[TypicalGirls] Independent Rough Trade article

WWWhatsup joly at dti.net
Mon Sep 11 14:42:38 EDT 2006


http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/music/features/article1438877.ece

Rough Trade: Rough and ready
 
In the 1980s, the legendary Rough Trade record label and shop had
cash and kudos. In the 1990s it had neither... But as Rough Trade
celebrates its 30th anniversary, it's thriving again. Fiona
Sturges meets its founder, Geoff Travis, while, opposite, three
old hands recall the early days

Published: 10 September 2006

Thirty years ago, a young music junkie named Geoff Travis returned
from a long trip hitchhiking across America. Spilling out of his
luggage were 150 or so records by cult American artists including
Tim Buckley, The Stooges and New York Dolls. Inspired by the City
Lights bookshop in San Francisco, a former Beat haunt, and the
music he had collected along the way, he took over a building on
London's Kensington Park Road and set up the Rough Trade record
shop.

Since then, Rough Trade has had many incarnations. After the shop
opened in 1976, a distribution network followed and, two years
later, a record label. The object was simple: to make good music
available to those who wanted to hear it. Initially operating out
of a tiny shed at the back of the store, Travis released some of
the enduring records of the next 15 years by artists including The
Smiths, Scritti Politti, The Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera, Robert
Wyatt, The Fall and Pere Ubu.

By 1977 the shop had become a hub for the burgeoning DIY and punk
culture. Travis had furnished the place with chairs and huge
speakers, allowing people to sit around listening to music all
day. Journalists and fans would come to hang out, argue about the
latest Swell Maps record and meet like-minded people while passing
musicians would leave their demos at the counter. Travis became a
point of contact for a whole network of bands and labels and,
formalising his role as a distributor, Rough Trade quickly became
a supplier to other independent record shops such as Liverpool's
Probe, Soho's Rocks Off and New York's Red Rhino.

In 1978 the record label was formed, pitching itself in direct
opposition to major record companies, and laying out the blueprint
for independent labels to come. Among Travis's regular customers
was Daniel Miller, then the leading light of the electronic act
The Normal, who went on to found the Mute label, home to Depeche
Mode, Moby and Goldfrapp.

While other small record labels have become synonymous with
particular musical styles, Rough Trade was defined by its
diversity. Placing no limitation on sound or style, musical
innovation seemed to be the only requirement. The early
discography reveals an extraordinary eclecticism, from the
polemical punk rock of Stiff Little Fingers, to the proto new
romanticism of Cabaret Voltaire, to the lugubrious spoken word of
Ivor Cutler.

"It was a simple case of just loving what you heard," says Travis.
"There was no criteria except 'Would you buy it yourself?' I grew
up listening to all types of music, from the Beatles and the
Stones to Stax and Motown. To get my attention, music has to have
something original about it and it has to have soul. It has to
move you, simple as that."

In the early years Rough Trade wasn't so much a business as a
philosophy driven by idealism and integrity. It was a co-operative
in which everyone was paid the same, regardless of their role.
Artists could often be found working behind the counter in the
shop, or sitting in the back stuffing record sleeves. Rough Trade
also gave non-binding 50/50 deals to artists, an arrangement that
was as unheard-of then as it is now, and which Travis believed
would give the artist the space and freedom to produce their best
work. The policy had its drawbacks, however. The tight budget
meant that advance payment was less than generous - Cabaret
Voltaire were enticed with the promise of a drum machine while The
Smiths were signed for just £4,000. The company's hippyish
idealism didn't always sit well with the artists. The Fall's Mark
E Smith eventually became disgruntled with Travis's "loony leftie"
stance and took his business elsewhere.

As bands such as Scritti Politti and The Smiths began to take off,
the label found itself in a more competitive marketplace,
struggled to keep up with demand, and often lost out to the major
corporations. Artists would use Rough Trade as a launch pad before
signing more lucrative deals with bigger labels (after five albums
with Rough Trade, The Smiths famously decamped to EMI, then
promptly split up). A bid to turn Rough Trade into a viable long-
term proposition led to a radical re-structuring in the mid-
Eighties and resulted in Travis being sidelined.

"We had gone from being a collective to this huge company," he
recalls. "At that point all these management people appeared. They
talked crap, mostly, and dug a big wedge between distribution and
the record company. There was this huge clash of cultures and I
was completely marginalised on the board." While the label
continued to turn a profit, the distribution side collapsed in
what Travis calls "a fundamental case of mismanagement". Thus, in
1991 the Rough Trade empire went into receivership (the shop was
the only surviving component, having been handed over to the
employees in 1983) and Travis was forced to sell off the entire
back catalogue in order to pay his debts. For the remainder of the
decade, he concentrated on band management, looking after The
Cranberries and Pulp among others.

In 1999, after lengthy negotiations, Travis was able to buy back
the Rough Trade name. Now he runs the label along with his
business partner Jeannette Lee, former guitarist of Public Image
Limited, with offices in London's Golborne road just a few streets
away from where it all began. It is testament to Travis and Lee's
A&R skills that the label has flourished once again, with signings
including The Strokes, The Libertines, Arcade Fire, Sufjan
Stevens, British Sea Power and last year's Mercury winner Antony &
the Johnsons. Recently Travis even managed to tempt Scritti
Politti's Green Gartside out of retirement and back into the
studio for his new critically feted album White Bread and Black
Beer.

The label's renaissance comes at an intriguing time in music. With
corporate mergers and radical downsizing having effectively
reduced the business to four unwieldy conglomerates, and the
internet allowing musicians to release music on their own terms, a
whole alternative industry has sprung up, operating in parallel
with the majors and armed with Rough Trade's less mercenary, more
humanitarian approach to music-making.

Not one to dwell on the past, Travis says he is excited about the
future, in terms of music and the strength of the independent
sector. "I like to look forward," he says. "I like new things. I
don't spend my time being a grumpy old man at home reminiscing
over the old days. I'm very positive about what's happening now.
It's difficult for musicians, but it always has been and I've
always had this ridiculous notion that the best bands will get
through. There's great music being made all the time, and I just
want to be there to help it see the light of day."

* 'Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited' by Rob Young is published by
Black Dog. 'The Record Shop: 30 Years of Rough Trade Shops', an
album featuring tracks chosen by customers, is released on 2 Oct

Trade Secrets

Don Letts, film-maker: "If music is a religion, then Rough Trade
the shop is my church, and I go there for my weekly sonic sermons.
If it wasn't for Rough Trade and their whole attitude, I might
still be stuck with a 1970s and early 1980s soundtrack. They've
kept me up with the times, not with the stuff that's played on the
radio but with music that operates below the radar.

I first met Geoff in the mid-1970s; he was sporting a fine afro
for a honky. In the early days one of the things that helped
sustain them was selling reggae records. What I admired about them
was that they dealt with the sonic outcasts. Some of their records
were really out there; they had a lot of stuff that went straight
over my head. Rough Trade was an invaluable outlet for musicians
doing stuff that was left of centre, who couldn't go to the big
corporations with their music. It also set the benchmark for what
an independent label could achieve. This tiny little shop and
company now has a reputation that is established around the world.
Just having a record out on Rough Trade, and having that stamp of
approval, is like having a number one record."

Jon Savage, author and journalist: "If you look at the history of
British pop culture, record shops are very important. They are
where people hung around and exchanged ideas. They had a huge
impact on the music scene. Look at 'God Save The Queen' by the Sex
Pistols. You could only buy it in independent shops, but it still
got to number one. Rough Trade the shop opened at the peak of
British punk.

My first memory of it was going to buy Punk, the American fanzine.
They also had obscure records that no one else had - a lot of
reggae pre-releases and albums. When I started my own fanzine, in
late '76, they let me use their shop as a contact address.

It was a very broad church in terms of what it sold, but it was
also a community shop. There was a radical intellectual agenda
behind it, not just with Geoff but the people who visited it. I
still go there when I'm in London. The people who work there are
music snobs of the worst kind, which makes for satisfying
discussions. Rough Trade shows that there's still a place for a
well-run record shops in the age of the internet. There is no
substitute for personal service."

Green Gartside, singer, Scritti Politti: "I started hanging out at
the shop in 1978. I played my second-ever record to Geoff and he
said it should be on the Rough Trade label. To this day, I've
never signed a contract with him, which shows you what an
extraordinary label it is. It was always just an agreement between
friends, which at that time was as important as the music itself.
In the mid-1980s, I left the label. I wanted to go off and make
expensive records in America. It was with Geoff's blessing and
guidance that I did that. Whenever I released a record, he'd
always send me a postcard saying 'Well done'. There are only two
people in the world whose opinion I trust and one of them is
Geoff."

Interviews by Fiona Sturges

Thirty years ago, a young music junkie named Geoff Travis returned
from a long trip hitchhiking across America. Spilling out of his
luggage were 150 or so records by cult American artists including
Tim Buckley, The Stooges and New York Dolls. Inspired by the City
Lights bookshop in San Francisco, a former Beat haunt, and the
music he had collected along the way, he took over a building on
London's Kensington Park Road and set up the Rough Trade record
shop.

Since then, Rough Trade has had many incarnations. After the shop
opened in 1976, a distribution network followed and, two years
later, a record label. The object was simple: to make good music
available to those who wanted to hear it. Initially operating out
of a tiny shed at the back of the store, Travis released some of
the enduring records of the next 15 years by artists including The
Smiths, Scritti Politti, The Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera, Robert
Wyatt, The Fall and Pere Ubu.

By 1977 the shop had become a hub for the burgeoning DIY and punk
culture. Travis had furnished the place with chairs and huge
speakers, allowing people to sit around listening to music all
day. Journalists and fans would come to hang out, argue about the
latest Swell Maps record and meet like-minded people while passing
musicians would leave their demos at the counter. Travis became a
point of contact for a whole network of bands and labels and,
formalising his role as a distributor, Rough Trade quickly became
a supplier to other independent record shops such as Liverpool's
Probe, Soho's Rocks Off and New York's Red Rhino.

In 1978 the record label was formed, pitching itself in direct
opposition to major record companies, and laying out the blueprint
for independent labels to come. Among Travis's regular customers
was Daniel Miller, then the leading light of the electronic act
The Normal, who went on to found the Mute label, home to Depeche
Mode, Moby and Goldfrapp.

While other small record labels have become synonymous with
particular musical styles, Rough Trade was defined by its
diversity. Placing no limitation on sound or style, musical
innovation seemed to be the only requirement. The early
discography reveals an extraordinary eclecticism, from the
polemical punk rock of Stiff Little Fingers, to the proto new
romanticism of Cabaret Voltaire, to the lugubrious spoken word of
Ivor Cutler.

"It was a simple case of just loving what you heard," says Travis.
"There was no criteria except 'Would you buy it yourself?' I grew
up listening to all types of music, from the Beatles and the
Stones to Stax and Motown. To get my attention, music has to have
something original about it and it has to have soul. It has to
move you, simple as that."

In the early years Rough Trade wasn't so much a business as a
philosophy driven by idealism and integrity. It was a co-operative
in which everyone was paid the same, regardless of their role.
Artists could often be found working behind the counter in the
shop, or sitting in the back stuffing record sleeves. Rough Trade
also gave non-binding 50/50 deals to artists, an arrangement that
was as unheard-of then as it is now, and which Travis believed
would give the artist the space and freedom to produce their best
work. The policy had its drawbacks, however. The tight budget
meant that advance payment was less than generous - Cabaret
Voltaire were enticed with the promise of a drum machine while The
Smiths were signed for just £4,000. The company's hippyish
idealism didn't always sit well with the artists. The Fall's Mark
E Smith eventually became disgruntled with Travis's "loony leftie"
stance and took his business elsewhere.

As bands such as Scritti Politti and The Smiths began to take off,
the label found itself in a more competitive marketplace,
struggled to keep up with demand, and often lost out to the major
corporations. Artists would use Rough Trade as a launch pad before
signing more lucrative deals with bigger labels (after five albums
with Rough Trade, The Smiths famously decamped to EMI, then
promptly split up). A bid to turn Rough Trade into a viable long-
term proposition led to a radical re-structuring in the mid-
Eighties and resulted in Travis being sidelined.

"We had gone from being a collective to this huge company," he
recalls. "At that point all these management people appeared. They
talked crap, mostly, and dug a big wedge between distribution and
the record company. There was this huge clash of cultures and I
was completely marginalised on the board." While the label
continued to turn a profit, the distribution side collapsed in
what Travis calls "a fundamental case of mismanagement". Thus, in
1991 the Rough Trade empire went into receivership (the shop was
the only surviving component, having been handed over to the
employees in 1983) and Travis was forced to sell off the entire
back catalogue in order to pay his debts. For the remainder of the
decade, he concentrated on band management, looking after The
Cranberries and Pulp among others.

In 1999, after lengthy negotiations, Travis was able to buy back
the Rough Trade name. Now he runs the label along with his
business partner Jeannette Lee, former guitarist of Public Image
Limited, with offices in London's Golborne road just a few streets
away from where it all began. It is testament to Travis and Lee's
A&R skills that the label has flourished once again, with signings
including The Strokes, The Libertines, Arcade Fire, Sufjan
Stevens, British Sea Power and last year's Mercury winner Antony &
the Johnsons. Recently Travis even managed to tempt Scritti
Politti's Green Gartside out of retirement and back into the
studio for his new critically feted album White Bread and Black
Beer.

The label's renaissance comes at an intriguing time in music. With
corporate mergers and radical downsizing having effectively
reduced the business to four unwieldy conglomerates, and the
internet allowing musicians to release music on their own terms, a
whole alternative industry has sprung up, operating in parallel
with the majors and armed with Rough Trade's less mercenary, more
humanitarian approach to music-making.

Not one to dwell on the past, Travis says he is excited about the
future, in terms of music and the strength of the independent
sector. "I like to look forward," he says. "I like new things. I
don't spend my time being a grumpy old man at home reminiscing
over the old days. I'm very positive about what's happening now.
It's difficult for musicians, but it always has been and I've
always had this ridiculous notion that the best bands will get
through. There's great music being made all the time, and I just
want to be there to help it see the light of day."

* 'Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited' by Rob Young is published by
Black Dog. 'The Record Shop: 30 Years of Rough Trade Shops', an
album featuring tracks chosen by customers, is released on 2 Oct

Trade Secrets

Don Letts, film-maker: "If music is a religion, then Rough Trade
the shop is my church, and I go there for my weekly sonic sermons.
If it wasn't for Rough Trade and their whole attitude, I might
still be stuck with a 1970s and early 1980s soundtrack. They've
kept me up with the times, not with the stuff that's played on the
radio but with music that operates below the radar.

I first met Geoff in the mid-1970s; he was sporting a fine afro
for a honky. In the early days one of the things that helped
sustain them was selling reggae records. What I admired about them
was that they dealt with the sonic outcasts. Some of their records
were really out there; they had a lot of stuff that went straight
over my head. Rough Trade was an invaluable outlet for musicians
doing stuff that was left of centre, who couldn't go to the big
corporations with their music. It also set the benchmark for what
an independent label could achieve. This tiny little shop and
company now has a reputation that is established around the world.
Just having a record out on Rough Trade, and having that stamp of
approval, is like having a number one record."

Jon Savage, author and journalist: "If you look at the history of
British pop culture, record shops are very important. They are
where people hung around and exchanged ideas. They had a huge
impact on the music scene. Look at 'God Save The Queen' by the Sex
Pistols. You could only buy it in independent shops, but it still
got to number one. Rough Trade the shop opened at the peak of
British punk.

My first memory of it was going to buy Punk, the American fanzine.
They also had obscure records that no one else had - a lot of
reggae pre-releases and albums. When I started my own fanzine, in
late '76, they let me use their shop as a contact address.

It was a very broad church in terms of what it sold, but it was
also a community shop. There was a radical intellectual agenda
behind it, not just with Geoff but the people who visited it. I
still go there when I'm in London. The people who work there are
music snobs of the worst kind, which makes for satisfying
discussions. Rough Trade shows that there's still a place for a
well-run record shops in the age of the internet. There is no
substitute for personal service."

Green Gartside, singer, Scritti Politti: "I started hanging out at
the shop in 1978. I played my second-ever record to Geoff and he
said it should be on the Rough Trade label. To this day, I've
never signed a contract with him, which shows you what an
extraordinary label it is. It was always just an agreement between
friends, which at that time was as important as the music itself.
In the mid-1980s, I left the label. I wanted to go off and make
expensive records in America. It was with Geoff's blessing and
guidance that I did that. Whenever I released a record, he'd
always send me a postcard saying 'Well done'. There are only two
people in the world whose opinion I trust and one of them is
Geoff."

Interviews by Fiona Sturges
 

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