State of independence

What's in a word? As British indie pioneer Rough Trade celebrates its 20th birthday, Louise Gray considers what it is to be independent in 1996
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The Independent Online
In the morning-after melee that followed this year's Brit Awards on 19 February, it was easy to miss an altogether more significant event. Rough Trade, the record shop that launched the distribution company that launched the label that in turn was to launch the Smiths, turned 20. Founded by Geoff Travis at a time when punk was dawning, Rough Trade was to become the new music's definitive factor.

As a company independent of the industry's major labels, it was fast and responsive; above all, in its anti-corporatist ethos, it had a certain credibility that others lacked. Fanzines, including punk's seminal Sniffin' Glue, were put together in the Kensington Road shop, and Travis remembers Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols trying to flog records that he'd nicked from other companies to the shop's second-hand section. Although Travis cheerfully admits that he had no idea how to set up the record label that followed the next year, the shop was to become a focal point for punk's do-it-yourself ideals. When Johnny Rotten sang "EMI", one was left with no doubts: indie was cool; lumbering multi-national enterprises were as appealing as Woolworth's on a wet Sunday.

Next week, Nigel House, Judith Creighton and Peter Donne - the three partners who now run Rough Trade's shop, since 1981 based in nearby Talbot Road, begin a six-night celebration of the independent record movement at the Subterania Club. Acts from numerous other indie labels - 4AD's Cocteau Twins, Creation's Heavy Stereo and Mo' Wax's James Lavelle included - will feature. As a series of birthday parties designed to celebrate the indie ethos, it'll be a calendar event, even if, as most players acknowledge, the term has become increasingly difficult to define. Is indie a specific sound? Clearly not. Rough Trade's first releases included French punks Metal Urbain and veteran roots reggae artist Augustus Pablo. Recent indie sounds include much of the drum 'n' bass and jungle music. Or does it refer to a business position in which a label is only indie if it has independent finance and distribution?

A measure of the difficulties inherent in the word's sliding definition is provided by Paul Lester, features editor at Melody Maker: "A lot of the bands we call indie aren't at all. Oasis's label, Creation, is now part-owned by Sony, while Pulp's Jarvis Cocker is the epitome of an indie icon," he says, speaking of the singer's emphatic lyricism and the band's musical reference points. "It doesn't matter that Pulp are signed to Island Records, a global outfit distributed by PolyGram. And Blur might have made millions for themselves and their major label, Parlophone, but they are a quintessential indie band. Indie music is, in certain aspects, very much a mainstream affair."

Visiting Rough Trade's shop these days, the casual caller may feel himself catapulted back in time. Punks, guitar-band fans and jungle aficionados jostle for space. Surfers and skateboarders trawl for hardcore rock and hip hop discs. Avant-gardists make a beeline for the racks of off-the- wall electronica records. Quite probably, sounds from the shop's current best-seller, Vampyros Lesbos - the soundtrack to a softcore porn film made in 1969 by Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab, two names that'll probably never make Top of the Pops - will be blaring out.

So it would seem that the independent scene continues to thrive. In reality, much has changed. For a start, Rough Trade began a painful break- up in the Eighties. House and his partners bought the shop in 1982, building it up to its present format, opening further shops in Paris and Tokyo and diversifying into skate clothes (Slam City Skates, the epitome of street-chic, is owned by them); the distribution company was to fold a few years later, and most recently, Travis took Rough Trade Recordings to another independent, One Little Indian, and set up a management company and now a new label, Trade 2, which boasts such acts as Spring-Heel Jack and Boutique.

More significantly, the major labels have got wise. If punk's initial charge caught them on the hop, by 1988 and the acid house dance explosion, they were not about to make the same mistake twice. By buying up independent companies, either partially or wholesale, and by setting up their own faux-indie labels, they are, in effect, creating sub-organisations influenced entirely by Rough Trade's lead. Away from the definitive mainstream - the Celine Dions or Mariah Careys - the financial value of the goodwill attached to independent labels has been recognised. As the British music market fragments into a series of scenes, each with its own, usually alternative, chart, this kind of move makes sense.

Indolent Records, home to Sleeper, the Wannadies and 60 Ft Dolls, was set up within BMG/ RCA by A&R man Ben Wardle in 1993 in order to champion alternative acts. It uses independent distribution to reach the audiences that the parent company's salesforce could never reach. "It's not such a terrible thing," Travis says. "It gives them room to manoeuvre as well as a certain amount of kudos among the average young record buyers. Anything that encourages artistic endeavours without placing restraints on its products is healthy. That's where new ideas come from." Wardle agrees. "No idealism has been lost by these moves," he says. "On an A&R level, the idealism you found at Factory or at Rough Trade was much the same as that in majors like Geffen."

This kind of cherry-picking doesn't surprise Derek Chapman, distribution manager at Norwich's Backs Distribution, a company that in the mid-Eighties was, alongside Rough Trade, a founder member of the Cartel, an independent distributor. "Distribution might seem a boring subject, but the main purpose behind indie music has always been one of accessibility, and local networks have always been far more user-friendly. Any major wanting to break a new band that's not specifically pop knows that. The essence of indie is really about distribution companies co-operating. It still happens. It's one of the fundamental coherent strands of what defines the sector."

But Andy Saunders, press officer at Creation, co-owner of Scared Hitless Records, and, with Wardle and Mike Smith, the A&R man who signed Blur and Ride to EMI Publishing, traces another development. "Creation always wanted to be a global rock 'n' roll company. There was no chance that, with bands like Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream or Oasis, we were planning to stay in the bedroom. Indie is a bit of a swear-word to us. It denotes under-achievement. It's as if you're saying that the band you're pushing has limited potential."

Simon Harper who, as label manager at 4AD, is responsible for Lush, the Cocteau Twins and an entire roster of American east coast guitar bands, wonders what the effect of independent crossovers to quasi-mainstream status really is. "Indie music has always had a vaguely special connotation. It's about belonging to an alternative club. One wonders how many original Oasis fans are still with the band, now that they're so successful."

Is success antithetical to the spirit of indie? "No," says Harper, cautiously, "but the thing to remember is that one's responsiveness to new music must never be compromised by corporate red tape. Certainly, the definitions of what indie music is are cloudy now, but in the absence of anything better, they're useful to hang on to".

n `Twenty Years of Rough Trade' is at Subterania, London W10, 25-31 March. Booking: 0181-960 4590