It started with a man sat on the floor with nothing but a phone and fax machine for company. Ten years later, the label is one of the most respected round the world.
“To me, it’s incredible we’ve got to 10 years and it shows the tenacity of the label that we’ve reached this far. I think other people make you feel you have to celebrate it more than you really need to, with 10 being a special number. We’re quite modest as people really.”
Domino Records, one of the longest-running and truly independent record labels in the UK, have just reached their anniversary. New releases and series of gigs in London celebrate this fact in October, and with a glut of new British signings in the past year-and-a-bit under their belts, things are moving onwards and upwards.
DiS is sat outside a south London pub, The Windmill, chatting to Jacqui Rice – ‘right-hand-man’ to label founder Laurence Bell – where the label’s newest signing, young blues groovers Archie Bronson Outfit, are due to play a celebratory gig. And, in a world of indies letting their best acts bugger off to major labels or, indeed, selling themselves to a larger label, DiS wants to know what’s kept Domino afloat for so long.
Domino Records began just before the Britpop onslaught by licensing a Sebadoh single off Sub Pop, and has since seen a roster that includes Four Tet, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Royal Trux, Quasi, and The Pastels. When asked if there was a time when they ever thought of packing it in, it was actually during, as Jacqui calls it, “the horrible years of Britpop.” With Brit being in, Domino’s US-fondness had them immediately marginalised by the media. “Everyone made us feel that no one gave a shit about the bands we were working with,” says Jacqui, “but we survived through it. Sometimes you just get pushed underground and have to find other avenues to explore, which is what we did.”
But just how have they managed to overcome other pitfalls and hurdles? “By being a label that doesn’t follow trends. Someone recently said that Domino was becoming really trendy, releasing bands who are ‘in time’, like The Kills, Franz Ferdinand… But it was never a conscious decision to sign bands like that because rock was suddenly in fashion. We’ve never followed trends and it’s been really difficult because of that, but it’s also been our saving grace as we’ve signed things which are fantastic. But it’s been tough, f’sure. Not having access to a lot of money is really difficult at times but we’re do-ers. Where labels depend on money, that doesn’t happen with us. I think we’re good at making our own magic, and we need lots of that.”
It’s no surprise tiny labels succumb to the temptation of ‘selling on’ their bands. With big cheques waved in the faces of bands like of Franz Ferdinand, it’s no wonder some of them move on. But Domino, with their proven track record and a back catalogue to make many an indie kid drool, know it’s not rocket science if you want to keep hold of your bands. “We keep our bands because we work our asses off and prove that we can do anything if not more than a major label could offer them – by being really committed, hands-on, and being there for them 24/7, and meaning it. Yeah we can talk a lot of shit but we can back it up. People come to us not because of us but because of what’s been on the label. They’ll know all the words to the songs on the Smog albums. The Kills are huge Royal Trux fans, and we worked for Royal Trux for years. All the bands talk, and people would soon found out if you were a bunch of wankers and pissed people off and you lie and you don’t pay them. ALWAYS PAY YOUR BANDS ON TIME! People make big mistakes. I don’t understand it. If you don’t pay your bands then they’ll just walk away from you.”
Laurence heard there was a band in Glasgow he needed to see and he made the journey to Scotland to see them, arriving back from the gig thinking they were “incredible”. “I told him that he probably couldn’t sign Franz,” says Jacqui, “cos everybody wanted them, but they met him and love the label. We have lots of connections up in Glasgow with The Pastels and stuff so I think people said nice things – true things – about us.”
With this healthy kind of fuck-the-majors attitude, she’s still modest enough to explain, “major labels could learn nothing from us because they wouldn’t understand how we operate. They shouldn’t even try cos when they try to be like an indie, it all goes horribly wrong. It’s not part of their culture or mentality.” But what about when labels like Mute sell themselves to EMI? “Good luck to them! I think the Mute thing is fine because they’re in a strong position anyway, but to the smaller labels I say ‘good luck’ and like wow, you’re gonna need it if you think it’s going to be a happy marriage.”
Of course, it’s not all as easy as it sounds. Where the subject of money is concerned, Jacqui admits that their cheques are getting bigger. “We can’t get into bidding wars but we’ll offer what we can afford and give as much as we can. And we’ve given a lot this year, but they’re worth it, every penny. We don’t have a set amount of bands we sign each year but if we have set a budget this last year and a bit then we’ve gone waaaay over it with The Blueskins, Kills, Archie Bronson, Franz – that’s a lot of British bands too, when for so long we were dealing with a lot of American bands. It’s what we’ve always wanted though, to put out British bands, and it’s great to sell British bands in America too.”
Naturally, with such a fine catalogue of releases, many bands want a piece of Domino. A lot of the time, those bands are told that they don’t need the label – they could do it themselves – but still the demos pile in. “It’s harsh. The demo box is a cause of great shame for us because it just grows and grows. Even if we get 30 demos a week it seems ridiculous that you can’t listen to a few cassettes a day because of course you can, but it’s really difficult to listen to them in the way they should be, so they build up very quickly. It’s just a huge corner full of tapes. We have demo hours now and then. I don’t think we’ve signed anyone off a demo that way anyway – it’s usually a word-of-mouth thing.”
It wasn’t a demo that got Archie Bronson Outfit their deal. The band actually hand-delivered a demo to Domino’s nine-man operation in a tiny office in Wandsworth two years prior to their signing – but it didn’t get listened to. Earlier this year, however, Laurence and Jacqui spotted the band after paying a visit to their favourite local pub, where Archie was playing along with a skiffle band. Laurence was blown away and had a drunken conversation with them afterwards: “He asked what bands you like and they said Bonnie Prince Billy and Smog and blah blah blah, and Laurence said ‘Oh really? I know that stuff’. Then they asked him if he knew anyone at Domino Records, cos it was a local label. Hee hee hee. It was really weird. He said you’ve got to get rid of a couple of guys, and a couple of weeks later they DID get rid of a couple and now they’re a three-piece, and we signed them!”
Have you ever followed a band because other A&R people are into them? “Occasionally you do and more often than not you’re disappointed, and wondering why people are getting desperate and willing to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for it. God, it’s ridiculous. But that’s why they’re in A&R and sometimes their job is to follow a load of shit. There’s a band called The Blueskins who we signed and there was a lot of A&R after them, and we wondered if we should drop out of the race, but you’ve just go to carry on. But they signed to us and there were a lot of big cheques after them too.”
Some of Domino’s biggest sellers are Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Pavement, Jim O’Rourke and The Kills. Although it didn’t help them sell any more records, one of the defining moment’s in the label’s history was when Sebadoh got on Top of the Pops – the underground band breaking into the mainstream, after so many years. TOTP may suck these days, but things like that are what drive people on to do what they do. Running a label and hearing your tune on the radio for the first time, getting a few column inches in the big music mags, bands playing buzzing gigs – it all adds up, and it’s why labels like Domino continue to exist. This is a different world altogether from pop and from the people driven only by money, as clichéd as that all may sound. So it’s no surprise then that they aren’t fans of music industry conventions like In The City. “They’re good fun, but I don’t go to them,” she says, “Laurence is always asked to go on panels but he doesn’t do them. You usually get lots of boring people talking about themselves and not the bands and the music. And a lot of the bands on these things SUCK. Someone did ring up to ask if Franz Ferdinand could go on it but I don’t think they can because they have ‘recording commitments’. Hee hee hee.”
With albums by Franz, Clinic, The Blueskins and Steven Malkmus all due in the new year, things are continuing to look up for Domino. “The machine just keeps on going. It’s going to be BIG. Bigger than ever.”
Here’s to the next 10 years, then.