About Rough Trade Records

Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records
Bull-Doser, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, for those of a certain age, Rough Trade Records was synonymous with the birth and blossoming of the independent music scene. Championing punk, post-punk, and alternative music genres, Rough Trade fostered a community of artists and fans dedicated to the ethos of creative freedom and innovation. For a short time, it joined the dots between record manufacture and sales.

Read on to find out more…

Initially a record store, based on Kensington Park Road off Ladbroke Grove in West London, Rough Trade was founded in February 1976 by Geoff Travis. The first record released by Rough Trade Records may well have been an accident. Short-lived French punk rockers Métal Urbain had stopped by the shop looking for assistance in publicising their music.

Perhaps they got more than they had bargained for, but the first Rough Trade release was the Parisians’ single Paris Macquis which was afforded the catalogue number RT001. Subsequent releases include Ulster punk rockers Stiff Little Fingers’ second single Alternative Ulster (RT004) and Scritti Politti’s first single, Skank Bloc Bologna (SCRIT1).

The first album released by Rough Trade was Stiff Little Finger’s first album, Inflammable Material. Released in 1979, Inflammable Material reached number 14 in the UK album chart and was the first album from an independent label to sell over 100,000 copies in the UK.

These releases, plus others from Cabaret Voltaire, Tapper Zuckie, The Angelic Upstarts and Spizzoil, amongst others, quickly garnered Rough Trade’s reputation for an eclectic stable of artists.

A Note on Travis’s Inspiration

As mentioned, the brainchild behind this cultural icon is Geoff Travis. In the 1970s, his vision for a hub of musical creativity started to take shape. Armed with a fervent passion for music and a discerning ear, Travis turned a small shop selling records into a beacon for the indie music community.

City Light Bookstore in San Francisco inspiration for Rough Trade record shop on Kensington Park Road in London
Caroline Culler (User:Wgreaves), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Rough Trade Records – the shop – had an unrivalled selection of alternative music for sale. Travis, however, was not overly bothered if people chose just to hang out. Consequently, it didn’t take long before the unique culture thusly fostered in the Ladbroke Grove store had driven Travis to no longer wait for other people to sign his favourite artists and instead release them himself – even if he was given a nudge in the right direction by his French visitors.

His progressive mindset and the desire to empower musicians saw Rough Trade’s rapid transition from a local record shop to a trendsetting indie label. Furthermore, his light hand on the tiller allowed artists to craft their sounds without the heavy-handed influence of major labels. This was an ethos that contributed to a growing DIY culture within the music industry – a movement that encouraged artists to take control of their own music production and distribution.

Rough Trade Records became synonymous with integrity and independence, which resonated with artists and audiences alike. As the label grew, it became a refuge for those who bravely resisted the mainstream, favouring innovation over conformity.

Key Artists and Albums: Then and Now

Moving into the 1980s, Rough Trade Records became the launchpad that catapulted numerous artists into the spotlight and played a substantial role in the indie music narrative. The label’s history of signing and fostering bands and solo artists who defied the conventional sounds of their times is legend.

Let’s now look at some of the artists who, with Rough Trade’s backing, became synonymous with independent music’s rise. Perhaps the most iconic of Rough Trade’s associations, The Smiths, exemplify how the label’s support could elevate a band to monumental success. Their self-titled debut album, The Smiths, along with subsequent releases, resonated with a generation and left a lasting imprint on indie music.

Beyond The Smiths, the label boasts a roster diverse in sound and origin – it also highlights the difficulties of an independent label. For example, the Punk-influenced posturing of New York’s The Strokes saw them release their 2001 debut EP The Modern World on Rough Trade. Within six months, their debut album, This is It had been released… on RCA Records.

In 2017, experimental folkies This is the Kit released their fifth album, Moonshine Freeze, coming to Rough Trade from the smaller independent label, NYC’s Brassland Records. Rough Trade has always sought out those with a story to tell through their music. This strategy has created a catalogue of hits and is also a demonstration of how to do musical innovation.

Albums like UK Grim by Sleaford Mods and I Love you Jennifer B by Jockstrap turned heads not only for their musical excellence but for the messages they convey. UK Grim is a polemical work – at times excoriating. On the other hand, I Love you Jennifer B is a diverse collection of themes and emotions, weaving tales of relationships, personal introspection, and the intricacies of human emotion.

Either way, both fuse poignancy and melody and once again we see Rough Trade’s knack for identifying and nurturing talents who can both influence and be influenced by the world around them.

Exploring these works helps the listener to better understand Rough Trade’s significance in the broader cultural landscape. It’s not only about what was produced but also about the stories these albums tell and the emotions they evoke.

Behind the Scenes: Rough Trade’s Approach to the Music Business

Rough Trade has always distinguished itself with an innovative approach that goes beyond the music itself – Geoff Travis made sure of it. At the core of his strategy was a deep-rooted belief in artistic freedom, which went a long way towards cultivating a unique environment where musicians can thrive. It is still prevalent in the modern manifestation of Rought Trade Records.

Indeed, the label has become synonymous with fostering close, collaborative relationships with its artists. Rather than pushing for commercial hits, Rough Trade has always emphasized the importance of creative autonomy, enabling artists to experiment and grow unhindered by mainstream pressures. That those hits have come along anyway is a bonus.

This ethos extends to the financial side of things. The shop and therefore the label were both informed by left-of-centre politics and as a result, structured as a co-operative; they were literally cutting out the middleman to the benefit of the members – which of course included the artists.

The label was a champion of fair compensation practices long before it was a widespread conversation in the industry. They’ve been proponents of equitable contracts that allow artists to earn more from their music, not only respecting their craft but also setting a precedent for other labels.

Travis and Rough Trade were prime movers in the development of the Cartel, an independent record distribution network. Along with shops/labels such as Probe (Liverpool), Revolver (Bristol), Fast Forward (Edinburgh) and Red Rhino (York) the network was set up to supply local record stores which at the time were still mostly independent.

Financial Troubles: Unlikely Heroes Save the Day

Record label - the Smiths, Girlfriend in a Coma
Beat 768, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1982, the larger business of Rough Trade was experiencing financial difficulties. In turn, this led to problems for the original Ladbroke Grove shop. These were alleviated by the takeover of the shop by three employees. Perfectly in step with the Rough Trade ethos, they bought the shop’s stock for £7,000 and decided to pay themselves a wage equivalent to unemployment benefit.

After moving the short distance to Talbot Road where it still operates, the shop’s fortunes were secured.

Bereft at the loss of his shop, Travis was fortunate to have a demo tape pressed into his hand by a young lad from Manchester. On hearing it, Travis agreed that his struggling record label would release a single by the band lad’s band who were named The Smiths. Of course, it needs a little more explanation but, suffice it to say that The Smiths would elevate indie rock to the mainstream and the fortunes of Rough Trade Records – the label – would themselves be revived.

The Big Boys Get Involved: Rough Waters (again) for Rough Trade

The trouble with Indie becoming mainstream was that mainstream record labels decided that they wanted a slice of the pie. Accordingly, pressure on independents like Rough Trade, plus bad decisions led to cashflow problems and eventually, receivership.

In 1987, with the label in a bad way, Travis launched an artist management company with former PiL member and Vivienne Westwood employee, Jeanette Lee. Success in this venture took the sting out of the failure of Rough Trade and facilitated the resuscitation of the label in the late nineties.

At the turn of the millennium, Rough Trade was managed as a partnership between the pair and minority partners Sanctuary Records. In this new manifestation, bands discovered by Rough Trade include the Strokes (as we have seen) and the Libertines. In 2007, Sanctuary Records sold its stake in Rough Trade to the Beggars Group for £800,000 making Rough Trade independent once again: or, rather, a quasi-independent member of Beggars Group, along with other labels such as 4AD, Matador Records, and XL Recordings.

Rough Trade Today: Continuing the Indie Spirit

Moving forward, Rough Trade Records is adapting and building on its history and reputation while embracing the changes brought about by the digital music landscape. Obviously, with its roots in the punk rock movement, its DIY ethos, and its reputation for championing independent music, Rough Trade has managed to maintain its ethos of discovering and promoting unique, groundbreaking artists.

One of the key strategies for Rough Trade in the digital era has been its continued focus on artist development and support – no surprise there. And again, as per its original ethos, it has remained committed to signing and nurturing artists with distinct voices and visions, regardless of mainstream trends. This approach has allowed Rough Trade to build a diverse and influential roster that resonates with both dedicated music fans and a wider audience exploring music online.

Rough Trade Records has also capitalized on its brand and legacy to build a robust online presence. Through its website (https://roughtraderecords.com/) and social media channels, the label actively engages with its audience, offering not just music but also content that enriches the listener’s experience, such as artist interviews, exclusive performances, and behind-the-scenes insights. This content strategy helps Rough Trade to not only sell records but also to cultivate a community of music lovers around its artists and releases.

The label has been a driver of the vinyl revival, recognizing the format as both a cultural statement and a physical artefact that fans cherish, thus contributing greatly to its resurgence. Innovative marketing strategies have seen the release of special editions, coloured vinyl, and other collectables that appeal to collectors and audiophiles. Rough Trade Records gives people what they want, feeding the nostalgia for physical formats and the desire for unique, tangible music experiences in an increasingly digital world.

Store display in a Rough Trade Records store

In this pursuit, Rough Trade Records (the label) has been able to use its symbiotic relationship with Rough Trade retail stores, particularly with events like Record Store Day. Although they are no longer part of the same company as the label, these stores serve as physical touchpoints, where it can directly engage with its audience through in-store performances, exclusive releases, and personal recommendations.

This relationship benefits both parties, reinforcing both the Rough Trade retail organisation as well as the record label. As it was in those halcyon days of the late seventies, the link between store and label is demonstrated as an important part of the independent music ecosystem.

Although the Rough Trade Records of today is a new entity, it is thriving in the digital era by staying true to its original core principles of supporting innovative music, fostering community, and also by embracing both digital and physical formats.

Strategic artist development, engaging online content, and capitalizing on the vinyl resurgence all allow Rough Trade Records to be a vital force in the music industry. It just goes to show that labels with a clear identity and commitment to their artists can thrive even in the face of rapid technological changes.

Rough Trade’s journey from a small record store to an institution in the independent music scene is not just about business; it’s about passion and staying true to a set of principles that resonate with artists and listeners alike. As Rough Trade Records looks to the future, it does so with the same vigour and integrity that it started with, ready to write new chapters in the story of indie music while pushing the boundaries of what a record label can and should be.

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