By: Mikala Moore
Rough Trade Records is an independent label that has been through plenty ups and downs over the past three decades. From its early success, to going bankruptcy and having to close, to opening again and regaining its glory, Rough Trade has endured an interesting history. Geoff Travis was on a road trip in the United States in 1976 and had such a passion for music he ended up collecting over a hundred albums during his visit. He came up with the bright idea to start a record shop back at home in London. He then shipped all the albums back to the UK and started his own record shop, Rough Trade Records.
Two years later, the record shop had become a distribution center, selling and buying records from bands with the same DIY work ethic that Geoff Travis obtained. He felt that with their business that Rough Trade could be become a label and that’s exactly what happened. Rough Trade’s first recording artists were a French band called Metal Urbain. The labels first album release was The Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘Inflammable Material.’ This album charted at number fourteen and became the first independent record in history to sell over 100,000 copies.
As the new decade approached and the label’s success grew, Rough Trade Records moved to a new venue to be able to support the progress and amount of business they were achieving. During the early 80’s, the label recorded new acts such as Robert Wyatt, The Fall, Pere Ubu, and This Heat. In 1983, the label signed one of the most successful indie bands to emerge from the British music scene, the Smiths. The band’s four studio albums reached the top two and sixteen chart singles, the first being “This Charming Man” in 1984.
The Smiths success caused Rough Trade to become a bigger and more popular label than ever before. Travis decided it was time for another move to a more size appropriate location for the label in 1984. A new member of the Rough Trade record label was added in 1987, Jeannette Lee. “I realized straight away she was a gem and that she had remarkable powers of character and musical savvy. I determined to recruit her to the Rough Trade cause. I was lucky enough to succeed. It’s no fun working on your own. And everyone needs a bullshit detector” Geoff Travis. Travis made a wise decision hiring Lee because she had a huge influence in some of the bigger successes of the late 80’s. Lee’s arrival brought in the new influx of guitar bands like Mazzy Star and Galaxie 500.
Once again, Travis moved the label to a different location in the mid-80’s and started Rough Trade Distribution. With the success of the Smiths still making a sizeable contribution to label, Geoff Travis started to the distribution to help other indie labels get a leg up on the competition. His plan failed, however. Travis says “The label threw its assets and catalogue into the ring to help pay off distribution debts to our friends in the independent industry…” “Distribution went bust because of managerial incompetence and the fact we had grown too big too quickly. It was beyond the scope of what the people could cope with. Sadly.” All of the Rough Trade properties, including the name itself were sold in attempt to cover the distribution debts.
The labels story isn’t over yet. In the mid 1990’s, Geoff Travis, Jeannette Lee and the help of trading company Sanctuary, they were able to acquire back the rights of the record label and have been even more successful since their reopening. They started off right with recording artists the Strokes, which had been their biggest band since the Smiths. On June 11, 2002, BMG bought out the Rough Trade Records, but in July 2007 Sanctuary Records sold them to the Beggars Group, allowing Rough Trade to once again be an independent label.
Through all these transitions of business and the downfall of business, Rough Trade still obtains a successful name. The label has a roster of more than 200 releases and many of them have passed in and out of the ranks throughout the years. During the 2000’s they’ve released albums by British Sea Power, Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, The Libertines, Babyshambles, and Antony & The Johnsons. With British Sea Power taking ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ into the Top Ten and onto the Mercury Prize shortlist in 2008, Rough Trade Records doesn’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Rough Trade was founded on a DIY work strategy and maintained that throughout the past three decades. They were innovate and grew from a small record shop to a successful Indie label. Geoff Travis might have gotten in too deep with the distribution portion of the label, but he was still a wise businessman and was able to get back on his feet and thats something to inspire us all. He helped other Indie labels, he created a name for himself and Rough Trade and his deep passion for music helped musicians have a fighting chance. Rough Trade has a neat history but Travis is constantly looking forward to what the future has in store and how they can make their artists the best they can be.