Rough Trade: The label that changed music history

While John Peel gave new pop acts radio space, Rough Trade gave them shelf space. David Sinclair reports on the label's 30-year history

Friday 08 September 2006 00:00 BST

Who would have thought that the opening of a single, independent record shop in Kensington Park Road, west London, 30 years ago could have had such a defining influence on the course of popular music?

The shop was called Rough Trade, and it changed the rules of engagement between musicians and the marketplace. In much the same way that John Peel gave any number of young, untried acts access to the radio waves, so Rough Trade gave them access to the less romantic - but just as important - world of the retail outlet.

Any band with a batch of records pressed up and ready to sell could take them to Rough Trade, and in the era of feverish do-it-yourself record production that blossomed during and after the punk revolution, that's exactly what a lot of acts did.

Provided they caught the inquiring ears of the shop's founder, Geoff Travis, their records would quickly be stocked and sold - not only in Rough Trade itself, but throughout London and the rest of the country via other like-minded stores with which Rough Trade quickly established an independent distribution network.

The impact of this new business model on the post-punk music scene of the late 1970s was incalculable. "Record shops bred music, they bred fans, they bred labels... from Warp to Rhino, they were where everything started, and still are," says Martin Mills, the chairman of Beggars group, in the sleeve notes of a two-CD compilation, The Record Shop, released next month to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the Rough Trade brand. "From the racks of Musicland in Berwick Street, Soho, in 1967 for new Country Joe and the Fish to Rough Trade today for the next Arcade Fire, it's in the independent record shop, first of all, even in this age of instant media, that the first stirrings of new music are found and spread," Mills says.

Rough Trade, the record label, grew out of the retail and distribution operation, but it was quickly hived off. Under the management of Travis, it became a completely separate business entity, albeit trading rather confusingly under the same name.

Among the label's early releases were landmark records by the likes of Scritti Politti, Robert Wyatt, The Fall, Pere Ubu, The Raincoats and Stiff Little Fingers. Travis discovered and nurtured The Smiths, whom he signed for the princely sum of £4,000, and the label has continued to break the musical mould and achieve commercial success in the 21st century with left-field acts such as The Libertines, The Strokes, and Antony and the Johnsons, who won the Nationwide Mercury Prize in 2005.

In an extraordinary closing of the circle, the new album by Scritti Politti, White Bread Black Beer, finds the group led by Green Gartside and back in the Rough Trade fold after an absence of some 23 years. Not only that, but the album was shortlisted for this year's Mercury Prize, and Travis was at the Mercury reception earlier this week with his business partner, Jeannette Lee, who has shared the running of the Rough Trade label with Travis since 1987.

Sitting on the floor in a VIP reception area, drinking champagne, the pair reflected on a career that has combined unpredictable highs with some daunting lows.

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"It's hard to be a maverick independent and to survive, let alone to do so for this long," Travis says. "We didn't have any professional knowledge of the business, and that was the beauty of it. We just wanted to do things our own way. We won an award in 1984/85 for the best marketing campaign of the year for The Smiths. But we didn't even know what the word 'marketing' meant. So obviously we were doing something right."

Lee adds: "I think a lot of it has been not being scared to do the things that you believe in. Whether everything is set up or not, if you believe in something, then just go for it. If we see something we believe in, we do everything we can to make it work somehow. That's the master plan."

Travis says: "When you do something with The Strokes, you don't think, 'Oh, this is going to spark a revolution of guitar bands.'All that sociology comes afterwards."

Rob Young, editor-at-large of The Wire magazine, has made a game attempt to unravel some of the tangled knots of the story in his lavishly illustrated book, Labels Unlimited - Rough Trade, an account that celebrates the label's musical legacy while not ignoring some steep dives in the company's fortunes.

When Rough Trade Distribution went bankrupt in 1989, thanks to a lethal combination of bad management, uncollected debts and overdue tax, it ended with an announcement in 1991 that the whole of the Rough Trade group of companies had ceased trading. Travis maintains that although he was not legally required to close the record label - because it was trading as a separate company - he nevertheless felt morally obliged to hand over all of the company's assets to the debt collectors.

"It was a big blow in every single way for about three years," he says. "It was a nightmare. We lost everything. The Smiths' back catalogue, everything. It was a really difficult, distressing, debilitating, dark time."

And even now, having re-established themselves with a string of enviable successes, they have again been buffeted by the uncertain situation faced by their financial backers since 2000, the troubled independent distributor and label Sanctuary.

"Last year we had Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire and Antony and the Johnsons," Travis says. "And in every poll in every country in the world they were among the top five albums of the year. And yet we had a backdrop of just terrible business problems. It's taken its toll. We need a white knight to ride in and rescue us."

"There's an idea that maybe Rough Trade is a loose business operation," Lee says. "That couldn't be further from the truth. We're careful about what we spend. We don't take drugs - any more. We're in the office every morning, on time. And we don't accept sub-standard work."

Travis says: "We still feel we're on the cusp of something interesting and we don't want to quit until we find out what it is."

'The Independent' has 10 copies of 'Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited' (published by Black Dog Publishing) to give to the first 10 people who e-mail with the words 'Rough Trade' in the subject line. 'The Record Shop - 30 Years of Rough Trade Shops' is released on 2 October on V2

Indie Rock And Chart Toppers: The Bands Who Made Rough Trade

John Peel's favourite band released four albums on Rough Trade from 1980 to 1984, some produced by Geoff Travis and Mayo Thompson. Despite acclaim, none reached the national chart and singer Mark E Smith (above) found himself at odds with the label's politically correct approach. "The girl who cooks the fucking rice in the canteen doesn't like the fact that you've used the word 'slags'," Smith ranted in 1992. "They had a meeting over the fact that we mentioned guns in one song. And I'd go, 'What the fuck has it got to do with you? Sell the fuckin' record you fuckin' hippy."

The Smiths released five studio albums during a five-year career on Rough Trade, with average sales of half-a-million copies per album - an astonishingly productive and successful track record. For Geoff Travis the band was a dream to work with. "They were so fully formed, and knew what they wanted to do, and they were so fast. They saw it in the same way that a working person would see it: that's their job. It's a wonderful attitude." The group saw it slightly differently, with Morrissey (above) constantly carping about lack of star treatment and the label's "defeatism" in promoting their records.

Although they were never signed to the label, the Brit-pop indie rockers Pulp were steered from their origins in Sheffield to success by Rough Trade Management, yet another strand of business activity in the bulging portfolio of Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee. Cocker (above) remains one of their clients after 14 years, and his recent side project with Richard Hawley, A Heavy Nite With... Relaxed Muscle, was released on Rough Trade in 2003. Cocker has a new single out, "Running the World", ahead of a debut solo album scheduled for release in November.

Signed to Rough Trade at the end of 2001, The Libertines, featuring Pete Doherty (above), wrote and recorded two albums that set the standard and tone for English rock guitar bands of the new millennium. Their potential was phenomenal, but they split as the big time beckoned. "The Libertines disappointed us," says Geoff Travis. "They should have been the biggest band of their generation. But they imploded. They should be on their fourth album now with the world at their feet. So we want to find the right band and we want that to happen."

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