London Guardian, July 30, 1980

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London Guardian

UK & Ireland newspapers

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Why it's beautiful to be small


Robin Denselow and Mary Harron

Independent labels are flourishing despite a crisis in the record industry. Robin Denselow explores the reasons while Mary Harron looks at a Manchester success story.

OFFICIALLY, the British record industry is in a state of crisis. Sales are down 30 per cent on last year, and could fall further. John Fruin, chairman of the British Phonographic Institute and managing director of WEA, said he is "structuring the company for a £200 million market, not the £400 million market it has been. And we were hoping for £600 million . . "

The collapse of the record industry may be yet another effect of the recession, but Fruin sees other reasons why it has gone downhill far faster than they anticipated. A multi-national like WEA manufactures the same album in many countries around the world, including several in Europe. Because the pound is so strong and British costs are high, European copies of an album are far cheaper than those made in Britain. So 30 per cent of the records sold in Britain — including those by British bands — are actually imports, according to Fruin. One of the main importers and distributors, Stage One, put the figure at between 50-75 per cent. They say they are helping many small record shops to survive, by providing them with cheap goods, and blame British companies for not being competitive.

Fruin also blames the growing practice of home-taping on cassette recorders, which cost the industry £225 million last year. The BPI is pushing for a levy on blank tapes to off-set this, and the issue is expected to be the subject of a Green Paper later in the summer.

Beyond that, there's what Fruin calls a musical problem " The younger generation," he said, "are buying contemporary music (in which category he includes everything from heavy metal to one of his own best bands, The Pretenders) while adults are only buying " adult " records (Dylan, the Stones, or the middle-of-the-road bands like Fleetwood Mac that made the companies such a fortune during the Seventies). There is no cross-over, in the way that Abba appealed to all age groups. "I don't know what the present generation will be buying when they reach 25."

Yet there are still record labels, distributors and even record stores where it's claimed that business is actually booming — as long as you have an "ear for the street," follow and encourage the rapid twists of musical fashion, and don't rely on the fast-disappearing vast profits from the Seventies' best-sellers.

According to Steve Melhuish, who runs the fast-expanding Bonaparte chain around London "the majors are slow, dull and 18 months behind what is going on. They should have realised what happened in '76 when the music changed." Many of the records that he stocks are by the " indies," the independent labels like Stiff, Rough Trade or Factory, and Melhuish predicts the growth of a massive independent scene.

Rock music has always thrived on a mixture of idealism and anarchy, and the financial problems and corporate politics of the majors has given the "indies" a tremendous boost. They have already built up a sizeable underground market that has never fully registered in official sales figures. Music Week's latest market survey, prepared from statistics from the British Market Research Bureau gives 12.6 per cent of the market to " others" (which includes the independents). But the independents would claim that some of their records now out-sell the majors' hits, though this is rarely reflected in the charts.

Independent labels in Britain are nothing new, of course. A now established company like Chrysalis started in the Sixties with bands like Jethro Tull, and has now moved on to ride the new wave with Blondie and The Specials' 2-Tone label, and to move into property, recording studios, and now a bid for Breakfast Television.

Island Records, opening the way for the reggae boom with Bob Marley, and Virgin, promoting Seventies' alternatives like Mike Oldfield, followed. Both have flourished and diversified (Virgin seem to start a new company every week), but now face problems common to other recording companies.

All of those are now regarded as majors by the "indies," who lend to be prone to internal debates on being "more indie than thou." So there's some disapproval of a company like Beggar's Banquet, who signed a licensing deal with WEA (and helped WEA considerably with Gary Numan's success). Even Stiff Records, the biggest new independent, is frowned on by some of the others because it has a joint sales force with Virgin, and they both let CBS do their distribution.

Otherwise, Stiff typify the successful "indie" spirit. The company operates from the top floor of a warehouse, reached by clambering up above a taxi garage, just north of London's Westway. It's run by Dave Robinson, who in his time has promoted pub-rock shows, managed artists, learned to set up a band's equipment, and after teaching himself how to run a record company is now making his own promotional films of his bands (there's even a Stiff cutting room).

Stiff haven't had to follow the big companies in cutting their staff "because things have always been a struggle for us — we've never relied on money being there like they have." They also claim that they attracted Graham Parker away from Phonogram or won the battle to sign Any Trouble because, as their publicist Nigel Dick puts it, " We're in touch with our artists. we don't go for long lunches and we work very hard."

One of the company's early ploys was to get the then little-known Elvis Costello to busk outside the Dorchester, when CBS were holding their convention there. He carried a sign " Welcome to London. home of Stiff Records." " I think the shock waves have reached them now," says Dick.

Across the other side of Westway, the "truly indie" Rough Trade operate from above their shop in Kensington Park Road. The shop has been going for four years, the record label for two, and turnover is now claimed to be doubling every three months.

"There are similarities between the punk spirit and the hippy spirit," says Rough Trade's Scott Piering, "except the hippies were always too stoned to get it right. We offer bands a non-star trip. We put out things that won't get released elsewhere, anything from pop to dirges. We bring out two albums a month, on sale for a maximum of £3.50, and four to six singles. Because we've got the shop we know exactly what people are interested in. So we don't advertise. We rely on word of mouth recommendations, and we've only scratched the surface of this market."

Rough Trade have their own distribution network, supplying other " indie " shops round the country, who then act as local distributors for their area. They also distribute for other companies like Factory in Manchester. Apart from this network. there are other companies like Spartan and Stage One who will distribute independent products, so it's now much easier for brand new labels to get off the ground.

When this network markets a very popular album it can actually compete with the majors. Factory Records' new album by Joy Division is now officially listed in the BMRB Top 20, but if the figures the independent distributors gave me are correct. it has already out-sold Bob Marley's excellent new album, which, with 63,000 sales, has been in the charts for weeks.

Stage One also showed what the independents could do when they sold 120,000 copies of a Black Sabbath album (on the NEMS label) — and this in a reduced market where some albums have been reaching the Top 20 on less than 15,000 sales.

The independents claim that many of their records sell more than that. Even the anarchist band Crass, making very cheap records for school-children. are said to have sold 40,000 double albums. "No one knows how big the 'indie' market really is," said Scott Piering, "but it's clear that we're expanding while the majors are imploding. And the charts these days give no idea of the real market."


Tags:  The PretendersBob DylanThe Rolling StonesFleetwood MacABBADave RobinsonStiff RecordsBlondieThe SpecialsGraham ParkerCBS

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The Guardian, July 30, 1980


Robin Denselow's report on independent record labels includes Stiff Records, and recalls EC's busking outside the CBS Records convention, July 26, 1977.


EC is namechecked in Mary Harron's report on a Manchester record label.

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