We’ve never done a survey of the most admired music companies, but we’re pretty sure if we did the Beggars Group would be up there in the top five. Almost 35 years since its first release, it’s admired for having achieved success and scale without ever seeming to sell out, for its reputation of being a particularly artist-friendly label, and for simply for bringing so many great artists and albums to the world.
Last night the artist and management community honoured the company’s founder and chairman Martin Mills by awarding him the first ever Industry Champion Award at the inaugural Artist & Manager Awards. To mark that occasion, CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke spoke to Mills about the Beggars story, successes and the challenges of operating an independent record company in 2011.
CC: Most people know Beggars Banquet began as a record shop. When and why did you launch the Beggars record label?
MM: The label came in 1976, three years after the first shop. We had a basement rehearsal studio under our Fulham shop and we started managing a band who rehearsed there called The Lurkers. We couldn’t get a record deal for them because every label already had the token punk band they wanted (signed just in case ‘it’ all happened), so we started our own label instead. Nowadays that kind of thing happens every day, but then it was pretty unusual.
CC: What were your ambitions for the label in those early days, and have they changed over time?
MM: To put out the next record, mainly. Looking back, for the first ten years or so, there were no real ambitions other than to survive and keep doing it. It’s probably still the same, were just more conscious of it now!
CC: You’ve grown your business over the years by forming alliances and partnerships with other labels and individuals, as well as through internal expansion. How do you decide who to ally yourself with?
MM: It’s a mixture of opportunity and instinct. Those partnerships are the core of the business. Over the years, there have been some that have worked and some that haven’t, obviously. But the current quartet – 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade and XL Recordings – feels very right.
CC: The Beggars Group seems to be admired by pretty much everyone in the music business, including your major label rivals. Are there any specific things that have been behind your success?
MM: I think we’ve benefited from being totally independent, and having no commitments or obligations to any external shareholders or funders. It’s fairly obvious, normally, what the right thing to do is, but avoiding doing the wrong thing is harder. Doing the wrong thing is normally caused by financial need, or external demands.
CC: Are there any particular achievements that stand out for you in the building of the Beggars company?
MM: The answer, once again, has to be surviving, when most have not. And providing an environment in which we can put out music that people love and care about, and in which those we work with, artists and staff, can spend their lives doing something they love.
CC: Do you think the post-Napster challenges of the last ten years have been easier or harder for indie labels to deal with than the majors?
MM: Easier for indies because we’re natural licensors, we don’t have hang-ups about control, we’re less defensive and are more open to taking risks. Harder for indies because the four majors, or the two big ones in particular, are effectively monopolies that digital music services can’t do without. That gives the majors leverage, which can be unhealthy for the market and prejudicial to indies. Merlin was formed to address that.
CC: There has been much talk of the need for record companies to diversify into other areas of the music business, either by buying or launching non-recordings based music companies, and/or signing 360-degree style deals with artists. Is this part of Beggars’ strategy?
MM: No. Every year we reconsider whether we should be doing that, and every year we decide we’re right not to. I believe that 360-degree deals are a lose/lose. They mean you pay more than you should do for rights that aren’t within your skillset. Most of the time you just lose more money, and with the ones that work you end up with a resentful artist because you’re getting part of their income they think you don’t deserve. If you’re delivering real value in your non-core areas that can be different, and we have a few little ventures brewing away on that front. Fundamentally, though, we’re good at releasing recorded music, and that’s what we do.
CC: The management and artist communities clearly rate what you and the Beggars team do, hence last night’s award. Do you think indie labels across the board generally enjoy better relations with managers and artists than majors?
MM: I think that’s too broad a generalisation. I’m sure there are good and bad relationships in both camps. I do think, though, that the relationship between art and commerce is a fundamentally tricky one, and that the cottage industry nature of the independents makes positive relationships easier than for large companies who have to make their numbers.
CC: Do you see the relationship between managers and labels changing? Are managers more important now than in the past?
MM: Managers are always crucial. Of all an artist’s relationships, it’s the most important. I think the only way that’s changed is that the boundaries are blurring, in that managers can now be labels, and labels managers, and I think that’s healthy.
CC: In the 1980s, a lot of independent labels were bought up by the big guys, which was bad for the indie sector, but – as I see it – good for the majors, because it brought entrepreneurial free-thinkers into the big music companies. I think there’s an argument that the major record companies of today could do with recruiting some of the indie sector’s innovators, possibly through acquisition, even if that wasn’t so good for the independent sector. Do you agree?
MM: I think it’s almost always a shame when an indie is acquired by a major, and it’s hard to think of an example when that’s been ultimately for the best. I think they are very different environments, and pretty hard to transition between.
CC: Obviously Beggars itself has scale and a global reach, and that is strengthened further in the digital domain by Merlin, but are there ever times when you regret not having the budgets or size of a major record company?
MM: No. I can’t think of the last time we didn’t do something because we couldn’t afford it. We often spend more than the majors, because we’re not limited by budgeting processes. And, of course, Merlin and the independent trade associations are a vital access to scale for us when we need it.
CC: Finally, and I realise it’s horrible to make you choose – sorry! – but have there been any artists or albums over the years that you have been particularly pleased to have brought to the world?
MM: That’s an impossible question, it’s like choosing between your children! I love so many of the records we’ve released. Ones I’m listening to most right now include Warpaint, tUnE-yArDs, Cat Power and White Stripes, but that will be different tomorrow.