Dave Robinson founded Stiff Records in the U.K. about a year ago with partner lack Riviera. Together, they have uncovered talents such as The Damned, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Tyla Gang, Richard Hell, Max Wall, and the Adverts in building a label Robinson calls "compatible with a musician's point of view," a label which he has discovered, to his amusement, that other people wish they had started themselves. "We make fun of the record business," he says, "we make fun of the music or the seriousness of a lot of it" and Robinson finds himself in the enviable position of being able to sell substantial amounts of records by word of mouth or just by the fact that the record is a Stiff. With Riviera and Allen Frey in the U.S., Robinson also manages The Rumour, Clover, Nick Lowe, the Damned, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker ("When we signed Graham, he was pushing petrol and making fifteen pounds a week"). In the following Dialogue, Robinson discusses his multi-faceted involvement in the music industry with special emphasis on the new wave as it relates to groups, their music, and the industry as a whole.
Lately, you've been very active in this country with Graham Parker and now Clover, but both of those acts are signed to Mercury. What are your plans for the Stiff label here?
We're just waiting for the right time to bring Stiff here. Hopefully, we'll work it out correctly. People usually talk about timing in this business. Timing is usually luck. It means you have something at a certain time and then the luck comes into it which makes people think that you're the cleverest man in the world.
When do you hope to eventually bring Stiff or any part of it into this country?
The original plan was to allocate certain groups to certain record labels but I think we have a certain style, which would actually have to be different for America, but if we could maintain that style and put it into a package, that would be the most satisfactory situation and that's what we're endeavoring to do.
If any record label does have a style that is all its own, it would have to be Stiff.
In America, it is a little harder to do things because that style is purulented by the acts you have on your record label. In England, the record label has a style and some of the groups eventually grow with that style, but the groups are actually secondary to the style.
If you did bring Stiff to this country, would you try to repeat some of the marketing and promotional schemes you've had success with?
Yes, but there are major problems involved in that. England is a very small country and most of the activity is centered in London. There are three weekly music papers there that are read by a large part of the industry and the public. All three carry charts, so the public is much more aware of what you are doing on a day to day basis. Over here, the promotion is spread out for a month or two before you know if it's successful. So we're involving a different kind of style for America.
We've reported on a lot of your promotions in RW and on paper they always seem like great ideas, but how successful have you actually been with them?
Considering we only started the company last September, it has worked very well. What the final analysis will be, I won't know for a while. We're only developing artists and ideas right now. I think it has been very successful.
Why did you start Stiff?
Jake Riviera and I have been involved in the English record business since 1969 in a largish way insofar as we've been a kind of minority interest. We've been dealing with a lot of groups that major record companies would not want to handle. In other words, we've been dealing with musicians who are talented songwriters but they don't necessarily have a package together and major record companies do not want to know about them. We decided to start a record label because we had a lot of tapes, a lot of ideas, and we wanted to do it as kind of a hobby. We wanted sort of a documentary label because we felt that there were areas of English music that were not on record which would be of interest in a small way to people who collect records and are interested in that kind of thing. It grew very swiftly when we found a lot more people sharing our interests than we thought.
Exactly how swiftly did it grow?
We planned three singles in three months, but we put out eight and they all sold very well. Basically, Stiff is at this time countering the boredom of the record industry of the past four or five years. The music business, the record business, the rock and roll business—it has all become boring and very establishment. Rock and roll is a kind of style. It was never a statement on a given kind of music. It was a style that was slightly against something that was established. In America, it's now a category that I find very confusing. Most of the bands are about as rock and roll as my granny. There are things that are wrong in the record business and in our own small, idealistic way, we are saying there are alternatives. We are also proving the alternatives can work. We brought the Damned to this country. They are one of the few groups to come here without a record label representing them, and we did New York, Boston and Los Angeles. We flew, the group were not playing acoustic guitars, we had to rent equipment—just for our own interest, our own sussing out of the situation and I think it eventually cost us about $2,000. The band drew an audience and there's been a lot of interest about Stiff in America ever since.
Have you noticed an appreciable amount of sales through imports in this country?
We've brought a lot of records into this country through JEM and they've sold a lot of imports and they sold quickly.
What percentage of your sales are exports?
I would think it's about 18%. We also have a very good business which is thriving in Europe. It started out that we would sell a record because it was a Stiff. It was immaterial what was on it. We have people who write to us saying they think they have all the records, but are very concerned that they might have missed out in the compilation stakes, so we appeal to a lot of people who are record collectors who get turned on to the music and it also spreads like that.
With this in mind, why did you delete the first eight singles so quickly?
It was at a period that we had a lot of records coming out. We're not a museum as my partner once put it so very well, we're a record company. And I agree with him. If our staff is going to concentrate on old records, then it would be to our advantage to delete them and bring out a compilation album so people can get them all. We have one coming out very soon which will be called Hits Greatest Stiffs which is a compilation of the first eight to ten singles.
How big of a staff do you have at the Stiff offices in England?
Originally, we just started out with three people in the office and now we have eight working full time and Alan in America. We're trying to keep it down to people who really need to be there. I don't believe in bringing in professional people. I much prefer a young person who can grow with us. We've got loads of growth potential and I'd like to keep it that way.
How many singles have you released in England so far?
We've put out 14 singles, the last being Elvis Costello's "Alison." At the moment, we also have a free Damned single which we are giving to people who come to their London concerts as a very limited edition. We've noticed people coming from Manchester and Glasgow and even the continent just to secure that record.
Have you hit the charts with any of those singles?
We have had the Damned single and the first Elvis Costello single, "Less Than Zero," on the chart, but you have to remember that none of these singles have ever received any radio airplay of any significance. None of them have ever made any playlist like you have in America, and none of them are ever likely to.
What you have is a pretty unique situation in that you don't have to have your records on the chart to be successful with them.
Right. It's a great fallacy that record companies believe they should only put out records which are likely to hit the charts rather than the best track from an album, for example. I think you've got to find ways around that and big record companies don't have the time or energy or even the marketing plans to do it because they're based on growth and how many records they'll actually sell. We can hold onto a single and go around the block with it several
times. I don't have the machinery of big record companies and I want to avoid ever getting it.
Have you made money on all of your singles nevertheless?
Yes. We only had one single that didn't at least pay for itself and that was the Max Wall record. It never caught on, possibly because it was outside of the basic Stiff catalogue. You have to experiment with what you can and cannot do. It was written by Ian Drury of Kilburn and the High Roads and we'll probably put out an album by him and that track might be on it.
You've released three albums. Do you find that the formula you have for singles holds true for albums as well?
Yes, to an extent. We outsell any first album by any new group in England with the exception of those which have a hit single immediately, which are few and far between anyway. For example, the Damned record, which was the first of the albums by punk groups in England, has sold about 45,000 copies. About 8,000 of them were sold in America. About 15,000 more were sold in Europe which gives you a total of 60,000 which is a lot higher than what a new group in England would sell on the average. Major record companies have begun to worry because their sales have dropped dramatically this summer. They always drop in the summer anyway, but now the figures are so low that it takes very little sales to get a record well into the top 50. Meanwhile, record companies are waiting for this punk stuff to go away, but what they don't realize is if the huge record buying audience out there doesn't get the record they want, they won't then go out and buy an Eagles album. There is a new generation that is growing up in England. It is going to be mirrored in America and has already begun to be mirrored in Europe. They alone will decide what they like and what they are going to buy.
How high did The Damned album get on the chart?
It went to number 26. The last time we were here, we gave various interviews to various people who wanted to know what we were doing, and a lot of people who I've known for a long time in the record business said, "You're assinine. It's nOise, it's not music" or "I think you've gone mad" which encouraged me a great deal. And they're now the people running around London and signing every band that looks funny or weird.
How do you personally judge what punk band is worth signing? There must be hundreds of new ones each week in England.
In England there are loads of them. I could find them in America if I spent any time on the streets of New York. There are thousands of them out there. What we're used to is a system that produces them. They're signed for their good looks and their entire credibility on the establishment record scene. Probably the most likely, the most talented are the least likely to get into a position to do anything. I don't say that the people who do well or are making money are bad, but they're MOR, most of them, and they're in a MOR situation. There's another side to it which is more stimulating, and that is the area my partners and myself work in. I've known Elvis Costello since 1972. He's been around making tapes and bringing them to record companies for almost four years and he's never even gotten the slightest tickle. I knew that as soon as we got a record label, that was one person we were definitely going to have on it. And there's loads more like him. With Elvis, there's the potential for people to look at him and say, "Where did he come from?"
For example, I look at people who write songs and are in bands and think to myself, "What would they be like if they had everything worked out for them? If they were playing at their absolute best, how good would they be?" It's my business to make that happen. That's my basic philosophy. I'm good at my job. 1 can't write songs, but I can recognize good songwriters and I look at them the same way all good a&r departments should look at them. Judging a tape or spending one night with a band doesn't tell you anything unless you're looking for something odd. When I say pebbles on a beach—yes, there are thousands of out of work musicians. England has probably got 10,000 out of work musicians. They're not Eric Claptons or singers like Freddie Mercury who are totally stage crafted. They're Mr. and Mrs. Anybody and the audience can sense that. It's like when the Merseybeat groups started and the audience said to themselves, "I could do that," whereas you don't think you are going to pick up a guitar and play like Yes. You need your dad to buy you a $10,000 ARP synthesizer if you want to be a keyboard player these days. When you see Yes or the Pink Floyd you are watching their theatrical dexterity which costs a fortune to produce. When you see Elvis Costello, the Damned, the Sex Pistols or the Stranglers, the people in the audience say, "I could do that" because they're doing it on a much more basic level. It's back to simplicity which is the level at which it started.