Perfect Sound Forever

Rough Trade - Trade 2

Geoff Travis

Geoff Travis interview by Jason Gross (November 1996)

In the late '70s when punk was a break-out phenomenon in England, one particular record label set out on its own to create an independent network to make and distribute records by acts that the major labels wouldn't have any part of. Geoff Travis turned a record shop into a record label and then into a part of a distribution service (along with other shops and small labels) which made its way across Europe and the United States. Thanks to the Trade, the world got to hear Stiff Little Fingers, Young Marble Giants, Subway Sect, Cabaret Voltaire, Television Personalities, the Slits, Swell Maps, Scritti Politti, Kleenex/Liliput, the Pop Group, the Virgin Prunes, Essential Logic and many others, including later albums by Wire and Pere Ubu and one-off's from The Feelies and Butthole Surfers (this isn't even mentioning all of the albums from other labels that they distributed): in all, a stunning legacy.

During the '80s, the label picked up steam with the Fall and the Smiths as well as a deal with Warners to distribute Blanco Y Negro with acts like the Jesus and Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr. Rough Trade became one of the best-selling and fiercely independent record labels in music. After all of this, problems came up.

Allison of Rough Trade mailed me this information:

Basically, Geoff sold Rough Trade (the one and only original -- "Independence And Quality Since 1978") to One Little Indian about 2/3 years ago. They then employed him to run it. For various reasons, the relationship between Geoff and One Little Indian didn't work out very well, and last Summer he left the label. One Little Indian employed me to run it.

Trade 2 is a new label Geoff has set up, which is owned by Island. The two companies have no relationship.

Undaunted by all of this, Geoff Travis continues in the great tradition that he established with Rough Trade, with a flurry of new acts including Spring Heel Jack, Tiger, Boutique, Dweeb and Dex Dexter as well as management deals with Pulp, Mazzy Star and Bernald Butler (ex-Suede).

Alison also provided us with a complete Rough Trade discography (in Word format- 56K).

PSF: When did you start up Rough Trade, the record store?

GEOFF: I opened the shop in 1977. I never ran a shop before but I had a lot of records. When I used to go to school, I used to go to the West End to listen to records and you'd find more records there too.

PSF: What do you think was right about the climate in the late '70s that allowed a label like Rough Trade to start?

GEOFF: I think the record industry has always had a history of independents. Like Sun Records and Hi. The conditions, I think were always right. The fact was that there were only five major companies. It was coming out of a dead decade musically so I think that then the conditions were right. Punk gave everyone on the scene the impetus to do things for themselves. If that hadn't happened, perhaps we wouldn't have started.

PSF: What kind of bands were you looking for when you started the record label?

GEOFF: We really don't have any plans. It was just really intuitive. Our guard was up- we had very high aesthetic standards. We felt we were knowledgable about music. We were interested in characters and individuals. We weren't interested in musicians who wanted to have a career. We really wanted people who were driven to do what they had to do and really had no choice. We were looking for the best people and sometimes the best people are more irrational, a little less consistent, a little less career-minded.

PSF: If you're trying to run a label, which is a business, how do you balance that out then?

GEOFF: I think that's one of the great mistakes of the record industry, that they think they do just run a business. One of the most influential bands of this decade was Nirvana and I don't think they really fit into any corporate plan. Yet, they sold millions of records. It is kind of paradox from the outside but I think it's acutally the paradox that makes it work. You really have to encourage peoples' visions and give them a chance to do what they want to do. It's putting them into little boxes that maybe makes people who would be great musicians want to go into other fields.

One of the great things about being an independent label is that you're not encumbered by the overhead that a major label would have. You don't have a lot of employees and a huge systems to keep fed by product. If you think it's a great a record and your media circle of people (who aren't just fawning fans and able to be critical) like it, then maybe other people will like it. I think that's the beauty of it. The fear of failure is taken out of that equation. It gives you a chance to be more adventurous.

PSF: What was the set up of Rough Trade when you started it?

GEOFF: It was a small handful of people. It was a cooperative collective from the beginning to 1981, '82, '83. It was collective in the sense that it wasn't a traditional workplace. There weren't bosses and a hierachy. People were payed equal amounts of money. We didn't sit around and have endless meetings, which is peoples' image. We were able to be adult about it as the work is what kept us together. Our aspirations were really to deal with things that we thought were great. And also there was a political purpose as we built a distribution system in this country which took a lot of organization and hard work. If you made a record and we bought it up or one of the other members of what was called the Cartel (including Red Rhino, Revolver, Small Wonder and Fast) bought it, they would distribute it throughout the whole country. We short-circuited the need for anyone to sign to a major to get their records into the charts. We were really challenging the industry and we made it work.

PSF: How did the Cartel work?

GEOFF: They were all shops like we were. Musicians would gravitate towards these stores. People would come in and talk and find out information if they wanted to make a record. That gave people the chance to do it themselve. Daniel Miller (founder of Mute Records) came into the shop and gave me a tape of what he'd done. We had an old reggae sound system in the shop. It was massively loud and we played it all day long so you couldn't hear anything else. It was a wonderful record and we liked it. People heard it there and liked it too. That particular moment gave Daniel encouragement to start making records. This happened in all the shops, all over the place.

It was a good time. Energy was very high. The possibility that you could do things your own way . It didn't really matter that you weren't Rick Wakeman and you weren't a keyboard virtuoso. As long as you do something to approximate the magic of the early Velvets, you were on to something.

PSF: Did you find it hard to keep the momentum going after the first wave of punk bands died out?

GEOFF: Not at all. In the same way that we were galvenized by punk, a lot of musicians were. Musicians were, let's say, at art school but were really interested in making punk music like Green of Scritti Politti. Their goal in life was to do something interesting with music. In a way, it intensified that period. That period, which Rough Trade is most famous for, was the post-punk period. It's very gratifying to read interviews with American musicians who say the Young Marble Giants' and Raincoats' records were very important to them. The whole post-punk era was an attitude. A sort of a psychological attitude towards how you lived in the world. They would really play out music and people could really hear that in the records.

PSF: Did the bands work closely with the operation of the label?

GEOFF: Not really. Ana from the Raincoats and some of the Marine Girls helped out. It was bascially just packing boxes of records onto trucks. The musicians had more chance to know each other than they might have otherwise gotten to. Robert Wyatt was on the label and got to sing at a Raincoats show and it was the first time he'd done a show in a while. Mayo Thompson of Red Crayola was part of the organization. Mayo and I produced a lot of records together, like the Raincoats and the Fall. When Red Crayola made their record, they had members of the Raincoats, Essential Logic and Pere Ubu working with them. There was a lot of interbreeding and inter-mingling, which I thought was very helpful. That's how I think we got the rap of being a bunch of hippies. I'm not trying to glamorize it or romanticize it. It was really a lot of hard work.

PSF: Did you put together tour packages of the bands?

GEOFF: We did do it a few times. Simon Frith said that the best show he'd ever seen in his life was Stiff Little Fingers, Daniel Miller and Robert Rental. Kleenex and Spizzenergi also did gigs together. It was less publicized that the Stiff Records tours because the artists hadn't had the success of Elvis Costello. It's kind of a '60s thing- get on the bus and tour around the country.

PSF: How did you create the Blanco Y Negro label with Warner Brothers?

GEOFF: A friend of mine, Mike Alway, was the head of the Cherry Red label. He was fed up with his bosses- he thought they weren't backing his judgment. I said "why don't you start your own label?" I couldn't really integrate him into Rough Trade. What I was thinking was we'd start an indepedent label but what he was thinking of was starting a label but doing it with a major (record label). I wanted to work with Mike so I said OK. We went to the head of Warner Brothers with the idea. We got Tracey Thorn and about thirteen other acts. That taught me about how the corporates work and what it meant to be on the inside. What it really meant was we could really sign the bands we wanted to. Some bands wanted to work with us but we didn't have the resources for them before that.

PSF: When making the deal with Warner Brothers, did you have any misgivings about working with a major label?

GEOFF: I didn't really. People always said that we discovered hundreds of bands but we never kept them. We felt terrible about that because we knew what we were doing. One of the things that made me take this seriously was when Scritti Politti left us and signed to Virgin. Aztec Camera left us and signed to Warners. They said, in so many ways, that if they had known what we were going to do (with Blanco Y Negro), they would have stayed with us. It would have been nice to keep them but financial restraints made it impossible for them to stay. There has to be a balance- people have to make a living. That's very important. I think that you can have your cake and eat it in the sense that you can do what you want to do without compromising.

I have the philosophy that it's interesting to see what happens on the other side of the fence. The Jesus and Mary Chain had been on Creation and they didn't enjoy that. They wanted to sign to a major. Have we been tainted and corrupted by our association with Warners? I don't know. You'd have to ask the people we work with.

PSF: The Smiths were the biggest (commercial) success for Rough Trade. How did that change things for you?

GEOFF: We had more money to work with other bands. All the money we made, went back into the label. So it meant that we had a chance to make records with Pere Ubu , Woodentops, Shellyann Orphan and Easterhouse. We learned how hit records happened and what you had to do. The whole pace of the group, the way they made decisions was fascinating- everything was done on the run. They were great records. I suppose that we got into a situation where we expected everything to do reasonably well. We expected everything to get a good reception.

PSF: The label also put out African records, years before the whole World-Beat phenomenon started, on the Earthworks label.

GEOFF: That came about because EMI was sitting on a whole catalog of music from South Africa that they weren't doing anything with: some people there asked us if we'd be interested in it. It opened up this whole gateway into African music. We did a whole series of records. It was just what we liked. We're very music driven really. We don't have some sort of political agenda that we try to shoe-horn music into.

PSF: Rough Trade was also heavily into reggae.

GEOFF: Yes, that's totally true. At the time in London, reggae and punk were synonomous. London's got a really thriving West Indian culture. It's the best music so we would always sell reggae in our shops. I would go around to peoples' houses where they'd just come back from Jamaica with suitcases full of records. You buy them and it was great fun because they'd play you 30 seconds of each one and have to decide which ones you want. It's a great education. If you're not careful, they'd sell you all the bum ones. That was a very big part of my A&R eduaction. Where our shop was based, it was important that it served the community. If I had a shop in New York in Spanish Harlem, I'd hope that we'd be selling Spanish music not James Taylor.

PSF: A lot of the rock bands you had like the Slits and the Pop Group picked up on it too.

GEOFF: It was a huge influence really. Even today, reggae has made a huge resurgence. There is a big renaissance of it. It was just in the air, which was part of what was going on: Aswad, Steel Pulse.

PSF: Another interesting thing about Rough Trade was that there were a lot of women on the label.

GEOFF: Women were relatively empowered by punk. I don't think I've ever seen a band like the Slits before- I think punk gave them the impetus. We just had respect for women. We didn't see any reason why women couldn't be equally good at making music as their male counterparts. We were very open to it at Rough Trade. I feel comfortable around women. I think men who don't experience a culture where women are strong are missing out on the beauty in life.

We encourage them. We liked the fact that there were women in bands. It was just part of our mind-set. We'd hear labels saying "we don't need another woman artist, we already got one." So you think, great, why would you want another rock band when you already got one? It was a conscience thing for us- it was just our conscience saying it was the right thing to do. I think the kind of music that women make is different from the kind that men make. Everyone is effected by their upbringing and I think that you have a different slant on things then and it comes out in what you do.

PSF: What happened to the American branches of Rough Trade in New York and California?

GEOFF: We had Rough Trade in California and the shop is still flourishing and thriving. In 1989, Rough Trade had grown so much but I wasn't working with the distribution part of it anymore. A lot of professional, middle-management type people were coming into the company. They were supposed to be bringing in this professional business culture. They ruined Rough Trade basically. They made some very bad errors. They were unlucky in that a company that owed them a lot of money went bankrupt also. So the distribution company went bankrupt and that brought down the rest of the group. We had a good history in America though. We were making good progress. We had Mazzy Star, Galaxie 500, Lucinda Williams. I thought it was good to have medium sized independents there- it's really ripe for it.

PSF: So what was the lesson to be learned from all of that?

GEOFF: I suppose it's chose your business partners more wisely.

PSF: What happened with the split in Rough Trade in the last few years?

GEOFF: We did an effort to get refinanced a couple of years ago and start over again with One Little Indian. The relationship didn't work out unfortunately. Their culture and the way they work just didn't fit in with our ideals and the way we work. They had bought the name so they own it and continue to put records out.

Our response to that is to start a new label called Trade 2 with Island Records so again, we're part of a major corporation. We're pretty happy at the moment. We have a pretty stable financial structure. We have freedom to do what we want to do. We're not really in a position able to do a one-off's and experimental things that we'd like to do. So that's the gap and what we're trying to change. The unfortunate by-product of success is that people look at you and think you're making lots of money. I think the same old thing applies- people that are doing innovative and creative things is what becomes commercial. You just have to let them do it in their own time and try to bring the public and the world around to it.

PSF: For anybody else who's thinking about starting a record label, what kind of advice would you give them?

GEOFF: The main thing is to really educate yourself in music. Keep in touch and keep an open mind. Also, have a sound business sense. The world at large will prove you right or wrong. You can say "this is a greatest thing I've ever heard." But if no one buys it, there's something wrong with your judgment. There's so many records and there's only so much time. The other thing to realize is that the musicians are really important people. Your job is there because of what they're doing. It's not too often that companies understand that.