11.03.2009, Words by dummymag

Rough Trade “We still try to follow our hearts”

In 1976, Geoff Travis opened a record shop at 202 Kensington Park Road in London. Three decades later, Rough Trade is a music icon. The three shops are among the best independent record stores in the UK, while the label’s back catalogue includes The Smiths, The Strokes, The Libertines, Babyshambles and Arcade Fire. A new BBC Four documentary, Do It Yourself – The Story Of Rough Trade charts Travis’s story, from early days, to meeting his business partner, former PiL. member Jeanette Lee in 1987, to the closure of the label in 1991 due to financial problems and it’s rebirth in 2000. However, the man Morrissey famously, although somewhat unkindly, referred to as a “flatulent pain in the arse” in the lyrics of The Smiths’ 1986 song Frankly Mr Shankly, is more concerned with the future than the past. “I feel strongly that we haven’t yet fully realised our potential,” he says…

What do you think of the Do It Yourself – The Story Of Rough Trade?

The music footage is excellent. The only problem is that it could only really skim the surface. There’s so much to say.

Why did you start Rough Trade?

The shop was started because I’d been on a US road trip and found myself in San Francisco with over a hundred records I had bought in cheap second-hand shops all across America – New York Dolls, Funkadelic and The Stooges amongst them. Someone asked me what I planned to do with them and when I said I had no idea. They suggested shipping them back to London and starting a shop. Being in an environment where I could play records all day long sounded good to me. I was attracted to doing something where there was no boss telling you what to do. By then I was already hopelessly addicted to music.

A couple of years later, you started the Rough Trade label. What was the impetus for that?

The big idea was to start a distribution system in the UK, which we did. It was motivated by the concept of trying to provide and run an alternate structure to what already existed. We wanted to disseminate the culture we loved, not what someone else chose. The label began when a French group called Metal Urbain  came into the shop and asked for help with their new recording. Necessity became the mother of invention. Stiff, Chiswick and Ace were already operating in our backyard and it gave us courage to have a go ourselves. If they could release great records, perhaps we could as well. That was the climate of the time.

How did Jeanette Lee become part of Rough Trade?

Jeanette was introduced to me by two mutual friends and we met at [punk journalist] Vivien Goldman’s birthday party. 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. 

Is the label now different from the one you set up?

It’s really not that different. But I suppose we are more aware of all the fiscal realities and are very careful about our responsibilities. It is certainly an international stage now, whereas at the beginning it was more local. But at the root is an excitement about music and an artist or a project that causes us to take some action. That does not change. Our criterion remains the same. The more you know the more complex it can be, but we try not to worry about that and still follow our hearts.

What’s your favourite record released on Rough Trade?

The next one, which I haven’t heard yet because it means we have a future.

What’s the record that you most regret getting away?

The first Stone Roses album. The reason is self evident. Just listen to it.

Why did the label go bust in 1991?

The label did not go bust! Distribution went bust. The label threw its assets and catalogue into the ring to help pay off distribution debts to our friends in the independent industry like [Mute founder] Daniel [Miller] and [4AD founder] Ivo [Watts]. 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.

Why did you re-launch the label in 2000?

A sense of unfinished business. The fact of being asked by Dai Davies on behalf of Sanctuary and the quick fortuitous discovery of The Strokes.

What’s the high point of the Rough Trade story?

Being excited about the future. Micachu’s  debut album, Jewellery was released last week. Who could ask for a more exciting record. And meeting Jeannette. She’d worked in [iconic punk clothes shop run by Don Letts] Acme Attractions  in the Kings Road and worked for five years with PiL, but she wasn’t sure she wanted anymore to do with the music world when we first met. We’ve worked together for well over 20 years running Rough Trade and managing Pulp and now Jarvis and Duffy amongst others. She is the unsung heroine of the story, slowly but surely getting the recognition she deserves now.

And the low point?

The years following the distribution collapse, which involved selling The Smiths catalogue and having a near nervous breakdown.

Is there a future for record companies in this digital age?

As long as we are needed we shall be here. Artists will always need supporters, financiers, artistic advisors/editors and structure providers. Digital won’t change that.

What does the future hold for Rough Trade?

We still want to introduce you to some amazing music you may otherwise not have heard. I want to make a mark on the future.

Do It Yourself – The Story Of Rough Trade is broadcast on  BBC Four on Friday 13th March 2009 at 9pm, after which you can watch it on BBC iPlayer.


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