Having barely survived a few tumultuous decades and outlasted more than one era of popular music, London’s Rough Trade label now finds itself successful and surprisingly unabsorbed into the corporate apparatus of the majors. It also shares a name, a history, and a set of values not just with the storied Rough Trade record shops in London, but with the largest record store in post-record-store New York City.
Rough Trade helped define not just the sound of an era, but also its values
The label’s current roster boasts laid-back garage-rock girls Hinds, prolific, noisy punks Parquet Courts and Warpaint bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg. The varied sounds of the label’s signings aren’t a surprise — it was once the home of The Smiths and The Libertines — and it still seeks to gather the prickly and the tuneful together under its wide punk-rock roof.
For a time, the history of U.K. indie rock was the history of Rough Trade. Before indie was a genre, category, or even an ethos, it was just a fair descriptor for the crop of stores and labels that sprung up alongside punk’s DIY evolution. As a store and label, Rough Trade nurtured a worldwide litter of bands that mashed punk’s idealistic simplicity with new sounds: electronica, reggae, house, industrial. Founder Geoff Travis’ labor-of-love record store on London’s Kensington Park Road was the impetus for the label, which grew, then collapsed, then grew again and helped define not just the sound of an era, but also its values.
Travis opened his shop in 1976, the year Joy Division formed — which will do as a birth year for post-punk, even if punk itself hadn’t burnt out yet. Like other independent label founders, self-confessed music addict Travis wanted a place where he could legitimately indulge his addiction and meet other obsessives.
By the ’80s Rough Trade had established itself as curators and nurturers of the post-punk era
In 1978, when the short-lived, and influential French synth-rockers Métal Urbain asked their favorite London record-shop owner for advice on recording, it was suddenly clear to Travis that “I had been training my whole life for this particular job.”
Métal Urbain’s “Paris Maquis” became Rough Trade Records’ first release — a chugging, hissing blast of harsh punk guitars with an anti-fascist message delivered in snarling French. It was quickly followed by Stiff Little Fingers‘ vivid fuzz, Augustus Pablo‘s Jamaican dub and Cabaret Voltaire‘s weird, delightful sonic experiments. They were songs from artists that basically had nothing to do with each other, beyond their status as independent artists.
Geoff Travis founded Rough Trade as a worker-run collective with a consensus process governing decisions on new signings, album art and, according to The Fall‘s curmudgeonly leader Mark E. Smith, even lyrics
The eclectic fertility of the U.K.’s music scene in the ’70s was sprouting indie labels like mushrooms, but by the ’80s Rough Trade stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony Wilson’s Factory and legendary BBC DJ John Peel as curators and nurturers of the post-punk era. By then the label handled Young Marble Giants (spare and hushed), The Smiths (dextrous and wry) and Scritti Politti (jumpy, wordy, fiercely left-wing) — all of whom were destined for something a lot like pop success, though not necessarily on Rough Trade.
The new label took the independent ideal and its promise of a peaceful, creative revolution seriously. Travis, who’d done a stint in the communal utopia of a kibbutz and had the kind of politics Margaret Thatcher was about to place in a prolonged vice grip, founded his business as a worker-run collective. A consensus process governed decisions on new signings, album art and, according to The Fall‘s curmudgeonly leader Mark E. Smith, even lyrics. The label’s mailroom was staffed by members of its bands; sometimes so was the shop in North Kensington.
When the ascendant Smiths, courted by Warner Bros. and EMI, got their first look at the inside of a major record label’s offices, what struck Johnny Marr after vinyl-choked life at Rough Trade was the near-total absence of records.
But in 1982, Rough Trade the label separated from Rough Trade the shop, selling it to its employees in a divestiture that remains in effect despite the closeness between the label and its flagship store. In 1983, the increasingly funky Scritti Politti left for Virgin Records, where their British audience swelled and the band acquired one-hit wonder status.
In 1987, The Smiths broke up, ending an era as surely as The Beatles’ breakup did; by 1992, so had Rough Trade.
“Our criterion is 1 million percent selfish,” Travis said in an interview with Marr in 2009. “We just have to love the music… We don’t make judgements on the basis of commercial potential.” Which of course is What They All Say, but a quick glance at Rough Trade’s tumultuous financial history — alongside the collectively towering influence of its artists — makes it easy to believe.
Rough Trade Reinvents Itself
Even when some acts achieved success, the Rough Trade of the 1980s was never very good at making money. By the end of the decade, as years of stretched credit were beginning to snap, the label was enjoying its first hit singles. These included sample-happy Doctor Who fan bait “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” whose performers, the Timelords, were about to become chart-topping, globe-trotting acid-house composers The KLF. This was how Rough Trade found itself, in 1990 and ’91, simultaneously handling distribution for the U.K.’s No. 1 singles act and summoning that act’s members to agonizing democratic meetings on their label edging toward bankruptcy.
Following collapse, dormancy, a few years partnered with fellow ’70s indie label Sanctuary Records, and more than one fundamental shift in technology, Rough Trade Records survives once again under the umbrella of the Beggars Group.
In U.K. indie’s modern middle age — when budding geniuses, stultifying hacks, and pleasant throwbacks proudly and earnestly claim influence from The Smiths — the revived label has successfully remained 1 million percent selfish, slavishly dedicated to its owners’ ears.
In the 2000s, first under Sanctuary and then under Beggar’s, Rough Trade signed the Libertines (whose exploding popularity and unmanageable tumult must have given Travis and company ’80s flashbacks) and put out work from the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, Warpaint, and Islands.
Many of the labels signings are North American bands, discovered via its American branch. Where Rough Trade once provided a U.K. home for Galaxie 500 and Beat Happening it also supported other up-and-coming bands; in 1990, a pre-Nevermind Nirvana played a show at Rough Trade’s now-shuttered San Francisco store. And in 2013, as the concept of brick-and-mortar music stores seemed to be collapsing, the retail arm of Rough Trade turned the mass closure of record-store colossi like Tower and Virgin into an opportunity.
With the anonymous-superstore model of record shopping moving online, there was room once again on city blocks for the curated, communal cool-kid experience the original store fostered. Rough Trade NYC, now the city’s largest record store, contains not only an expertly curated collection, but is a coveted venue and art-installation space — it’s a place to be in, as much as one to buy from. While they remain independent of each other, the store brings in browsing customers the same way the label attracts artists. And it’s those comforting piles of records that to people like Johnny Marr, mean real love.