From Gary Numan to Adele, via Pixies, The White Stripes and Radiohead… Gareth Murphy tells the story of a group of British indie labels who forever changed the global music business…
After the still relatively recent crash of the CD industry, the embattled major labels began eating each other in what appeared to be a corporate end game. But all the while, England’s biggest indie encampment has been noisily growing on the leftfield. Owned by one man, Martin Mills, the Beggars Group is the umbrella organisation that handles publicity, distribution, finance and other backline services for some of the most distinctive indie labels today – XL Recordings, 4AD, Matador, Young Turks and Rough Trade.
For an idea of what kind of weird and wonderful talent has recently emerged from around these five campfires, just think The White Stripes, The xx, M.I.A., The Libertines, Kurt Vile, Vampire Weekend, Cat Power, Antony And The Johnsons, Alabama Shakes, Bon Iver, Sleaford Mods, FKA Twigs, Future Islands, The Lemon Twigs, Warpaint… But probably the most poignant symbol of all, is that in the decade when EMI was carved up and sold to Universal and Sony, the world’s most popular artist, Adele, was on the Beggars flagship, XL Recordings. Yes folks, our pop icons may be dying, but the future of British independent music is looking up.
As with all great record companies, Beggars is the sum of its experiences.
The story started in 1971, when two college friends, Martin Mills and Nick Austin, began running a mobile discotheque. Initially called Giant Elf, they joined forces with another mobile disco called Beggar’s Banquet and, through a series of mishaps, inherited the name. In 1973, Beggar’s Banquet became their very own record exchange in Earl’s Court, but they continued promoting events on the side, including some adventurous gigs such as Tangerine Dream at the Royal Albert Hall. Without bank loans – not even an overdraft, just a habit of operating within their means and reinvesting profits into small businesses – Mills and Austin opened a total of five more record shops over the subsequent decade, in Fulham, Ealing High Street, Richmond, Putney and Kingston.
It was punk that provided the kick up the arse to start a label. Young groups such as Generation X were rehearsing in the basement of the Fulham shop, which is how Austin and Mills began managing The Lurkers. Because no labels were interested, they simply got a Lurkers 7″ pressed up with a Beggars Banquet logo and began selling it themselves. Other punk singles were self-released throughout 1977, followed by a Lurkers album that went Top 20.
But the artist who truly put Beggars Banquet on the map was Gary Numan. Originally calling himself Tubeway Army, his 1978 debut album sold out all 5,000 copies – enough to create a buzz around London. It was here, however, that Mills and Austin learned their first lesson about the record business: flops will hurt, but success can be even more dangerous. Pressing thousands of records required a level of cash flow that their six little shops couldn’t sustain. Convinced Gary Numan was bound for glory, they kept dipping into the cash reserves to buy him synthesisers, as salary cheques started bouncing.
Beggars were going bust when, just in the nick of time, Warner offered them a £100,000 advance to market and distribute the label. The shops went back to being shops, and with Warner support, the Beggars Banquet label opened up Gary Numan to a national audience. His second album, Replicas, in 1979, contained the UK No. 1 Are ‘Friends’ Electric? and the third album, later that year, bore his transatlantic breakthrough, Cars – a Top 10 in America.
With spirits high and profits rolling in, Austin and Mills agreed to give two staffers their own label. And so, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent set up 4AD, initially from behind the counter of the main Earl’s Court store. “The shop stayed open until 11pm,” explains Watts-Russell. “So myself, Peter, Nick and Martin would alternate shifts.
I would spend most days driving to all of the shops, while Peter managed Earl’s Court.” Two tiny rooms in the basement served briefly as an office, but in 1980, they moved to a room above the shop, no more than 20 by 12 feet. “There were often up to eight of us, somehow entertaining potential signees and listening to their demos. For years, my chair was a propane-gas cylinder.”
“Because no labels were interested, beggars got a Lurkers 7″ pressed up with a logo and sold it themselves”
Despite working in each other’s ears, the two record labels immediately evolved in different directions. Forged by Gary Numan’s success and the Warner partnership, Mills and Austin took off on a more commercial, major-oriented route. Of the two bosses, Martin Mills was the shier, more academic personality, whereas Nick Austin was the brass-necked blagger, skilled at getting his acts on TV. 4AD, on the other hand, was distributed through Rough Trade and run by twenty-something musos so single-minded that Peter Kent was quickly assigned his own imprint, Situation Two.
Mills and Austin initially imagined the two sub-labels as indie incubators that’d promote the most promising talent to the main Warner-fuelled label. The principle proved successful and Kent found many of the artists that kept Beggars Banquet hot: Bauhaus, the Associates, Freeez, Gene Loves Jezebel and the original Southern Death Cult, who later became The Cult. 4AD, however, immediately became Watts-Russell’s preciously guarded baby, which he wanted to keep uncompromisingly indie. 4AD’s distinctive sonic and visual identity was quickly forged by Modern English, Cocteau Twins, The The, Colourbox and The Birthday Party, featuring a young Nick Cave.
“Downstairs, beneath the quad-album racks, was where I stored all of the 4AD catalogue,” remembers Watts-Russell. “Customers had to stand about two feet away from the racks and lean over the boxes to flick through the sleeves.” Bursting at the seams, in 1983, Mills and Austin turned a house in Wandsworth into a proper office and warehouse. Sharing the same reception and backline services, each imprint had its own individual space and staffers. The Situation Two imprint quickly fell into relative dormancy when Kent left, but 4AD had an identity sufficiently ‘collective’ in character to enable Watts-Russell to call on some of the label’s artists to collaborate as This Mortal Coil. Their 1984 debut album, It’ll End In Tears, embodied what people today regard as the ‘4AD sound’ – almost a genre in itself.
In the other rooms, Nick Austin began his own imprint, Coda, specialising in jazz-funk and new-age music; whereas on the main Beggars Banquet label, Martin Mills was focusing on Bauhaus, Tones On Tail and The Cult. Following a string of goth stompers throughout 1984, The Cult detonated the explosive She Sells Sanctuary in 1985 – an instant hit in the UK, which led to a major licence deal in America.
Dance music’s origins were intertwined with the post-punk scene and, in 1987, elements of Colourbox produced Pump Up The Volume, under the M|A|R|R|S moniker, a million-unit genre-buster for 4AD that heralded the oncoming rave explosion. Celebrating the windfall, Watts-Russell moved his staff into a refurbished nunnery next door. And thus the Beggars Group continued growing, as neighbouring houses along the residential Alma Road. “You have no idea how nice it was to be separate,” says Watts-Russell. “I actually lived above the office for a few months.” Thanks to the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Throwing Muses and other acts, 4AD were enjoying such sustained popularity, they even opened a small New York office.
Alas, for the company owners, what had begun as musical differences had grown into a problematic rift. Increasingly isolated, both musically and personally, Austin sold his shares to Mills in 1987 and launched The Landscape Channel, a video station for new-age music. Conceptually, Austin’s idea was probably ahead of its time, but he lacked the ears to find the right content. Running out of money within a year, he sued Mills for more. “It was the big fall-out of my life,” confesses Mills, “and it put me hugely into debt.” Despite the success of The Cult, The Fall, The Charlatans and others, a dark cloud hung over the company, at a time when 4AD appeared to be eclipsing its parent label.
To finance his three months in court, Mills had to dip into 4AD’s cash reserves, but felt so guilty about it, he gave half of the label’s shares to Watts-Russell. In March 1990, the judge ruled in Mills’ favour: “You could see this enormous weight being lifted from Martin’s shoulders,” recalled Watts-Russell. “In the pub afterwards, we all had tears in our eyes.” But then, just a year later, another crisis hit when Rough Trade’s distribution system collapsed. For scores of indies such as 4AD, hundreds of thousands of pounds were lost in debt, threatening a tidal wave of bankruptcies across Britain’s music business. As indie bosses screamed in endless crisis meetings, Mills and others calmly won majority support to set up a new distribution company, RTM, whose profits paid off everyone’s debts within 18 months.
“For the owners, what had begun as musical differences grew into a problematic rift”
Although the golden age of indie had died with Rough Trade, Watts-Russell acknowledges: “Martin deserves credit for single-handedly saving independent distribution.” Nothing, however, could stop the march of the majors and, with them, the rising tide of corporate pop-rock. Few indies remember the 1990s with much fondness, least of all the 4AD founder, who recalls sitting in Mills’ Richmond garden, feeling utterly burnt out in hostile times. Experiencing what he now recognises was some kind of mid-life breakdown, Watts-Russell sold his half of 4AD to Mills and retired to New Mexico – with no regrets that he bowed out with his love of music intact.
Tougher, wiser and growing into a leader, Mills carried the combined experiences of 4AD and Beggars Banquet into the digital age. “Ivo led me into a less ‘establishment’ view of music as a business,” says Mills, who now realises that, in his early years, he’d been influenced too much by outside professional advice. “Ivo showed me how relationships with artists can work on a symbiotic level, with shorter contracts and fewer obligations – more of a partnership. And he also showed us the importance of being determined about artistry, of being a perfectionist, of refusing to let commercial issues get in the way of the art.”
These values laid the foundations of the modern Beggars Group, which entered a new chapter during the 90s – a time when other labels tended to be selling out to majors rather than doubling down as indies.
The big surprise turned out to be Mills’ dance label, XL Recordings, which quickly exploded into the group’s third madhouse. Driven by a young DJ named Richard Russell, its first major discovery was The Prodigy, whose 1994 thunderbolt, Music For The Jilted Generation, propelled the whole company into the 21st century. Then came Basement Jaxx, The White Stripes, M.I.A., Electric Six, Dizzee Rascal, Vampire Weekend and many other brilliant originals. XL has become such a reference inside the business, established names such as Radiohead, Beck, Peaches, Gil Scott-Heron, Sigur Ros and Damon Albarn have come from other labels.
Some hot labels have been joining the group, too. In 2002, Beggars bought into Matador, the American indie that’s been behind the likes of Belle And Sebastian, Cat Power and Kurt Vile. Then came Young Turks, currently home to The xx, SBTRKT and FKA Twigs. And in 2008, the resuscitated and arguably better-than-ever Rough Trade joined the group, completing the circular journey back into record stores and post-punk guitar music.
In many respects, then, Beggars has been an answer to the record crash. With branches in New York, Los Angeles, Ontario, Paris, Hamburg, Milan, Brussels, Amsterdam, Athens, Beijing and Tokyo, the Beggars Group is now a global operation plugged into the world’s best independent distributors and record shops. Beggars was already a big hitter; but Adele’s gazillion- pound success over the last decade has certainly helped ensure that both XL and the parent company will remain flush for years to come.
“Adele’s gazillion- pound success has certainly helped”
Aged 67, Martin Mills is now the godfather of the indie world. The secret to his success? Doing what you believe in and doing it yourself – he doesn’t even have a personal assistant. For Mills, being truly independent means never borrowing money off banks – Beggars is entirely self-financed. Modest and approachable, he’s very much a community man; he comes to gigs, he answers everyone’s emails, he’s set up indie lobbies and, according to rumour, he’s long been helping labels in distress. The majors constantly tell us how the business should be put to the service of the music, while in reality, their business-schooled staffers keep churning out product to
The difference with the Beggars labels is that they’re genuinely run by and for discerning music people – and the proof is in the product. At the end of the day, record labels are really no different from businesses anywhere else in life; you will know them by their fruits.