The Record Label: An Obituary?

Picture the scene: The offices of Full Circle Records – A dusty, high-cielinged room at the top of the Victorian Byram Arcade in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. IKEA shelves creaking under the weight of albums, CDs and singles line the peeling walls. Smoke fills the air, mingled with steam from the kettle as another round of cups of tea are made. Photocopied lists of merchandise, ready to be stuffed into envelopes, lay on the floor. The RIP IT UP crew sit on randomly chosen chairs whilst Tez and his assistant, the venerable Leebo, attend to their mail-order fulfillment tasks. Bantering sharp enough to cut your finger on flies back and forth, as Japanese hardcore plays on a small hi fi system. Welcome to the independent record label of 1990.

Full Circle, run by the aforementioned Andy ‘Tez’ Turner, at that time still occasionally moonlighting in his seminal punk band The Instigators, was typical of the average ‘indie’ record label in the punk scene of the late 80s/early 90s. The business, if you want to look at it that way, was all about recording, publishing and releasing music on the media mentioned above. CDs, although they had been around for nearly a decade, were in no way threatening the vinyl disc. The money makers were not really the actual records, though – much if not all of Andy’s output was Instigators music that he had put out on the label. He also carried stocks of other labels’ music, which was typical back then. American and Asian releases were often hard to get from mainstream music store, whose stranglehold over the high street showed no signs of abating at this time. So, you could either select a release out of the smudged pages of Maximum Rock N Roll, send off your cash or International Money Order [remember them??] and wait some six weeks for the package to fall through your letter box, or you could go to Tez and see if he stocked it.

So, as a band in those far-off days, there was a route to the marketplace. You basically sought out every live show you could, you sent tapes to every fanzine editor you could, you dreamed about sidling up to John Peel at a gig and inserting a cassette into his ever open palm. And you wrote letters to every record label you could imagine. Things were tough, because the way it really worked was that the record label ‘Artiste and Repertiore’ person was God. They would expect to be bought drinks, feted, and have their large and deficient egos stroked in every possible way, before deciding like a Roman emperor whether to dispense their patronage your way or not.

As you moved up the food chain, you found that the bigger independent labels were in fact owned by major labels, and in some sections of the scene, woe betide any band who signed up to one of these labels – cries of ‘sell out!’ would soon follow. But the aspiration was still there – any band would eventually realise that bigger meant better distribution, better advertising, better production, in fact less likelihood of their hard work being wasted by some cynical or incompetent label boss. I recently read the ‘Document and Eyewitness’ book about Rough Trade records, which basically charts the rise and spectacular fall of Rough Trade, surely the godfather of independent labels, and the basic reason they fell was that they grew too fast, mainly on the back of bands like the Smiths, and their distribution network – the physical method of getting records into shops – was not strong enough to deal with the peaks, troughs and variations in cashflow that followed.

So, what we have so far is a gloriously fragmented, well-meaning and yet in most cases non business focused industry, all trying to do that most honourable of things, get good alternative music out on the streets. Whilst sales of merchandise and music at gigs was common, the format at this time relied on two ‘channels’ as we would call them these days.

1) Via the distribution networks mentioned above, get your record into as many of the [fast disappearing] independent shops as you can to sell your music for you, on the proiviso that the distribution network takes a cut of the sale price for the priveliege of providing the service.

2) Sell your stuff via mail order through adverts in fanzines, flyers and any other method of publicity you can think of.

The distribution networks were interesting beasts in themselves. I’m sure we all remember organisations such as The Cartel, Pinnacle and Southern, for example. Their logo was printed on the back of most punk/alternative records back in the day. These were often simply a co-operative group of record shops who clubbed together to provide a service of [to describe it simply] picking up boxes of records from the label’s offices, and delivering them by means of battered transit van to the record shops, charging the label a fee for doing so. As the movement progressed, they tended to become proper distribution houses capable of acting like wholesalers. As volumes and demand grew, they had to try and manage the demand – hence the collapse of some of them when an exceptionally high selling band like The Smiths came along, and they struggled to cope with the volume of orders required, which then led to delays, which then led to cashflow problems, and which ultimately led to the collapse of entire businesses, such as Backs Records in Norwich.

At the bottom end of all of this was the band itself – actually the most important element of the whole chain, because they were the ones producing music. And my point so far is that getting music released and ‘out there’ was a hellishly difficult, expensive, slow and frustrating process. Until the early 1990s, that is, when the internet began to become mainstream in peoples’ homes. In these early days, well before such things as Amazon and iTunes, we were becoming aware of a file format known as ‘MP3’, which was simply a standard for a compression algorithm. Then, via the alt.binaries newsgroups [a usenet newsgroup is a repository usually within the Usenet system, for messages posted from many users in different locations. The term may be confusing to some, because it is usually a discussion group. Newsgroups are technically distinct from, but functionally similar to, discussion forums on the World Wide Web.] , it became possible to upload these mp3 files to the internet so that like-minded people could download them onto their own computers and play them using which ever of the emerging digital music players.

It did not take long for the idea to sink in. Suddenly, the world of music changed. Instead of having to take the bus into town, hope that the record store was open, browse for half an hour, hope that the record you wanted was in stock, buy it, get the bus home and get the record on your stereo, you could instead perform the whole transaction at your desk, on your computer, with no extra expense. The record business, which had for years behaved like a corrupt Roman Emperor, jacking up prices and flooding its collective nostrils with cocaine, was exposed almost overnight. File sharing soon followed as computer software became available which enabled you to share music via small data streams known as ‘torrents’. Amazon, and then Apple, quickly established new technologies which made the process into a money making enterprise, some would now say that they are the new record industry. When devices such as mobile smartphones and the ipod came along, the transformation was complete – it had been proven that you could download and use music, whilst in some cases having to pay for it online, and so a new stream to market had been established. Slow to react [some would say they were in denial], the ‘traditional record business began to lose its grip on the stream of music to market.

And so we move on to alternative music today. It’s not an unreasonable viewpoint to say that one behemoth has been replaced by another. The money hungry record industry has been replaced by the money hungry itunes. 30% of your revenue goes to Apple’s billion dollar bank account. Money always wins. But does it?

In the next installment we’ll take a look at the rise of the social network and how this has been applied to independent music, and whether this new medium has enabled bands to eventually bypass the majors.

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