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Music: The Domino effect

So the major record labels have got things all sewn up? Not quite. As the business reels under the impact of downsizing, the cottage industry that is Domino Records is proving that small can be beautiful.
The record business is currently in the throes of its most traumatic upheavals since the late-Seventies punk boom which ushered in the new dawn of indie labels such as Rough Trade and Factory Records, with a spate of mergers and rationalisations that have effectively reduced the industry playing-field to four basic major label conglomerates. Bad news for music, you might think, but it ain't necessarily so: the bloodletting and downsizing which has seen even relatively successful upcoming bands such as Rialto and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci ruthlessly cut from rosters may ultimately turn out to be good for the industry's musical health by playing to the strengths of the independent sector, according to Laurence Bell of Domino Records.

"It's beautiful for me," says Bell in between puffs on his roll-up, "because bands are starting to run shy of major labels. We've gone through a decade of Britpop, this success culture in which having huge advances and going for gold was the thing. But musicians are seeing bands like Gorky's getting dropped and they're thinking, `in that case, what price me?'. So this is actually a good time for independent labels to build up, by explaining what they can do for bands, the alternative opportunities they can offer. Bands are becoming more aware that the independent infrastructure is strong enough to market their records adequately, that they don't have to make the jump to a major label."

Bell and his skeleton staff have been quietly chipping away at the status quo for the past few years from a small, two-room operation in deepest Wandsworth, building up a sturdy little catalogue comprised mainly of American post-grunge lo-fi bands. This year has been its most successful so far, with a flurry of excellent, critically acclaimed albums from Jim O'Rourke, Smog and Will Oldham (in his Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise), and hitherto inconceivable Top 30 chart placings for Pavement and Sebadoh, the latter even making it on to the hallowed pop turf of Top of the Pops.

Domino still has some way to go before it reaches the position of Mute or Beggars Banquet - for whom Depeche Mode and the Prodigy respectively have assured solvency - but its foot is firmly in the door.

Bell formed Domino with pounds 5,000 of his own money, following a stint at the independent Fire Records, which went sour and ended up much the same for him as working at a major label. "By the end, it didn't seem to represent anything," he recalls. He had been about to sign Sebadoh to Fire, but didn't feel comfortable about the move, and offered to put the band's records out on his own label. "And being the up-for-it, punk-spirited, post-hardcore lads that they are, they went for it."

To begin with, Bell ran the company from his basement flat. "I started on my own, crosslegged on the floor with a telephone here and a fax machine there, and a pile of papers in front of me," he chuckles. "I didn't even have a desk to begin with. The first thing we put out was a Sebadoh album, which got to No 71. I was really pleased to think that we had a record in the top 75, and we didn't even have a desk!"

Bell doggedly built up a roster largely through word of mouth, using American contacts he had built up while at Fire. "The bands all knew each other, and they would compare notes on which labels treated them right," he explains. "So it was our reputation that attracted them, through simple things such as paying them on time. It was much simpler, in terms of financing, to start the label that way, by licensing music from American labels such as Drag City, rather than putting bands into studios and recording - the start-up costs of doing it that way are enormous, unless you've got your own studio."

Like many indie labels, Domino has developed a distinct musical personality, simply through being built on one person's taste. It's no surprise, then, to find that the industry people Bell admires are such as Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, and Lenny Waronker who, as head of Warners in the Seventies and Eighties, staved off the kind of profit-driven downsizing currently afflicting the business. Like them, he's trusted his ears and his heart, rather than fretting over the bottom line.

"Most companies would drop an artist if they didn't sell enough records, but that's not really the issue," he believes. "We're documenting these artists, and as a smaller company we can take better care of them - at the end of the day, we're not juggling figures, we're making sure these people can continue doing this. That's something which I'm sure we share with companies like the old Elektra."

There's also no way, he insists, that Domino could ever release a record that it didn't believe in. "We have to love it, and it has to have a slant on it that hasn't been done before," he enthuses. "I still value the shock of the new, I still love hearing something strange, and pondering the mystery of the artist - that's been lost recently, but it used to be such a big part of the appeal of music." Hence his label's acquisition of signings such as Jim O'Rourke, a Chicago avant-garde/ post-rock producer whose Domino album reveals a hitherto concealed, gentler pop side; and Will Oldham, the gifted avatar of what's become known as "sadcore". Bell first encountered Oldham in his Palace Brothers guise, whose debut album featured the quiet songwriter backed by the American post-rock pioneers Slint.

"He'd written these Appalachian-sounding ballads," Bell recalls, "songs about incest and general Southern weirdness, in a very literate, Faulkner- esque manner - that's another thing about these guys, they're very smart and literate - and they'd be backing him up with this abstract blueprint for modern rock. That gave everything an extra edge."

Oldham and Sebadoh in turn led Bell to Bill Callaghan of Smog, another inspired primitive, whose sullen, oddly appealing music sounds like the mutant offspring of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. But while these artists share obvious aesthetic leanings, Bell balks at using an umbrella term such as lo-fi or sadcore.

"There may be a shared vibe or intangible thread running through the records we release, but I don't feel there's a house style," he believes. "It's more a shared attitude, a sense of dedication."

As for their lo-fi status, that's probably more a case of necessity being the mother of invention. "I knew those artists when they were recording really cheaply," he recalls, "and all they ever wanted to do was get the orchestras in!" Bell doesn't like discussing sales figures, which strike him as a bogus validation, but he claims six-figure sales for some Domino artists, and reports that their audiences virtually double each time they release a record. The label's exertions are currently focused on ensuring that Pavement's Terror Twilight album charts as highly as possible, though he acknowledges that there are obvious limitations to what a small label can do. "I'd like to have a double-decker bus painted like the Pavement album cover, indulge in a few stunts like that, but when you're our size you have to be sensible - it's not a marketing free-for-all." For the moment, though, he's happy with the way the industry is shaping up, and even with the continued corporate dominance of mainstream pop.

"Everyone's come down from the success culture of Britpop," he believes, "and in the absence of a dominant trend, people aren't sure what's good anymore, which leaves things wide open. And personally, I'd be quite happy for Phil Collins and Mariah Carey to go on ruling the charts, because it means some interesting things can flourish underneath that, and small labels like us can have some fun."

Size isn't Everything...

CONTRARY TO what the music corporations would have us believe, the history of rock'n'roll has been largely written by small independent labels. It's unlikely, for instance, that Elvis Presley would have come to the attention of RCA had he not first recorded for Sun Records, while early rock'n'roll and R&B was dependent on labels such as Chess and Specialty.

In that pioneer era, the scale of American operations was largely determined by the huge distances involved in distribution: each city would have its own local labels - Sun in Memphis, King in Cincinnati, Chess and Vee-Jay in Chicago, Specialty and Aladdin in Los Angeles, Excello in Nashville, Duke in Houston - which would develop local hits; the most successful records would then be picked up and promoted nationally, sometimes through distribution affiliations with larger companies. Accordingly, a record could take months to build up enough momentum to chart, compared with the instant, blanket coverage of today.

In the Sixties and Seventies, companies such as Island and Elektra developed strong label profiles through coherent A&R policies, while Frank Zappa, with his Bizarre, Straight and DiscReet imprints, pioneered the trend for artists to form their own labels, still going strong today through the likes of Prince's Paisley Park and - on a smaller scale - Howie B's Pussyfoot.

As rock has become progressively more fractionalised, independent labels have continued to trace the cutting-edge of developments in each genre: soul (Stax, Atlantic, Hi, Curtom), jazz (Blue Note, Impulse!, CTI, ECM), new wave (Rough Trade, Factory, Mute, 4AD), US punk (SST, Sub Pop), rap (Tommy Boy, Def Jam, Sugarhill), reggae (Trojan), post-rock (Kranky, Drag City), world music (Globestyle, World Circuit, Realworld, Rykodisc, Luaka Bop) and, of course, an immense swathe of labels tracking the dance scene (XL, JBO, Warp, Skint, Mo'Wax, Perfecto, Ninja Tune etc).

But by far the most encouraging indication of the enduring health of the independent sector is the traditional folk outlet Topic Records, currently celebrating no less than 60 years of serving the nation's acoustic needs. Happy birthday!