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Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 06:42 pm
(Don't) leave them all behind

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.

39CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)

Pop music is for kids.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jul. 4th, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)

I love pop music. What happen with the page layout? i see it all on the right. Is this normal?
John @Affiliate marketing (http://www.mawerickmoneymaker.com/)


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)

It's hard for a radical to resist the notion that a little more money will help him change the world faster. And if you're the man with the ideas that can change the world, the money will be better used by you than by some 19-yr old jerkoff employee of yours that you've never even met in person.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)

It's either a job, or a hobby.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC)

Wouldn't you love to be Morrissey? Thought so.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 21st, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
thanks!

Thanks for the link Nick. I was a record buyer then, for a small hole in the wall. The choice of music - great music - was amazing. I remember fondly the Slits/Rip Rig and Panic offshoot: the New Age Steppers, where I got turned on to the On-U label, another one that had a great run...


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 03:33 am (UTC)
Rough Trade or Fair Trade?

"The key tension is between two different views of "subversion", an anarchist view of capitalist hierarchy ("milk it!") and a socialist view ("level it!")"
1.) Know any socialist societies that have done away with hierarchy? They not only import it from capitalist societies, they entrench it even further. Anarchists are the real levelers, that's why they can't run a business, which requires bosses and employees. There's no other way to make a profit, even a modest one, because the profit motive is intrinsically counter-revolutionary.
2.) When forced to choose between egalitarianism or money, a Jew will always go with the money.
3.) Pop music is inherently capitalistic, and soul/R&B can never be subversive because it's the soundtrack to the aspirations of the African-American bourgeoisie. Only a bunch of Brit Marxist students (like Scritti Politti) would be stupid enough to think otherwise. It's similar to thinking preach secular humanism can be preached through Rastafarian-contaminated reggae, the soundtrack to the superstitions and ressentiments of Caribbean peasant misogynists and homophobes.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 03:49 am (UTC)
Re: Rough Trade or Fair Trade?

Oh purlease!


ReplyThread Parent

rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 10:00 am (UTC)

I was sitting watching this documentary last weekend, wondering why I found it so fascinating, even moving in parts. I wondered if it was some kind of faux-nostalgia; the most interesting bits of the story all took place before I was a teenager - but they also described the formation of the cultural framework that my 16-year old self lolloped into the middle of in 1987. After all, the first time I came to London by myself, the only reason was to go to Talbot Road, hang around the shop for 3 hours and then go home again.

But I think the reason I felt wistful and a bit sad at the end of it was because, incredibly, I was mourning the idea of paying for music. This isn't me about to start ranting against filesharing or wanting musicians to be rewarded for their work - let's face it, so much money was pissed up the wall by independent labels that precious little of it ever found its way back to the musicians in any case.

Nah, this was mourning the passing of having to fork out for something. The price of recorded music effectively rationed it; I remember being 16 and having a massive list of stuff I desperately wanted to hear, which inevitably meant buying. That trip to the Rough Trade shop saw me come home with 3 albums which I played to death and which shaped my life. My inability to buy everything on that list just made me want it even more. And when an item was ticked off the list, the emotional investment you'd made in getting hold of the bloody thing just made it massively more important.

It's probably not a profound thought that the things you can't quite afford are the things you crave most, but I think it's so fucking fascinating when you consider it in terms of the new and emerging model - i.e. music and words and entertainment for free. I'm becoming slightly obsessed by this idea at the moment; whether reducing the price of entertainment effectively diminishes people's interest in it. I'm not saying that you can't be massively moved by something that's free - I was sobbing watching Dirty Projectors live clips on YouTube yesterday, for chrissakes - but just that the colossal deluge of free stuff inevitably makes it harder for you to feel a yearning to be entertained by it. I'm aware that a) I'm not being very coherent here, and b) that this may sound like a 37 year-old man desperately trying to justify his disinterest in The Young Knives when compared to Sudden Sway, but I'd really love to read an imomus post on this subject. It feels so fucking complex it makes me feel dizzy, so I'm sure Nick Currie can help straighten my head out.

I started playing World of Warcraft back in November - initially for journalistic purposes, and subsequently because the thing was so bloody addictive. I was hoover up hours manouevring this troll around barren landscapes, vanquishing foe, looting bodies, disenchanting the loot, selling the resulting essences, buying spells, food and clothing. But I never managed to accumulate much WoW gold, and getting ahead in the game was continually thwarted by lack of cash, so I continued to battle on. Then one day I found that you could buy WoW gold on a website for real cash. After never having had more than 25g, suddenly I could buy 1000g for 14 quid. So I did. I went back into the game and bought a fuckload of stuff. As much as I could. Brilliant, I thought. But within 2 days, I couldn't really give a shit about the game any more. I can't help seeing some kind of connection with everything I've just been bollocksing on about.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 10:52 am (UTC)

But is it important, Rhodri? I mean, how old are you, late 30's? "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways".


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loveishappiness
loveishappiness
O.H.
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)

Japanese experiments in space

This reminds me of Grapefruit by Yoko Ono. My favourite one is:

8. Folding clothes: In space, can you fold clothes and put them away as you do on Earth? It seems that the shirt sleeves would be difficult to keep in place. What is the best way to fold clothes in space?


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)

You are such a preterist, Momus!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)

There are questions that I still feel need answered. Like, who was giving Morrissey business advice? There was a rumour once that it was his mother.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)

Yes, his mother was very much involved. Travis and Marr seem very much in agreement that The Smiths lost touch with reality because they didn't have a proper manager. One's mother is obviously not really a suitable manager, no matter how much trust she inspires.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
RT

Sudden Sway's packaging may have been overambitious, but their music didn't suffer when they left Warners to do 76 Kids Forever on Rough Trade.

I liked RT but I thought the documentary was unbelievably tedious. It was like a bunch of ex-GLC employees talking about the good old days.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 22nd, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
Re: RT

Well, I know what you mean (ha ha ha!) but I thought it was an excitingly boring combination of the exciting and the boring, as, indeed, are most independent record labels, with the "exciting" maverick and the "boring" bean counter. They're both required, really.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Mar. 23rd, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)

Geoff might have become more canny financially later on, but when I was there, early to mid '77, he was more hustler and evangelist. His conscience was fuelled by frequent lectures by the dreadful Vivienne Goldman - who never had a thought beyond the most basic patronising liberal clichés about gender, class and race - and the money was handled by his dad, who was a mysterious figure in a suit who'd visit every once in a while and talk finances.

The arrival of Richard Scott seemed more to do with getting someone else in who knew about profit and loss and thus give his dad confidence that he was backing a business rather than a rich boy's hobby. The whole thing was more hard-headed than you seem to imply. There was even a visit from the Old Bill to accuse them of selling dubious copies of the first Boomtown Rats album - but even so there was nothing more dodgy than what was happening at Virgin round the corner.

Geoff probably changed later, I didn't have anything to do with them much past late '77, he was, after all, a hippy and full of all the compromises and idiocies that implies, including atrocious tastes in music ... hence Duffy and all the other rubbish he's been promoting over the years.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Mar. 23rd, 2009 11:55 am (UTC)

Interesting! I love it when people give these firsthand accounts. This is what "Anon" was invented for!


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Mon, Mar. 23rd, 2009 10:35 am (UTC)

I have an admission. When the programme started with Duffy, I expected the commentary to say something like:

"This is the state of pop music in contemporary Britain. Safe, predictable, built to sound tired, old-fashioned and nostalgic. But things weren't always like this. One man did more than anyone to give us an alternative to music like Duffy. His name - Geoff Travis..."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Mar. 23rd, 2009 11:59 am (UTC)

Well, I think there was a smidgen of that between the lines, wasn't there? I like to think the slightly sarcastic tone of the narrator had the possibility of dismissing Geoff's post-90s achievements built in. The script is just a little too glib -- perhaps deliberately glib -- when it goes on about the number one single business, and Geoff's smile is just a little forced and bittersweet.

Perhaps I'm reading all that in... But of course Geoff could hardly say a word against his client, Duffy, and nor could the documentary really slag Geoff at this point. All they can do is add a hint of sarcasm.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Mar. 23rd, 2009 10:27 pm (UTC)
Great documentary...

Fantastic documentary - well worth the hours it took to download...

Not sure Travis discovered The Smiths exactly - more like being tugged on the sleeve in the right place at the right time...

Did you enjoy the DSS cd?

Ian M.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Mar. 24th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)
Re: Great documentary...

I did indeed, thanks for sending it, Ian! I knew a lot of the songs already from David Shane Smith's MySpace page, but it's great to have the CD. Hope he's doing well!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Mar. 24th, 2009 04:06 am (UTC)

Notting Hill Babylon has some good insights into the period.


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