In the current climate where independent record labels have become something of a dying breed, it's refreshing to know there are some that have not only survived the decline in record sales but actually gone from strength to strength. London based DIY imprint Fortuna Pop! is one such example. The label was formed in 1996 by Sean Price, formerly a promoter of club nights such as 'The Beat Hotel' and 'Basement Scam' at the capital's Buffalo Bar. This year sees them enjoy their fifteenth birthday and with it there'll be a series of commemorative shows taking place at London's Scala on the first three nights of November, featuring the likes of The Primitives, Crystal Stilts, Darren Hayman, Allo Darlin' and a host of other very special guests.
Since the very first release, Taking Pictures 'Fallen Angel' they've put out a consistently high standard of records, many by artists previously unknown to UK and European audiences, while always remaining true to the spirit of the independent ethos. The likes of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Lucksmiths, Fanfarlo and The Butterflies Of Love all owe a depth of gratitude to the label for giving them a platform to showcase their wares and, especially in the case of the former two, go on to achieve both critical and commercial acclaim in the future.
Here, DiS caught up with label founder and general workaholic Sean Price as well as some of the key artists from the Fortuna Pop! roster pivotal to the label's development over the past fifteen years.
DiS: How does it feel for the label to have survived this long, particularly in the current climate?
Sean Price: Great, to be honest! When I first started there was no real masterplan or blueprint. I was just committed to putting out music by artists I really like and admire, and nothing's changed along the way. It's been hard work at times, especially with me holding down a full-time day job.
DiS: Did you have any expectations when you first started Fortuna Pop?
SP: No, not really. Longevity is always a bonus, and I think we've managed to achieve that in a round-a-bout kind of way. Fifteen years is a long time, especially in the music business. At first we never really looked beyond putting out the next release to be honest. It was only when first pressings started selling out quicker than previous releases and so on that we thought we may be onto something here.
DiS: Who were the labels that inspired you to start Fortuna Pop! in the first place?
SP: Creation Records, without a doubt. I used to buy everything that came out on that label religiously, certainly up to the Oasis years at any rate. I was probably just a bit too young for Postcard, although I do love people like Josef K and Aztec Camera, and Zoo are another that springs to mind, purely because Bill Drummond was an inspiration in himself to me. Ultimately though I guess I'd have to cite Sarah Records as being the main influence behind Fortuna Pop. Just their whole ethos and attitude really as well as putting out some great music over the years. Towards the end their standards slipped a little but the first fifty or so releases on that label were near flawless.
DiS: The first release came out at the height of Britpop. Did you start Fortuna Pop! as a reaction to what was happening in the UK music scene at the time?
SP: Not at all, no. I was a huge fan of Pulp and Blur, and to be fair a lot of the bands that influenced them as well. I remember going to see Blur at Mile End dressed in my mod gear! I definitely wouldn't call Fortuna Pop! a reaction to Britpop.
DiS: Was it difficult getting the label established back then, bearing in mind the Internet was only in its infant stages? Certainly in comparison to now, at any rate.
SP: Such a lot has changed in the last fifteen years. There was technology back then but I have to say looking back I can't imagine how I managed to run a record label fifteen years ago! Email was just starting and not everybody had it. I'd put records out and people would write to me on bits of paper ordering the records and I'd have a big folder full of orders. Nowadays it's easier to go on Paypal, albeit a little less personal - but going back to the original question about whether it was easier then or now, I don't know. I'd like to see what sales figures were for records in 1996. Downloading hadn't started back then so presumably sales figures were better? I guess at the level I was doing stuff it wouldn't make that much difference. I remember watching the Rough Trade documentary from the 1980s recently on BBC4 where Scritti Politti walk into the shop with a demo and Rough Trade immediately press 1000 copies up on vinyl and then they walk in the next day and Rough Trade have already sold the first batch so press up another 1000 copies! It's difficult to imagine when you struggle to sell 500 vinyl singles these days. But that was in the 1980s. I have no real concept of whether sales increased or decreased in the 1990s. I guess there was a boom around Britpop?
DiS: I think that was possibly the end of the whole record buying era from a mass consumer's point of view.
SP: So I guess you could say that I started the label at the wrong time? Perhaps. I think it's become easier since the to get your music heard. There's various forms of social networking like MySpace and Twitter, so from a small label or band's point of view it probably is a better time to be around.
DiS: What about the financial side of the label? Obviously costs have increased over time, and with the closure of many record store outlets actually distributing your product must be a nightmare.
SP: I have been looking at my accounts recently and it's not good! I've always subsidised the label out of my own pocket from my day job. I feel it is getting harder and harder to sell records and that's why all the major labels have these 360 degree deals in place with their artists. If you want to make money or just break even these days you've got to look at other sources of income. Taking a percentage of a band's live shows or licensing music to television and films are two ways of doing that. We had that with The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, and whereas maybe twenty years ago the band would have been accused of selling out, nowadays it isn't something people would object to. It's a good way of maintaining additional income which ultimately helps finance the label to put more records out by artists whose profile perhaps wouldn't get recognised otherwise. If I had more time I'd like to set up a few more things like that, and hopefully it's something that will happen in the future.
DiS: Is there anything definite on the horizon?
SP: There's a guy in Spain who makes films that wants to use the Fortuna Pop! catalogue for some of his projects. The problem for me is finding the time to set these kind of deals up. If I can put something in place where I can get Fortuna Pop! artists' music into films or television adverts more regularly it might help the label break even a bit better.
DiS: One of the most interesting things about Fortuna Pop! is the way it has introduced so many new artists to a wider audience. People like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Lucksmiths, Fanfarlo and Crystal Stilts for example. Do you sometimes feel as if you're doing the A&R man's job for him?
SP: I would if any of those bands had signed to a much bigger label. That's only really happened in the cases of The Pains and Fanfarlo. I get annoyed when I've found a band and then that band moves on without me getting something back in return for all the time and effort I've put into it.
DiS: Who would you say did that?
SP: Fanfarlo. I don't want to slag them off or anything but I released one single for them, worked with them for a year and discussed releasing the album. For me, that constituted a lot of time and effort on my behalf and then they went off and signed to the Sugarbabes' management company and all of a sudden they didn't want to release the album on Fortuna Pop. They were looking for a bigger deal, and while I can understand what they're saying, to me it represented a lot of wasted time, effort and money, because I'd spent £2-3,000 on them which I wasn't going to recoup now I wouldn't be releasing their album. From that aspect, I guess you could say I was doing an A&R person's job, developing that band, in a way that I was never going to be rewarded for.
DiS: If you could pick out one release as being definitive for the label what would it be and why?
SP: The definitive release for me would have to be The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart album. Things didn't really work out in the end between me and them, but that was a key point for Fortuna Pop! in the way it attracted so many more bands to the label. It increased Fortuna Pop!'s profile massively. I genuinely don't believe either Herman Dune or Crystal Stilts would be on the label if I hadn't had such success with that record. Before The Pains... it used to be me chasing bands to put their records out on Fortuna Pop. Now it's the other way round with bands chasing me. That's not to say I'd call it the best record I've ever released. If I was to pick a personal favourite then How To Know... by The Butterflies Of Love is a stone cold classic. Maybe in twenty years time it will be spoken of like the first Velvet Underground record...?
DiS: Is there anything you'd like to change about the past fifteen years?
SP: Ideally I'd like to run my label as a full-time concern. I do tend to look back at points where the label was gaining in impetus - The Butterflies of Love record, The Aislers Set album, Warmer Corners by The Lucksmiths, and maybe in hindsight should have gone to a bigger label and asked for some money to do Fortuna Pop! full time? It's all by-the-by now and in a hypothetical sense may not have worked out, but at the same time it could have also been a huge springboard for the label. By the same token, I quite like being independent and would swap that level of control for any amount of money, and maybe that's one of the things that makes Fortuna Pop! what it is.
DiS: I'd agree with that. When I think of labels like Fortuna Pop! it captures that whole "Spirit of Independence" ethic to perfection. How would you define it?
SP: I guess it goes back to Sarah Records and the real definition of indie pop. I think when any kind of financial consideration creeps in that's when things start to go downhill. Most of the people I've worked with are doing it for the love of making music rather than a career, and I think that often comes through in the music as well. It all goes back to punk ultimately. Having a free spirit and doing what you want to do. Not really caring about having a career or how you're perceived by other people.
DiS: What does the future hold for Fortuna Pop! in terms of forthcoming releases etc?
SP: I've got a Cinema Red And Blue ten-inch coming out this year, which will be the first release I've done with them. They're a Crystal Stilts/Comet Gain supergroup so it will be nice to put that record out, which given that I've worked with both seems like quite a natural thing to do. There's a Darren Hayman ten-inch coming out with 'I Taught You How To Dance' off The Ship's Piano as the lead track. It's got three cover versions on it, all on a dance theme; 'I Don't Wanna Dance' by Eddy Grant, 'Dance Away' by Roxy Music and 'Come Dancing' by The Kinks. There's a Pipettes single which is really great. It's a song they missed off the last album because they felt it sounded too much like "classic Pipettes" so hopefully that will go down well. Next year I'm particularly looking forward to the Evans The Death record. It's been recorded and we're just finishing the mastering and it sounds fantastic so far. I'm really happy with it, you know, just short, clever, noisy pop songs. They're the latest signings to the label. Then there's gonna be a new Allo Darlin' album which I'm looking forward to, because even though it's ages since they put anything out, I don't think the interest's gone away. I'm also doing the Shrag album with my friend John (Jervis), who does Where It's At Is Where You Are Records. We're banding together to put that out as a joint release. The demos sound incredible and they've really matured as songwriters so that should be quite exciting when it's finished.
DiS: You've got the fifteenth birthday live shows coming up. How did each individual line-up come together and who are you looking forward to seeing the most?
SP: Some of the nights just fell together quite easily. The final night for example with Allo Darlin', Darren Hayman, Tender Trap and Ladybug Transistor. Gary from Ladybug has sung with Allo Darlin' before Amelia from Tender Trap has sung with Darren Hayman before, Allo Darlin' have a song called 'Darren Hayman'! There's a link between every single one of those bands, so I'm expecting some great collaborations on that night! The second night, Crystal Stilts and Comet Gain are obviously big mates anyway, and Shrag fit in with Comet Gain and Evans The Death too. The first night was the most difficult one to put together, then Mark Monnone from The Lucksmiths emailed me and said he was going to be in London around that time so could he play. It will be really nice to have him playing first on that bill because The Lucksmiths can't be there having split up, so it will be good to have them represented this way. Then we managed to persuade the Crystal Stilts guys to come over a day earlier and perform a Cinema Red And Blue set. It will only be their second gig ever as half them live in London and the other half in New York, so I guess for that reason alone it's the one I'm most looking forward to. Then we've got Amy Linton, Wyatt Cusick and Yoshi Nakamoto from The Aislers Set coming over as well to play with Cinema Red And Blue, and they're gonna do some Aislers Set songs at the end too. It will be the first time they've played any Aislers Set material in about 7-8 years. (Amy) Linton did a few songs with Crystal Stilts at the Slumberland Records 20th birthday party last year, but I think they're going to play for a good twenty minutes this time round so that will just be amazing! And then there's The Primitives, which just about caps it all off nicely. I know Linton is really excited to be playing on the same bill as them as she has a song that mentions Tracy Tracy. I guess the first night was the most difficult to put together but it also has the potential to be the most exciting.
DiS: Looking back over the last fifteen years, are there any bands you'd really like to have signed to the label, or "ones that got away" for one reason or another?
SP: I'd loved to have signed Veronica Falls. I put on their very first show supporting The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and I did ask a lot of times whether I could release their records. Obviously they found another label eventually and probably had ambitions all along about signing to someone bigger than Fortuna Pop. Thinking of bands that got away, when I was living in Manchester - I went to University there - I used to obsessively go and watch this guy called Johnny Dangerously, who I thought was such a fantastic songwriter. When I started the label up a few years later, he seemed to have disappeared from the scene, so I wrote him this big long letter asking what he was up to and offering to release his records. Eventually I persuaded him to come to London and play a few gigs but he said he didn't want to do it solo any more without his mates. I'd seen him play with his friends before and he said he was going to form a band with them and they were going to call themselves Heavy. I told him that was a terrible name but went to see them anyway, and didn't think they were as good as when he was solo. He came back down a few weeks later and said they had a new name - I Am Kloot - and I told him they weren't right for the label! Looking back, that's probably my biggest regret with the label, not taking up the chance to put I Am Kloot's records out because Johnny Bramwell is an amazing songwriter. For me he's up there as a great English songwriter alongside McCartney or Weller. His songs really are as good as that. A lot of those Johnny Dangerously songs from the early days never saw the light of day, which is a real shame to be honest.
DiS: I wasn't aware of Johnny Dangerously to be honest.
SP: There's a single, 'Black And Blue', which is really beautiful, and then he released a six-track mini-album titled You, Me And The Alarm Clock.
DiS: Finally, the whole world is talking about The Stone Roses re-union this week. If you had the chance to put one band back together, who would it be and why?
SP: That's a tough one! I'm not necessarily into the idea of bands reforming...I'm trying hard to think...most of the bands I've loved at one time or another have done it already! One band that I never got to see were The Smiths, and although I wouldn't really like them to reform, I'd love to have the power to travel back in time to see them play. I went to University in Manchester for two reasons. First of all because I'm a big United fan and secondly, because that's where The Smiths are from, so I was absolutely gutted when they split up as soon as I arrived in the city! Another band I never got to see were Felt, so probably them as well actually.
Amy Linton from The Aislers Set, Jeff Green from The Butterflies Of Love, and Mark Monnone from The Lucksmiths/Monnone Alone share their thoughts on Fortuna Pop!
What are your memories of working with and recording for Fortuna Pop! Records?
AL: Besides Sean's general cool demeanour and enthusiasm for good pop, going with us on tour, driving us around, finding us beds, booking great shows, taking us to the hospital when needed, making sure our records were out on time, distributed well, and received great press, and sticking his neck out for us?...besides all that... I think my memories are pretty good!
JG: I remember recording a Peel Session at Maida Vale. Neil, our drummer, and Pete, our bass player, got into a fist fight over the level of Marc Bolan's fame...turned it into a full band brawl in the cafeteria...true story...we were just drinking too much. I think we were always drinking too much - almost every memory involves drinking too much. I do remember on one tour, Sean bought us about two dozen bacon and sausage rolls one morning and then, on the same tour, bought us about about two dozen croissants...definitely the highlight of our Fortuna Pop! career to date - really appreciated.
MM: When Fortuna Pop! snapped The Lucksmiths up in the great European bidding war of 2000, little did they know the band would turn out to be such a great bunch of guys to live with. We made sure we visited the UK a whole lot and Sean was always a good sport about us subdividing his house and helping ourselves to his snacks.
How did you first become involved with the label?
AL: Mike Schulman from Slumberland Records set it up for us.
JG: If memory serves, Sean began writing to me when I was still a young child. I guess it was nice getting strange airmail from overseas and over the years the offers and contracts just became too much to ignore.
MM: I'm now nearing my mid-sixties, so please forgive me if I'm a little hazy on dates and things. As far as I recall, Sean was somehow involved with putting on our first London show at the Poetry Café in '98 or at least something else around that time. I think the first mention of doing a release together was at a bus stop in Oxford. Prior to this, Tali (The Lucksmiths' drumming singer) had been living in London, and he and Sean had become buddies. I can only presume that during that time, through a series of stealthy manoeuvres involving beverages of some kind, Tali had sufficiently buttered Sean up.
How important would you say the label were for your band both in terms of artistic development and ensuring your music reached a wider audience?
AL: Hugely! Sean got us a Peel session. What more could you want when touring and putting out records in the UK for the first time!
JG: I'm pretty sure we would have given up right away if it were not for Sean's encouragement...on the other hand, Sean was also the one who encouraged us to give up and break up the band - which we did. So, really, a tough question to answer.
MM: Artistic development? Hmm… Sean's a master of masking his deepest passions with a razor wit and well-appointed sarcasm, which certainly kept us happily on our toes and shitscared at the same time — a good skill for a label boss to possess. Without Fortuna Pop's help, I'm guessing our European audience would have consisted entirely of some rabid Australian ex-pat hooligans on their gap year.
What is your favourite other release on Fortuna Pop! bar one of your own?
AL: Oh jeez, I cant answer that. His roster is full of gems.
JG: Comet Gain's 'You Can Hide Your Love Forever' and really anything by The Chemistry Experiment.
MM: Hmm, well I actually love a LOT of that stuff. So honestly, I can't say. Well OK… maybe Comet Gain's 'You Can Hide Your Love Forever' 7" too. There, you got me!
Do you think there's still a place for labels like Fortuna Pop! in the current climate?
AL: Absolutely. I mean I am definitely on both sides. Self release and label release. But the thing is, having a great label do the paper and press work and let the musicians alone to worry about making music and tour is a huge benefit.
JG: I would guess that there is more of a need than ever for Fortuna Pop!...make a little order out of the chaos.
MM: Definitely. From manufacturing and distributing records, CDs and tapes, to promotion, marketing, management, publishing, etc… Even the most DIY of bands could use some help with this stuff from time to time. Labels are involved in so many more ways than just sticking music up on Band Camp and iTunes. Also, try getting snacks out of Band Camp. Impossible!
I hear you're going to be playing at the 15th birthday gig on 1st November. Do you have anything special lined up for the occasion?
AL: Yes. But it's a surprise!
MM: Just some damn fine music...!
JG: As this is to celebrate "15 years of fun," the Butterflies were not invited...I have heard that we will be headlining "20 years of frustration, misery and heartbreak."
What can we expect from you in terms of new material in the future?
JG: I think the Butterflies are very comfortable in retirement...maybe a Best Of record to pay for my kid's college education, put a few unreleased tracks in there, new cover art, liner notes, photographs of the boys in interesting poses, etc...myself, I've been sending Sean demos for years and I am fairly confident that I'll eventually wear him down.
MM: I'm currently finishing up the debut Monnone Alone album, recording at Marlborough Farms in Brooklyn with Gary Olson and his new housemate Freeway the husky/border collie. Got a bunch of great people playing on it, matched in quality only by some tremendous snacks and coffee beans.
The Fortuna Pop! 15th birthday celebrations take place at the Scala in London on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd November. Listen to the 15 Years Of Fun! Soundcloud below:-