Independent Thoughts From Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis And Factory’s Tony Wilson
YOU COULDN’T imagine two people more dissimilar than Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis and Factory Records’ Tony Wilson. Gangly Travis is shy, soft-spoken, intensely idealistic and socially awkward as only a vinyl junkie could be. Dapper Tony Wilson, who launched the Manchester-based Factory label with art designer Peter Saville, Joy Division (now New Order) manager Rob Gretton, producer Martin Hannett and co-conspirator Alan Erasmus, is suave and debonair, as befits his status as a newscaster on Granada TV. Travis, who helped build Rough Trade from a London retail shop to its present position as the leading independent record distributor in England, insists on political and moral correctness in RT’s releases. Smooth-talking Tony is in it “to test out his art theories,” admitting he rarely if ever even listens to music.
The odd couple were in America this spring to try to take their respective companies to the next level in this country. Rough Trade has operated a Stateside office in San Francisco for about a year now, releasing such albums as Pere Ubu’s Art of Walking, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, the Pop Group’s How Much Longer and the Wanna Buy A Bridge compilation. Factory Records, distributed here by Rough Trade, has released a Joy Division 12″ (‘Atmospheres’) and A Certain Ratio’s ‘Shack Up’, as well as Unknown Pleasures. While the two gentlemen insist on the autonomy of their individual companies, their ambitions coincide on the U.S. release of Joy Division’s Closer. The main purpose of their visit was to interest some of the major independent distributors in releasing Closer, recorded shortly before lead singer Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide by hanging. World-wide, both Joy Division albums have sold, individually, close to 150,000, but Wilson cockily insists that Closer has a potential market of 3 million in the States. So far, most records released by Rough Trade here have sold in the range of 10-15,000. The conversation begins on that note…
New York Rocker: What was your original idea in setting up an American branch of Rough Trade?
Geoff Travis: To build an independent distribution network in the United States based on the European model, which has attained phenomenal success in that it can now sell as many records as efficiently and as quickly as most major labels in England. Over there, the independents are in a position of power which is amazing compared to five years ago. You can’t just transplant the European model to America, though — the local conditions make it impossible.
America has always been a country of independent record companies who serve as the foundation of the industry. The trouble is the term “independent” in the history of the American music business is now equated with the worst kind of rip-offs and capitalistic behavior… the R&B companies and the blues companies… the way they pirate records and don’t pay royalties. That goes on all the time. For the American sensibility, the concept of independence hasn’t yet attained credibility… it hasn’t shown itself to be doing anything different than anyone else.
NYR: Doesn’t the sheer size of the United States militate against a successful independent distribution network?
GT: It costs a lot to make a phone call.
Tony Wilson: The 400 shops Rough Trade deals with in America were the 50 stores originally organized in England two years ago. Because there were only 50, the relationship was that much more personal. Many of those stores actually became sub-distributors themselves for their own areas. You can’t do that with 400 record stores.
NYR: How can a small independent American record label achieve the necessary cash flow with a 90-day billing period?
TW: That’s the name of the game.
GT: As long as you put out fantastic records, you shouldn’t have to worry…
TW: This is a business with an incredible mark-up on albums. A restaurant, for instance, is lucky to get a 10% profit margin. Most businesses are happy to achieve a 50% profit margin. I make a 200% profit on a record. It’s a marginal cost exercise, the music business. The fact that you have to put capital up, sell records to make it back — that’s business. It’s one of the problems you have to deal with.
For Factory Records, we have different theories than Geoff, but they come down to the same thing — an honest approach to new music. The Factory label is a completely autonomous unit with two distributors in England — Rough Trade and Pinnacle. We even press ourselves; we just invested in a pressing plant. Without the apparatus offered by Rough Trade, of course, we couldn’t have existed.
NYR: How is the San Francisco Rough Trade operation set up, Geoff?
GT: There’s one person in charge of making sure the shop is in order; there’s three people who work in the shop full or part-time… We distribute records from in back of the shop and we made alliances with an existing distribution network throughout America, like Rounder and many others. We feel like we’re making steady and good progress. But Tony and I came to America on this particular trip to take the distribution to the next phase.
NYR: How many records are you selling now?
TW: It’s reached the level of about 15,000 for Factory records…
GT: We’re a bit behind you, maybe 10-12,000…
NYR: Isn’t the retail store a key element in keeping your money flow going?
GT: It keeps you in touch.
TW: It keeps you in money. By the way, did you pay me that £2,000 you owe me?
I’m very content selling 15,000 albums in 400 shops, but I thought, for Closer, because it’s a great record, we should use it as a crowbar to break open the American market. Everybody says it can sell between 35-50,000 copies. Even Ira Kaplan asks me, “Doesn’t everyone already have the import?” The potential market for the Joy Division album in America is three million because that’s what great albums sell. Three million people buy the REO Speedwagon LP because they think it’s a great album. With Closer, it’s easier because it is a great album. Great music has always sold.
Rough Trade has shied away from dealing with major American distributors in the past because these people don’t pay very easily. They’re hard people, businessmen, they’re into making a lot of money. Joy Division doesn’t need to sell a lot of records to make money. That’s why Closer is the ideal record to take our operation in America to the next step… we all make enough money, in Europe to do quite well. We don’t need to succeed in America.
We’ve come here to find out more about those major distributors: Malverne, Pickwick, Alpha. We’ll talk to them. If they want to carry our records, fine. The whole idea that there is something righteous about the independent record label which prevails in England is sickening. There are several independent English labels I would trust less than I would anyone at CBS, for instance. We don’t want to deal with a label because they insist on getting involved with musical choices. We want creative autonomy in those areas. We’re the label. We do that sort of thing. We want to control advertising, packaging, the whole bit.
GT: I don’t see myself as being righteous or idealistic. I see myself as being a realist.
TW: I see it as pure selfishness on our part. We do it this way, so we can do exactly what we want.
Sometimes, as in the case of the new A Certain Ratio picture sleeve, the five people that run the company think it’s appalling. But the band likes it, so we’re putting it out. We reserve the right to do something like that.
There are only two qualities we look for in the people we want to work with: either honesty or the ability to love music. In England, there are about seven people who understand music and about fifteen who are honest. That’s it.
NYR: Tony told me he doesn’t even listen to music.
TW: As Genesis P. Orridge once said about me, I’m the only person in this whole business who’s into it for one reason — the art — and I hate it. For me personally, it is an experiment in art, it has to do with art theory. For Rob Gretton, it’s to give people alternatives. For Alan Erasmus, it’s to keep from getting bored. We all have our motives.
GT: It’s more than just the pleasure of doing it, though. I’d hate to have that translated into the Stiff ethic of “let’s have fun or let’s fuck off.” I hate that…
There is a real politics here. And it’s not just bucking the system, either. That’s easy. I think the hardest option to take is the one of developing mechanisms that provide access, information and the possibilities for millions of people to realize things they want to do for themselves. That’s the point.
TW: Our attitude toward most of what’s happened to us so far is that of practicus, which is Castro’s explanation of Cuba — in a sense, you only understand a revolution by actually having one. My favorite example is the story of the anarchist leader of 500 students who took over the Cambridge University union: “We have occupied the union; now we have all night to decide what to do with it.”
You do things out of intuition, and, in the heat of the moment of doing it, you learn and understand more quickly the theories behind it and why it’s happening.
NYR: Can the alternative label and underground distribution network function successfully in America? Do you think it could ever sell more than 20-25,000 copies?
GT: It could sell 25 million…
TW: We feel the situation now is great… we can take great advantage of things like college radio and rock clubs.
GT: That will continue to grow. It’s just a way of injecting some new life into the system to see what will happen…
NYR: Have either of you ever put out a record you thought personally was poor?
TW: I put out one record I knew everyone else would think was shit and I think is great… the double Factory Quartet. I knew people would hate it, but Rough Trade and Pinnacle both said they could sell lots of them.
GT: Three of the best records we ever released also sold the least: the Electric Eels, File Under Pop and the Prefects’ ‘Going Through the Motions’, a classic that came out three years too late.
NYR: What’s happening in England now? What are people listening to?
TW: Whatever Radio One plays is what England listens to. Last year, it was the 2-Tone thing, of which the best of those bands have survived and gone on. One or two of the ’77 heroes — the Clash, Jam and Elvis Costello, say — are not as fashionable any more, but they still have their followings. Fashion has become very important now. The latest fashion is Spandau Ballet, which Radio One decided to play in December. Imagine that every AOR station in America was controlled by 22 people in one building in New York — that’s the kind of control Radio One exerts in England. That’s how Adam & the Ants started. There’s still a punk nostalgia holdover with groups like Killing Joke and Dead Kennedys, who sell close to 50,000 through independent distribution. The good punk retreads are all using independent distribution, like Crass, who have their own defined market. They represent the best of what came out of punk.
GT: They have an enormous audience — they’re the best and the biggest underground band in England.
TW: There are only three bands in Britain who sell major quantities completely independently and they define the three markets: Crass, UB40 and Joy Division. UB40 are the MOR side of the 2-Tone phenomenon.
NYR: Are there any bands around who are too weird for Rough Trade to distribute?
GT: I haven’t experienced anything that’s too weird. The only thing too weird for me is everyday life as lived by most people. Anything outside of that is not too weird. I don’t know what the word means.
NYR: Isn’t it a little uncomfortable for you, Tony, to use Joy Division as the key to your American strategy? Aren’t you opening yourself up to charges of exploiting Ian Curtis’ memory? [Factory plans to release a double-LP of previously unavailable studio and live Joy Division material.]
TW: And people wonder why New Order don’t give any interviews! Questions like that are the answer.
A band’s work should include a live representation. We had planned to do a live Joy Division album all along. We wanted to do it in the Reichstag in Berlin October of last year. There are also a large number of studio tracks Joy Division have already cut. They are a very prolific band. What do you suggest I do? Keep them on a tape cassette and listen to them myself?
I haven’t been able to listen to Closer for a year. The circumstances (of Ian’s death) are very tied up with it. I can’t listen to it anymore. But I want to put out that record here. What possible reasons are there not to? I don’t even know if it’s morally wrong to put a big sticker on the cover which says, “This record features Ian Curtis, who hanged himself.” But we wouldn’t do that. I find the Janis Joplin Pearl album, with its funereal sort of jacket art, tasteless. The only picture there will be on the new Joy Division double album is a still of a chicken farting.
NYR: Are you still working at Granada TV, Tony, or have you finally given up your “day Job”?
TW: Now you’re starting to sound like one of my musicians. Hookie, New Order’s bass player, was giving me a hard time about that, thought I wasn’t paying enough attention to Factory business. He said the problem with me was that I was just interested in winning small victories rather than the whole war. It worried me and hurt my feelings.
I’ve been a professional journalist for ten years. I have a mortgage and a car that I support by making £15,000 a year. I don’t want to force Factory to give me that amount even though it’s probably earning that for the five directors at the moment, because we have better things to spend it on — like video equipment.
NYR: Is anyone making a full-time living from Factory, aside from the individual groups?
TW: Peter Saville makes a living in London as an art director for Roxy Music and the like. Rob Gretton has been living off his girlfriend for five years. Alan Erasmus can live on nothing because he lives in the projects. We all got £5,000 last year from Factory. Alan spent that money in two months. Martin Hannett does all sorts of work for the majors, but he never gets paid, so that’s his fault. I think he’s doing Paul Jones now.
We made £1,000 apiece two years ago, £5,000 last year, with all the spare profits going to video.
NYR: And what about your operation, Geoff?
TW: It’s very hard, very embarrassing for Geoff to tell you how well he’s doing. There are about 30 people at this new Factory warehouse designed by a resident architect in London — it’s an incredible operation. And they all get paid the same amount of money. From the kids who are throwing records in boxes on up.
NYR: There’s no hierarchical structure to Rough Trade?
GT: There are just people with different responsibilities.
NYR: You make the same amount as everybody else?
GT: I take home £72 in my pay packet every week.
TW: It’s what he wants to do. You must understand. Rough Trade is many different things — a retail shop, a distributor, a record company, a record promotor, a booking agent…
GT: A publishing company…
TW: A mail order operation…
GT: And a print distributor. We have different relationships with various people.
NYR: The Slits, for example, left the Rough Trade label for their own, presumably over a disagreement. Have any other bands personally disappointed you by leaving the company, Geoff?
GT: People have different aspirations and we have a particular method of working. Our work is informed by our ideology, though it is a very elastic ideology, it has a central core to it that is consistent.
Most people involved in the music business just want to be rock stars. When people behave in that way, they become very uninteresting to Rough Trade. Very boring on every level. To say our split with the Slits or Stiff Little Fingers or Delta Five was unsatisfactory is not really the right word.
TW: We shed not a tear for Orchestral Manoeuvres…
GT: Yeah, we didn’t care about Spizz leaving, either. At all.
NYR: What does Rough Trade offer a band in lieu of the majors’ lure of a large advance?
GT: For people to take control of their own destinies instead of allowing themselves to be controlled.
NYR: But aren’t you a person with strong opinions about what the music should sound like? How do you differ from any other executive who thinks he knows music, every bit as bad as Chris Blackwell or Richard Branson except, perhaps, for having hipper tastes?
GT: I have produced a lot of the records we’ve put out. (Not an answer… ED.)
TW: Art is simple work with inspiration plugged into it by strange chance. If you do it properly, for yourself and the way you want to do it, without any shit around it, it can be very meaningful. It’s bad for your art to go into that strange, rarified mainstream world of advances and advertising campaigns. Look what happened to the Manchester bands, like Buzzcocks and Magazine. I create an environment for a band in which they can do their work…
Geoff can refuse to put out a record on the Rough Trade label, but he’s set up a distribution network the kids can use to put out the record themselves and still sell their 5-10,000 copies.
GT: We’re not dealing with job security for bands. For each groups’ work, they can rely on getting adequate pay.
TW: We work a 50-50 deal with our bands. All profits are split down the middle — 50% go to the group, 50% to the record company. You simply add up what you’ve made and subtract what the record’s cost you to put out, and share the total equally, rather than taking a large advance and a 12% royalty rate.
Of course, my groups borrow money from me all the time. That’s just because I’m middle class.
NYR: What does Rough Trade do with its profits?
GT: We’ve had to pay for our new distribution warehouse as well as the privilege of being in San Francisco. We also have a huge overdraft at the bank. We could go under any minute. Tony is in a far more secure position than we are.
NYR: Tony, what, if anything, do you pay the bands on Factory in salary?
TW: About 40 quid apiece per week, which amounts to about $100. You can live on that in England. The dole’s about 25 quid. Add to that equipment repairs, etc., and you can’t make a living as a band by putting out just singles.
GT: Singles are still crucial, though. We don’t suggest people stop putting them out. The thing that is important is… for the bands that we love… we can create a life-support system so they can make some sort of living. They do all work incredibly hard. They deserve a reward for that labor.
NYR: As a distributor, does Rough Trade use a 90-day-billing system?
GT: Very often, when someone walks in off the street with 100 copies of a single we like, we pay them on the spot. We pay our bands four times a year… that’s when we account for royalties to them. Though the day-to-day money flow is far more informal than that.
TW: We never account to our bands. We just leave the books open and a calculator nearby. But they all just want to watch television.
We’re basically very inefficient. It really is just the five of us and we don’t even have an office. But, what we can do properly is bring out two singles and one album by a group per year. It cost £35 to record A Certain Ratio’s ‘Shack Up’. It was done the night after Ian Curtis died, the day they found out. It was very, very weird, very strange. There’s a reference to that on the ‘Flight’ sleeve (the new ACR 12″). Simon, A Certain Ratio’s manager, was walking in the graveyard while the band was recording (that’s why it’s called Graveyard Studios) and came upon a tombstone which said, “The lamp of light is not extinguished, it shines so brightly in spirit.” That quote is on the record and it could very well serve as the Factory motto…
© Roy Trakin, New York Rocker, July 1981