Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Just for the Record: A Brief History of Rough Trade Records and Their Idealistic Approach to Running a Record Label

“It is no longer so unusual to argue the continued relevance of a concept of habitus in the epoch of globalisation.” [i]
Alan O’ Connor, in his essay Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads: Punk and Theories of Cultural Hybridity.

“It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog.”
Mark Twain.

What do The Smiths, Stiff Little Fingers, The Libertines, The Strokes, Scritti Politti and Duffy all have in common? What do Pulp have to do with any of this rabble? Where in the world do Public Image Ltd. fit in here? This essay will set out to show how the lineage of all these acts is tied by Rough Trade Records in some way or other. The essay will also set out to discuss the idealistic approach the people in charge of the label took to running a record label and will also provide a chronological frame of the company’s life to date. From a small record shop in Notting Hill, West London in the 1970s to international record sales success in the 1980s. From bankruptcy in the 1990s to revival and, finally, a number one single in the 2000s, this is the story of Rough Trade Records. This is not a critique; this is a report on one of Great Britain’s most successful independent record labels.

Modest Beginnings: How it All Began
In 1976, a Cambridge University graduate called Geoff Travis opened up a record shop on Kensington Park Road in West London. Having spent some time travelling across North America with his then girlfriend, Travis had been amassing a rather large record collection on his travels, buying them wherever he could at low-cost. He took some advice from a friend and had the records shipped over to the U.K. to begin his dream of opening a record shop with a diverse array of vinyl for customers to choose from. This decision would map his life’s work.

Upon opening, the Rough Trade shop became synonymous with punk. Having got its name partly from a little-known Canadian pop group and partly from a trashy novel, Rough Trade seemed to fit in with punk from the word go. The punk aesthetic of ‘do it yourself’ was evident in Travis’ surmising of why he started the shop (which can be found on BBC Four’s documentary Do it Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade, incidentally this essay’s main source of information) in which he said “having been in the States for quite a long time, I came back to England and there was nowhere I wanted to go to particularly, so I thought if there’s nowhere to go I’ll have to start somewhere”.(1)

By 1978, Rough Trade, now a successful record shop, had started a distribution arm, distributing records for small independent labels, keeping in line with their strictly leftist, punk rock ethos.     This maverick approach is rumoured to have taken inspiration from Manchester punk band Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP, which was self-recorded, self-pressed and self-released. Ultimately, one may conclude that Rough Trade and its gang of leftist radicals wanted music releases to be of the self, but not selfish. Released by the artist, not for the labels. Their next step, then, was an obvious one: to create an ethical, independent record label. A label which split profits 50/50 between artist and label and sought to hold a diverse roster of artists. In 1978 Rough Trade Records began.

A New Dawn: Rough Trade Records’ First Incarnation (1978 – 1991)
Rough Trade records set out to be an anti-globalist, anti-corporate record label. Everybody at the label, from top to bottom, was paid the same amount. Rough Trade also employed an equal gender opportunities philosophy, whereby women and men were treated and paid equally, which, in the late 1970s in Britain, was quite a renegade’s approach. Rough Trade had set its stall out as a Marxist-type organisation, looking to show the world where the multinational major labels were going wrong ethically.

In 1978 they signed a Belfast punk band by the name of Stiff Little Fingers, whose debut album, Rough 1, became the first independently released album in Britain to sell 100,000 copies. Their sales success made Rough Trade enough capital to invest in other less commercial artists such as all-girl punks The Raincoats. Of The Raincoats, Caroline O’ Meara (Assistant Professor of Musicology at University of Texas) says “The  Raincoats  took advantage of  punk's  unskilled  performances in order  to  shatter  traditional  (read: masculine)  subjectivity in  rock music”. [ii] Such an approach to recording popular music fitted in extremely well with Rough Trade’s ideology.

Another group who fitted in with the political ideals of Rough Trade were Scritti Politti. Signed to the label in 1979, the band went on to release a string of albums and singles which spouted off leftist, radical sentiments. By 1982 Rough Trade had a large roster of artists, but would end up losing Scritti Politti to Warner Bros. Records (so nailed on to their sleeves were their anti-corporate principles) and had already lost Stiff Little Fingers to Chrysalis Records in 1979. The next band to join their roster, however, would be the label’s (in its first incarnation) most famous.

The Smiths were a Manchester band who showcased front men and songwriters Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s electrifying talents. As broadcast journalist Stuart Maconie puts it “1986. I remember this year… the lingering aftermath of recession, YTS schemes. And in the middle of it all, the odd glimmer of defiance, like The Smiths and The Queen is Dead [a Smiths album from that year].”[iii] Maconie’s sentiments were clearly felt by much of the record buying public as The Smiths’ sales success was such that it led to Rough Trade’s turnover being significantly improved, which meant new headquarters (King’s Cross, London), international distribution deals with majors in Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere and arguably led to Rough Trade’s downfall.

During the mid-1980s Rough Trade brought in “middle-management types” (2), to quote Travis in the aforementioned BBC 4 documentary about Rough Trade. The company’s structure subsequently changed and, thus, Rough Trade, to cut a long story short, had to abandon its ethical pay plan (due to members of the board and the ‘middle management’ men not wanting to work for the same as certain ‘lower’ members of the company) and, alas, in 1991 Rough Trade went bankrupt and folded as a company. Through going back on the original idea of an ethically run record label, it may be argued that Rough Trade shot itself in the foot.

The Second Coming: Rough Trade Records’ Second Incarnation (2000 – Present)
During the 1990s Geoff Travis partnered up with Jeanette Lee (formerly of Public Image Ltd.) and went on to manage a Sheffield band called Pulp. Having learned the rigours of dealing with major label distribution arms (due to those heady days in the 1980s) the pair (it is worth mentioning here that Jeanette Lee joined Rough Trade in 1987 as a partner with Travis) guided Pulp to success in the rather lucrative Britpop era, helping the band secure a deal with Island Records which led to a run of five top-ten singles in the mid-1990s. By 2003 Pulp had sold 10 million records worldwide and with the money earned on the back of Pulp’s success, Lee and Travis bought back the Rough Trade name and decided to resurrect the company in 2000.

In its new format Rough Trade has had a serious degree of success, having signed indie rock giants such as The Strokes and The Libertines as well as more cult-followed, but nevertheless lucrative indie bands such as Belle and Sebastian and British Sea Power. Throughout the early to mid-2000s the label had huge (independent-wise) sales successes and now has two record shops which are regularly frequented by London’s hipsters, with Notting Hill now joined by Brick Lane in London’s newly-fashionable East End as a Rough Trade base.

In recent years Rough Trade has also signed Duffy, who gave the label their first UK Singles Chart Number 1 with Mercy. Duffy was signed on a development deal and given time to work out what she wanted to do musically before having to commit to writing her first album Rockferry, which is a practice almost unheard of in the modern Popular Music Industry. It could well be argued that by doing so, Rough Trade in its new manifestation was trying not to forget its old values.

Mercy: A Conclusion
Rough Trade as a record company could be seen as the enterprise embodiment of punk rock. From its origins on the left side of politics in the late 1970s to ‘sell-out’ in the 1980s; bankruptcy in the early 1990s to a change in fortune when Britpop comes along in the mid-1990s to revival and nostalgic uphold in the 2000s, leading to widespread adoration in countless music press articles etc. It could well be argued that the tale does bear a close resemblance to the path taken by John Lydon, Joe Strummer and countless other punk rock stars over the last 30 or so years.

Rough Trade, as a record label, went on a unique journey which may ultimately result in further exultations or maybe tribulations. Rough Trade has been handed mercy, by a song of the same name, for its former sins, maybe due to its former glories. The sociological concept of habitus (a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste[iv]) won out in this case. The popular music populace’s disposition and preference for a romantic ideal helped them overlook what happened in the 1980s with Rough Trade. Or maybe they just liked Mercy.

[i] O’ Connor, Alan, 2002; Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads, Popular Music 21 (2); Available through JSTOR [Accessed 29th March 2011].
[ii] O’ Meara, Caroline, 2003; The Raincoats: Breaking down Punk Rock's Masculinities - Popular Music 22(3); Available through JSTOR [Accessed 29th March 2011]
[iii] Cummins, Kevin cited Maconie, Stuart, 2009; Manchester: Looking for the Light Through the Pouring Rain; Faber and Faber ltd., London, United Kingdom.
[iv] Scott, John & Marshall, Gordon (eds) A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press, 1998

Audio Visual Sources Used
Do it Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade; BBC 4, United Kingdom; 2009. This is the main source for this essay’s factual information. Quotes from this source are marked in order of appearance by a bracketed number e.g. (1).

Buzzcocks – Spiral Scratch EP; 1977.
Stiff Little Fingers – Rough 1; Rough Trade; 1978.
Smiths, The – The Queen is Dead; Rough Trade; 1986.
Duffy – Mercy [single]; Rough Trade; 2009.
Duffy – Rockferry; Rough Trade; 2009.

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