Rough diamonds: Rough Trade turns 30

THESE days the generic Brit School-generated jangle we understand as "indie" music has strayed far from its roots – that is, left-field indepen-dently released music cultivated and flourishing outside of the realm of the major labels.

This year, one of the trailblazers of that tradition is celebrating its 30th birthday. Rough Trade Records is regarded by many as the quintessential independent record label, thanks to its tremendous back catalogue and ability to survive the slings and arrows of a harsh industry. The man with his hand on the tiller all this time has been Geoff Travis, affectionately hailed for his integrity and "good pair of ears".

This mild-mannered music obsessive, who was weaned on Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers and saw The Who at the Marquee and The Stones at The Roundhouse, made his first distinctive mark on the music scene when he opened the Rough Trade record shop in 1976 – using as stock the vast collection of LPs he had bought in thrift stores while hitchhiking across the US.

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Inspired by the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, Travis viewed his shop as a relaxed hang-out rather than an anonymous music mart. "My idea about life is that you should try to blur the lines between work and play," he says.

"But the irony of working in music is that you have to work twice as hard to achieve those playful aims!"

Travis unwittingly found himself in the right place (West London) at the right time – punk was just about to explode and the record shop was at the epicentre of the new DIY culture. "The Clash lived up the road, and The Sex Pistols would come in trying to sell us all the records they'd nicked from somewhere else," he recalls.

It was not long before Travis was able to realise his ambition to set up a nationwide independent distribution network, linking independent record shops and emerging small labels all over the country, such as Fast Product in Edinburgh, which released early singles by The Human League, Gang of Four and The Dead Kennedys. "It was a political idea," says Travis, "in that if you can control what's on in your local cinema or in your bookshops and record stores, in a way you are participating in tilting culture in a specific direction."

The Rough Trade label emerged two years later, almost as an afterthought, offering an unheard of 50/50 split of the profits between artist and label. "It just seemed like a fair way of doing business," shrugs Travis. "The whole do-it-yourself idea made public all these things that were secrets of the industry and that was a wonderful and empowering thing. It just demystified the whole process and made you think, 'The person next to me is doing it, so I'd better hurry up and get on with it,' and that was the atmosphere in which the label started, really."

The first release was Paris Maquis, by French punk band Metal Urbain – not the most recognisable name in a roster that grew to include such punk and post-punk stalwarts as The Fall, Stiff Little Fingers and Pere Ubu, and now features Belle & Sebastian, Arcade Fire and Jarvis Cocker.

Asking Travis to pinpoint key Rough Trade releases is a bit like asking him to choose his favourite child – "I don't think we've ever released anything we weren't proud of," he says – but there is one band who, for many, came to embody Rough Trade's independent, outsider, egalitarian ethic with a string of standout albums.

"The Smiths was the time when we realised that we could become a proper record company and take a band all the way," says Travis. "That was perhaps when we grew up a bit."

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Conversely, Travis's greatest regret was his failure to sign The Stone Roses, who had verbally agreed to a deal and had even recorded their debut single, Elephant Stone, for Rough Trade, before being poached by a rival label at the 11th hour. John Squire's original artwork for the single still hangs in Travis's office as a grim reminder.

"I think it would have been much better for them to sign to Rough Trade because I can't see them falling out with us in the way the Stone Roses subsequently fell out with Zomba," he laments, "and I don't think they would have spent four years making their second album. But who knows?"

There were bigger trials to come. The increasingly unwieldy Rough Trade Distribution collapsed in 1991. Travis, by that point virtually estranged from the running of that arm of the business, nobly put the record label on the auction block to bail out a host of other independents who would otherwise have been left high and dry. "It was the morally right thing to do," he says. "I don't regret that, but I'm sad about it."

With Rough Trade consigned to the record label graveyard, Travis concentrated on the running of Blanco Y Negro, the Warners-affiliated label he founded in the 1980s, and branched out into managing the likes of Pulp, The Cranberries and Scritti Politti with his business partner Jeanette Lee, a former member of Public Image Ltd.

However, Rough Trade Records has enjoyed a second coming, which has arguably brought greater success than its initial run. Travis bought back the rights to the name and resurrected the label in 2001. The first signing was a certain young band from New York called The Strokes, and the revitalised label has since released some of the most acclaimed albums of the 21st century by The Libertines, Arcade Fire and Antony & The Johnsons' Mercury Music Prize-winning I am a Bird Now.

Travis and Lee have still had a bumpy financial ride in recent times as the label's partners, Sanctuary Records, went down. But things appear to be on an even keel again under the wing of the independent Beggars Group, as they mark the label's 30th birthday.

Jarvis Cocker, described by Travis as "our ambassador", is leading the celebrations on the Looking Rough at 30 tour, which starts tonight in Sheffield, and also coincides with his own 20th year of making music.

"I know there's an awful lot of anniversary culture out there," says Cocker, "but this is one that's actually worth celebrating. Rough Trade has always been about discovering the new, exploring the unknown and giving a voice to those who would otherwise remain unheard."

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One such beneficiary of Travis's patronage is Eddi Reader, who has released the majority of her solo albums on Blanco Y Negro and, latterly, Rough Trade itself. "Every time I've done an album, he's backed it; anytime I say to him, 'I've got a really interesting idea,' he'll say, 'Let's explore it,'" she says. "Of all the industry people in London, which I find quite isolated and quite ignorant of what it takes to be a musician, I've found Geoff's a real ally. The people he works with are people who believe in doing it for music's sake, because it's a helpful and life-enhancing thing, rather than the folk who are looking for a big advance so they can live out a lifestyle that they like."

In 30 years of Trading, Travis has remained faithful to those artistic ideals. "The independent agenda is 'Let's try and make some great music/art together and see how far we can take it,'" he declares, "whereas the major agenda is 'Let's make something commercial and sell it.' Sometimes those things come together and that's a sweet moment, sometimes they don't. But allowing an artist to be an artist and to do crazy stuff, that's really important."

The Rough Trade "co-op over commerce" approach is still inspiring labels such as Domino to Chemikal Underground, but Travis has always cited Island Records as his model of a great label. "It's not about being successful, but having a quality of artists on the roster and a consistent run of great, great records that will last, and that still seems a long way from being completed," he says modestly, adding, "the great Rough Trade artist is hopefully the next one."

• Looking Rough at 30 featuring Jarvis Cocker & Jeffrey Lewis, Picture House, Edinburgh, Friday 28 November.


Subway Sect, Ambition (1978) "It strikes a chord in the Scottish psyche," says Travis. "I know Edwyn (Collins] absolutely worships Subway Sect."

Cabaret Voltaire, Nag Nag Nag (1979) Industrial dancefloor dystopia, still with the capacity to stun

Scritti Politti, Sweetest Girl (1981) Timeless dub-pop that snuck into the grown-up charts

The Fall, Totally Wired (1981) Often imitated but never bettered (except by The Fall themselves)

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Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982) The definitive version of Elvis Costello's haunting Falklands War protest song

Aztec Camera, High Land Hard Rain (1983) Evergreen debut album from the teenaged Roddy Frame

The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead (1986) Their last Rough Trade album is an acknowledged all-time classic

Levitation, Need For Not (1992) Intense prog-punk to send you reeling, from ex-House of Love guitarist Terry Bickers and cohorts

The Strokes, The Modern Age EP (2001) Relaunched the label with punch and style

Arcade Fire, Funeral (2005) Epic debut from the majestic Montreal ensemble