In the Fifties, when rock 'n' roll was young and vital, it was a simple operation to start a record label, and in the States small independent companies flourished. Most went bust but a few, like Atlantic, survived to become majors in their own right.
In Britain today there are several indies. Inevitably they exist on the breadline, but their continued survival and, in isolated cases, expanding horizons, are strong evidence that they are supplying a very necessary alternative to the giant combines which dominate (some would say strangulate) the British music scene.
Last week came news of an exciting new label which, unlike other London-based indies of comparable size and intent, does not yet have a distribution deal with a national record company and is doing very well without one.
Charles Gillett's Oval Records are distributed by Virgin, Ted Carroll's Chiswick by President, but Stiff Records are distributed by Andrew Jakeman (usually referred to as Jake) direct to shops in bulk or to individuals via the good offices of Her Majesty's mail.
Stiff Records was started by Jake with David Robinson, late of the Hope & Anchor and now manager of Graham Parker & The Rumour, with backing from Lee Brilleaux, lead singer of Dr Feelgood.
Jake, who used to manage Chills Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and currently divides his time between managing the career of ex-Brinsley Schwarz bassist/vocalist Nick Lowe, tour managing for Dr Feelgood on a freelance basis, managing the West Coast band Clover, and running Stiff Records, is, as that list of current activities indicates, running on high-proof adrenalin.
The record company's offices are in W2 and consist of one room with two desks, two filing cabinets, a large wardrobe masquerading as an extra filing cabinet, three chairs, four telephones and a secretary who, were it not for her placid nature, would no doubt soon he reduced to jelly.
"I've always wanted to be an A & R man," says Jake. "Unfortunately it's a position most people achieve in this industry only upon death." (He has a dry wit).
Jake had seen Gillett and Carroll start their own labels and not go mad as a result, and, with the rise of the Rock On and Virgin record store chains an indie label became a viable proposition.
Jake believes that between the groups playing pubs and garages and the double-page launch of an album there is a wide gulf, which has increased with pub-rock. With Stiff, Jake hopes to provide a stepping-stone.
"The germ of it was an abortive project with Spick Ace & The Blue Sharks, which was the Feelgoods, Nick Lowe and Martin Stone (ex Chilli Willi, now Pink Fairies) which toured Holland. After the Feelgoods tour last year they just wanted to play without the pressure.
"We were gonna do, for Skydog Records, a Spick Ace & The Blue Sharks EP, which never worked out because of contractual hassles."
So the project was aborted. While Jake was on the Feelgoods' second American tour he decided to start the label on his return to "keep myself occupied" and, when he combined with Robinson to manage the Rumour, he suddenly got access to Dave's legendary Hope & Anchor tapes, which included the very earliest (and quite possibly best) work by Ace, the Feelgoods, unreleased Brinsley Schwarz, vintage Chilli Willi, Kokomo, the Kilburns, Charlie & The Wide Boys, Bontemps Routez and Ducks Deluxe.
From the tapes Jake is compiling a pub-rock album of what should be remarkable quality and no small historic interest as a document of a special time.
"A lot of these are the demo tapes that the bands got their record deals with." Singles by old groups will come out on a Stiff subsidiary, Stiff Groove-diggers.
Nick Lowe, writing prolifically, suggested to his manager that he should cut a record for the label while a deal with a larger company was being negotiated.
"So It Goes" / "Heart Of The City" (BUY 1) is the label's debut, produced by Lowe with "Jake Riviera" who, with "Vinyl Mogul," Stiff's press officer, bears a marked similarity to Mr Jakeman (he has a penchant for inventing pseudonyms).
Jake had previous experience of how a small company works when he joined Revelation. Unfortunately, he says, the label was then in decline.
"I learned quite a bit about distribution. It was enough to whet my appetite," and, although the label was "already on its way to the liquidator," they'd managed to sell 15,000 triple albums of Glastonbury Fayre, which paid for that event.
"So many record companies in America just started with people selling records out of the back of their car. I mean, anybody can start a record company if... if they've got Lee Brilleaux to back 'em."
Shops, he says, are once again hip to taking stocks of records from the back of the label-owner's car. "I mean, W. H. Smith and Boots don't want to know about Stiff Records, and Stiff doesn't really want to know about them, so that's fine.
"They ain't gonna break anything new, but Virgin are, and they're a large chain and they take the records."
He also uses Bizarre Distribution, who alone have sold 1,200 Eddie & The Hot Rods singles on Island, which is also available at "regular" stores.
"I hesitate to use the term 'underground' but... 'alternative', yeah, there is an alternative distribution network setting up."
So far, in five days, Stiff Records have sold 1,200 copies of Nick Lowe's single, which is fast. Some will go to the States. where there's a huge collector's market.
Needless to say, Stiff do not pay large advances. "It's just selling stuff that is three minutes and three chords." A lot of great stuff was made, he adds, without particular attention to recording quality fur its own sake.
"I'm sure nobody ever said of Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'I would've bought it if only there'd been a little less top on the hi-hat'." If it's in the grooves, it's in the grooves."
Take Roogalator, He says, "They have no deal and are scuffling around to make ends meet.
"It's always tragic that by the time the major companies pick up on them, many of the greatest works of a band have passed through their repertoire, and that's the gap Stiff wants to fill.
"I sign people to one-off deals so they're free to go on to major labels, but there is something of their early days, which are often the most interesting days of bands, on record."
To set up Stiff, Jake "sold a lot of things" which, with the money he saved while working for Dr Feelgood, plus contributions from Feelgoods Lee and Wilko, photographer Keith Morris and Nick Lowe, made up the capital. "It's very hard to work out just what it costs to set up a record company."
He gets his records pressed by EMI at their Hayes plant. He has an "arrangement" via UA which doesn't include distribution. When he wants a batch of records, UA act as a go-between with the EMI computer.
So, in fact, UA get EMI's invoice and UA then invoice Stiff.
"So, as they're a large company, by the time they put their invoices through I've sold the records and can afford to pay them." he grins, adding three cheers for UA's understanding about the problems of cash flow.
Once the records are pressed, Jake goes to UA's London offices or to the EMI facctory in Hayes, loads them into the car, and drives off around the record stores or mails off to postal purchasers.
Yes, he says, he is aware that there's a possibility that he could run into pressing problems at EMI, if, as they frequently do, the label gets a huge hit and has to turn all its presses over to one single.
Stock flow, he says, is problem, and it is obviously more work for the factors to keep running off a thousand here and a thousand there instead of letting the presses run all day on a Queen single
But his thousand, he says, is more than a lot of majors press on a new release, especially when they're putting out seven a week.
"It's a bit of how-much-mud'll-stick-to-the-wall, so in terms of orders Stiff singles are often bigger."
While we're talking, another phone order for 500 comes into the office. This he says, will increase the total pressing of Lowe's single to 3,000. The label's second 45 will be by the Pink Fairies, and the initial pressing is 2,000.
"I'd like to do more but it's money — it's very much hand-to-mouth."
His dealing with the bigger record companies "taught me to read small print and to trust my own judgment rather than some 40-year-old expense account person who supposedly has vast experience of the business but only seems to me to have vast experience of handling credit cards in posh restaurants."
He hopes Stiff will help the companies find the talent and the talent find deals.
Future one-offs include Motorhead and Roogalator.
Feeling over technique, sound over style, is Stiff's motto, and "the best critic for yourself is yourself. I think kids should remember that.
"The first rule in the record industry is that there're no rules. That's what Stiff works by."