Behind the scenes, a preview of State of Independents by Jim Butler

17 June 2015

independent adj. 1. free from the control or influence of others. 2. separate. 3. financially self-reliant. 4. capable of acting for oneself or on one’s own. – n. 5. politician who does not belong to any party

What, in 2015, do we mean by independent music? Obviously not all independent music sounds or looks the same. But, by and large, common threads run through the artists that make the music and the labels that release it.

Without wishing to resort to generalisations, independent music and independent labels can be said to provide a forum for artists and bands of a certain spirit and zeal to express themselves and to create an identity outside of the mainstream.

That’s why independent music has never been more vital. Although there might be more lines of communication than ever before, getting your voice heard amongst the cacophony of mediocrity is tough.

That’s why the House of St Barnabas, a charity that is going against the grain and carving its own independent path to support London’s homeless back to work, is proud to present a new series of musical events, titled, appropriately enough, the State of Independents. Starting this Saturday 20th June, and running over the summer, three of the most vital independent labels in the UK (Moine Dubh, Heavenly and Sunday Best) will bring their rosters to the House to celebrate all that is good and creative in the alternative sphere.

Ahead of this weekend’s Moine Dubh (pronounced moyn doo) showcase, the man behind the label, Andrew Weatherall, spoke to us about his plans for the imprint and how he perceives independent music in 2015.

A State of Independents indeed.

Andrew Weatherall curates a night of music at House of St Barnabas, Soho, London 7/7/12

JB: What possessed you to start an independent label in 2015?
AW: “That’s the question I ask every time I get up in the morning. What on earth possessed me?! I wish I knew! What happened was I’d been recording in the Crystal Palace area and I came across some music and thought it was too good to just stay in the ground. I said to Nina, a musical partner of mine, and she knew the people that made the music – some of it was hers – this is too good. There was one track in particular, the first Moine Dobh release by Barry Woolnough, and she played me that track and I just said: ‘Look this is just too good to stay on someone’s computer, I’ll finance it and let’s put it out as a seven-inch single.’ And it just sprang from there.

“I then said I didn’t have the time or the inclination to do the paperwork or run it, but I’ll be the artistic director, designer, A&R man. I’ll do everything that doesn’t involve too much hard work, and using computers. As long as someone does that, I’ll be the artistic CEO. And it’s snowballed from that. But that’s good because a lot of ideas I have I never follow them through, but this one I have.”

JB: Who was the artist that you first heard that set all of this in motion?
AW: “Barry Woolnough. Yeah, he’s responsible. It was an evocation to his dead wife. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs but believe me it’s spiritually uplifting. Our first record is a howl from a man’s soul to see his dead wife again, but as depressing as that sounds, au contraire, it’s most uplifting.”

JB: The first releases are subscription-only, right?
AW: “The first five are subscription-only seven-inch singles and then we’ll take it from there. There’s no downloads, it’s vinyl-only. It’s not a protest against downloads because that would be foolish and pointless, it’s just providing an alternative. It’s providing totemic objects, things that exist.”

JB: You say providing an alternative, do you think that’s the ethos and premise for independent labels and the music they release?
AW: “Of course it is. Anyone putting their own music out is an alternative. And it is usually uncommercial, alternative – in inverted commas, for want of a better word – music. It’s always been about a vision, an artistic vision – an alternative artistic vision and an alternative business vision. It was going on pre-punk but it really developed after that. Punk rock fanned flames that were already glowing embers really.

JB: You’ve been involved in various roles and guises since the 80s, how has independent music, and how have independent labels, changed in the intervening years?
AW: “I’d love to talk about business models and all that, but as I say, I have absolutely no fucking idea. I just come up with these hare-brained schemes and for the last 25 years I’ve had people around me, far more talented than myself, that… I just sit in my bunker making things, and I’m lucky to have had a lovely bunch of people over the years that have been able to take these things and release them to the outside world. Gone are the days, say 10 years ago, where you could roll out of bed, knock out a four-track techno EP in a week and sell 10,000 copies. You’ll be lucky if you do 500 now. You have to think of other ways, and artists and musicians are now… if your passport still had occupation on it I would write free content provider. So, yeah, business models always change when technologies change, but don’t ask me. I don’t know any of the jargon, don’t know any business models or anything. All I know is that it’s f***g hard work!”

JB: Are the people who run indie labels still the same characters that would have been around in the 80s/90s? That they’re driven by a passion for music and new music in particular?
AW: “Yeah. There’ll always be people who want to work outside recognised tropes and ways of working. Whether that’s musically or business-wise, and the good thing with vinyl is that it’s on the increase. Because we’re trained chimpanzees we get all excited about new shiny objects and then years later we realise that the objects we had in the first place did the job just as well, if not better. Yeah, it’s like when software in studios came out, everyone sold their analogue synths for fuck all. Ten years later everyone’s going, ‘Yeah, it’s alright’, but I wish I had a 303. And a synth that you could have got for £100, you won’t get much change out of two grand. That’s the human condition. It’s the same with vinyl. Everyone goes apeshit bonkers: new business models, downloads, and then all of a sudden it begins to dawn on people. ‘Yeah, this is good, it’s quick and it’s easy and it’s accessible, but what have I got to show for it?’ And it turns out you don’t even own it. Apple owns your record library.

“All great industries have golden eras and the rock’n’roll golden era has kind of been and gone. You have to cut your cloth accordingly now. I was never in it for the money, I was in it for the art, honest guvnor. So I can get by. I can produce nice little runs of collectable records and earn a living. I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to make a nice body of work and not be starving. I’m just about managing to do that. I’m 52 years old and still living in rented accommodation, so some might say I’m a failure, but I’m quite happy with that situation.”

JB: Is there a solidarity between indie labels?
AW: “You’d like to think so, wouldn’t you? But however alternative it is, it’s still showbusiness and it’s a very bitchy world. I try and keep out of it. There’s a certain amount of competitiveness, I’d imagine. I don’t know because I don’t compete – I’m not particularly ambitious or competitive. I’ve got lots of friends that run independent labels and we’re good friends, but I’m sure there’s people that run indie labels that if I met them I would think they’re totally insufferable. It’s like any business, there’s camaraderie and backbiting. But the underground has always fed the overground, but now that turnover time between underground and overground can be a matter of weeks or months instead of a matter of years as it used to be, because of the internet and the spread of information.”

JB: Is there a state of independents?
AW: “Yeah, penury and starvation. That’s the price you pay for independence (laughs). Yeah, grafting twice as hard to stay in the same place. But I’d rather fail on my own terms than succeed on someone else’s. And I think that’s probably the ethos of a lot of independent artists whether they be musicians, artists, novelists, filmmakers or whatever. It’s kind of a punk rock thing, the grand failure. It’s almost as artistically pleasing, if not more, than the grand success.

JB: So, why are indie labels so important and vital then? You have to work twice as hard, there’s no guarantee of success, particularly financially or commercially…
AW: “Because art made by people because they can’t do anything else is usually imbued with more magic than that made just for commercial purposes. Actually that’s not totally true because a lot of great pop music that was made 30 or 40 years ago that was supposed to be throwaway still resonates and it was made for purely commercial purposes. It’s just that there will always be people that don’t want to abide by the rules. There will always be heretics basically, and thank goodness for that, because they move the world… heresy is what moves the world forwards.”

JB: A guiding motivation for Moine Dubh then?
AW: “Oh yeah, we’re heretics until they put us on the bonfire and burn us like they used to do 500 years ago.”

JB: In 2015, how important are labels such as yourselves, Heavenly and Sunday Best?
AW: “They’re stoking the fires. What independent labels do one year, in a couple of years a watered down version will reach the mainstream. Independent record labels are the shock troops of art. We go in with a scorched earth policy, we’re doing it our way, and release music that people might find difficult or not easily accessible. But there’s enough people attracted to that approach to make that art resonate. And finally those resonances reach the surface and get skimmed off and watered down. I’m under no illusion. That’s why I don’t get upset by commerciality, because I’ve chosen… there’s been various points in my life where I’ve reached that crossroads and I’ve thought if I go this way, I can go into the commercial arena, but it just wasn’t for me. It’s too much work involved in maintaining commerciality that takes me away from making things. Once you move into that world there’s lots of other pressures that weigh on your mind and you’re not in the studio making stuff. That’s what independents do. They feed the commercial beast to a certain extent. Some people get upset by that. I’m 52, and I’ve realised that’s how showbusiness works, I’ve realised my place on the fickle wheel of showbusiness and I’m quite happy with it.

JB: In terms of the gig itself do you see this as a chance to announce the label to a wider world?
AW:  “That’s totally what it’s for. And it’s great to have an opportunity to do it in such a beautiful setting, which is ideal for the music. A lot of it is secular hymnals; it’s quite spiritual, moving music. I do love a secular takeover of a religious space. I think people have been drawn in by the story we’ve told so far and the ethos behind it.”