Famous Independent Record Labels: Stiff Records

Dave Robinson, co founder of Stiff Records
Dave Robinson, co-founder of Stiff Records Fresh On The Net, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But enough of such maudlin wittering. It was fun while it lasted. The story begins amidst the colourful and disruptive era of the mid-1970s in London. It was a period brimming with cultural shifts.

This is a story of more than just a record label; it’s an homage to the foresight of Robinson and Riviera, who eschewed the conventional in favour of, ahem, disruptive innovation. Born out of frustration with the bloated inefficiencies of major labels, Stiff Records offered a fresh take on music production and artist support. Theirs was the encapsulation of the DIY ethos of music recording, production, and release. Their roster began to expand with signings that would later establish the label as a crucible for talent.

The first signings were a declaration of their mission – the likes of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. These early successes didn’t just amplify the label’s reputation; they underscored Stiff Records’ keen ear for raw talent. It was a label that fought for those who charged against the mainstream grain, and a hive for artists seeking musical authenticity.

There can be no doubt that Stiff Records illuminates both a prolific period in music history and a model of entrepreneurial spirit in the industry. The label’s DIY ethos endorsed the concept of artistry uninhibited by executive oversight, fostering a creative haven for the musicians under their wing. This blueprint of independence would be vital to the blossoming Punk and New Wave movements that Stiff Records became synonymous with.

Iconic Artists and Groundbreaking Releases

Stiff Records signed some of the key proponents of the Punk and New Wave movements. The list is eye-opening, including, as it does the likes of Nick Lowe, the Damned, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and Devo. Then moving into the early 1980s, most of the initial raft of artists had moved on, Stiff found commercial success more readily with Madness, The Pogues, Tracey Ullman, The Belle Stars, Kirsty MacColl and others.

Signed by Stiff Records: Devo
C Michael Stewart, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From the snarling immediacy of Punk to the rhythmic beats of Ska and New Wave, Stiff Records was home to artists who made a big stir. Take Elvis Costello, for instance. Armed with his Fender Jazzmaster and a biting lyrical wit, Costello became synonymous with the label’s cutting-edge aesthetic. My Aim Is True, his debut and only Stiff Records album release, remains a touchstone of the era. Four singles were released from the album, with the fourth, Watching the Detectives making number 15 in the UK singles chart.

Madness brought a different sound to the stable, aligning irresistibly catchy ska rhythms with a cheeky London-centric perspective, encapsulating the youthful exuberance and identity of a generation. The dance floors were never the same after hits like One Step Beyond and Baggy Trousers hit the airwaves. The first five Madness albums were all released on Stiff, from their debut, One Step Beyond, in 1979 to 1984’s Keep Moving.

It wasn’t just about individual songs or albums, though. Stiff Records had a hand in crafting releases that defined entire genres, pushing the boundaries of what music could be. Their catalogue reads like a ‘who’s who’ of musical innovation during the late 70s and early 80s. We heard influential tracks from The Damned with New Rose, which is popularly credited as the first punk rock single in 1976. Then Ian Dury with his first solo album, New Boots and Panties!! which was released in 1977, containing tracks such as Billericay Dickie, Sweet Gene Vincent and Clevor Trever (sic) and more.

American-British singer, Lene Lovich had her first three albums, Stateless, Flex and No Man’s Land, all released on Stiff. However, she is probably best remembered for her 1979 single Lucky Number, which reached number 3 in the UK singles chart. New Waves purists may also point to her preceding single, 1978’s cover of I Think We’re Alone Now from Tommy James and the Shondells – a full 9 years before Tiffany’s cover.

The label’s insistence on artistic freedom allowed these icons to experiment with sounds and lyrics, creating distinct personal brands in the process. The artistic exploration was enabled because there was no heavy-handed control which major labels often exerted. This was crucial in fostering an environment where creativity was king. Their bold approach sowed seeds that would bloom into the punk and new wave movements, leaving an indelible mark on the music landscape.

With these groundbreaking releases, Stiff Records produced music with historical resonance. They championed the underrepresented, the mavericks, and the iconoclasts, and presented their sounds to a world that was all too ready for revolution.

This innovative streak wasn’t limited to the recording studio, however. It extended into the fabric of how the business was run, particularly in the realm of marketing. Stiff Records were true marketing mavericks, leveraging their promotional prowess to gain an edge in a fiercely competitive industry.

Marketing Mavericks: Stiff Records’ Promotional Genius

Stiff Records did more than just sign great artists. They led a revolution in the way music was sold to the public. Phrases like “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f***” was just one of their cheeky slogans that grabbed attention and shook up the industry. This approach wasn’t just about being brash; it was deeply strategic, aiming to disrupt the status quo and carve out a unique space for their artists.

Their marketing campaigns were more than just advertisements; they were cultural events. Perhaps taking their lead from a certain Punk band’s performance on a certain Thames TV show, Stiff leveraged the power of controversy and humour to engage listeners and create a dedicated fan base. It would be no great stretch of the imagination to say that they were as much in the business of storytelling as they were in music, crafting the image of a countercultural movement where their musicians were the heroes.

Media and public relations played a crucial role in Stiff Records’ strategy. They understood the value of getting people talking, whether through provocative posters or staged events. Analysing their campaigns reveals a clever use of limited resources, often prioritizing creativity over big budgets, which in today’s era of digital virality, remains a relevant lesson. The message was everything and everything was the message.

A standout example of their marketing prowess was when they declared themselves “The World’s Most Flexible Record Label.” Quite what it meant is anybody’s guess, but it embodied the confidence and spirit that made Stiff Records a household name. They also coined phrases such as “We Came, We Saw, We Left” and “When You Kill Time, You Murder Success.”

The Stiffs Tours: Marketing and Entertainment

A famous idea for marketing and putting the artists in front of fans was the Stiff Tours of the 1970s in the label’s very earliest days. They were iconic music journeys which encapsulated the vibrant energy of artists signed to Stiff Records. The tours featured acts like Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and Madness. The irreverent spirit of the label meant that the tours broke conventions with raw, unfiltered performances that captivated audiences nationwide, becoming synonymous with rebellion and authenticity. The Stiff Tours not only promoted emerging talent but also fostered a sense of community within the alternative music scene.

The first tour, in October and November 1977, was imaginatively titled Live Stiffs Tour and it saw 5 acts. The first three, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Wreckless Eric and The New Rockets, were roughly self-contained entities, although, for example, Ian Dury played drums for the New Rockets.

The final two, Nick Lowe’s Last Chicken in the Shop and Larry Wallis’s Psychedelic Rowdies were both comprised of the five same musicians, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis, Dave Edmunds, Terry Williams, Pete Thomas, and Penny Tobin. There it was Stiff Records’ DIY ethos.

Railway carriage emblazoned with "Be Stiff Tour 78"
Graham Smith from England, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Next year the tour ran at the same time of year and contained five acts: albeit different ones, in the shape of Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich, Mickey Jupp, Jonah Lewie, and Rachel Sweet. 1980 saw the last Stiff tour, aka The Son of Stiff and featured Ten Pole Tudor, Any Trouble, Dirty Looks, Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, and The Equators.

Such campaigns not only propelled their artists into the spotlight but also solidified Stiff Records’ reputation as a true music industry maverick. What’s evident is that Stiff Records’ promotional strategies have left their mark on music marketing. Their legacy continues to inspire current and future generations of independent labels looking to make a splash in an ever-more saturated market.

Remaining Stiff in the Face of Adversity: Challenges and Evolution

Perhaps because of, rather than despite, its mere ten-year orbit, Stiff Records carved a place in music history. This was through its impressive roster and disruptive innovations. Like many independent labels, Stiff Records faced its fair share of financial hurdles. The pressure to compete with larger, more financially equipped labels pushed Stiff Records to its limits more than once and ultimately led to its premature demise in 1987 when it was sold to ZTT.

In 2007, ZTT reanimated Stiff (I’m sure there’s a joke in there) and the label quickly signed indie newcomers The Enemy. Rolling forward to 2017, and Stiff, as part of ZTT, was bought by Universal Music Group. Both labels were relaunched by Universal and are seen as “unique and iconic labels.”

In closing, Stiff Records’ story isn’t just about the successes and struggles of a music label; even if it was one of the most famous independent record labels. It’s more about an undying commitment to the art and artists, a stance that continues to resonate with music fans worldwide. Reflecting on where the alumni have journeyed to today, from Elvis Costello’s continued acclaim to Madness’ perpetual presence on tour, the beat of Stiff Records goes on.

For aspiring musicians and industry mavens, this label’s history is a wellspring of inspiration, a reminder that with guts, innovation, and a touch of irreverence, small players can still make an indelible mark on the world stage.

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