On the record label’s 40th anniversary, we talk to founder Geoff Travis and co-director Jeanette Lee about sticking to their guns in the music industry
In the late 70s, Geoff Travis launched Rough Trade as an independent record label from his shop of the same name in west London’s Ladbroke Grove. At that time, the UK music industry was largely dominated by major record labels, who churned out increasingly similar mainstream music and took a large percentage of the artists’ profits for the privilege. By contrast Travis, inspired by the community-focused environment of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, paid all of Rough Trade’s staff the same rate in its early days, and would only sign artists he was passionate about (often losing them to major labels as their stock rose, as was the case when Scritti Politti moved from making bedroom post-punk to genuine pop hits – though they later re-signed to the label).
Over the years, Rough Trade would go on to release iconic albums by the likes of The Smiths and The Fall, as well as countless cult classics, and while the makeup of the label is very different today (they’re no longer directly involved with their stores, pay is divided in terms of input, record deals are offered on a longer term basis, and perhaps most significantly, Travis works alongside company co-director Jeannette Lee), they’re still driven by that same passion for new music. Rough Trade survived while so many similar labels fell by the wayside during the 80s and 90s, and are today still releasing records by innovative artists like Sleaford Mods, Warpaint, and Dean Blunt. It’s why you can still spot young people carrying a Rough Trade tote bag around any major UK city today.
As Rough Trade celebrate their 40th anniversary with a string of celebrations, including a recent show at the Barbican, Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee talked to us about why people are going against traditional record deals again, how they find their artists, and the selling point for independent labels in 2016.
Recently, the do-it-yourself approach has been readopted by young people. Do you think that 1976 is comparable to 2016 in terms of a kind of unrest that makes people want to change things?
Geoff Travis: In some ways, it’s very similar – although it’s hard to put yourself into the mind of someone who’s 15, 16, 17 and claim that you understand what they’re thinking. In our generation, we weren’t interested in straight society in terms of careers, being successful, trying to make some money and be comfortable. We were more interested in trying to learn lessons, which energised us to be ourselves and try to do things that we loved and follow our passion. We went against what our parents were doing. The good thing that we had in the 70s was that we were all living in London without paying rent. You could squat then, but if you squat now the bailiffs will come and knock your door down – and beat you in the head, probably. But that was a condition of living that enabled lots of people to do things and musicians to live there. The idea of living at home was just something you wouldn’t do; you left home as soon as you could. The idea of a future that seems really uncertain is a different mentality – I don’t think we were worried about the future in the sense that everything was blocked. I didn’t feel like that, I thought the future was whatever you wanted to make it.
Jeannette Lee: Reacting against big corporations and making music in your bedroom and sticking it on the internet is the modern day version of what we were doing. People are trying to make their own paths again because it’s difficult to find another way out.
Would you say that politics are still central to Rough Trade’s dogma?
Geoff Travis: I think it is – but in the organisation of the company, in our everyday lives, and the way we are to people. The mouthpiece is our musicians – they’re the ones espousing a political agenda. We’re supporting them by allowing people like Sleaford Mods or Jeffrey Lewis or Goat Girl a platform. That’s our political agenda because we like what they’re saying. There’re more women than men working here, that’s all part of what Rough Trade was always about. The do-it-yourself thing was an amazing parable for everybody because it broke all the rules of the points of entry into the industry. People could start up a stall on Portobello Road. You didn’t have to go and work for someone that you didn't want to go and work for. Those things are deeply political, I think.
“The do-it-yourself thing... broke all the rules of the points of entry into the industry... You didn’t have to go and work for someone that you didn't want to go and work for. Those things are deeply political, I think” – Geoff Travis, Rough Trade
Are you still responsible for the A&R, and if so, what kind of stuff do you look for in a potential act?
Jeannette Lee: We make the final decisions, nothing’s on the label that we haven’t chosen. That’s the bit that’s really exciting, that’s the thing that makes us carry on doing it. The idea that you might find something tomorrow that you had no idea about is rejuvenating.
Where do you look?
Geoff Travis: Everywhere – in real life, on the internet. We have a lot of people around the world. The best source for information about who’s doing interesting stuff is musicians. You need to talk to musicians and ask them what they’re listening to and what they like. Also in print media and on the radio – we don’t have John Peel anymore to tip us off, but there’re lots of other people who are playing new things. Keeping up with things is so hard because there’s so much, but it’s the best part of the job.
At one point everyone was paid equally at Rough Trade. Do you think there’s a place for co-operative businesses today?
Geoff Travis: It worked for a while, but then some people have families and some people are solo. Real life starts to intervene. It’s not fair to pay someone who’s trying to feed three kids the same as someone who’s on their own, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t work for a few years while business is getting off the ground.
Jeannette Lee: You were all starting (at the same time), weren’t you? Now you would have junior people who are just learning and senior people who’d been there for a while.
Thanks to social media, there are a lot of artists that are gaining a following without having a record label. What’s the selling point for an independent record label like Rough Trade in 2016?
Geoff Travis: Being a part of the Beggars Group means we’ve got about 200 people working internationally. There’s 123 streaming services and it’s really helpful to have people working to get your music on one of them. A lot of bands need tour support – it’s very easy to run out of money if you’re on your own. There’s a lot of energy in the consolidation of knowledge. A lot of music supervisors like to come to Beggars and post music there – it helps to get your music in films and on TV. If we weren’t needed as a label then that would become evident over time and it would be fine. But people still seem very keen to be signed.
Jeannette Lee: I think artists like to be part of a musical family and they like to work with other people that they admire. When we met Sleaford Mods they had it all going on on their own. We thought they probably wouldn’t want to be part of the label, but they liked the idea and we were so happy about that. You get attached to certain labels and you like the idea of being associated with them. We have that a lot with artists.
Geoff Travis: David Byrne said famously that ‘everybody needs an editor.’ Talking Heads were one of the best bands ever, so if he’s saying that, it goes to prove that people like to work in an environment where there’s a dialogue with people you can trust and who artistically understand what you do and can give you honest feedback.
“Making music in your bedroom and sticking it on the internet is the modern day version of what we were doing. People are trying to make their own paths again because it’s difficult to find another way out” – Jeannette Lee, Rough Trade
In the 80s, you shook the industry up and changed the way it was headed. Do you think there’s a comparison today?
Geoff Travis: A lot of grime artists are changing things by managing to do it completely by themselves. Instead of joining up with an established label, they’re developing their own team, which is exciting because they’re giving the people they know low-key jobs and in turn, those people are learning too.
Jeannette Lee: I think Dean Blunt is an example of someone who’s making the new rule book. He’s just doing it however he wants to do it and making it work on a small scale that’s growing all the time.
What’s been your best moment over Rough Trade’s lifetime?
Jeannette Lee: It may sound corny, but we’ve been working together for such a long time and so closely. That’s quite an achievement. The fact that we’ve been such a well functioning team and we've balanced each other. We trust each other’s opinions and both get really excited about things.
Geoff Travis: Also, we’re spoilt because we’re like a couple of kids who need to be thrilled by music. That happens almost every week, it happened to me last night actually. It happens all the time. The thrill is part of the addiction to music.