“I can’t over emphasize that the whole thing was very much one day at a time, one release at a time. The aim was to learn and improve whilst putting out records that I would want to buy myself.” -Ivo Watts-Russell
If an independent record label is said to operate most effectively serving the audience of a particular niche, 4AD records would be an example of an indie label which has done just the opposite. Artists ranging from the dark and moody Bauhaus of the early 80’s, to the aspiring indie artists of the twenty first century and a country band named Tarnation, have all coalesced in a remarkable label headed by Ivo Watts-Russell.
4AD was formed by two employees of the record store and label Beggars Banquet, Peter Kent and Ivo Watts-Russell, in 1979. Both 4AD and Beggars Banquet were based out of London England. 4AD was first used as a proving ground for artists to work their way up to the larger, parent label, Beggars Banquet. The label was originally named Axis records, but due to another label already going by the same title it was forced to choose another name. In an inspirational moment, Kent and Watts-Russell used one of their promotional fliers with the words “1980 Forward”, and condensed it down to 4AD.
After only one year, in 1981, Peter Kent sold his shares to Ivo Watts-Russell who became the sole owner of 4AD. The label’s early sound was that of dark, atmospheric bands such as Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, and Modern English who all achieved moderate success in indie music charts. In 1986, 4AD signed its first American band, Throwing Muses, which was a big departure from the rest of the catalog at that time. 4AD was moving away from the smaller indie bands into the widely popular area of college rock.
1987 was a big year for 4AD records, with the release of M/A/R/R/S chart-topping hip hop single “Pump Up The Volume”, and the singing of the Pixies. Watts-Russell was originally apprehensive about signing the Pixies, an alternative rock band from Boston, whose music clashed with the rest of 4AD’s artists, but was convinced by his assistant, Deborah Edgely, to sign the band anyway. After the release of their first mini-album, Come on Pilgrim, the Pixies exploded in Britain and throughout the rest of the world.
Even with all of the success 4AD had in alternative rock, Watts-Russell always sought to keep the label small and was very scrupulous about which artists he would sign. His creative control over what bands were signed to the label over the years would define the eclectic mix of artists that resided there. This would change in 1994, when 4AD signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers (WEA), and moved their office to Los Angeles. WEA helped the small label to distribute the music on a global scale, but took away some of the control that Watts-Russell was used to having. In 1999, when the deal with WEA ended, Watts-Russell sold the label back to Beggars Banquet.
Since Watts-Russell left 4AD, the label has been alive and well, with a current roster of artists including The Mountain Goats, The National, St. Vincent, and many more. Through all the permutations of the label and all the different genres of music that it has been associated with, it has always been known as having excellent artists.
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