Geoff Travis - Founder of Rough Trade, Summer 2000
10 Feb 2004
a legend. one of rockfeedback's greatest inspirations. manager of pulp, discoverer of the smiths, the libertines and the strokes, travis himself is an institution.
Many of the musical artists we know and love today you may have to thank this guy for in the first place. Without his notorious record-shop, Rough Trade, established in 1977 at the height of punk rock (already a good start), such artists as Blur and Elasticamay not have existed in the ways we want them to be like today, both being just some of the people that have frequented the shop openly throughout their years of pop success.
It's not just that; the Ladbroke Grove-based London store has always... been there for the keen music-kid, looking for the most current and interesting sounds of the time, whilst dealing in the best music of the recent past. Due to its success, however, it has also managed to be there for those in other London locations - not to mention the inhabitants of Tokyo, when a store opened there as well.
Geoff, after developing the original shop within a year, then decided to set up his own record-label of the same name (Rough Trade for those of you that have short attention-spans), which has gone on to sell records from the Slits, The Smiths and even James. Obviously, this independent label has had a major influence on those that have since set up their own record-shacks, though recapturing artists of such significance and importance is seemingly not a task capable anymore, where many unworthy acts are able to rule the airwaves. However, there's no point crying over the current music scene, because, as shown in history, it's only in times like now that the best acts manage to break through and show up the chart-fodder of today for what it really is; the great thing is, though, Geoff Travis may be playing a secret part in this. Also running the Warner-incorporated Blanco Y Negro, Geoff is currently building up bright hopes Terris and Queen Adreena, two acts that have built up strong reputations for sounding great on record and incredible in live performance - a genuinely rare feat for up and coming acts.
But wait, that's still not it. Geoff Travis also, since the 1990s, oh so long ago, has been a music manager, dealing in looking after the massive artists Pulp and Beth Orton, not to mention Ultrasound and The Chicks. So, yes, it's all very exciting and yes, he's a very busy man, therefore, yes, we're now going to stop rambling on and feature the interview.
How did you start up the label, Rough Trade?
'Well, I had already started the record shop, because when I left university, I didn't know what I wanted to do and just went and hitchhiked across America and ended up in San Francisco. I had managed to buy a load of records along the way so I just thought to myself, 'What am I going to do with all these,' so I decided to ship them all back to London and find myself a shop where I could listen to them all! The thing about that shop opening at the time was just one of those coincidences that punk was just starting up then, which let the shop become known as a 'punk place', with lots of reggae and we sold a lot of independent singles. It was out of the fact that people were making their own music and bringing it to us at the shop that gave us the idea to start up our own label. It was basically just born out of a necessity to help musicians to get something going.'
Was the punk scene an influence at the time?
'Yeah, it was a huge influence, because it made everyone realise that whole 'do it yourself' culture was really important and fanzines such as 'Sniffing Glue' were just all about learning two chords, getting a guitar and sorting out a band. A lot of people really took it literally, because it was an exciting time and it made you realise that you didn't have to be that clever or that skilled as a musician, as long as you had some ideas about what you wanted to do and some imagination in order to join in. That kind of atmosphere gave us the encouragement to try out some of our ideas as well.'
Was there any particular kind of music that you wanted to have released?
'Well, it was really all sorts; if you look at the label and where it was based, at the time things like reggae was really popular and Ladbroke Grove has a pretty large West Indian population so we thought that our record shop would try to serve the whole community. We made sure that there was plenty of music that different people were interested in, because you can't have a record shop and be too selfish over what's sold. Rough Trade, in my mind, has always served a wide range of music, though other people may see it more narrowly as just scratchy, indie guitars (laughs)... I like the unpredictability of just doing what you like and not caring what other people think.'
What processes do you have to go through in order to set up a record label, or shop even?
'Well, a shop is just finding empty premises and finding rent that you can afford. Then, you just do research and find out where people buy and sell their records from, where are all of the distributors and wholesalers and if you go there and say you've got a shop, they'll let you in and you can buy records at a wholesale price. The key is having the right stock, creating the best atmosphere and when I started in Rough Trade, the thing I wanted was the chance for people to just hang around listening to records, or even meeting your friends. Nowadays, though, you go into a shop and ask the person behind the counter for something and they just act superior and make you feel like you're asking for the wrong thing and it's just nothing to do with music. I mostly get my records from the Rough Trade shop, because it's just round the corner, but I do buy records in the more major retailers if I'm shopping around, as their outlets are all over the place.'
You actually lost the name of Rough Trade during the 1990s...
'Yeah, it's nice to have it back! I feel there's a need for some new independent labels, as everything's just seeming to close down and pop music seems to rule. I mean, I like pop sometimes, but you need to have other things to keep you going. I think there's a need for more good music.'
How did the name get lost?
'What happened in 1988/89 was that distribution went bankrupt and the record label was standing on a separate legal company, which was doing finely. However, because the distribution-company owed money to lots of other labels that we grew up with, we just basically threw the label into the pot to help pay off the debts, so all The Smiths' catalogue went to Warner. I lost all my back catalogue basically, which went to what's called the administrator that also had the name. I then started a new kind of Rough Trade with One Little Indian (other UK label, home of Björk) and worked with them for a while, but it didn't work out very well so I walked away, but I had to leave the name with them. So, basically, it's taken all this time to get the name back from them.'
How did you get involved with Pulp in your management company?
'Well, John Best, at Bestest Press, sent Jarvis into see us for the reason that they were having a nightmare time with Fire Records as well as management problems and he just wanted some advice really. Funnily enough, all of the years of Pulp playing live on the circuit, I had never seen them play and I didn't know much about them, which is strange because you usually know most things that are going on. Anyway, I went to see them play, with my business partner, in Brighton a couple of days later and we just thought they were fantastic and because Jarvis came in and told me this terrible tale, we couldn't do anything else but help. It is quite a sweet story, really and that must have been seven or eight years ago now.'
And Beth Orton?
'Beth came into the office to see me and just said, 'Would you come and see me play and would you like to manage me?' I don't know where she found out about us, but she may have done it because we were doing Pulp and she really liked them. I went to see her play in a little pub in somewhere near Soho and she was just sitting on a stool and you couldn't hear anything. People were just talking, completely ignoring her and so it was difficult for us to say, 'Well, this girl is fantastic.' I mean, I liked her a lot, I thought she was a real character and she reminded me a lot of the kind of girls I used to go to school with so I liked that about her. She is a real live-wire and she's not like the image of a miserable, folky lady; she's the opposite - she's hilarious. At that point, though, I said no to her. However, one day I was driving down a motorway and I heard a track on the radio and I thought, 'Who's this? It's absolutely incredible,' and it was 'She Cries Your Name'. So, I thought, 'Right, that was bit of a mistake,' and then she came back in again and asked us to manage her and this time I said yes.
'It's a tough job managing artists because you get involved with them and their emotional lives, so it's much easier just working in a record label. It's certainly more like surrogate parenting more than anything (laughs)! The reason there's so few good managers is because it's such a hard job, though it has many very big rewards, both emotionally and financially.'
What tips can you give to aspiring managers?
'The key is to find someone that's worth managing (laughs)! I think that what a good manager is can be learnt and there's companies like the IMF (International Management Forum), which has lots of good people. The thing is, you can go along to their meetings and ask them for advice and people are very willing to help I think you'll find, if they're genuine and have their right interests at heart.'
And what are the qualities needed to build up a successful and well-respected independent record-label?
'The main tip is just to do things you love and keep the quality control really high. I think it's quite easy to fall into doing records with your friends, because you feel like you should, but that's when the quality starts to go down. You have to be quite strong about that and you've got to distance yourself from what you do and mustn't get so involved in it that you lose sight of whether it's any good or not. If you're on your own, the best thing to do is to try and find someone else who shares your musical taste so that you can then debate and have arguments about ideas and agree about things to see when you're on to something. It's always more fun if you're not doing it on your own.'
What future have you planned for Rough Trade?
'I like having my independent label and I've still got my major label, Blanco Y Negro, which goes through Warner's, so I'm in the lucky position where I've got two helpful things. So, if I want to sign a band, I've got the chance to ask if they want to go through the independent method or through the major way so it's nice for bands to have that kind of decision. Intentions for the label are to just try and do the best possible music available and trying to give people the chance to do what they want to do without putting pressure on them or derailing them. Also, just to encourage new bands in their ideas, because there aren't any rules about rock and roll. The less rules there are, the more exciting it is.'
Wise words from the man himself, so come on music-lovers; stop copying those chords over and over from old Oasis and Manic Street Preachers' b-sides. Get a mate and start up your own record-company. You never know, but you could be lucky enough after over twenty years in the industry to be subject to an interview from this website... Actually, if anything, that's an incentive not to get into the music world.
Honestly, though, if you've got a passion for music, as this site has always encouraged, get out there and make it happen, because there's no point ending up in a dead end, boring office job that anyone else can do if you really know what lights your fire. Stand up and admit your real interests, set goals and achieve. If you try hard enough, you could be the next Geoff Travis...
However, if you're still adamant in playing your instruments and would prefer to be signed as an artist for Rough Trade, just remember Geoff's requirements,
'Really, I just look for genius and originality.'
And it shows.