The Times 9 April 1994
Cynthia Rose, who would later author Trade Secrets - a book featuring James Lavelle, interviews several young owners of independent record labels such as James Lavelle.
Young Free And Turning Out Singles, by Cynthia Rose
CAN CORPORATE ears from abroad detect a hit from Bury St Edmunds? Ever since the Sixties heyday of Beatlemania, pop music has remained a strong British export. But increasingly, huge multinational companies rule the industry, and are they really listening to hip-hop from Golders Green?
A new type of pop entrepreneur certainly doubts their abilities these are the twentysomething mini-moguls manning a label of their own. Scornful of working their way up slowly through corporate ranks, these fans find, shape and market what they want to hear. In doing so, they have plugged a gap in the music business. And over the past year these hobbyist labels have made a remarkable transition. Suddenly, they are seen as desirable, viable companies.
The kids behind this coup are pushy, cheeky and irreverent. Each has a roster of artists, a clear sense of purpose and expansive ambitions. Even though some of their labels handle records by non-Britons, all pride themselves on encapsulating a British identity. Like their inventive predecessor Richard Branson, the rogue moguls also keep an eye on global clout. In many ways, these are Britain's new Bransons.
At the age of 19, James Lavelle is one of the youngest. Known on the British night-club circuit as "The Holygoof", Lavelle has been part of the music business for seven years. He has worked as a shop assistant, journalist, DJ and label-owner. Until very recently, he had all four jobs at once.
Holygoof displays small regard for life outside "beats". Music is what he walks, talks, eats and when he does sleep sleeps. But his single-minded passion has produced big business. Lavelle's two-year-old record label Mo'Wax is just launching its eighteenth release, by Brighton's RPM, and recently moved into swanky West End offices.
The record will be sold in America, Europe and Japan. Asian marketing will be helped by a recent partnership deal between Mo'Wax and the Japanese label Major Force. Lavelle is hoping shortly to conclude bigger negotiations, with the Euro-entertainment conglomerate Polygram, which plans to back him in his first big-league label. He hasn't yet made the final meeting, but Holygoof's new venture already has a name: SFT, for "Smoke-Filled Thoughts".
Putting image first is characteristic of Britain's new Bransons. Their labels favour catchy names, striking slogans, quirky graphics. Yet they are hard workers, not fashion victims. And Lavelle's flat exposes the toll of this lifestyle: ashtrays overflow, stacks of vinyl teeter, music magazines moulder in corners. Everywhere lie the souvenirs of various airlines: British Airways socks, Air India eyemasks. But Lavelle, as he tells it, was always a man in motion.
"I started at 13", he says, "in an Oxford sound system. Actually, I wasn't even aiming to DJ. I wanted a real job in the music industry." Throughout his school-days, Lavelle worked in record shops. Eventually he wheedled a job in London, with Honest Jon's Records in Portobello Road. There he gained both his nickname and his expertise. "That place was my education. The staff is a wild assortment gay guys, hardcore raggas, jazz buffs, soul boys. Getting accepted there paved the way to everything else." He spent a year nursing the shop's stock of hip-hop, while working most nights as a club DJ. Lavelle also garnered a column in the music-mag Straight No Chaser called "Mo'Wax", after a club he ran in Oxford.
The Holygoof's schedule rapidly expanded: in addition to London clubs, he was invited to DJ in California, Tokyo, Paris. "I'd fly to LA and work there for three days, get back at 10am, and take off to Germany. I'd play there all night, fly back and work at the shop." LAVELLE KNEW HE was already engaged in serious business; he was "creating a vibe" around the words Mo'Wax. Then Island Records asked him to start a label. Holygoof knew what he wanted, and although the negotiations failed, he refused to give up. He borrowed Pounds 1,000 from a co-worker, pressed a track by some hip New Yorkers, and Mo'Wax was launched as a label. Over the next 18 months, it released 16 records. Lavelle publicised them via Straight No Chaser, spun them at his gigs and sold them in Honest Jon's. It was the perfect system: a grass-roots monopoly.
Mo'Wax tunes a marriage between jazz and hip-hop come from America, Europe, England and Japan, but are united by a strong label identity. Holygoof credits this to his graphic designer Ian Swift. "Mo'Wax was mixing continents, fashions and beats. It needed British design with a global outlook." The sleeves Swift developed were based on Japanese Blue Note imports. "We used the information strips they wrap around those records. That gave us plenty of room for slogans, credits and thank-yous."
If Mo'Wax represents the young Briton as globalist, Bite It! is the label for streetwise UK homeboys. It is the brainchild of graphic designer Trevor Jackson, aged 26, from London. Jackson named the label after his one-man art studio, but it provides an outlet for his love of hardcore hip-hop beats, Phillies Blunts and rough edges. Bite It!'s first release was an EP by The Brotherhood, three Jewish rappers Jackson discovered in north London.
Bite It! emphasises British style as international its logo crosses the Suzuki rhino with a bull terrier. But selling UK rap means fighting US dominance. "Hip-hop remains very American," Jackson says. "We're going to stay in that shadow till we manage a breakthrough. That means more than just putting out good music. It means selling British looks and British attitude." His label's packaging also has an aggressive character. Each record's cover is composed of a full-bleed photograph: black-and-white, stark and grainy. All type and credits are relegated to the back. This was a reaction, says Jackson, to his commercial work. "The industry formula's so tired: image here, type on top."
Bite It! may mirror Jackson's single-minded character, but the label depends on a network of friends. The photographs on the album covers, for instance, are taken by his friend Donald Christie. Demo-tapes that lead to releases come from a string of night-clubbing mates. And most music production is down to a friend from primary school, Pete Bull, better known as "The Underdog". Jackson scrupulously repays his friends' loyalty. When he clinched a major-label deal for the Brotherhood, he threw a private warehouse party for 800, and he regularly brings in well-paid work for Underdog.
Initially, Jackson funded Bite It! from his own design work, but, by taking things slowly, he learnt how to break even. Now he can spend and recoup Pounds 2,000 a record. "What it really costs", he says, "is your time."
Wiija Records' Gary Walker, 26, agrees. Walker sells a different product: UK indie pop. This homegrown genre revolves around perennial themes: teen lust, teen angst and teen rebellion. Self-started indie labels have been popular here since the days of punk, but Wiija's roster reveals a changing Britain. At the moment, it releases Cornershop (the "Asian Sex Pistols"), "feminist insurrectionist" band Huggy Bear, Jacob's Mouse from Bury St Edmunds, America's Bikini Kill and Skinned Teen, three "punk-rapping" schoolgirls from south London.
If those names sound colourful, Walker's personality matches them. When it comes to plugging, ligging, cosseting and championing, Walker is a match for any honcho from the industry. He is even a popular speaker at music-biz conferences. London's Rough Trade Shop started (and still houses) Wiija, but it was Walker, once their mail-order clerk, who made the label happen. He signs the bands and masterminds all Wiija strategies. Walker has worked hard to shape and project an identity, and to assemble a solid business team. Such tight organisation leaves him free to liaise with every band. This task keeps him running from Belfast to Birmingham, and sends him periodically to Europe and Japan.
Walker has also set up Wiija as a publishing company. Income which would otherwise go to a publisher therefore comes to him. "That helps to maximise earnings," he says. "But money really starts coming in through licensing deals. If you've recouped on a record, you go for new advances from outside labels. Anything you can bring in there is pure profit." Walker maintains a 50-50 profit share with his bands, even though different groups have different costs and rates of success.
Unlike most British indies, Wiija does not target America. "The States is a lottery," Walker says. "There's just no guarantee about what will succeed there. Instead of gambling our time and money on that, I work at getting my bands into lots of territories." Wiija has strong sales in many European countries and Australia. THE WIIJA RECORDS headquarters is a spartan affair: two tables in a basement, two staffers, two phones, one fax and a crowded set of shelves. But its proprietor certainly knows how to sell records. "It's not some mystical thing," he says. "Anyone can learn it. At the very bottom level, any indie band can produce a 7in single. And if they're any good, it will sell 1,000 copies. Just that one thing can establish a fan base.
"Seven-inch records cost 30p per unit. A proper sleeve adds maybe 10p or 15 p. So it's really pretty cheap. Sell them to the shops for Pounds 1.25 each. Then, if you made the music cheaply, you at least break even." Walker knows what he's talking about. Wiija stars Cornershop, who have topped the indie charts, made their debut on 7in vinyl.
Walker feels Wiija has a "user-friendly" image, which he credits in part to the company's logo. This was created by his friend Ged Wells, who also designs his own range of sportswear. Wells saw Wiija as a metal screw sprouting petals, a "marriage of soft and hard" that Walker knew was perfect. "All our bands have separate agendas: Asian, feminist, European. We needed one symbol that could pull them all together." This month Wiija even spawned an offshoot label Whole Car Records which handles the indie's overspill of talent. Like Mo'Wax and Bite It!, Wiija's success and strong image make it highly desirable to the major companies. And Walker, like Jackson and Lavelle, has offers to choose from. But the talents that won the mini-moguls clout are the very ones absent from mainstream management. Ask James Lavelle why and he becomes heated: "If you started a record label the way you're really supposed to, take it from me you'd never manage it. That's why Mo'Wax worked. `Cause I went in not doing things the way you're meant to. And I know I pissed off quite a few people.
"You have to jump in and take the consequences later. I've got some headaches now. But that's cool, you know? `Cause my empire is still spreading and building."