How Soon Is Now?, By Richard King

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The Independent Culture

To the younger generation of music fans, "indie" is a genre, a ubiquitous term used to describe artfully scruffy purveyors of white-boy guitar pop. In the late Seventies and Eighties, however, it was an abbreviation of "independent", used to distinguish the small, self-financed, artist-friendly record labels - the type started in garages, garden sheds and behind the counters of record shops - from their corporate counterparts.

Labels such as Rough Trade (home of The Smiths and The Strokes), Mute (Depeche Mode, Moby), Factory (Joy Division, Happy Mondays), Creation (My Bloody Valentine, Oasis) and Domino (Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys) are now woven into the fabric of musical history, though their passage to immortality wasn't always smooth. Plenty of labels such as Liverpool's Zoo and Glasgow's Postcard foundered, defeated by the challenges of balancing creative vision with commercial viability.

Richard King's book, subtitled "The Madmen and Mavericks who Made Independent Music 1975-2005", charts the rise of these labels by talking directly to those who ran them. These were not the bands or solo artists dreaming of untold adulation and wealth, but the backroom boys, the dreamers and the nerds. In embracing punk's DIY ethos, they devoted themselves to providing a launch-pad for acts deemed too wayward for mainstream tastes.

Coming in at a hefty 600 pages, the book is less of an overview of the era than a meticulously-researched encyclopaedia of the assorted businesses, both famous and forgotten, that helped to create independent music. While you applaud King's thoroughness in conducting interviews with everyone bar the office cleaners, the cast of players, from the musicians and managers to designers, promoters and publicists, is endless. It's a struggle to keep up with who's who.

The biggest challenge for King lies in compressing the stories of the various labels into a single comprehensible narrative. His decision to tell the overall story in chronological order means that he is constantly moving between different labels, and the more colourful tales of bands and their exploits are frequently left hanging in order to pick up another story.

Despite these narrative difficulties, King successfully captures the chaos that underpinned the independent sector. "Nobody had a clue about running a record label, and that was the best thing about it," recalls Daniel Miller, founder of Mute, a statement that sums up the gulf that often existed between ideology and reality. Thus How Soon is Now? is as much about the financial mis-management, rampant egos and petty rivalry that was the independent experiment as its many triumphs.

It's significant that, as the KLF were riding high in the charts, its co-founder Bill Drummond was attending emergency committee meetings about their record company Rough Trade's imminent bankruptcy. Any young entrepreneur looking to get a foothold in the music business would be wise to consult this book before taking the plunge.

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