Rough Trade Records

Rough Trade Documents and Eyewitness starts with an epigraph from Pandaemonium (a stunning example of the use of literary and historical source material in the construction of a narrative) and moves on to cite Mass Observation, the seminal 1930’s British crowd sourcing project. After this auspicious start the book does not disappoint as it constructs an oral history of Rough Trade records supplemented by original documents and pictures.
Geoff Travis is a London lefty who came back from an extended gap year break in the US after graduating in something or other at Cambridge in the mid 1970s with boxes of cheap and interesting records. After borrowing some money from dad he set up a record shop in west London with an employment and management policy influenced by kibbutzim ideals and socialist theories. Just a few months after the shop opened Rough Trade found itself at ground zero with the burgeoning DIY record labels and punk rock. The real innovation at the time wasn’t the music biz acknowledging punk by trying to turn the Pistols (John, Paul, Steve & Sid) and the Clash into a latter day Beatles and Stones so much as it was loads of little bands just figuring out how to make records and put them out on small labels. Some was good, some was ordinary; but there was a lot more music being recorded and not all of it sounded much like the punk standard bearers. All of it turned up in Rough Trade.
Soon enough the business developed a distribution arm to move independent records to provincial centres and this involved setting up ‘The Cartel’ with several like minded record store proprietors. The next step was to set up as a record company producing its own records. The business grew rapidly with few proper business controls or structures and occasionally lurched into financial crises, or became the victim of cash flow crises at other record distributors or record companies.
Rough Trade records has mutated from the original record store and adapted the founder’s original predilections to the nature of modern finance and business as it has evolved. Reputedly the answers to the job interview in the late 1980’s were vegetarian, socialist, and Sonic Youth.
Around that time, the accountant recalls sitting in a room with record company creditors of the distribution business: “I put my head in my hands ‘They haven’t even got a cash flow. Who would start a company without a cash flow?’ As I lifted my head up they were all beaming at me. They’d all done that, of course they had. It summed it all up. They weren’t businessmen and they never pretended to be. Record companies aren’t run by businessmen, they are run by visionaries.”
And of course there is some fantastic music which you’ve probably forgotten about, or never even heard in the first place: Desperate Bicycles, Scritti Politti, The Normal, Cabaret Voltaire, The Fall, Robert Wyatt, The Smiths ….
There is a 90 minute doco which seems to be based on the book


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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