The Domino effect

Despite Franz Ferdinand's success, their label hasn't changed
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The Independent Culture

When Domino Records celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2003, most of the excitement was reserved for a rare UK visit by Stephen Malkmus, once the frontman of the indie heroes Pavement. Little attention was paid to a showcase for the label's newest signing, a gang of art students from Glasgow with flicked haircuts.

When Domino Records celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2003, most of the excitement was reserved for a rare UK visit by Stephen Malkmus, once the frontman of the indie heroes Pavement. Little attention was paid to a showcase for the label's newest signing, a gang of art students from Glasgow with flicked haircuts.

Now Domino is best known for capturing Franz Ferdinand. Earlier this month, it won the award best independent label at the Music Week Awards. This gong should sit nicely beside Franz's Brits and Nationwide Mercury Prize. It is an ironic turn of events. When Laurence Bell started his label, it was chiefly respected as an outlet for American acts. For the independent sector, the early Nineties were bad. The big names were setting up indie-lite subsidiaries, such as Virgin's Hut and EMI's Food, and Alan McGee's Creation Records had sold its first stake to Sony. Factory had gone under.

Bell wanted to chart more esoteric waters. Most labels start off with one band, and he was impressed by a demo from Sebadoh, the band fronted by Lou Barlow. Bell's previous employers had put out two Sebadoh EPs, and the band had stayed at his flat when they visited the UK, so there was already "mutual respect", says Barlow.

"We were pretty much the same age and we had cut our teeth on the same DIY ethic of hardcore punk. He'd pick us up from the airport in his van and we'd sit in the back with all this trash, which was what we were used to." Bell adds: "If Sebadoh hadn't said yes, I wouldn't have had the guts to set up the label. I just needed one band I believed in."

So began a rare success for that Tory stalwart, the enterprise allowance scheme. "I didn't even have a desk," Bell says. "I sat on the floor with a phone, a photocopier and £40 a week to get by on." He had not planned to specialise in US music, but one one band led to another. Barlow gave Bell a tape of Royal Trux, and then Will Oldham came along, because he was a Trux fan.

At first, it was easier to seek the latest American talent than sign British acts. This changed when Bell hooked his biggest catch yet: the art-rockers Pavement, no strangers to the charts, were after a UK deal. With them on board, Domino became a force to be reckoned with.

"We couldn't finance breaking British artists overseas, because of the competition," Bell says. "We were in a small country with a lot of labels tracking down bands. Then a new generation of artists came, inspired by things we had done. They didn't want huge cheques, but wanted to feel comfortable."

Domino attracted artists less interested in the mainstream: Arab Strap, The Pastels and Four Tet among them. The last was the solo project of the sonic experimentalist Kieren Hebden.

He says: "Laurence came up to me after a gig and said if I was ever looking for someone to put out a record, to get in touch. Domino was where all my favourite records from the Nineties had come out."

Bell's charm had worked - and he needed it again to secure his biggest signing. By the time the label-head saw Franz Ferdinand, they were already the subject of a bidding frenzy. "I hadn't seen or heard anything like it. They were playing fresh music, a mix of Sparks and Orange Juice, to all these great-looking girls and cool boys." When he met them, he was impressed by their ambition. "We had so much common ground that the idea of them collaborating with anyone else was preposterous. We agreed they should be a pop group."

Still, neither the band nor Domino were prepared for what followed last year, as the band's second single went Top 10 and the album conquered the world. Franz have made people more excited about guitar music and given Domino more clout with distributors and retailers.

Yet Domino has not moved to plusher offices (like Creation) or invested in a boardroom table without legs (like Factory). The only difference you notice at the head office is extra desks for a few more staff. This has been noted by Domino's first signing, Barlow, who recently released his first solo album Emoh on the label.

"It's not changed at all," Barlow says. "Whatever I do, I feel in charge. A lot of labels say they'll give you full creative control, but they don't mean it. It's a passive-aggressive thing. If you suggest something, they'll go, 'Don't know about that.' Domino have always taken my ideas and made them work."

Hebden, too, remains comfortable. Since signing to Domino, he has encouraged Fridge to join. "People imagine everyone's driving Rolls-Royces now, but that's just not the case," he says. "The past year has been a fairy tale for Domino, but their aims haven't changed. The music comes first."

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