A bit of rough and tumble: Rough Trade celebrates 30 glorious years
Rough Trade is the indie label that made it big, and now it's celebrating 30 glorious years – but it almost didn't make it.
Monday 24 November 2008
This year, independent labels celebrating anniversaries have been all the rage – Heavenly has reached adulthood at 18, Domino is sweet 15, while precocious Moshi Moshi has sprinted to the decade mark. Now comes the daddy. This month, venerable Rough Trade blows out 30 candles.
At least, that is how long it has been since founder and avowed "prototype hippie" Geoff Travis created the template for today's indie scene – DIY ethos, cutting-edge tastes and a passion for quality that enables them to compete with major labels. However, in its original form his label also displayed a cavalier attitude to finances that dented the independent scene and led to a lost decade with no Rough Trade at all.
Still, it's a birthday worth marking, as the label itself is doing with a tour featuring Jarvis Cocker and New York's anti-folk mainstay Jeffrey Lewis. Cocker says: "Rough Trade has always been about discovering the new, exploring the unknown and giving a voice to those who would otherwise remain unheard. And they're still doing it 30 years on."
Travis's label grew organically from the Rough Trade shop in west London that he set up two years earlier after a lucrative, post-university US trip saw him return laden with hard-to-get American pressings. Its founder spotted a niche selling punk, new wave and reggae to a hungry clientele, so he developed an ear for hot sellers that grew into a crafty A&R sense, shaped in arguments over communal wholefood lunches.
Its first high water period was at the epicentre of post-punk. Among its early discography came classics from Pere Ubu, The Raincoats and Young Marble Giants. In 1982, Rough Trade Records was spun off from the shop with its original co-operative model diluted. Travis maintained the 50/50 profits split, which had proved so attractive to artists such as The Fall and Aztec Camera and continues to be a benchmark of indie fair play.
Rough Trade also developed a new kind of record distribution. Rather than jockeying for position in Woolworths, it bought stock wholesale from similar indie labels and ensured they were available widely in independent stores up and down the country. Gradually, this became a separate entity run by straight men in suits and Travis fatefully took his eye off the ball.
Distribution moved to bigger premises without first selling off its old offices and invested in a complex computer system that took ages to bring online. When a firm that owed money collapsed in 1991, it led to Rough Trade's own bankruptcy and took several indies down with it, among them Phish's original home Absolute A Go Go and Genius Records, home to Spacemen 3. The label could have distanced itself from its sister arm, but Travis felt they had to go down together. "The company grew to such a huge size it became too big to manage, beyond the level of our expertise, and we weren't able to recognise that early enough. Some people say we over-invested in the US, but I'd argue we were on course with our financial projections. The label was a separate legal entity, so I could have walked away, but because of the ethos and the labels were friends that I'd personally brought in to distribution, we let them sell our assets," he explains.
For the rest of the decade, Travis concentrated on his Warners imprint Blanco Y Negro – home to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Everything But The Girl and Catatonia – and the burgeoning management side of things with Pulp. By this stage, Jeannette Lee was Travis's business partner. The former manager of Public Image Ltd has become an important foil and prevents what he admits can be "foolish decisions". "We all have our own projects that we take a lead on more than others, but when we take decisions on anything important, we do that together. If we agree on something, it's probably going to be the right thing," he adds.
After a few false starts, the label was resurrected thanks to Iron Maiden's management team, Sanctuary, looking to expand into recording. At the time, Travis and Lee were keen to start afresh, but attendance at the label's 25th anniversary changed their minds. "We were invited to DJ at the Victoria and Albert [Museum]. People kept coming up to us and saying nice, kind things and it made us realise that people thought we'd done something good."
At first, this seemed a good fit, as Arcade Fire introduced a new wave of expansive indie rock, but then Sanctuary overreached itself and went under. Last year, the company sold its stake in Rough Trade to indie conglomerate Beggars Banquet, already home to 4AD, XL and Matador. The parent company was one of the original labels that Rough Trade distributed, so there is a definite feeling that things have come full circle.
The deal also recognises how hippie/punk idealism has joined with a caring form of entrepreneurship. "To have somebody who understands business and finance, who is on your team and not against you, is something Rough Trade never had in the early days. Perhaps with that we wouldn't have gone bankrupt."
This year has already seen success for British Sea Power and The Hold Steady, though Travis is eager to look ahead. At the anniversary gigs, they will collect demos to help find the next Smiths, Sundays or Strokes. It may no longer be a revolution, but the hunt for great music continues.
Jarvis Cocker's Looking Rough at 30 Tour takes place from 25 November to 1 December at venues across the UK ( www.roughtraderecords.com/live )
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