Bella Union is a special record label. If you’re a music fan, chances are you already know this. It is an independent, headed by former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde. His firm is 10 years old. To celebrate staying afloat despite industry consolidation, the onset of the digital age and oft-reported retail sector woe, the London-based label is pitching up at the recently refurbished Royal Festival Hall for two evenings to showcase the best they have to offer.
We caught up with Simon Raymonde for a quickfire session of questions and answers about what he calls “a decade of decadence”…
Bella Union has come to be a byword for quality. Discerning indie fans, enamoured with a roster that currently includes Midlake and Howling Bells, snap up the label’s output knowing they simply don’t do dud records.
So their takeover at the RFH is a much anticipated thing. The first night, on Tuesday 10th July, is headlined by Howling Bells. This time last year the Australians, fronted by the pixie-sized Juanita Stein, were virtually unheard of. By the end of 2006 they were supporting Placebo at Wembley. Fionn Regan, My Latest Novel and latest signings Beach House are three more compelling reasons not to miss the first night.
Topping it all off on the 10th July, the audience will also bear witness to a unique collaboration between Bella Union artists under the banner of the Bella Union All-Stars. Exactly who will form this one-night-only band will be revealed on the night.
The following night is no less special. Tim Smith’s wistful wonders Midlake headline, playing choice cuts from their addictive and supremely crafted second album The Trials Of Van Occupanther alongside The Dears, Denmark’s The Kissaway Trail and Texan songstress Stephanie Dosen. (The label’s other big name, proggers Explosions In The Sky, pulled out due to family illness.)
Simon Raymonde spoke to musicOMH in the week before the shows…
What’s the mood at Bella Union on the eve of your 10th Anniversary?
Celebratory. Every day we have a cake and candles. Actually we’d forgotten about it, cos we are having a poker championship at the office. I have three aces in my current hand and I am betting 500 Dears singles.
What were your and (fellow Cocteau Twin) Robin Guthrie‘s original intentions in starting Bella Union? Have you realised them?
Originally we just planned to put out Cocteau twins music and other collaborations and stuff like that, but then the band broke up soon after we set the label up so we thought we may as well put something out. So we put out my own solo record as bellacd1 and it sold really well and we figured we may as well do another one so we did Dirty Three and that did well too… and here we are a few weeks later… still here.
What has been the high point and low point in its existence?
Personal high point would be getting a letter from Nick Cave telling me how great we were and what an amazing time he’d had when he played with Dirty Three at the Barbican a year or so ago… (I am a fan)… low point would be losing Laura Veirs to a major label. I don’t think she wanted to go but she’d done her three albums on Bella Union but didn’t have a label in the USA and Carbon Glacier had pricked ears there after all the great press here, and Warners came steaming in and offered her a deal but said it had to be worldwide, so I lost out.
How did you go about setting up the company? Did you take advice or learn as you went along?
Designed a logo and called a distributor. I asked Keith Cullen at Setanta a few things cos he was going out with the woman who ran our studio, but apart from that, just bluffed my way through. Still doing it now.
Which aspects of running a label do you most and least enjoy?
Enjoy working with the bands, finding the music, love working with the staff at the label on plans and ideas, and I guess there isn’t really any aspect of it I don’t like. Too much spam email, too many demos to listen to? Not exactly much to worry about it, is it?
In its time the label has grown, developed a strong roster and has remained independent whilst other indies have folded or been absorbed by one of the majors. How have you managed to achieve this?
I have no idea. We didn’t borrow any money from anyone and we don’t overspend initially on a band, no matter how much we personally love them, so we are naturally cautious and have always felt our independence was our main asset and strength. The majors are good for some things I am sure, but the kind of music we have been releasing, they haven’t seemed that interested in, until now.
Have you been courted by major labels? If so, was it back in the early days or more recently?
Not really courted no. I think most people in the business know me, and realise what I am trying to do, and I genuinely think a lot of people who work in major labels, wish they were working here! There are some great people in major labels and there are some shit people in the independent sector so I am not being a snob about it, it’s just easier to work fast and efficiently at a smaller label than a larger one, where everything has to go through a ton of different people before a decision can be made. Here the pyramid is just one block high.
Is Bella Union still 100% independent? Would you ever consider a major offering to buy a stake in the label?
Yes it is totally independent. No, I doubt it very much.
One of your earliest signings was Dirty Three. On what basis were these early deals agreed per record, per territory or some other way?
Dirty Three is a special case. We will release anything they want us to release. If they wanted to go elsewhere they could. We love them to death and they know that. We treat each band separately and will talk to them about what kind of deal they’re looking for. If we can make it work, we will try… if we can’t, there are plenty of other bands…
The success of Howling Bells, Explosions In The Sky, Midlake and the rise of Fionn Regan, The Kissaway Trail and Stephanie Dosen has given Bella Union a reputation for identifying exceptional bands. What’s the secret?
No A&R scouts! Ooh no, I wouldn’t do that. Everyone at the label has great ears, and their contributions are always welcome and offered and I don’t need any more help than that. Ultimately the signings are down to me, but I wouldn’t sign something if I didn’t feel the others shared my love of it.
What’s the connection with Denton and wider Texas?
I signed Lift To Experience in 2001 and they took me round and introduced me to some friends bands and I got totally addicted to the scene there… then Explosions In The Sky came along and it seemed like I was fostering some Texan thing, but I think its more a case of right place right time for all of us.
Your roster doesn’t include much in the way of UK talent. Is there a reason for this?
I am not sure. I think I find the idea of artists from abroad more romantic. I also don’t like going to gigs with loads of A&R scouts all pitching for the same thing. I will be signing some more UK artists soon I’m sure, as I have my eye on a couple.
Tell us about your new signings Beach House.
Wonderful duo from Baltimore. Stylish and atmospheric. They won’t be played on breakfast radio but for me, theyre one of the most exciting new bands I have heard in a long long time. Victoria Legrand has that kind of stunning voice that floats into your head and sticks there… seductive and sensual music. Unique sound. Like Nico in Hawaii.
Are there more signings for 2007 in the pipeline?
Peter von Poehl from Sweden. The Autumns‘ new album. Both these records make me so excited about the latter part of my year.
Looking at your roster, both now and in the past, if you could work with just one of your artists to make music who would it be and why?
Josh Pearson. So I could help him make one of the greatest solo albums of all time. He can do it.
Are there bands or artists you’ve wanted to sign but who’ve slipped through your fingers?
Who were they if so and what were the circumstances? Not really, I can sense early on if something isn’t going to work out, but I guess Andrew Bird would be the only case where I had an opportunity a few years ago cos I was a big fan of his (still am!) but we had a full roster and not much money to do a deal with him and it didn’t happen. So that was annoying, but hey.
You’ve been in the music industry for long time first as an artist and now as a label boss. It’s changed for sure, and much has been made of the digital age and the impact it is having on the traditional music industry model. You seem to have adapted with things like Bella Union Radio, blogs and MySpace. Do you think there is more you can do, and do you have anything in the pipeline?
We are working on:
– BUTV to replace MTV.
– Advertising our albums on ITV1 during the Coronation Street/The Bill evening slot. It’s only about £300,000 for 30 seconds.
– Offering to send a CD out free to anyone who downloads the album from our online store.
– Getting Explosions In The Sky to write the theme for BBC News.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to set up their own record label now?
Ask yourself two questions:
1) If you have £5,000 start up money this will a) press up your cds/vinyl b) employ your press and radio dudes, but when no one reviews it and you have 2,000 CDs in boxes in your garage, what are you going to do next?
2) if you have £5,000 wouldn’t you be better off buying Steiff bunnies on eBay and selling them on FlogIt?