Label Focus #3: Bella Union
If you’re older than, say, 17, the year 1997 probably doesn’t seem that long ago; Verve’s Urban Hymns and Radiohead’s OK Computer; an exciting, trendy Labour government; and the birth of a new independent record label, Bella Union Records. That was ten years ago now. Bugger, we’re getting old(er).
One hurdy gurdy decade later, Bella Union continue to go from strength to strength, now finding themselves in quite the eminent position. Recent releases have included records by Midlake, Fionn Regan, Explosions In The Sky and Howling Bells.
The label was set up by the much adored Cocteau Twins, one of the most influential and unique bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, primarily as a place to release their own music and collaborations. Unfortunately, shortly after setting up the label the band was to break up. Having got this far though, ex-Twins Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie resolved to carry on and see what musical talent they could attract to work with.
Early days saw the critically-acclaimed signings of acts such as The Dirty Three, Francoiz Breut and The Czars. A pivotal moment in the label’s history was the signing of celestial rockers Lift to Experience, beginning a legacy of Texan music on Bella Union that’s made us very happy since.
DiS conversed with now sole owner Simon Raymonde about all things Bella. This is what transpired…
How did the transition go from band member to label founder?
A bit like Alan Curbishley's transition from player to manager! It takes a while to work out who your friends are and you make loads of mistakes, but if you learn quickly from them, you can do alright… I don't know any other musicians that have gone down this route, well not for ten years anyhow, so it’s not like I could ring a mate up and ask how to do something. The transition, therefore, was gradual… but at least growth occurred! Small growth, but growth nevertheless. By 2001 I started to get the hang of it and by 2004 I thought I was pretty good at it, and now I really love it.
Which records do you have the fondest memories of releasing? Equally, where was the heartbreak? Who had artwork that never came, or b-sides that were 29 minutes long?
Releasing all records by The Dirty Three is a joy – the way they present themselves, the art, the structure of the albums, the attitude the band have to their work is a lesson for us all. The Lift To Experience album was truly special and I guess the heartbreak was watching the band break-up and my inability to help Josh Pearson get to a place where he felt ready and able to record a solo album. That is a regret, of course. As for 29 minute tracks, all Explosions In The Sky songs are long, as were Lift's, as are The Dirty Three's mostly, but I look upon this as a massive strength not a weakness. There are plenty of labels out there already who do the three-minute pop single / formatting stuff and soundbite side of life better than we do, and I don't have a problem with that. I also loved releasing My Latest Novel’s album Wolves, ‘cause their excitement at the whole process reminded of my own when I was just starting out too. That kind of joy is infectious and partly why I do this. Midlake, Fionn Regan and many others have made albums that have moved me significantly, and that's all I can hope for.
Have you done enough to sit back in your dotage and be happy with your legacy?
Not yet, but maybe I will one day, or maybe I won't. Maybe I will be like Alex Ferguson and keep on ‘til I have one foot in the grave, but I think that’s unlikely!
Ten years is a long time for any label to thrive – what's kept you going? Good decisions or a healthy dose of luck?
Since I’ve had sole responsibility for the signings and direction of the label since 2001 it's actually been just a whole lot of fun and it doesn't feel like 10 years at all. Really, for the first four years, I didn't have a clue about anything much and just made a ton of mistakes. I think you need some luck, but you can't survive forever on fortune alone. I think we sign great bands, some of whom will succeed and some who won't, and this will probably have nothing to do with the merit of one over another. I think the quality of staff I have at the label is a huge part of why it's gone well, too.
How does your role as producer/mixer cross with that of A&R / label man?
I guess it just keeps me sane, or slightly less insane, and in touch with bands and the creative processes that go into making music. I have spent the best part of my life in studios and I really love the environment, especially the collaborative opportunities it allows. I am not a sitting-at-the-back-pontificating kind of producer; I like to help create a positive vibe in the room, to take away the fear that can overwhelm some musicians. However, in this last year or two, I have struggled with wearing so many hats: the label is so busy now that being away for an album project for, say, six to eight weeks is really just not an option any more. So to answer your question, right now it doesn't cross very well! But I'd loathe giving it up because I think I'm a pretty good producer! I am proud of the James Yorkston, Clearlake, Helene and Duke Spirit albums I did. I liken studios to casinos: in studios, time doesn't exist.
Do you have a good relationship with this here new technology? MySpace and whatnot?
I embrace it fully and have done for a long while. I spend a lot of time sitting listening to stuff online and I am of the opinion that there has never been so much amazing stuff to discover as there is now. That said, never has there been quite so much shit to go through to find it!
If Bella Union has a 20th birthday party, who's invited?
If we make it to 20 years, surely my kids will be running it by then. My sons -Stan and Will, who are 15 and 13 - have already done work experience at the label and seem very keen on the music stuff, so I think it’s in safe hands! They have great taste, so I'd be cool with that.
Over the last 10 years, what in music culturally, and movement wise has made you weep with joy? And howl with displeasure?
What constantly amazes me in this past decade is how much more open-minded people are musically and how the breadth of their tastes has developed so far. Until I was about 23 I really had quite a narrow taste, and yet when I am on MySpace and stumble across the profile of a 20-year-old, they will often cite some very obscure bands as influences, bands that may span five decades and cross many genres. Genres that I never thought could cross-fertilise. I don't really notice movements in music ‘cause I have my head too high in the clouds to notice. I miss out on them. Emo? Don't have a clue. Crunk? I do know what post-rock is though! But I only like Explosions In The Sky and Jeniferever.
What utterly bloody confuses you about music these days?
I don't understand why we make CD singles. I don't understand why we still manufacture a thousand fully artworked CD singles just so we can send them out to radio and TV people who will never listen to them anyway and then say, "Oh no, I never got it, can you send it again?" I don't know why it’s not all done electronically, which would be so much better for the environment. I don't understand why we spend loads of money just to make loads of Beta SP copies of our videos to send to broadcasters. I don't understand why independent record labels have to pay MCPS royalty (a royalty that goes to bands' publisher from the record label) based on how many copies you manufacture, while the majors only pay on what they sell. So if they (the majors) make a million CDs of the new shitty pop thing and end up selling five copies, they just pay a royalty on the five copies. If an indie manufactures a million and sells five they pay a royalty on the million! That confuses the hell out of me. As do the fees promoters pay to support bands.
Is London the Mecca of the music world, or just full of self-important idiots? Why base yourself in the outer reaches of the city? (Twickenham)
I really don't know that much about the music world which is probably ‘cause I really don't want to know... I prefer to just concentrate on what I do and I am not sure being closer to everyone else would really help much. Surely where you're based is not very important – we are based here because I am very lazy and want to walk to the office from my flat with my dog and then be at home in time to kiss my girlfriend before Sorry I Haven't A Clue comes on. There are a lot of self-important people in London, but I am not sure the music business has a higher ratio per capita than any other business.
What advice would you give anyone starting a label?
Don't. Become a booking agent. Seriously, you would have to expect to be out of business within a year if you started a label. To gamble on a band is usually a worse bet than backing a three-legged donkey at Haydock.
Ha ha, so what advice would you give DiS records?
Get out now. Become an agent. Become a secret agent if you like, but don't run a record label…
‘Bonus track’ question: are CDs a dead format for non-LP releases? Is it all digital all the way from here, or do 7"s still rule?
I am currently at the forefront of a small but dedicated movement to return to the cassette as the sole format... let me explain. I was, for six ill-fated days, chairman of the now defunct 'Reel-To-Reel Society' – we advocated that each house in England, Scotland and Wales be provided with water, gas, electricity, phone lines and a Tascam reel-to-reel machine. But MP Margaret Beckett threw it out of the House at its first hearing. You can't throw reel-to-reel machines out the House without some collateral damage: I resigned the following morning. An article did appear in the Haydock enquirer but it was buried away on page 56 beneath an ad for zimmer frames that doubled up as shopping trolleys.
Bella Union will be celebrating their decade of existence via a number of activities throughout the summer and autumn, including a special 10th anniversary retrospective CD, a series of summer concerts, parties, club nights and the usual shit. Keep one eye on their website for more information as and when it’s available.