Bella Union’s founder Simon Raymonde salutes the crop of streetwise new bands who are restoring his dwindling faith in the music industry…
Acutely aware as I am that any piece beginning along the lines of “When I were a lad…” is likely to be met with raised eyebrows, I am going to start by saying that when I joined Cocteau Twins in 1983, things were very different for musicians in what we now call ‘indie bands’. Money was not something that we understood, talked about, expected nor cared about. We were just excited to be making music, playing shows, putting out records and doing what we had always wanted to do.
We had no lawyer, no manager, no accountant (we finally got all of these eight years later, but I can’t say things were really any better once we had them). We had a publisher, but we didn’t really know what publishing was, and we certainly didn’t get paid anything. We started to become successful quite quickly, but still had no idea about money. When we played a sell-out show, the next day we went and bought guitars and pedals. We never spent the money on ourselves, just our band. We lived in bedsits for years, but we were slowly accumulating a nice selection of guitars and pedals… and then eventually we got a tape machine and some bits of outboard gear to help make our recordings sound better.
By the time Blue Bell Knoll came out in 1988, we had built our first studio, with the help of some brawn from the boys in Dif Juz (4AD band we loved), who knew how to do plastering and building stuff – and while we were selling well over 100,000 albums at this time, we still had no manager or accountant and ended up in a right old pickle, as we’d never paid any tax or VAT since the beginning. Even though we didn’t play any shows in 1988 following the Blue Bell Knoll release, we had sold out the Town And Country Club and the National Ballroom in Kilburn in 1986, and managed to buy a small mixing desk and tape machine. Before long, we were able to make all our records in our own studio, which had been a dream for a long time. For a while, we took a room in William Orbit’s luxurious home in St John’s Wood. But we couldn’t make as much noise as we wanted, and we ended up in an industrial estate in North Acton, taking on a unit and building our first studio there. It was also the studio that Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S was made in. For years, the only silver disc I ever had was for that track. The irony isn’t lost on me.
Running Bella Union for 20 years, I’ve seen drastic change, and not always for the better. There is, though, a light flickering in the distance. I see it as a new dawn. The view I held for years, that labels rip off artists and can’t be trusted, was clearly going to take a long time to wash off, and as the power axis shifted between artist-manager-lawyer-agent-label, the ever-shrinking cash pie was only going to end up with less going to artists. Having been exasperated for years about falling physical sales, it troubled me that some bands (as represented by their lawyers, anyway) were still seeking the same-size advances as in the heyday. As some labels were still somehow paying them, I have seen such a mess unfolding – akin to what happened with the major labels in the 80s and 90s.
The old, dumb-as-fuck major-label model of signing a new band for crazy money, putting them in the studio with expensive producers, never releasing the record – then, three years later, dropping them with the band looking at a million pounds of debt on a record that never saw the light of day, has been happening again within the indie labels. The major labels just about got away with incurring such losses on these deals, as they usually had one or two huge acts who sold millions. But the indies won’t survive this kind of model in 2017.
However, this year, I’ve noticed a whole breed of new bands who have that same punk-rock attitude as my band had 35 years ago, and I am so energised by it! They don’t want money just for the sake of it, ’cos they’re smart enough to see that bands who don’t sell thousands of copies of their debut album are again getting dropped with debt that will likely never be repaid. The new breed, like The Beat Escape, Will Stratton, Hilang Child, Field Division, Ari Roar, Broen and Pom Poko, are lean and smart. They want to put out records and tour relentlessly, but they don’t expect handouts. It may well prove to be a false new dawn, but regardless, my faith is restored and there is hope.