“When we started in 1978, what Cherry Red prided itself on was its diversity,” says Iain McNay, Cherry Red’s founder and chairman. “Labels such as Factory Records and Rough Trade had a certain image, but you couldn’t pin us down musically – we were a bit all over the place.”
As Cherry Red (named after a track from the Groundhogs’ album, Split) celebrates its 30th birthday this year, it’s a philosophy that has served it well. Not only has its music covered many a genre, but the business model has adapted over time. The Cherry Red empire now spans 12 sub-labels putting out a variety of music – and McNay is always open to more.
It all started for Cherry Red back in the punk era. In 1976, the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash were all signed, leaving the smaller bands without deals. Music enthusiasts saw their chance, and up sprung a lot of small record companies, including Cherry Red. McNay turned Cherry Red, which had been a “pocket-money” promotions company, into a label and started signing some of the smaller, overlooked punk bands.
First up were The Tights, a punk outfit from Malvern whose debut single was released in June 1978. John Peel played it, and soon Cherry Red had sold its initial pressing of 2,000 records. “This was the first of three stages for the label,” says McNay. “For 10 years until the late Eighties we existed on putting out punk, post-punk and independent records by new bands who we generally signed for several albums.”
The label’s first breakthrough came early on, in 1980 with the signing of controversially-named American punk band, the Dead Kennedys. Their record, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, became Cherry Red’s first, and only, top 40 album. It sold over a million copies worldwide (it is still the label’s bestselling album most years) giving McNay the chance to move the base from his flat in Wimbledon to an office in London.
From this era Cherry Red can also claim credit for Everything But The Girl. “We had signed both Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn separately – Ben as a solo artist and Tracey was in all-girl band The Marine Girls. Coincidentally both went to Hull University and our A&R guy, Mike Alway, suggested that they hook up.” They duly met, formed EBTG, and their debut single “Night and Day (1982)” became a well respected track.
The same year also saw the release of Cherry Red’s successful compilation double album, Burning Ambitions (A History of Punk), featuring the likes of the Boomtown Rats and the Buzzcocks. It sold well and the label went on to issue Pillows and Prayers. McNay describes this album as a “groundbreaker” because for 99p it was the cheapest compilation around and sold 120,000 copies in the first year.
Towards the end of the Eighties, however, things got more difficult for Cherry Red. The majors had cottoned on to the independent scene’s pull, and had started their own “pretend” independent labels. Cherry Red changed its policy and started to look at putting out reissues of albums that had come out on vinyl but not out on CD, which was then a new medium.
It acquired rights to other independent labels that had ceased to function. It was a move that allowed the label to put out interesting records while keeping down the number of people working in-house.
In 1998 the label entered its third decade and third stage, forming liaisons with other reissue companies, RPM and Revola Records among them, who put together the releases and Cherry Red took on the business side of it, the marketing and distribution. New band signings are now few and far between, with CherryRed focused on finding undiscovered music and turning it into attractive packages. McNay estimates that Cherry Red puts out between 40 and 50 albums each month, and sells around 750,000 albums a year.
Recent releases include a range of collectors’ series, including a football series with albums based around clubs, and series focusing on goth, metal and psychobilly music.
Nena, Flock of Seagulls and Visage have just been released on CherryPop, an Eighties imprint, and the specialists running 7ts Records are working through the 10CC and John Miles back catalogues. Other labels include RPM who concentrate on music from the Sixties and Seventies, Lemon (rock music) and El (primarily off the wall Fifties and Sixties).
In its fourth decade, Cherry Red has started its own web television station (www.cherryred.tv). They also air programmes on satellite channel Rock World. It also markets books written by fans for fans and DVDs with unearthed footage for niche markets.
‘I’ll Give You My Heart; I’ll Give You MyHeart’, an 8-CD box set containing As and Bs of the first 61 Cherry Red singles, is released in June to celebrate the label’s 30th anniversary