17 May, 1991
It seemed like the end of Indie world. The belief that music lovers could create a kind of Camelot to stand firm against commercialisation and greed was shattered when, on May 17, Rough Trade - the first dedicated indie record distributor and a record label driven by ideals - went into administration with a quoted debt of three million pounds. Around 70 staff were made redundant, some of whom had attended a party thrown just a day earlier to celebrate the success of Carter USM, whose second album, 30 Something had just been released.
Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis had never really been at home in the world of high finance. Watching everything collapse around him was hard to bear. “It was an awful time for me,” he says. “Many of the people who were supposed to be onboard at Rough Trade just ran away and left me to it. Also selling the catalogue to pay Distribution’s debts was a bitter blow - it was difficult having to sell The Smiths’ catalogue to Warner’s.”
"It was a place where The Smiths came looking for you, and you didn’t have to go looking to find them.”
Nobody blamed Travis for the disaster. Creditors did whatever they could to keep the Rough Trade ethos intact. “I was helped by the kindness and support of such as Daniel Miller (Mute), Ivo (4AD) and Jazz Summers (Big Life),” Travis recalls. “The independent labels were incredibly supportive given that the distribution company had gone down owing them money.”
Musicians too, realised the importance of what Rough Trade represented. Robert Wyatt, Aztec Camera, The Sugarcubes, The Charlatans, Sandie Shaw and others all contributed tracks to an album called An Historical Debt, the proceeds being donated to labels that lost money through the RTD crash.
Perhaps, even when Geoff Travis opened his soul and reggae store in West London’s Kensington Park Road in 1976, it was inevitable that Rough Trade would never materialise into Indie’s version of the Branson empire. He was a music obsessive. Accountants were a necessary evil. Power was never part of the game. In 1987 Rough Trade even became an employees trust, Travis giving up ownership of a company which, by that time, included a record shop, label and distribution network. It’s become legend that, at one point during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Travis’s take home pay was just £72 a week, the same as his warehouse employees. The RT label would flourish gloriously, from November 1983’s Smiths-announcing This Charming Man to September 1987’s chart-topper, Pump Up The Volume by M/A/R/R/S.
But the human touch, the element that had Robert Wyatt enthusing “With Rough Trade, it was like we were friends, recording for fellow humans” was eroding. Bands like Scritti Politti and Aztec Camera moved on to majors. The company expanded in order to compete. The distribution branch moved into new premises before old leases expired, and there was a £600,000 outlay on a notorious computer system that never worked properly.
There were other problems. The company’s American division collapsed. A leisure group folded, owing Rough Trade £400,000, Some trouble-shooting high-flyers, brought in to straighten out the finances, often surfaced with wrong decisions - a belief confirmed by Rough Trade chair Tom Reed in 1991,who adjudged that collapse was inevitable from 1988 when MD Richard Powell resigned and there was a failure to recruit effective middle and senior management. He did not blame Geoff Travis’ commitment to democratic principles.
RT Distribution staggered on until May 31, but emerged in vastly truncated form almost immediately as RTM (Rough Trade Marketing). It was nearly a decade before Geoff Travis, along with former PiL member Jeannette Lee, reacquired the rights to the Rough Trade name and, once more, in partnership with Martin Mills’ Beggars Group, took the label to the forefront of the UK music industry through releases by The Libertines, The Strokes, British Sea Power, Arcade Fire and others. In a time of struggling, Rough Trade looks forward with confidence. “If we’d had someone like Martin Mills (who snatched Radiohead from EMI), we would never have come anywhere near the situation we found ourselves in,” muses Geoff Travis. “Now we’re on the good path again and are planning to open a new shop in New York – which is exciting.”
Even so, he believes that the first ground-breaking ten years at Rough Trade represents a golden age.” There wasn’t a split between distribution and record label and I wasn’t seen as some kind of maverick responsibility. It was a place where The Smiths came looking for you, and you didn’t have to go looking to find them.”