The other day I read the news that apparently Sainsbury's, the well-loved supermarket chain, is about to start a record label. That probably says more about the state of modern music than anything else.
In the 70's the business was clearly defined, we were now open to the idea that rock music was art, also in the case of many artists from Carole King to Led Zeppelin it was highly profitable. Bear in mind that records were quite expensive, in my first Saturday job I was paid 30p an hour, an LP would cost £1.99. Buying a record was still a major event.
And so the holy grail of any band was to make a record, preferably, if you had designs on being an artist that would be an LP. The route to this was clearly defined, you went out and played gigs. The idea was that eventually you would create a "buzz" which would attract record company to you. A&R men (it was always men) used to go out to gigs most night of the weeks looking for the next big thing.
There were two things that the band could do to increase their chances. The first was if a journalist reviewed you for one of the big music papers. There was an increased chance that this would happen because the papers did actually have people in the provinces who might offer a one off review. Everyone was looking for the next big thing, there was a will and desire to make it happen. A review in a national paper could jumpstart a bands career. The other thing a band could do was to play London. This was a necessity at some point, it would take an awful lot for an A&R man to get in his ford Capri and drive up to Doncaster on a Wednesday night. On the other hand he might go to the Nashville Rooms or Dingwalls in London just for the hell of it, if a great band was on that was a bonus.
There was a lot of gatekeeping here, in order to get to the promised land the artist hand to form a band and then keep that band going for possibly years, playing a variety of shitholes until, hopefully someone of influence took interest. The positive effect of this was that by the time anyone got signed they were tried and tested and almost certainly had enough material for the first album. Hopefully by building up a initial fan base when this album actually appeared there were plenty of people wanting to buy it.
I actually like this model, it's too easy to make music these days, and anyone with a computer can record an album. No one makes bad records anymore, it's almost impossible, there is no need to even employ any other musicians with their faults and peculiarities, there are loops and samples and effects and endless digital options. The resulting product is bland and shiny and dull but because it sounds like a professional product it somehow deceives us into thinking it's actually good. 70's records are full of warts, I noticed there is a drum fluff on Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." That was a number one classic single, no one cared, it was made by living breathing people and it's great.
Due to the fact that recording was so expensive in the 70's there would always be producer on hand .Today producers are more important than the music. Their job it often to take a recorded project away to a studio somewhere and work their magic on it. The old style producers were an extension of the band. Their job was to coax great performances, point out the guitarist's backing vocals were out of tune, persuade the drummer to stay in time, point out the chorus wasn't catchy enough or to stick the vocals through a leslie speaker or 1001 other creative tasks. A good producer was a fresh pair of ears who could make a good band great.
All this meant that that a high proportion of records had something to offer there was a lot of quality control at work.
Record companies were magical places, they had made enough of the right decisions to make some huge amounts of money and gaining entry to the record company was a bit like being invited to the Playboy Mansion. It was all an illusion of course, even Johnny Cash got dropped by his label eventually but it was fun while it lasted.
By the mid 70's however things were changing. It was so hard to get signed that a few hardy souls were looking at other ways to get their music out there.
Enter the Independent record label.
There had always been independents but by their very nature they struggled to thrive. DJ John Peel started his own label Dandelion in the early 70's to put out music by uncommercial artists Bridget St John and Stackwaddy (he also recorded Gene Vincent). Peel soon discovered that love and enthusiasm alone was not enough, it didn't help that the music could be somewhat challenging to say the least but there was always the problems of marketing and distribution that the majors excelled at.The odds were stacked heavily again the independent label.
In 1976 something quite remarkable happened, a record label formed that for a brief period was a major player both artistically and commercially. Legend has it that Stiff Records was formed with the aid of a donation from Dr. Feelgood's Lee Brilleaux. It is also reported that Brilleaux's cheque was, in fact, never cashed and was even framed and hung in the label's office. Whatever the case it gives a clue to the origins of the enterprise.
Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera were two beery pub rock men who had been movers and shakers around the London scene since the beginning of the decade.
Robinson was a promoter and Rivera had been manager of Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers who had toured with Dr. Feelgood. Along with Rivera came his mate, the wonderfully named Barney Bubbles who was to have artistic control over the design work.
Stiff had it all, they were well connected with the capital's more alternative music industry. Bubbles produced art work that was iconic. There was a knowing sense of humour at play, stiff is the record company's term for a flop. The label announced itself as "the world's most flexible record label." Other slogans were to follow including the legendary "if it aint stiff it aint worth a fuck." The japes continued with messages scratched around the inner groove of the vinyl e.g. "three chord trick Yeah." This was the work of one Porky Peckham responsible for cutting the actual records.
Robinson and Riviera were as fanatic and obsessive as their drinking regimes would allow. The the initial releases were sold mail order but soon distribution deals kicked in and it was possible to own their product as long as you knew a local hip record store in your town.
For a period of a year or so a release on Stiff was an exciting experience, for a short period they specialised in recording fantastically talented individuals who were previously unknown. Backing up the music was a fully realised product, the packaging was almost as good as the music contained within.
The glory months never even became a glory year. Rivera left before the end of 1977 and, almost inevitably things became less exciting.
In part two I will look at the first releases before things got really good... stay tuned.