, I visited the Rough Trade warehouse on Blenheim Crescent (next to the radical listings magazine City Limits) and got the treatment described by so many artists in this documentary. Geoff would play your demo over the PA, gage reactions, make a snap judgement. "The guitars don't sound committed enough," he told us. And he was right; within weeks our guitarist Malcolm Ross had left to join first Aztec Camera (a Rough Trade band at the time, though later signed to a major) and then Orange Juice. I remember the ambitious sound of The Fire Engines' Candy Skin ringing round the warehouse during our visit, and sounding much stronger than the stuff we were doing. Later in the 80s I dated a Rough Trade employee, and heard about the label's troubles through her. They mostly involved the disastrous split between the label and the distribution company.



At first, Scott and Travis saw eye to eye, and the record label and distribution company worked well together. Travis had a Marxist egalitarianism -- everyone at Rough Trade got paid the same wage, £7800 -- and Scott had a healthy attitude of mistrust towards what his reggae bands liked to call "Babylon". But soon cracks began to appear. Geoff and Richard drifted apart. They began to have different visions of what an independent label should do and be, and it's the definitions of "what went wrong" from various players (Mayo Thompson, amongst others) that make for the most interesting, tense parts of the documentary.

In the early 80s there was much talk of "bright yellow pop" and "subversive" infiltration of the charts. Pere Ubu's David Thomas pins the self-delusion this entailed: "There began to be these discussions around the office, that we could disguise the socialist political agenda and make it pop, so that kids will sing along and it'll get into the charts and on Top of the Pops. There began to be this question of whether it would sell or not, which had never been their motive before." Soon Geoff revoked the equal pay deal with his staff, although he still kept his pioneering 50/50 profit split deal with artists; that became the norm for indie labels, and a fantastic boon. In 1983 he discovered The Smiths.



The key tension is between two different views of "subversion", an anarchist view of capitalist hierarchy ("milk it!") and a socialist view ("level it!"), between ambition and equality. Mayo Thompson says that Geoff one day told him that Morrissey was primed to become "the next Boy George", prompting Mayo to wonder if that was really what the Rough Trade "alternative" had been all about. Green Gartside of Scritti Politti also emerges as a problematical figure for some within the label -- his single The Sweetest Girl cost Rough Trade a whopping £60,000 to record (which is weird, because it's mostly a cheap drum machine and an organ) and only got to 64 in the mainstream charts, failing to recoup the grandiose investment or justify the massive pre-release hype. Scott now calls it "the first evidence of a sort of cancer, of trying to compete in a music industry when we were actually doing all right by being outside of it". Green subsequently signed to Virgin and WEA. His narcissism is all the more strongly etched out due to the contrast between Scritti Politti's early, scratchy Marxist "messthetics" and their later polished session musician style, between radical squat politics and the robotic "sweetness" of their shiny pop sound.



I like both early and late Scritti Politti, so I'm a bit torn. I shared Green's ambition in the 80s, or Morrissey's, for that matter (the Smiths, it turns out, couldn't wait to sign to EMI, though in the end Morrissey grabbed the contract for himself). You made your mark on an indie label, then you signed to a major and went collosal -- that was how it worked then. When I started talking to Mike Alway, in about 1983, about signing with him, he'd actually left Cherry Red (taking half the indie label's roster with him) and set up a transitional "indie major" called Blanco e Negro, a facility with WEA comprising himself, Geoff Travis and journalist Dave McCullough. In my first talks with Alway, the plan was that I'd sign to WEA through Blanco. Mike was later ejected (due to the expensive eccentricities of his signings Sudden Sway, I believe) and I decided to follow him to his new indie label él, which aligned itself with Crepuscule in Brussels (where my first EP was recorded) and later Cherry Red. We were back to indie, but by necessity, not choice.



In retrospect, I believe very much in the indie ethic: no greed, no stars, long duration careers rather than "going for it" and "selling out". But of course it's impossible, when you're deep in the fray and there are huge prizes for "winners", not to want to try for a ride on the capitalist Big Dipper. Even the most right-on Marxist -- like Geoff -- could see the appeal. But this is where the "boring" guys come into their own. Richard Scott, with Rough Trade distribution, was able to build up a network a bit like the internet, a point-to-point system which began with mail order and evolved into a regional "cartel" of labels, record shops, bands. Like the internet, this cartel was designed to route around bottlenecks, gatekeepers, boringness, conservatism and unjust exclusion, to circumvent the evils of ego, ambition, and greed. To make a new alternative scene, not a few big stars who aspired to get into established institutions. And in fact Scott won the tussle with Travis; by the end of the 80s, 90% of Rough Trade's revenues were coming through the distribution company.

Geoff's ambition made him embrace a machinery that finally ousted him: radio pluggers, sales forces, sales teams, records seen as "units", targets, deals with supermarkets, polished, expensive production, big advances, external consultants, redundancies, selling off unprofitable parts of the business, licensing deals with foreign labels, a big new HQ at King's Cross, a staff of a hundred, a board. Travis stopped turning up to meetings; nobody listened to what he said anyway. By 1991 -- ironically, at a time when independent music had never been more "major" -- it was all over.

What we now call the postpunk period -- a culture whose incredible vibrancy drew me into making music -- was a diverse, exciting, florid creative ferment that had Rough Trade distribution as its backbone. They handled Factory, Postcard, Y Records, Fast Product, Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records, and hundreds of other labels. Up at Broadcasting House, Peel played this stuff to the nation. Four weekly music publications (NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror) existed to sift and judge the output. "For a brief moment in time," says Rough Trader Steve Montgomery, "we encapsulated everything that was right about the human race". Do It Yourself captures that moment. You have just ten hours left to watch it on the BBC iPlayer. If you're outside the UK, and lucky, it may still be available here.

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