Rough Trade: British indie’s saving grace

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It’s 1978 and the collective running West London’s Rough Trade record shop have launched a distribution company called The Cartel. It has built a co-operative network between the UK’s independent labels and it’s empowering the alternative music industry. They’ve also started an adventurous, forward-thinking record label, and they’re splitting any profit generated 50/50 with the artists. Their business practices are informed by their ideology, and their ideology is informed by a DIY punk ethos, feminism and left-wing politics. “For a brief moment in time,” former co-manager Steve Montgomery once said in a 2009 documentary, “we encapsulated everything that was right about the human race.”

Earlier this year, a promo CD arrived through Crack’s letterbox entitled Recorded At The Automat: The Best of Rough Trade Records. With a tracklist featuring the likes of Arthur Russell, The Fall, Antony & The Johnsons, Chris & Cosey, Warpaint, The Strokes, Mazzy Star, The Raincoats, Robert Wyatt, Young Marble Giants and The Smiths, it’s an impeccable retrospective that celebrates the label’s musical legacy. Behind the still-running, splintered company is a turbulent story of debt, disagreements and bankruptcy. But let’s start with those glorious early days that Montgomery was talking about.

“When we opened the first shop in ’76, it was really to find a safe haven where we could escape the notion of having to be part of the everyday working world,” Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis says over the phone. “It was set up a bit like a commune, everyone was equal. We didn’t really have any aspirations for success. But, you know, we were living in England – a capitalist society – and we weren’t ignorant of that,” he laughs. After punk lit the fuse for Rough Trade, the company would assimilate with the shop’s local West Indian community by being committed reggae supporters, and they’d become synonymous with the stylistic adventurousness of post-punk and the emotionally expressive culture of indie music – a benevolently rebellious artform in a context where Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister and Eye of The Tiger is about to become a number one hit.

With the label having a considerable influence on the cultural zeitgeist and The Cartel handling a great number of credible but commercially viable releases from artists such as Joy Division, The Smiths and Depeche Mode, you’d have thought Rough Trade would be in rude health. But by 1982, the business was in deep shit, and with the shop’s future under serious threat, three employees chipped in to buy that division of the business on the condition that they could keep the name. Even after considerable research, it’s hard to understand exactly what drove Rough Trade towards its bankruptcy in 1991, with Travis and The Cartel founder Richard Scott’s accounts tending to vary considerably. “The distribution company got too big, that’s where Rough Trade crashed,” comes Travis’s side of the story. “It was so successful that it became a monster that the management didn’t have the expertise to control.

“But that was part of the problem with Rough Trade, in a way; there were a lot of people brought in for distribution who came from a management culture. I felt very alienated, going to board meetings where I just didn’t understand what anyone was talking about. It was very, very strange. But you know how politics work, I though we were one company, but people make their positions of power, don’t they? By dividing and ruling. And that’s what really happened.”

But amid the chaos, in 1987 Travis had become business partners with Jeanette Lee, a former member of Public Image Limited who’d worked at the counter of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Acme Attractions shop during punk’s formative years. With the Rough Trade label in a precarious state, the pair made a foray into artist management, enjoying success with bands such as Pulp and The Cranberries during the 90s.

As anyone old enough to remember JJ72 will affirm, towards the turn of the millennium guitar music had become dispiritingly stale. And so when Travis and Lee resuscitated Rough Trade records in 1999, their discovery of bands such as The Libertines and The Strokes smothered rock culture with a much-needed layer of dirt. “But although everybody embraced The Strokes, people were very sceptical about The Libertines,” Travis points out. “I’d go and see The Libertines and they’d be absolutely brilliant and then I’d hear everybody say they couldn’t play. But they were always amazing I thought.”

As the record label behind The Libertines’ classic debut, their messy sophomore and Babyshambles’ even messier first album Down In Albion, Rough Trade found themselves attracting the wrong kind of attention, with rumours arising of Pete Doherty being banned from the label’s offices. It must have been an emotionally testing experience. “He was difficult, it’s always difficult dealing with someone who’s a junkie. You have to take tough measures really, that obviously soured our joy. But we cared about Peter, he was an amazing character and we were very conscious of our responsibilities towards him, we didn’t want to be exploitative. We took him to rehab, we talked to his parents, you know, we didn’t ignore the problem. But at the end of the day, you have to help yourself in that situation.”

But despite the troubles of its past, today Rough Trade is still going strong, and Travis sounds audibly excited about the label’s current roster, which includes artists such as Dean Blunt, Parquet Courts and Micachu. He and Lee are also now shareholders in Rough Trade’s Williamsburg shop – the biggest record store in New York City. “So we’re kind of reunited,” he says, quashing suspicions of animosity between the two companies. “We’re absolutely separate but completely intertwined. It’s a good relationship, really.”

The Raincoats

Gina Birch on Rough Trade’s ideology

There was a belief in a different way of doing things informed by an ideology that we could respect and trust each other without recourse to lawyers and complicated legal clauses and catches. There were many women employed at Rough Trade and Geoff definitely wanted and encouraged female bands and workers, he’s always been a thoughtful, ideological and politically engaged man. His love of music and creativity sometimes obscured his financial planning and, through necessity, he has become much more canny at keeping the company afloat and making wise choices. He is brilliant and I love that he is focused on the future and not the past.

Robert Wyatt

On his working relationship with Rough Trade

Rough Trade was quite different from the record companies I had become familiar with. The established setup had been – and probably still is – feudal. The company boss would be Lord of the Manor, his accountants and lawyers were his vassals and clerics. Below them, the singers and musicians were the peasants and serfs. For years some great people had done great things that way, naturally. But with Rough Trade, and the guidance of my missus Alfie, I had the liberating sensation of working as partners with them, each of us doing our bit for the mutual goal: to get some decent records out, and share the profit from those records. Of course, Trade could indeed get a bit Rough. Mistakes were made, as much by me as by anybody else. But that’s all part of trying to do things in new ways, fairer ways. I can’t speak for others , but in my case, Rough Trade showed a way to work and play that’s stayed with me through the decades with other really good people: Rykodisc, Cuneiform and now Domino records.

Young Marble Giants

Singer Alison Statton on her favourite Rough Trade releases

There are Rough Trade bands from that period that still evoke strong emotional reflexes today. When I first heard The Raincoats, it was my first Rough Trade musical crush! They made me want to run away and form a girl band and explore the musical sounds it could have to offer. It still makes me smile when I hear any of their instantly recognisable tracks. In fact, all the fellow Rough Trade bands helped to widen and develop my musical taste in those early days, and they all loop me straight back to those times. I particularly remember loving – and still do – Robert Wyatt, Augustus Pablo, Scritti Politti and Cabaret Voltaire.

So as a label owner who has survived some of the biggest problems the industry can throw at you, how does Travis honestly feel about the future of the music business? “You know what, I think it’s been very hard the last 10 years,” he admits. “But everyone’s talking optimistically about the future at the moment. The struggle in the industry is how to get people to pay for digital music, but there’s a lot of indications that that’s about to happen. I mean, Beggars Banquet [Rough Trade joined Beggars Group in 2007] is very well set up to deal with the digital revolution and has been for a long time, there’s some very good people there.”

As new generations grow up feeling entitled to endless free music at their fingertips, it’s hard not to feel slightly cynical of Travis’s optimism. But then again, the Rough Trade logo has always managed to appear in the sleeves of some of the best records of the era regardless of any drama going on behind the scenes. And you get the impression that for Geoff Travis, that’s what really matters. “The thing about being a record label, a shop or a distribution company is that you’re really just a conduit for what the musicians and artists want to say. It’s a great role, but it’s a modest role,” he insists. “The history of Rough Trade is really vritten in the grooves of the records that it released. That’s where its voice is.”

Recorded At The Automat: The Best Of Rough Trade is out now via Rough Trade Shops

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