Rough Trade: 30 Years Old

It may be a romantic notion, but it’s easy to shed a tear at the decline of the record shop. Progress may have dictacted that downloads, online streaming and MySpaces are the future of the industry, but it’s not difficult to look back with some fondness at those dusty shops with lines and lines of vinyl – shops that you could easily become lost in for hours and hours, simply reading liner notes.

From those little acorns of record shops, some mighty oaks may well grow. Take Rough Trade for instance – opened on Talbot Street in London in 1976, it soon spawned the record label of the same name in 1978, and arguably helped to bring indie music to a huge audience – arguably, only Manchester’s Factory Records can rival it in terms of sheer iconic value.

Set up by Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade label soon became a by-word for indie music. Although the label’s first ever release – French punk band Metal Urbaine‘s Paris Maquis – may not even hint at the greatness to come, there were soon stellar names such as Stiff Little Fingers, Cabaret Voltaire and The Raincoats bearing the famous logo.

It’s possibly hard to imagine in these days when bands on EMI can be described as ‘indie’, but Rough Trade personified the concept. This was true independent music, outside of the mainstream with a DIY ethos and introducing several underground artists who were to go on to become legends.

The success of Rough Trade led to bigger offices at Blenheim Crescent, and the success story was to grow and grow in the early ’80s. This really was Rough Trade’s purple patch, with The Smiths as their jewel in the crown and acts like The Fall, Pere Ubu, and Scritti Politti raising the label’s profile yet further.

The arrival of former Public Image Ltd member Jeanette Lee ushered in another period of success for the label with bands such as The Sundays, but bad times were just around the corner. Various mismanagement issues led to the downfall of Rough Trade Administration, the distribution company, which was put into administration in 1991. The record label and the rights were sold off. It appeared that a shining period of British music had come to an inglorious end.

“true independent music, outside of the mainstream with a DIY ethos and introducing several underground artists who were to go on to become legends.”.

Eight years later, Travis and Lee bought back the rights to the Rough Trade name with the help of Sanctuary Records, and the label was relaunched. The same ethos was in place. and led to the release of The Strokes‘ Is This It – the label’s best sales figures since the days of The Smiths.

The success of The Strokes led to the signing of names such as The Libertines, The Decemberists, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. One of the label’s old names in Scritti Politti even returned with the White Bread Black Beer album, garnering a Mercury Music Prize nomination in the process. Labelmates Antony & The Johnsons meanwhile went one better – winning the prize in 2006.

Yet even as the story continues, changes continue to evolve. Last year, Rough Trade became part of the Beggars Group – linking up with other iconic indie labels such as Beggars Banquet, 4AD and XL. Less independent maybe, but also a smart move in these tough economic times.

To celebrate the label’s 30th anniversary, there’s a tour this month around the country, pithily entitled Looking Rough At 30 and featuring two of the label’s most prestigious names: Jarvis Cocker and Jeffrey Lewis. Other Rough Trade acts are promised, together with a talk from Jarvis himself about the label. Do not fear though, as the man himself says “This is no dewy-eyed nostalgia trip – it’s an on-going revolution”.

And it’s a fair bet that in another 30 years, even if music is being lasered directly into our brains, the name of Rough Trade will be one of the pioneers behind it.

Ten essential Rough Trade releases:

Cabaret Voltaire – Red Mecca
Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth
Aztec Camera – High Land Hard Rain
The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead
The Sundays – Reading Writing & Arthmatic
The Strokes – Is This It
Jeffrey Lewis – The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane
The Libertines – Up The Bracket
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Antony & The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now

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