Saturday, September 05, 2009

It's A Rough Trade

I watched yesterday evening’s BBC3 programme on the history of Rough Trade, astonished at how many significant bands the label had been behind. I felt exactly the same when I watched a similar programme a week or so ago on Island Records. Rough Trade had The Fall, The Smiths, Violent Femmes, The Strokes, Belle & Sebastian and a host of others. Island had Bob Marley & The Wailers, Black Uhuru, U2, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey etc. And they combined to bring us Pulp (Rough Trade managing and distribution, Island as the official label).

Not only this though. Their business sense was completely at odds with the typical corporate values. Rough Trade paid everyone on the staff the same, they didn’t have contracts for their bands (until The Smiths came along), and produced whatever they liked. This changed in time, but the ethos never became purely profit driven. It collapsed because The Smiths became so big that the label had to call in professionals and then finally caved in due to cashflow problems. Ironically, success led to their problems and the label went under during their time of greatest commercial success.

At this point, independent labels held 40 percent of music sales in the UK? Can you imagine? These days seem so distant now, but we're talking only about 20 years ago.

They reformed later and have continued to have success, still operating a very different approach to business. With Duffy, they ‘signed’ her on a nurturing basis. They paid her while she developed her style, without her signing anything. She could have taken the money and then gone anywhere, but she decided to stick with Rough Trade (lucky for them, eh? But this represents the whole Rough Trade approach to business) and gave them their first UK number one hit.

A similar thing happened with Island when one of their business ventures went wrong and they couldn’t pay bands their royalties for a while. Apparently, U2 could have bankrupted the label at that point by claiming what was owed to them but decided to forego their royalties. Later, when stability returned, Island paid them in full. Loyalty was crucial for the label's survival, but it was earned.

Anyway, James represent Rough Trade in two ways. They were a terrific (and underrated) band, both in the studio and live. And they had a huge hit with this song, but not when Rough Trade released it – it only reached number 85! A couple of years later, it was re-released by Fontana and got to number 2. Such is life… The words of the song and the audience participation blend in with all this seamlessly.

1 comment:

Matt Merritt said...

Agree totally, Rob. Hugely underrated band. You've inspired me to dig out all my old albums.