SHIFTY DISCO IS TEN!
SHIFTY DISCO IS TEN!
I’m sat here listening to Shifty Disco’s 10th year anniversary box set and, prompted by a recent conversation with label head Dave Newton, felt moved to write something to commemorate one of the staunchest independent labels extant. I mean, they go about their business serenely do Shifty Disco, and are refreshingly bereft of pomp or bluster (we’re talking Test Match Special rather than Tiswas) and over a decade they’ve put out some good, some great, and some middling records.
Swing back eight or nine of those years. Somebody in a publishing firm suggested it might be a good idea to write a book about Radiohead. Unbeknownst to me, the same conversation was taking place between different publishers and writers the nation over, resulting in a market glut not repeated until TV executives discovered the power of reality TV. Anyway, with due diligence, I tramped up to Oxford and met three people who had been instrumental – or at least helpful – to that band’s rise. Dave Newton was the calm, unprepossessing head, Ronan Munro the irrepressible local scene correspondent (having started Curfew, which gave da Head its first review, he’d progressed to Nightshift) and the surnameless Mac, promoter of the Jericho Tavern. Together they were the cornerstones of the prosaically named but then booming Oxford Music Central. I took notes, chatted amicably, then was plied with cheap whisky by Mac. I ended the evening throwing up in a posh bar opposite and have no idea at all how I got home. Apparently Mac used to do this to journalists all the time. But then I’ve certainly used the anecdote more than once myself.
Since those heady days (head-spinning for me) there have been changes, and nail-biting moments when the Grim Reaper (financial services department) rapped loudly on the window, but Shifty Disco is thriving again, now under the sole stewardship of the Newton boy. Ten years is a long old time in the cause of anything, but in terms of independent music, it’s enough to make you an institution. While Shifty Disco’s stoical and determined surface nature is no indication to the range and dynamics of the catalogue, it’s still all been very Oxford. Tales of hysterics, hissy fits and social unrest are thin on the ground, and would probably be seen as a distraction to the music, which is where Newton’s heart remains.
Right, meet Dave. Dave runs a record label. Tonight is a showcase for Shifty Disco bands in East London, headlined by the impressive Seagull Strange – of whom more later. It seems perfectly fitting, somehow, that Dave arrives on his bicycle.
Going back to the start of Shifty Disco and the continuum of independent music, I’m guessing you were very aware of the independent labels that went before you. Was that a crux issue, or do you think it’s the sort of thing that you’d have wanted to do anyway?
I guess I always wanted to run a label. I go back to when I was a kid and buying records, and having a radio show and running a label were the two things that were on my mind.
Not a musician?
I couldn’t play a note. I was completely – can you be a-musical?
I am! So yes.
Luckily I found this out while taking trumpet lessons when I was 11. I could read music and I could apply myself to the science of music, but I had no feel for it at all. I was lucky that I acknowledged myself as a consumer very early on. I guess music was something – I just bought loads of records, went to loads of gigs, and that continued on. I landed up in Oxford, got a job in a record store.
The famous Oxford Our Price connection? (seemingly everybody on the music scene in Oxford worked at Our Price at some point, including various luminaries of its most successful bands)
Yeah, everyone’s been through Our Price –though there were four Our Price stores in Oxford at one point, so not everyone worked in the same shop. It was a formative period. And I just started writing – it wasn’t even a local music paper – it was just like an info sheet, a gig-listing sheet with a couple of reviews on it. Almost accidentally, or certainly without any design or intention, I ended up promoting a club night, running this local paper and ended up managing a band. I kind of fell into the music business without realising it. It didn’t become a decision until I realised it had happened. When we set up Shifty Disco, it wasn’t – OK guys, let’s put a record label together. Things in Oxford had really changed a lot between ’85 and ’95. It went from it being a bit of a musical backwater – Steve Lamacq’s first review of Ride in the NME was – ‘Ride are from Oxford, not a spectacular start’. It was acknowledged it was a bit of a handicap, bands were moving out of Oxford. That obviously turned round with the success of various bands that we all know (Dave is talking here about Ride, whom he managed, as well as Supergrass and Radiohead). But we got to a position at the end of ’94 when the two key venues in Oxford were both closing down, and the guy that had taken on running the local music paper after I’d stopped doing that, quit. Curfew closed down. So we were in this situation, the summer of 95, Supergrass had a number one album, Radiohead were obviously on top of the world, and we had no music scene in Oxford. It just struck me that nothing was on a particularly solid footing. I had my office, working out of my front room, Mac who was the promoter at the Jericho Tavern was working out of the kitchen at the Venue, and Ronan was running Curfew from his kitchen table from home. There was a point where it looked like what had been the Oxford Venue was about to re-open as the Zodiac, and there was a chance to put things back together on a more solid footing. I didn’t want to work from home anymore, my daughter was two years old then, and it was quite difficult closing the door – she was banging on the door wondering why she couldn’t come in, and we were trying to run a business from there. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Ride were in their final stages, recording what was going to be their last album. So I decided to take on some office space, and get various people to share the office. There was another pub that was going to be opening to replace the Jericho Tavern, the Zodiac was going to be launching where the Venue was. I helped put together the shareholding deal (which would involve Radiohead). So there was a chance that things were going to come together and be put on a more solid foundation, and that kickstarted Ronan into restarting Curfew, as what’s now called Nightshift. Just by formalising the infrastructure a little bit, not in any great complicated way, it was just like, at least we can share a photocopier and a fax machine. So I got this office on a one year lease, we moved in and worked out how we were going to divvy up the rent and try to make it work. We had to have a name for the office. We all had our own businesses running from there, so we ended up calling it Oxford Music Central, OMC. We had to put something on the buzzer. That was the start of the label, although we didn’t really realise it. I guess just by sitting around and sharing the same space and kicking around ideas, we had this idea of starting a singles club. Not really sure where that came from. I’d obviously worked with Creation quite closely managing Ride, and had been very influenced by the whole independent label ethos, from as young as I can remember – I remember buying records and being aware of the label I was buying. Even Sire, buying Ramones, Undertones, Rezillos – it was a label. I knew I was buying something that had – you call it a label, because it is a label – not just a piece of paper on the centre of the plastic. Then the whole 2-Tone thing was very big for me, it was one of the few labels I’d got every release by. Then having worked in the record store where I was the singles buyer, buying things like Subway Records, early Creation Records. Yeah, these were records – I knew they were attached to a label, and there was a reason I bought that Flatmates singles, and it wasn’t because I’d heard it, it was because it was on Subway Records.
Not a guarantee of quality, but there’s a bit of pedigree, and you would hope that it would be as interesting as their other releases.
Totally, totally. I guess having always had it in the back of my mind that I might run a label one day, I guess that germ of the idea was there. But really the reason we started it was – we kind of looked at what we were doing in Oxford, and Mac and Ronan were effectively doing A&R, by booking bands at small venues, you’re choosing who will play with who, you’re trying to nurture bands through those early stages. If you’re writing a local music paper, it’s almost an A&R manual. It’s almost a career thing. You start in the back of the magazine, and you have the demo section. The first thing you’re going to do is get your demo reviewed. So you start at the back and hopefully you get demo of the month or whatever. You’ve got a career progression already. Then moving back forward through the magazine, the next pages are the live pages. So if you’ve made a bit of a splash with your demo, maybe you’ll get a live review. Then you work forward again and you’ve got the gig guide, the preview section. So if you’ve made a bit of an impact, then maybe your next gig will get previewed. Then you come forward again and it’s the releases section. So maybe you’ve got a CD or vinyl out. And you come forward, and you’ve got the front page picture.
All the way through you’ve got a relationship with the editorial, because they’ve seen you grow, so unlike the music press, where it’s the first time A N Reviewer has caught that band live.
Right from all their early mistakes, the dodgy songs that were in the set. So it seemed quite natural. I guess what we did in a way was go, well, if we had a label five years ago, not only would we have put out the first Supergrass and Radiohead singles, possibly. We’d have put out the first Jennifers and On A Friday singles [the respective bands that preceded those groups], you know?
Now there’s a double-edged sword!
Yeah, but the opportunities were being created locally, and we were looking very locally at this point. But nobody really had a piece of the future. The best you can hope for if you’re promoting a venue of 200 capacity, is that maybe the band will come back and play a sell-out show for you at some point, and that’s the end of your relationship, they’re gone. And likewise the local paper – what can you hope for? Maybe they’ll sign to Parlophone, and Parlophone will take out a half page ad, or give some competition tickets away, or do something like that. Of course, as it turned out, the ‘Creep’ video was filmed at the Oxford Venue, and all the proceeds from that gig went to Curfew, because they basically needed it to be full, and they did it for a £1 or £2 ticket. So there are little things that can be done. I think the first computer Ronan had was bought by Radiohead, because he used to do their mailing list and deal with their fan club. There were little acknowledgements. But there wasn’t a piece of the potential future. So Mac and I kicked around this idea of starting the label as a singles club. I did the numbers on it and I worked out that if you could sell some subscriptions up front – we’d planned just six releases to begin with – if you could get enough money in the pot to bankroll the first couple of releases, you could get the whole thing to make sense. And it felt like taking a punt on some releases on bands early on, it made sense. Just trying to get some profile for these releases. Also, around that time we knew that Radio One Sound City was going to be coming to Oxford, that had been confirmed. It felt like Oxford was in the spotlight anyway, because of Radiohead and Supergrass’s success. But we also knew that, at least for a week in 1997, there was going to be some extra national attention on Oxford. And what happened after Radiohead and Supergrass had broken through – there wasn’t another band about to break. It felt like there was a lot of good stuff going on, but no actual follow-up. So we felt like we could maybe accelerate the process. Do something more solid with it. Through one of Mac’s contacts, he knew Richard Cotton, He had his own label, Rotator Records, which had put out a couple of singles at that stage. So he roped Richard in. Richard wasn't based at the office, he was over at Tring near Aylesbury. So he had hands-on experience of running a label, so we put this idea of running a singles club together. It didn’t quite happen, but what Richard wanted to do was do a compilation rather than a singles club, which sort of made sense. There hadn’t been a good Oxford compilation for a while.
It’s kind of an obvious first step for a regional label.
It is, but I’ve always been unsure about compilations. You think that fans of each band will buy it because there’s a track on there, but to buy a compilation you’ve got to want a whole record, not just one track. We did put out the compilation and it was a very strong compilation. It had the Egg on there, the Candyskins, Heavenly, the Bigger The God, Beaker, it was the current crop of new Oxford bands at that time. We put that out on April Fool’s Day 1996, called OXCD. It did quite well, it got a fair bit of national press, and probably sold about 1,500 copies. It came out on Rotator, but it was the first thing we worked together on, it was a collaboration, almost, between Nightshift and Rotator. And it sort of made sense, because we had the office etc. We started with that and I guess because it had done quite well, the feeling was that we should go on from this. At that point we decided to set up a label, and were trying to think about names. We kept sitting around drinking Merlot trying to think . . . .
Yes, I have fondish memories of the drinking culture in that place!
Yeah, it was! Friday afternoon, four o’clock, pizza and a couple of bottles of Merlot. We had a lot of good ideas at that time, and we had a lot of bad ideas too. But it’s better to have lots of ideas and sift them out on Monday morning rather than sitting there scratching your head. We started to kick around ideas. Mac, one of his favourite labels was Shimmy Disc, and because of Nightshift, we thought a good idea would be to call it Shifty Discs. So there was the association with Shimmy Discs. I was keen to have something that had an Oxford connection in there. I wanted an ‘O’ in the logo, so we could put a little ‘x’ in it. So Shifty Discs became Shifty Disco. And then half an hour later and three packs of Letraset, Mac came back with the logo, which as we’ve just seen is still being used outside this very venue. And we decided this idea of doing a singles club we should push through. Originally I wanted six releases over the first year, doing them bi-monthly. Richard was, no, let’s be a bit more ambitious, let’s do them monthly. Let’s keep the pressure up. We thought, if we’re going to do them monthly, we need a few lined up. If we’re going to get people to sign up. We kind of had the market because we had Nightshift there, and we had a way of marketing it. And we decided the first six were all going to be Oxford bands, so we had a market to market to. We could tell people – buy your subscription, £15, you’re going to get this. And we had three of them confirmed already before we started. So we had Dustball, we had DJ Remould, and we had Mark Gardener [ex-Ride]’s single confirmed. In that sense it wasn’t too difficult . . .
Was it kind of handy to have Mark on board?
Yes, of course.
Did you position that astutely in the schedule?
That actually turned out to be the sixth of the releases, but that was more because it wasn’t recorded. He agreed to do it, and it didn’t come out until July, we missed our release date on that one. We’d also done a solo single by Sam Williams’ Impossible Music Force. And Sam and Mark didn’t know each other, but through the Shifty Disco connection, Sam ended up producing the track that Mark put out on the singles club, and that was really how Animal House came together. Their collaboration on that single evolved into Animal House. I guess knowing a lot about independent labels from the past, and being aware of the fact that a label could mean something, really shaped how we launched the label and how we marketed it. Because what our selling point at that time was, we were an Oxford label putting out tracks by Oxford bands, at a point when Oxford had some musical currency.
Musical currency and notoriety, but you also had a heritage as the three people involved, between you, Mac and Ronan, you all had a reputation around new music.
Yes, I guess we’d been doing what we’d been doing for five or six years at that point, so if we weren’t known, then we’d have been doing a bad job. And we then extended the first six releases to twelve, and decided, because that was the year of Sound City, that we’d actually make them all Oxford releases. So those first 12 releases were all Oxfordshire based bands.
Is it impudent to ask about sales?
The way we structured it, we limited them all to 1,000 copies. That was part of the selling point, the sleeves were all the same for the first year, it was the same design and we just changed the colour of the sleeves. They were done like 7-inch singles but CD size, so they had a whole die-cut in the middle of the sleeve. So the band only had that little circle of space to play with, in terms of separating their release from the others. So we put that out and set aside 500 for subscriptions. We didn’t want to stop people being able to buy them individually. We didn’t want them to HAVE to be part of the club to buy the singles, because maybe we wouldn’t get press or radio play if they weren’t available. And it was a bit unfair on the bands too – you have to pay £15 to get that?
And that could also be a springboard to a bit of internal rivalry.
It’s kind of back to the compilation thing as well – will you spend £10 on a compilation if you just want one track. Will you spend £15 on a subscription if you just want one of the six singles?
That kind of diverges from the Sub Pop model?
Yeah, it was a way of releasing singles, and the singles club was a way of funding it almost – a way of forcing people to think of it as a label, rather than just a string of ad hoc releases. So the numbers one to 500 were just for subscribers, and the thing we did that was unique, and I don’t think anyone even did it afterwards, was that if you were subscriber number 300, you got number 300 of each single. We were careful about that, the labels were printed up to go on the envelopes had those numbers.
A nice marketing idea?
It seemed obvious in a way. We even printed up t-shirts that year that people could buy that had their numbers on. It was definitely about – you are number 100. And it was a good selling point to get people to re-subscribe in future years, because they would lose their number!
They could have auctioned them like personalised number plates!
Unfortunately we never quite got to that stage! But I suppose it was one of those good four o’clock on a Friday afternoon ideas. And it worked. The other 500, 501 to 1,000, went out into the shops. We found that the first couple of releases, Dustball and the Unbelievable Truth, they had a pretty good local fanbase already.
The Unbelievable Truth [featuring Thom Yorke’s brother Andy] also had that Radiohead connection.
Yeah, there was an association there that helped. The 500 copies that went out to the shops sold out quite quickly, which then meant you had to subscribe to get the singles. So maybe we sold 300 or 350 subscriptions, but once the individual singles had sold out, they would go. We got to a point of having 500 subscribers quite quickly, which is a great platform. The remaining singles in that first bunch – Nought, the Impossible Music Force, DJ Remould, Mark Gardener, a couple of those I’ve still got a few copies left, but they pretty much went. Then we got people to re-subscribe for the following six months. Not everyone took that up, but enough people did and it rolled forward. Some of them didn’t sell, some of them did, but the ones that were hot helped sell subscriptions, because once the single had sold out, people went back out and took a subscription to get the exclusive single. Obviously other bands went on, some got signed, and went on to do bigger things, and that always throws kudos back on to the club and to the label. We did five years of the singles club under the name Shifty Disco then we did another year and a half under another name as Star Harbour – there were 76 releases I think. 1,000 of each – that’s 76,000 singles. I guess I’ve probably got 20,000 left in my attic? Only in that first year did we sell all 500 subscriptions. After that it gradually tailed off and we didn’t pick up new subscribers at the same rate.
That’s quite unusual, because normally a label would build to that level, but to start off at that and then enter a slow decline?
We’re still declining now! But we’re not going away! I guess the focus was on Oxford to begin with, and actually expecting Oxford to keep the faith when we spread our remit much wider. The first year we were selling the label, but we were selling Oxford really. And we were selling Oxford to Oxford music fans, of which there were a lot. So when we went wider than that, and musically I think we’ve been quite diverse, we maybe expected people to come with us who maybe aren’t quite as catholic in their musical appreciation . . .
I thought about that – you got away from the indie-schmindie thing – you were more open to dance music influences than your traditional ‘indie’ music fans might have been?
Yeah, and that was the mix of the people involved. And we wanted to challenge people a little bit with the singles club. We’d sort of taken it as a remit that people wanted to be stretched a little bit. Yes, they were signing up to the label and they were subscribing, but we didn’t really want them to like everything we put out. We wanted different people to like different things and have different favourites. I guess we hoped that our subscribers were up for the challenge, they would be people who listened to John Peel who wouldn’t actually like everything he played – John Peel being the only one who ever did. We didn’t want to get cosy with it – we were more likely to throw a curve ball in there just to keep us challenged.
I think that the instinct for throwing a curve ball – this interests me – somebody with a different attitude, wouldn’t want to disturb their core audience. That’s not the way that bigger industries work.
But I suppose if that’s the ethos you built the label on in the first place, if it gets cosy, you’ve kind of failed.
Maybe if we had created a ‘movement’ musically, we might have stayed comfortably in that rut.
Some of the original independents were out to make money. They had no problems with that, and their objectives were to make money. And you can draw a line between those independents who intend to do very well for themselves, and to those who to an extent, are out to please themselves.
I’ve always said that running an independent label for me is like an ego trip. You’re basically trying to force your taste in music on other people. It’s – I’m going to put this record out. I get sent lots of music, this is what I like, what I don’t like you’re not going to get to hear – go buy it. And I’m going to pay a press person to go and convince you to buy it, and I’m going to try to get it on the radio so they play it and you have to hear it – that’s what you’re doing. If you work for Universal, you’re trying to sell records, you’re trying to sell units. If you work for Shifty Disco, you’re trying to alter the course of music in some small way. And maybe throwing those curve balls in there is your way – you have to throw the curve ball in there because you’re such a little voice, than you have to do something a little odd to cause some sort of effect. And I guess if you’ve got a formula where it’s safe to throw a curve ball – in the sense that financially it’s not too much of a risk – you’ve got the singles club and have sold the singles already in a sense, and you’re not going to put anyone off too much. We didn’t think, what will our subscribers WANT next month, it was more what will our subscribers GET next month.
I’m not suggesting you deliberately released singles that used the sound of mating seagulls or anything like that.
Well, we got close I think!
I just like exploring the difference in the aspirations of independent labels, because some of the more avaricious people I’ve encountered have worked at independent labels. You seem to belong to the more public-spirited branch . . .
Yes, but it’s not our intention. I don’t see it as a public service really, I’m doing it for my own amusement primarily. But if I hear something that sounds great, I’m glad I’ve got the outlet to try to get other people to agree with me. And I suppose there were two exciting moments in running a label – the moment you hear something for the first time and think, this stands apart from the rest. And the second moment is when you feel that the world has noticed, and you’ve been part of the process of taking that from being a demo in a jiffy bag to an actual release.
And you’ve added value in the process. You never know what people take away from that experience, there’s an infinite world of possibilities.
Yes, whoever buys that record might well go on and do something else. You don’t necessarily know the effect that you’re causing. There are a lot of things that I’m really glad we’ve put out that no-one’s paid any attention to. I do feel that there’s a good song in every band – not every band perhaps. But there are a lot of bands that don’t have anything more than one great song, and maybe never will have. And if they have that great song, it’s good that there’s an outlet for that. There have been a lot of great records over the years by bands or artists who have done nothing before or since, and they don’t need to – that record still exists. I’m glad that there is a way.
I’m sure there’s a lot of tedium, admin, and photocopying.
A lot of stuffing of envelopes. We used to sit round in label meetings doing the mail-out. Obviously, if you have the subscribers, you have to get the singles to them. Nobody else is going to do it for you. So you’re sat there putting CDs in envelopes. We had these greeting card envelopes that worked out the right size. Because of the way they could go out regular post. So instead of going in a jiffy bag at 45p it could go out at 23p or whatever. When you’re sending out 500, that’s a cost factor. So we’d sit there and have our meetings. Put the CDs in envelopes, lick the envelopes. Unfortunately as they were greeting card envelopes, they weren’t self-seal!
That’s the downside! In terms of the bands that ended up on the label, I’m guessing that it wasn’t an exact third in terms of who selected what?
No, the first album we did was Dustball. They were the first single we did on the single club, so they were an emerging Oxford band. We found time for them to do an album. We packaged it in a silver ball, which was strange. But we did try these things out. It certainly made an impact. Then we did a follow-up single with them later on, but it didn’t really quite take off and connect. Then we hooked up with Channel Four for a couple of TV series with CDs. They did a John Peel Sounds Of The Suburbs series. And one of the shows they did in that was Oxford. And the Production company was looking for a label to put out the best stuff from the series, so we end up with John Peel as our A&R man! And Channel Four were putting the marketing behind it. It just was the right place, right time. And we also did an album linked to a late night series called The Trip, which was loads of NASA footage put to a kind of ambient soundtrack. It was the sort of thing you’d find on at 2.30 in the morning. And we still get emails from people asking if it ever came out on DVD. So that was another album that came to us fully A&R’d. They were our next two releases. Then the remit started to go quite a bit wider. And the first artist we really worked with that showed to us that we could take something that meant nothing and make it into something – I’m not saying musically they meant nothing – was a San Francisco band called Beulah. We’d done a track on the singles club by a Californian band called Creeper Lagoon. Their manager also managed Beulah, he handed us a tape when Creeper Lagoon came over and did some shows. And I guess that was something that Mac and I were pushing, it was something that we ‘got’ straight away. The others weren’t quite so sure. But they were looking for a UK label to put it out, that was in the summer of ’99, and that became our first American band. We’d been running for two years at that point. The first year, 97 was just singles . . .
The Beulah album was When Your Heartstrings Break?
Yeah. It’s still a great album. We put that out and it sold quite well, quite quickly.
I remember there being a reasonable buzz about it.
Yeah, and we managed to bring them over, paid for them to come over. We got it licensed to the Netherlands, and got a couple of distribution deals on it. I guess that was the point where we had a record label, rather than a singles club, or someone who did Channel Four compilations. We kind of had an artist that we brought into the world. The point at which we heard that tape, it was a finished album. They’d done their part. The point at which we heard that tape, to it being NME and Melody Maker single of the week, that was us. We did that. And we also started to get quite a bit of press for the singles club releases as well – the one we did by Murry The Hump did very well. And I guess ’99 was probably our peak year as a singles club; the quality of the stuff we were putting out, the national press we were getting and the sales we were getting. We were definitely an Oxford-based label, but we weren’t an Oxford label any more. We’d gone beyond that. We did a track by Frigid Vinegar, called ‘Dogmonaut 2000’, which was Steve Lamacq’s record of the week. It felt like everything we put out . . .
Despite Steve’s early incantations about the undesirability of coming from Oxford! Did you remind him of that!
Yes, probably quite soon after that, back in the Ride days. He was right, but it became a place where bands were even moving to Oxford.
That kind of persists now – Oxford has a good reputation for live music.
The infrastructure is good, there’s a lot of good gigs. I think we’re at a point whereby if a good band comes along in Oxford, they’re going to get noticed, they’re going to get a shot. Whereas I don’t think 20 years ago that was necessarily the case. You could be really good and you might not get your chance. It could be a handicap. And I don’t think that’s the case now. It has punched above its weight, and it’s now helping.
It’s a recognised music centre?
Yeah, and all the tours come through. And that’s quite important for a local music scene.
Supports and everything that goes with it?
Yeah, and bands get to measure themselves. They might read about a band in the NME or whatever, and go see them live and think – actually, we’re better than that! They’re supposed to be the hottest new thing! So I think it’s quite important that when you’re a developing band you don’t exist in a local bubble. It all becomes about being a big fish in a small pond. If you can see the wider picture, then the bands that can do something will do something. So yeah, ‘99 was a good year. I suppose we just expected it to roll on. What we did do was line up a series of albums in 2000. Unbelievable Truth had been dropped by Virgin and came back to us with a finished album.
And Virgin had paid for the recording?
Yes, indeed! So we were very keen to do that.
Do you know why things didn’t work out with Virgin?
Because they probably only sold 20,000 records, and that’s not enough for the investment they put behind it. I think there was an A&R change as well, and when anyone new comes in, they’re quite happy to inherit the very successful bands. But if a band that’s already on the label goes on to do well, they won’t get the credit. So we had that lined up. Because of our success with Beulah we were getting a lot more American bands coming our way. We picked up on Jack Drag, who was on the same US label as Beulah, although both those records we licensed directly from the artists, because they were only signed to Sugar Free in the States. And we had Nought, who had been our third single on the singles club, we’d always intended to their album, it just took them ages to finish it. The drummer had to leave the band because he got tendonitis in the recording sessions. We also had Pluto Monkey, which was one half of Dawn Of The Replicants. We’d done a single with them and just fancied doing the album. So four albums in the year 2000, and by that time we had an in-house press person. Someone else was helping us with the production. I guess we became a regular indie label at that point. We were known. We had the singles club, which I’ve always likened to a great A&R opportunity. You get to work with bands in a limited way for a short period of time. It’s like a first date, there’s no big commitment, you’re just seeing if you get on. If something works out, maybe there’s more to come. Having that there as a way of releasing records by bands who maybe weren’t at the stage of being able to do an album yet was great. I should say that in 1998 we did manage to turn down both Coldplay and Muse. Both in the same year was quite impressive, I think! Muse I would have gone for, the Coldplay tracks are terrible, and are still terrible. I played that demo again not that long ago just to make sure it was the right decision. But Muse were just a bit too much like Radiohead. It felt a little too much close to home. Maybe if we weren’t Oxford based we’d have taken a punt on it. But the problem we had was that only one of those records in 2000 sold enough copies to make money – that was the Unbelievable Truth. So we were still struggling to find a way to make the numbers work. The singles club was sort of paying for itself, but the albums were costing us money. By this time we had a few people on the payroll. Even if we weren’t paying them much. It was before broadband, we had an ISDN line that doubled up. When you checked email, everyone would check at the same time, because that’s when the connection was up. So someone would shout ‘I’m checking email’ and everyone would click send and receive once an hour. But our phone bill one quarter was like £1,000. And that was basically because of our internet connection. We’d started our online shop at that stage. And in ’99 we’d started selling downloads.
But you only sold six!
Yes, we only sold six in that first year.
You weren’t quite reaping the rewards!
No! We had this idea because we were doing CD singles each month, we could make the track downloadable for that month – why not. Murry The Hump was the first one we did. We sold that for 99p. I guess we just kept doing it with the releases, but nobody was buying them.
The culture wasn’t mature . . .
There weren’t any portable MP3 players. They didn’t kick in till a year or two later. So people would only be buying the download to play on their PC. I’m sure those six they sold were just novelty value. We then rolled into 2001 and at that point, we decided to take a bank loan to get some investment, so we could maybe put a lot more behind various releases that we had coming up. We had the next Beulah album, we’d signed Elf Power and had two albums ready to go. They were just about to release the second of those two albums in the States, but we wanted to get the other one out in the UK first to play catch up. We had that campaign . . .
You say campaign – did you have money to pay for adverts?
Yeah. We borrowed £50,000, so part of that went on advances, but not that much. The rest was – yeah, we’re going to spend this on radio pluggers, advertising, bringing the bands over to play. Yeah, we’d sat down and worked out how we were going to do Elf Power. The first album’s coming out here, the second one’s coming out there, we had European distribution at that stage. I guess we targeted 5,000 sales across Europe on those releases. That’s what we were budgeting for. But it was expensive bringing these bands over every time just to play a few shows.
Did you make ends meet on the touring?
No. It was part of the investment in promoting the records. It had to be seen as that really. Even when they were here, the cost of doing the shows wasn’t covered by the income from the shows. So flying them over was . . . But we put the bands on in Europe. I remember myself driving overnight from Madrid to Brussels to return a hire van, 1,800km..
That’s the glamorous end of the music business – you don’t even have a band for company!
Yeah, the band were flying! I had to get the van back, and I did actually stop and put the wrong fuel in at one point in France, at about nine in the morning.
Was it one of those ‘what am I doing’ moments?
It was actually quite nice after the intensity of doing a few dates touring, effectively tour managing, just actually driving all the way across France in one hit. But yeah, at 9.30 in the morning when I’d put petrol in instead of diesel, and having to speak to a garage mechanic in French, which I’m not that strong in – I did think this is kind of weird. I was actually going to stop for a rest at that point. I’d left at about two in the morning after the gig, driven up through Madrid, through the mountains. Crossed into France, and decided to get past Bordeaux. That was my objective. Stop, get some fuel, check into a motel and sleep for a little while before the next bit of the journey. I lost about three hours from the fuel mistake. But I was recharged from the break. I just hit Brussels, got the van back, got the flight back to Heathrow that night. The band was Jack Drag. By now the label was pretty much taking up all my time, and we weren’t drawing any salary or income from it. It was blinkered vision at that point – we HAVE to make this work. This was four years in, and we’d put money into this [Dave and Richard Cotton had each put up £5,000 as security on the loan]. We borrowed money, we had to make it work. And we just needed one success. All the ones we’d put money on, none of them came up trumps. AM60 we’d had a bit of a radio hit with the first single. The album did just 500 or 600 copies, it didn’t catch fire. Beulah’s second album didn’t do as well as the first. Elf Power did OK but it didn’t build. So we were left a little bit high and dry. At that point we’d pretty much spent all the money we’d borrowed, and how do we keep the label going? The singles club was still doing all right. We had our fifth anniversary in January 2002, which gave us a little boost, but it was at that point when Richard resigned. I guess the dynamic shifted a little bit. The onus was much more on my shoulders. I had to carry it forward. The others were not taking the financial risk.
Don’t get into anything you don’t want to here, but was it a disappointment that the others didn’t match your financial commitment?
I guess what we thought about running the label by having a mix of personalities, we’d have a mixture of skills, and somehow it would all become greater than the sum of the parts. I guess what we found out ultimately was that we all wanted to run a label a different way. And I think ultimately – I suppose if we’d had some significant success with something, it would have thrown up a different set of questions that might have caused the same result anyway. Maybe someone would have wanted to sell the label and someone wouldn’t. Maybe someone would have wanted to cash in. It built and built and probably the first two years were productive and successful but after that, because we were putting more and more into it both financially and in terms of time, but the results weren’t coming, I guess the frustrations became greater. I guess I put in what I wanted to put in, and I didn’t feel obliged to, or any resentment for doing that. It’s a bit like a band. If a group of people form a band and a couple of people quit, does that split the band up? Or does someone else, one of the remaining people, put something else together that goes on and has a future. It would have been terrible if people were feeling obliged to make a commitment beyond what they wanted or they felt comfortable with, so in that sense I guess the answer is no. But maybe it would have been good if there’d been a different set of people. Or if there had been different people involved, maybe there would have been similar levels of commitment. And often with bands, you only find out about their level of commitment when success comes knocking on the door – because you have to give up your day job, you have to deal with issues that maybe you didn’t have to when you were pottering around locally and dreaming. I guess it was at that point where the band split up – is that it? Five years? We’ve done all right? Or is there something of value here that we can carry forward? Now I’ve actually been running the label longer in the current set up than it was under the old regime. I don’t know quite what that says – maybe I’m more stupid than the others and don’t know when to quit.
It says, potentially, all manner of things!
It does! It is what it is. I guess from that point, especially when Richard quit, I was going to be the captain of the ship, if it was going to continue. I was paying for the office, it was my name on the lease, I’d underwritten the overdraft, I’d put money in when we took out the bank loan, which was part of the deal with the bank. To walk away from it, I would have written off quite a lot of financial as well as emotional investment. Whereas neither Mac nor Ronan would have lost any money if the label had stopped.
One of the things that always amuses me is this idea – can you remember the meeting with the bank. I love the idea of people selling the idea of an independent record label in that way.
I guess it was about the fifth bank we went to over a year and a half period?
Did you have any formulated pitch?
Our accountant helped basically, and I think he was fundamental to selling the idea to NatWest. We’d got some years of trading under our belt by then. But yeah, there’s no assets, they can’t see anything tangible, which is quite right. The Small Firms Laons Guarantee Scheme was underwritten by the DTI. So you borrow money and if it all goes tits up, then the DTI cover 70% of it, something like that. So from NatWest’s point of view, they had to make a commercial decision on the basis of a risk of 30% of whatever capital.
Ah, so you’re putting in £10,000 – that’s on top of their £50,000. So they’re risking £15,000, which really isn’t that much.
It was difficult. But we did it. I don’t know if the label would have continued if we hadn’t raised that money. It would certainly have had a very different shape to it. It gave us a crack at all those bands. And maybe we’re still benefiting from that. Maybe the fact that we did do Beulah and Elf Power and AM60 still gives us some kudos. Those records all still sell limited amounts in catalogue, but it is part of our catalogue.
Were they lifetime licenses for the territory?
No, we licensed them in for Europe, and they’re all of various lengths and will expire at various points. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they can’t be renewed. It might make sense for those bands to keep those records available. Maybe they won’t be selling it to someone else. It might make sense to stay in the catalogue. In a way they’ll always be part of our catalogue because we did them, even if we’re not selling them. They’re still part of the story. I guess from then on it became much more of a fire-fighting exercise just keeping the label alive and being able to pay off the debts we had run up. And of course there was the question of how to keep going forward and how to keep releasing records, and that was partly how the download club started. I wanted to keep the singles club going, but I couldn’t afford to keep pressing up singles. And we’d been talking about this idea about a download club and an upload site so bands could send their demos to us digitally. We put that into action, let’s start it. And everyone who used to be a subscriber to the singles club got a free subscription to the download club to start with. And we’d put out a track every Friday – there’s been a few I’ve missed – Christmas Eve one year, and new year’s eve! But it’s us still doing what we started doing in the beginning. That’s what we did with the singles club, and we’re still doing it with the download club. And I see it as a great way of working with new stuff and working with bands and applying that Shifty Disco filter to all the music that’s about there. And it forces me to listen to all the music that comes in, because I’ve got to find some stuff to release. And you never know what sort of gems might be hiding in there.
You’re still very much alive in an A&R capacity.
Probably more than ever, because we put out 52 tracks a year now, rather than 12.
And the cost base must be lower.
It is. But the cost of subscriptions has come down. It’s basically a service that I want people committed to, but it doesn’t have to cost them that much. And I want them to basically explore things further if they like what they hear. Which you can do on the web now quite easily. So that’s where I like the label being, and being able to pick up stuff and work with bands on a much closer basis than we ever did before, on a much more personal level. Well, we couldn’t with the American bands we were finding, but to be more hands on in the development stage of taking something that’s quite raw and basic and getting to the point of getting an album out that does the band justice. Whereas before I didn’t really do the hands on A&R, there would have been no point. There were four of us, and there were two people who were better at it, in that sense. Or better positioned, certainly. What I have learnt over my years at the label is that A&R isn’t just – that sounds good, let’s release it. A&R is – that band’s interesting, let’s get them to a point of making a good record. I think we’ve put out a lot of unfulfilled potential. We’ve put out records that weren’t as good as that band could have been if we’d known how to A&R better. I think now, time will tell, proof’s in the pudding and all that, I’m certainly very proud of the Race’s album from where they were at two years ago, when we first heard the demo, though it was very good. I will hopefully be proud of the tracks My Device are currently in the studio doing this week. I’m amazed at where Seagull Strange have got in the three years from when I first released a track on the download club to where they are now. And also what’s happened with the Unisex, even though I’ve been a lot less hands-on with that. I guess I’m enjoying that A&R side of things, and it’s not something I’d necessarily expected to do, so in a way I’m thankful that the label did fall apart. And I hope that whatever happens with any of those bands, if they move on and do stuff with other labels, and go on and be successful or just go on and enjoy what they’re doing with the band, and if it comes to a natural conclusion at some point, they’ll still look back and be proud of what they did and the association they had with the label for that time. There’s quite a number of bands we’ve worked with in the past where we’ve ended up with a bit of a bitter aftertaste, from the bands towards the label. Maybe because they were promised things, or they had expectations . . .
I don’t know of a single label where that doesn’t happen.
Of course, yeah. But touch wood, with any of the bands I’m working with now, I can’t see that happening.
Is that because bands are getting the message much clearer now, that they have got to be more self-reliant?
I think so. I think they’re getting one message, whereas before maybe they were getting confused messages from different people.
With that we wander off to watch the gig. I’m immediately impressed by Seagull Strange, who have an enormous amount of melodic depth, and a potentially great single in ‘La La La Ley’, which has a chorus that is not in any way shy. And which my youngest has adopted as his preferred pre-school ‘get his groove on’ staple.
So, what do the artists feel about being a Shifty Disco band?
Dan Telling Of Seagull Strange
Could you just sketch out how and why you hooked up with Shifty Disco in the first place?
I had been locked in a studio trying to come up with something I was happy with after the demise of my former band. I pieced together five tracks that I was happy with and sent a sampler out to labels I would be keen to be on. Dave’s initial email was so enthusiastic right from the outset and after a quick phone call and meeting in the flesh it resulted in some of these tracks being released on the Shifty Disco Download Club. I had only heard of Shifty Disco through other people but really it was Dave’s enthusiasm that convinced me it was the right decision to submit these tracks
Was it important to you to take the independent route, and if so, was that for practical or philosophical reasons? Your sound has enough texture and depth to appeal to a major label I would have thought, and it’s not really a diffident, indie-schmindie kind of aesthetic there.
The way I see it is you want to people to hear your music and you will take the path that allows that to happen. What is important to me is the passion that whoever is releasing your music has for it and if they understand you as an artist. With an independent they can act on that understanding and you both head in the same direction without too much conflict. I think a lot of majors, for certain artists, imitate independents to get a certain feel but the artists never get to be in control until they become a financial certainty for the label. With a true independent you have as much control as you can possibly have from the outset. I can truly believe if ‘Better Angels’ went on to be triple platinum the control that we have of the music with Dave and Shifty Disco would be exactly the same as it would be if we only sold 100. Yep I think that sums it up so I guess it was more for philosophical reasons. I mean, you try to make the right decision out of the chances that come along and thankfully because of Shifty Disco we got to make our record and we are responsible for what becomes of it because its creative input is truly ours.
Something that Dave and I touched on was the fact that, realistically, a label like Shifty Disco can only operate if the bands actually do their best to manage and market themselves, that the optimum scenario is that they're functioning self-contained units, though obviously open to suggestions and advice. What I'm driving at is that the concept of independence has changed somewhat, requiring the artists themselves to be independent, in the purest meaning of that term, rather than simply aligning themselves with an independent record label and expecting them to service them in a mini-major way. Obviously the internet has changed the relationship a band has with its potential audience hugely, and in some respects that's made self-reliance far more easily attainable
Yep I think that is entirely true having been signed to Nude Records 1999-2001 which, although they had major backing so it makes sense, operated like the mini-major you described. Although I am not sure all independents operate like Shifty Disco I don't think the mini-major independent you described has completely died yet as there seems to be quite a few out there that in appearance still operate in that form. In terms of bands becoming self-sufficient and truly independent I think it is the right thing for bands to have a major input in controlling their own destinies. For example, I think it’s really shocking when you play with a major-signed act and they do not have any CDs to sell at their concerts! What’s that all about? I can be sure that if they are dropped for not recouping costs they will have wished they hadn't asked for guitar techs and roadies and riders and had got off their bums and sold their own music which will have allowed them to make another record. The internet does allow bands to market and be more self-reliant but ultimately I feel the old channels to make your music successful are still there, but they are just supplemented by avenues that bands have vastly more input into. I think bands should be independent as self-contained units, as much as you can be, even if you are signed to a major why would you not promote your own music? I think bands have the tools to do more for themselves now but an independent label should act like a small business advisor giving you the advice and support that you need to move forward and get your music heard by the most people you can.
Alex Ogg – tMx 30 – 06/07
- advert: DAMAGED GOODS go and buy stuff