In the current era of Bandcamp, everyone has a fighting chance (in theory at least) of taking on the big players. But none of that existed when two people – Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes – operating out of the basement of a terraced house in Bristol (45 Upper Belgrave Road – immortalised in former signing The Hit Parade’s poignant farewell note, ‘The House Of Sarah‘. They’d later set up shop in another house on Gwilliam Street) graduated from fanzine writers to label bosses in 1987 and never looked back. Over 100 carefully-curated releases and with a combination of guile and determination they amassed coverage and a fanbase that had the majors at once scratching their heads in disbelief and tearing their hair out out of annoyance. Moreover, Wadd and Haynes showed you could do it without existing in a manic, drug-fuelled frenzy like Creation’s Alan McGee or being a well-connected media wizz like Factory’s Tony Wilson. It’s a story of doing things your own way, sticking to your principles and overcoming the odds.
Much of the article is devoted to a fascinating interview with label co-founder Clare Wadd:
"There are pretty much three ways a record label can end – put out increasingly duff records and fizzle out; get bought; or go bust – we were always very clear that our choice was none of the above, which meant that we had to find a different way. I still think it makes us pretty unique, and I really believe that the end was as important as the beginning, the last ten records as important as the first ten etc."
"A couple of people have used the “curatorial” word recently – well it’s used in the film – but that’s certainly never the way we thought of it. It was all about pop music, pop art statements, not doing what you’re supposed to do, not turning into a business that does what it does because that’s what it does. Neither of us is a collector, and we always rather enjoyed poking fun at the people who are."
I'm always into histories of independent record labels and the qualities that make for a 'classic imprint' so I read about Sarah Records with much interest. There's a lot to be learned from the philosophy of these labels of yore. In this age when starting a label is as easy as logging onto SoundCloud the spirit of creative statement-making and a long ambitious vision seem to have gotten lost.
What can we learn from Sarah Records and this article? These might be some of the qualities that helped make them a label of renown:
Develop and Stick to a Philosophy. I'm not expecting you to be an indie-Socrates, but it would be nice to have a philosophy as well as guidelines set by an outlook or world view. With Sarah, the founders were motivated by regard for anti-capitalism and feminism which, though hardly apparent in their releases, subtly shaped how they presented themselves and who they would sign. A guiding philosophy can be a thread that glues it all together. It also makes for a better story than "I started a label 'cause I wanted to put out some good music."
Create a Community. A label that serves its fans will prosper over one that simply markets. Your label should be a club house ... not everyone is invited but those who are inside are having a blast and don't want to leave. Fans should communicate with each other and with you, and your label provides the avenue. Each release serves as marching orders for your army and should be treated that way.
Be Indifferent to the Press. You have such faith in what you're doing that bad reviews don't matter and could be considered a badge of honor. You're just ahead of your time, anyway, and they'll eventually come around. But, who needs press when you've got such a diehard community of label devotees? They're the ones spreading the word without axes to grind or agendas to fill and deserve the focus of your label's energy.
Have a Strong Localized Identity. The classic labels with the strongest personalities exist almost as homages to the cities they sprung out of. Where would Factory Records be without Manchester? Sub Pop without Seattle? Trax without Chicago? Sarah Records was deeply tied to Bristol, right down to cover art based on city scenes and mass transit.
Consider Your Legacy. Embrace a long view. Each release will represent your label forever, so it's best not to skimp on those early releases. If you can't afford proper mastering, nice cover art, or are tempted to put out your buddy's song even though it's just kinda so-so, you might want to put your label ambitions on hold. If you have any longevity (and you should aspire to) then those short-sighted missteps will eventually haunt you.
Putting out great releases that you are unconditionally in love with helps, too, but that should really be a given.
This article also alerted me to My Secret World, a documentary on Sarah Records. Here's the trailer: