Simon Raymonde founded the Bella Union record label with this Cocteau Twins bandmate Robin Guthrie in 1997. Although the original intention was to release the band’s own music through the new company, the group split up shortly afterwards, so its first release was Raymonde’s solo album, ‘Blame Someone Else’.
Raymonde subsequently started signing up other artists, and since then Bella Union has grown into one of the UK’s most respected indie labels, working with artists like Fleet Foxes, Explosions In The Sky, Andrew Bird, Beach House, The Walkmen, Midlake, The Dears, Dirty Three, Peter Broderick and many more.
In the run up to this year’s AIM Independent Music Awards – where Bella Union is nominated for Independent Label Of The Year and Raymonde himself for Independent Entrepreneur Of The Year – CMU’s Chris Cooke spoke to the label chief about his record company, past, present and future.
CC: Going back to the start, why as a successful musician did you decide to set up a label in 1997?
SR: Because our experiences with our two labels, one independent and one major, hadn’t been particularly good, and we were foolish enough to think we should probably just do it ourselves.
CC: You launched just before the music industry’s decade of turmoil – did that make things easier or harder do you think?
SR: I think if you run an indie label, you are always pretty close to turmoil, so I don’t think anything seemed easy at all. In fact for the first three or four years it was a complete mystery how we survived!
CC: Is there a music policy or ethos at Bella Union?
SR: The label should be a label that I would like to have been signed to as an artist. That’s it. As far as a music policy goes, no absolutely not. Anything goes, as long as it’s high quality/unique and exciting to me. If there is no excitement, then really there is little point in signing a band.
CC: How do you decide what artists to work with?
SR: Once upon a time it was just if they made amazing music, now I decide based more on the other issues, that are, we have discovered over time, just as important. Are they good people? Is the manager really there to help or is he/she more likely to hinder? Will they improve? Do they care about the relationship between label and band, or isn’t it important to them? Are they awesome live? Naturally the more positive answers the better!
CC: Do you think it’s better being a new artist now than when you started out in the early 1980s?
SR: I don’t think you can say. It’s certainly very different. I wonder if Cocteau Twins would have even been signed today. Labels have become very conservative in their signings, I think we might have struggled. In the 80s people were happy to buy records, nowadays they’re not happy to spend anything on music unless it’s a gig or a t-shirt.
CC: There’s lots of talk of labels working with artists on a bigger range of projects than in the past (ie getting involved in activity beyond records) – is that something Bella Union is doing, or might do in the future?
SR: If the artists desire it and ask it of us, then we consider it. Management, publishing, promoting shows are all things we are active in already, so it is fairly easy for us to help a band beyond just putting a record out.
CC: You were quite vocal in your opposition to the recent expansion of Universal and Sony via the EMI sale. Now those deals have been approved, who do you think will be negatively impacted the most?
SR: Time will tell, and one has to be very sensitive about folks in all the divested parts of Universal/EMI who may lose jobs, as that is a horrible side effect of these kinds of corporate shenanigans. But clearly the independent sector needs to remain strong and bullish about its position and its importance to so many people.
CC: What are your thoughts on digital – do you embrace every new digital platform going, or do any digital business models bother you?
SR: Personally speaking, no, I don’t embrace many of them at all. And I am not a huge fan of streaming in particular, but then I am not the target audience! And, of course, they all serve a huge function for those who are interested in them, and as a label we work with many of them, and very successfully. Clearly the future is with streaming and digital, and once the revenues pick up a bit, artists may start to feel a bit more positively about them too. Though, over a 100 years after it was invented, the vinyl record still sounds way better than a 2012 sound file that’s digital.
CC: What’s the hardest thing about running an independent label in 2012?
SR: Having a day off.
CC: And what’s the best thing?
SR: Having a day off.
CC: What are your proudest achievements to date?
SR: Having a day… no I am kidding. End Of The Road 2012, Friday Aug 31 festival take-over. Proudest day hands down.
CC: Are there any other labels or label chiefs – past or present – that you particularly admire?
SR: Martin Mills I admire, Ivo Watts-Russell too, Geoff Travis I love, Chris Blackwell was inspirational, Tony Wilson was a one-off, and I love Ninja Tune, ECM, On-U Sound, Trojan, Elektra of the 70s… I could go on.
Read more interviews with indie label bosses conducted in the run-up to the 2012 AIM Independent Music Awards here.