In 2011, the best-selling album in both the USA and the UK was 21 by Adele. It’s no great surprise that the record was an international hit; the North London singer’s soulful pop not only has a significantly broad-ranging appeal, but has also been widely acclaimed. But while many favourable words have been used to describe the album, one word which is not normally associated with it is ‘indie’. Yet Adele is that rare thing – a platinum selling artist signed to an independent label, XL Recordings.
XL is one of the labels whose stories are told in Richard King’s history of 30 years of the independent music business. The focus is the UK, but America nonetheless has an important role in the book, and not only as a potential market for selling records. American bands like Sonic Youth and The Pixies influenced the sound of independent music in the late ‘80s and, as King points out in his introduction, the archetypal independent label was the US-based Atlantic, before it became a subsidiary of Warner.
Indie has of course become a genre as much as a signifier of commercial independence. By 1986, King points out, ‘any passing gaggle of white boys and girls who had started a band, irrespective of which label they were signed to – a corporate major or a bedsit start-up – was now called indie. But the book makes it clear that there is much more to independent music than the jangly guitar bands of the ‘80s or the post-punk that was initially the sound peddled by pioneering labels like Rough Trade and Factory. King also covers the electronic and dance scene, and the impact of labels such as Warp and the first incarnation of XL.
A heavy proportion of the text appears inside speech marks: King has evidently spent a huge amount of time interviewing the titular madmen and mavericks, and by giving them the opportunity to tell their own stories he provides a vivid insight into what being directly involved in the independent music business was like. In addition to the tales of signing bands and marketing releases there are also plenty of the kind of anecdotes that tend to be integral to so many books about music. The drug-fuelled era of the late ‘80s provides much of the material here, including a perhaps too vivid story involving a naked and E’d up graphic designer, and the glass roof of 4AD’s studio.
Such stories might be great entertainment, but it’s the actual challenges of making an independent label succeed that are the real meat of the book. One recurring theme is the paradox that, as Richard Scott, founder of distribution group The Cartel, puts it: ‘when there are hits about, you have financial problems.’ The best example of this is New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, released by Factory in 1983. The costs of producing the single, with its die-cut sleeve, meant that Factory made a loss on each copy they sold. The huge success of the single therefore meant a substantial loss for the label.
The ‘Blue Monday’ case is an isolated early example, but King later notes that ‘By the midpoint of the 1990s the momentum of the independent sector had stalled almost to a halt.’ Rough Trade ceased trading in 1991, and Factory declared bankruptcy in 1992. The reasons for the decline of independent labels are varied. The involvement of major labels in the indie scene, combined with insufficient distribution in the independent sector was one. Some label founders, such as Creation’s Alan McGee, had all but burned out due to their hedonistic yet hard-working lifestyles. And in the case of Factory and its founder Tony Wilson, it was sheer hubris that led to the label’s demise.
The way that the story unfolds in the final chapters of King’s book, it seems that the mid-00s wave of guitar bands signed to independent labels – such as The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys – were responsible for the resurrection of this element of the music business. However, as Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis says, ‘it’s about building structures outside of the mainstream but that can help you infiltrate the mainstream.’ The most exciting independent labels in operation today seem to follow this principle.
A run through the roster of the forward-thinking XL illustrates the point well. In addition to Adele, they have signed artists as diverse as The xx, Tyler, The Creator, and Jack White. Although they may only release half a dozen albums per year their influence on music far exceeds the number of their releases. As is clear from King’s book, this is how independent music should function.