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
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 SturgesReuse content