It’s almost thirty-eight years since Beggars Banquet unleashed its first 7” single, the three-chord buzzsaw rush of The Lurkers’ ‘Shadow’ / ‘Love Story’. In that time the South West London label based has consistently released groundbreaking records while also establishing a group of equally groundbreaking labels. They’ve experienced the lows of near bankruptcy and the highs of hitting number one all over the world. They’ve been at the forefront of every major change in distribution for independent record labels, from deals with majors to helping to establish a truly independent distribution network, and on to today when they are seizing the opportunities and changes brought about by the increasing influence of the internet.
Where hundreds have failed, Beggars have continued to grow, proving in the process that an independent doesn’t have to adopt the same values as a major in order to succeed. For today, just as always, the main motivation behind the entire Beggars Group is quite simply to put out great music. And if commercial success happens along the way (as it so often has – to a startling degree) then that’s just an added bonus.
Here label founder Martin Mills discusses the history of Beggars Banquet and the subsequent Beggars Group. And shows exactly why Beggars will remain an inspirational independent force…
So where did it all start, Martin?
“I suppose it originally started when myself and a friend were running a mobile discotheque in London. It was originally called Giant Elf (bizarrely!), but we merged with some friends who were running one called Beggars Banquet. So we kind of inherited the name at that point. At the time I was actually working for the Office of Population, Census and Surveys, writing reports on reforming the Abortion Law. My friend was an apprentice in his father’s contract furnishing business. We were both big fans of music, it’s what mattered to us, so when I finished my OPCS job I decided to try the commercial world for a bit and tie that in with music, and got a job working in the Record and Tape Exchange in Shepherds Bush, which is an extremely well known second hand record shop run along fairly eccentric lines. At the time my partner’s father had died and he was very frustrated with his father’s partner, and we just thought we could take what the Record and Tape Exchange did but create a new kind of record shop which sold new and second hand records side by side. So we got ourselves a shop in Earl’s Court and it worked really well. This was 1974 and in the course of the next few years we opened a bunch of other shops.”
In 1975 you became promoters. How did this come about?
“We knew someone who worked at a booking agency and this idea came about because we believed we could see a market that was being ignored by the mainstream music business. So we brought in artists like The Crusaders, Southside Johnny and Dory Previn. The very first gig we promoted was by Tangerine Dream in the Royal Albert Hall which was very much jumping in at the deep end !”
A year later in 1976 punk exploded in London. How did Beggars Banquet react to this?
“The record shops had been mainly selling albums by American west coast and funk artists, and so on. Then suddenly one night the world wasn’t interested in albums anymore, they were interested in singles. Suddenly the same people who had been listening to Deodato were buying the first single by the Sex Pistols. And it turned what we did upside down. We all started being interested in a completely different style of music. The kind of concerts we had been promoting suddenly became completely irrelevant because nobody was going to the concert halls anymore. So we started promoting punk gigs instead. It was an amazing, incredibly exciting sea change.
From here you launched a record company, why?
“Underneath our Fulham shop we had a basement which we turned into a rehearsal room where punk bands like Generation X went to rehearse. One of the bands who rehearsed down there was The Lurkers. The manager of the shop, Mike Stone, started to manage the band because they needed help. Then he needed help so we started managing them and trying to get them a deal – but we couldn’t. This was 1976 and at that point there weren’t very many labels, and each one had already signed their one punk band – and that was it. So we set about doing the record ourselves in a way that is now second-nature to almost anyone in a band. But then it was such an unusual thing to do. Then there was no road-map. There were no small independent record companies. So we worked out how to put a record out ourselves. We pressed it and got a very old-fashioned distributor called President to take it on.”
So was Beggars Banquet one of the first independent punk labels to emerge?
“Yes. In fact we ended up putting out our first single by The Lurkers soon after Stiff put out ‘Buy 1’ with Nick Lowe and Chiswick put out their first single. So the three of us started at pretty much the same time. It was a lot of fun and a piece of cake, to be honest, because there were so few punk singles around that everyone bought everything there was. So there was this completely captive market. So we did another Lurkers single which was just as much fun. Then we thought, let’s put out an album, and we did. Which was Streets, a punk compilation album from all the independent labels that were suddenly springing up. After this we put out a Lurkers album which went top twenty.”
Of course you quickly gained huge success with Gary Numan and within a year he had scored a number one single. This period must have been strange.
“It was bizarre at the time because Gary was marginal to the punk scene – he didn’t even like punk very much – but he worked with it and then quickly moved to the electronic side of things, quickly following Ultravox – well, as quickly as our finances would allow! Every time we made a few quid in the record shops he’d want to spend it on a synthesiser. And his progress was only limited by the amount of money we could give him to buy the equipment. All of this was happening at a time when we were financially pretty precarious. We were funding the whole record company out of the cash flow of the record shops and there was a point when we were bouncing salary cheques and were at the point of almost going bust.”
So what saved you?
“We had changed our distribution deal to Island which was fine until they got into one of their perennial financial binds, so they themselves did a license deal with EMI which meant that they were unable to help us any more. So we were left high and dry until Warners did a license deal with us, giving us a cheque for £100,000, which was an unprecedented amount of money. Most of which went to pay unprecedented bills.”
Going to number one with Are Friends Electric must have helped as well though, didn’t it?
“Of course. In retrospect Are Friends Electric is still an amazing record. Five and a half minutes long, it’s got no obvious tune and no one knows what it’s about, but it’s an absolutely fabulous piece of music. It literally changed our lives. It was a number one single, the album it came from went to number one, the follow up album with ‘Cars’ on it – Pleasure Principle – went to number one. Suddenly in 1979 we had three Gary Numan albums in the top 20 and two number one singles, four number one’s in the same year – and it took A&M like 15 years to have their first number one hit single. So it all came in a big rush, it was all very disorientating but it was wonderful.”
In 1982 you put out the “Southern Freeez” album by British jazz funk outfit Freeez. Was this an attempt to alter peoples’ perspective of Beggars Banquet being synonymous with Gary Numan?
“Obviously that wasn’t a situation that we wanted, so we did start doing some stuff to alter that perception. But Freeez I thought represented an interesting phase because it came from the new wave of British jazz funk and, although it was very different from the punk that we’d been dealing with, it came from the same place. The motivations and the market and the promotion were the same. That was an important record for us to release.”
Was it around this time that you set up 4AD?
“No, that was in 1980. Basically Ivo Watts-Russell, who was managing one of our record shops, came to us and said “I would like to start a record company with Peter Kent (who was running another one of our record shops). We fancied a new record company which was a bit more like what we used to be. The whole point of 4AD was that it would be small and doing what Beggars had done when we first started. The original concept was that as acts became successful they would then move onto Beggars, the parent company. But the only act that actually did that was Bauhaus. After that point 4AD developed such a strong identity with artists like The Birthday Party, The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and so on, that it no longer needed to be a part of Beggars, but just grew in parallel.”
A year later in 1981 you launched the Situation 2 label. What was the reasoning behind this?
“Because Beggars was distributed by Warners it had a major impact on our ability to get into the independent charts. So we set up Situation 2 as the little brother of Beggars, to be distributed independently through Rough Trade and Pinnacle. It was here where The Cult started. And The Associates, which people don’t associate with us because they ended up being more Warners than us. “
How did The Associates end up on Warners?
“There came a point where our growth became incompatible with Warners and we reached an amicable arrangement whereby they kept the Associates and we went on our own way. So although we were responsible for The Associates – and I think Sulk is one of the great records of all time – it’s not really on our CV, which is a shame.”
With Bauhaus, Beggars became known for its Gothic artists.
“Bauhaus opened all kinds of doors for us. I suppose for the whole of the mid 80s we thrived with bands who followed Bauhaus, and indeed largely bands that actually supported Bauhaus, like The Birthday Party, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Cult, all those bands who became that kind of dark gothic thing. The whole goth movement – and Fields of Nephilim who we also signed were a big part of that – became our passport to the waves we caught in the mid 80s and established us, really.”
In 1987 4AD achieved the first independently distributed dance number one with ‘Pump Up The Volume’ by M.A.R.R.S.. Did this surprise you?
“That single finally proved that the independents could actually compete on a level footing with the majors. When 4AD came up with ‘Pump Up The Volume’, suddenly the independents were able to be something other than be the poor relations. And that was a big moment. Strange that a label like 4AD could release such a seminal dance record. But by ’87 when the house explosion really started to happen it looked very much to us like the punk explosion which had happened a decade previously. Although the music was completely different, the ethos, and the way they dealt with it, was very similar.”
What was your response to the dance explosion?
“We set up City Beat records in partnership with a guy called Tim Palmer. It had some early success with acts like Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, but in itself spawned XL Recordings in ’89, which had huge success with that house sound of the late eighties with acts like The Prodigy, Liquid, SL2, who all had top twenty singles, and developed a whole new arm to what we did. In a way that also was largely compatible with what the rest of the company was doing, even though the music was so different.”
As a group of independent labels did you feel you were well positioned for the coming together of the dance and alternative scenes at the turn of the 90s?
“Definitely. When XL started off they were really separate. If you were into dance music then you just weren’t into the alternative stuff, and vice versa. It was the records that started to fuse the two worlds that helped break this down. For us The Prodigy were very important because, from the very beginning, they were a dance act who never acted like a dance act. They toured like a rock act and ultimately they’ve had success like a rock act. We gradually found during the course of the 90s that the two things became completely compatible. Before then it was inconceivable that someone would have guitar records and dance records in the same collection. Now it’s completely normal. It’s the cross-fertilisation of those scenes which has helped cement our position.”
You signed The Charlatans to Situation 2 in 1990. At the time this seemed like an unusually commercial signing for the label. Is this a fair comment?
“Yes, The Charlatans were the most obviously commercial band that we had signed. All of the other bands had been picked up purely because they were doing something that we believed in, and when they had some kind of success it was a bonus. I don’t think anyone could claim that they could see from the early days of The Cult, or Cornershop, or The Prodigy, what they might turn into. But with the Charlatans they were big from day one.”
At the same time 4AD seemed to reinvent itself from being an ethereal, female vocal dominated label, to being the home of US alternative guitar bands. Suddenly 4AD seemed to eclipse Beggars.
“4AD were capitalising on their American success with Throwing Muses and Pixies. By this time it was becoming clear that to be a successful label you had to catch successive waves. Although you couldn’t catch every one. But it was clear that the way to compete with the majors was not to compete head on, but to find the niche and take things beyond that niche. I think over the years our success has been the ability to catch those waves and also having a stable of labels with a number of different identities all of which are compatible. Each bit adds up to a whole.”
So would you consider this ability to “catch successive waves” as being the key to the success of all of the labels in the Beggars Group?
“I think, for any label to be successful they have to reinvent themselves. The independent labels who have been great but have not survived are the ones which have not reinvented themselves. Creation was a great label but it’s one picture really, not a succession of pictures. The same was true of Factory, who put out music every bit as good as we did, but they didn’t run their businesses properly and they didn’t reinvent themselves. And if you look at the progression of 4AD from Bauhaus to Cocteau Twins to Pixies, to TV On The Radio, Bon Iver, The National, Grimes, there’s a huge change there. Even more noticeable when you look at XL which has gone from SL2 and Liquid, through Prodigy and onto Basement Jaxx, The White Stripes, Dizzee Rascal, Vampire Weekend, Adele and The xx.”
The last decade has proved very fruitful for the Group with legends like Gil Scott Heron, Radiohead and Scott Walker being attracted to work with you, and new internationally renowned acts like Adele, Dizzee Rascal, The National, The White Stripes and more being unearthed by your labels. Has this success surprised you?
“I suppose the simple answer is that it’s all surprised me. If I think back thirty years, I would never have bet on myself to achieve what we have achieved. For what was for a long time just succession of accidents, it’s turned out pretty well. And we now do what we do very well.”
With regards to some shifts in the company structure, in 2002, Matador Records became part of the fold. How have they settled in and what do you think they bring to the Group?
“We first got involved when Gerard Cosloy approached us looking for a new international home for Matador. Talking to them, it became obvious that there was a fantastic fit between us. We were very compatible culturally, we’re British and they’re American and whilst we were a larger operation outside the US than them, they were much bigger there with 30 employees to our 8. We combined all the non-label staff into a central structure, like in the UK, and Beggars became local, rather than an intruder. That, and the immediate success we had with Interpol, was crucial to our subsequent growth in the USA.”
Same question goes for Rough Trade, who joined the Group in 2007.
“I’d known Geoff for ever, and used to sell him records out of the back of my £50 Jaguar Mk 1, and we’d always had a lot of respect for each other, and travelled on parallel roads. He approached me back in 2002 when he and Jeannette restarted Rough Trade, but at that time I felt there was too much overlap in what we were doing. Then five years later, when their partner, Sanctuary, got into trouble, I was sitting opposite Geoff at an AIM board meeting, and it suddenly felt right, so I approached him, met Jeannettte, and we agreed to work together pretty quickly. And it’s been great.”
With regards the closure of the mother label, Beggars Banquet, a few years back and also Mantra, Too Pure and Wiiija – as labels who actively sign new music, were these hard decisions to make?
“Yes, especially of course for Beggars Banquet, since that was where we started. But we needed tidying up and focusing, and we had to call some spades spades. Because Beggars Banquet shared a name with Beggars Group, people assumed it was the primary label, which was not the case. Mothballing it shocked people, but BB needed a rest, and 4AD was ready to step forward again.”
You publicly relaunched 4AD as a label a few years back. How do you think they are performing in light of this?
“Very much as hoped. When Ivo left, we had a hard choice to make, we could have turned 4AD into a museum piece, but instead we decided to continue it in Ivo’s image until it was time to become more ambitious. I think the phase 4AD is now in is every bit as exciting as the Cocteaus’ phase, or the Pixies’ phase.”
With dedicated offices in every key market, your global reach in the last decade has become the envy of a lot of other labels. How hard was it to establish your company abroad?
“It’s taken us the last fifteen years really to establish ourselves as a global business. First of all, we set up in America nearly twenty years ago now, we lost a lot of money for quite a long period of time, but that has come very good recently, and in 2013 for us to achieve two USA number one albums with Vampire Weekend and Queens of the Stone Age, with the National and Atoms for Peace also in the top three, all within three months, was quite something. Following that, we set up our own operations in different shapes and sizes, but always our operations, in pretty much every music market of significance. That has been very beneficial to us as it allows us to have people in each market that are our people. This is preferable as it’s us spending our own money, making our own judgements and taking our own risks, rather than having to persuade other people to do that for us. I think this makes us unique; we have the global infrastructure a major has, but on a much smaller, more dedicated scale and that’s something no other independent in the world can offer. It allows us to operate in a global marketplace, which has been accelerated with growth of the internet, and the development of the EU. The web has allowed a cottage industry such as ourselves to have global reach.”
When you celebrated your first release topping the US Billboard chart with the second Vampire Weekend album, how proud a moment was that for you?
“To reach Number One in the US on our own for the first time was a magic moment frankly…and since we manage our own digital, and sell direct to ‘mom and pop’ stores, we’d actually have been number one completely through our own efforts. At this point it feels more natural than a surprise, and we regularly hit high spots in the album charts, which we never did a few years ago, except through sub-licences.”
What opportunities do you think today’s marketplace offer both your labels and artists? Does remaining independent work in your favour still? Also where do you stand on 360 deals and other innovations in what labels now offer musicians?
“We find the new online market to be full of opportunity, as well as threats. The old gatekeepers’ power has diminished, and the ability to connect directly with fans has increased our market access. Not just us, but other great independent labels like Domino and Merge. Absolutely being independent works for us, if we were with a major we’d be dead. We don’t do 360 degree deals, we see that as a landgrab that will either fail or backfire – we focus on being good at what we do.”
The Beggars Group have a reputation in the industry for both being one of the first music companies to embrace the digital world and for remaining vigilant for protecting your copyright online. Are you pleased with the moves you made and do you envisage the need to continue to look ahead?
“We have always thought long, hard and repeatedly about such stuff. We were very early with digital, and that’s worked for us. At the same time we’ve been cautious, and avoided expensive investments. We believe fervently that independent music is worth every penny as much as major music, and have no interest in working with services that don’t accept that. All credit there to iTunes and Spotify. We also believe our artists’ music has a value, and should be credited with that value, notwithstanding any so-called promotional benefit. However, we’re also flexible, and appreciate and value people and entities that support our artists and our world.”
As a group, Beggars have enjoyed many successes. Are there any which particularly stand out to you?
“It’s very hard to just talk about individual successes, but I think The Prodigy was the nicest kind of success. No one would have imagined it from the release of ‘Where Evil Lurks’ or ‘Charly,’ but Liam had a fantastically clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and over the course of their four albums with us, he made music that developed and grew. They had a number one album with Fat Of The Land in twenty-seven different countries and it sold in excess of seven million records. That’s someone making music completely on their own terms, and succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. On the other hand, it’s as rewarding to work with someone like Efterklang where their sights are set at a very different level. Instead of trying to sell five million records we can try to sell fifty thousand records, or five thousand records. But it’s great music that we all believe in – that people respond to – that we can do on a viable commercial basis. That can be just as rewarding.”
“The White Stripes too, Jack is literally electric. Then a record like For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver’s debut) can appear out of nowhere and move people to tears, and in an artist like Cat Power we have someone whose music people will still be falling in love with for decades to come.”
What do you think has brought former major label artists such as Matador’s Queens of the Stone Age into the Beggars fold?
“Major labels can be very impersonal for an artist, and of course their prime motivation is financial. As labels like us have become able to compete with the majors, and offer artists the possibilities for success that majors can, artists will make moves like this. Chris Lombardi at Matador had had a long-time friendship with Josh Homme, and when they became disenchanted with their old label they met Beggars as well as Matador, and it fell into place very naturally. And they’re proud to be independent now, as they were when they started.”
How was it giving evidence in front of the US senate in opposition to the Universal purchase of EMI ?
“Terrifying ! But what I said needed saying. That purchase is all about power, dominance, and control, and it upsets the balance of our industry.”
How has the incredible worldwide success of Adele impacted you?
“We’ve been very focused on not being changed by that. Obviously it’s been a thrilling ride, and it’s been amazing to see that a small company like us can have the biggest record in the world – and for two years’ running ! it’s great to show that we can compete and win at the highest level. But success can corrupt, and we’ve made very sure that we’ve stayed true to our original principles, and still care just as much about new and smaller releases and artists.”
Are there any artists in your time that you wish you had signed?
“That would be greedy! Of course there are many artists I love that we don’t work with.”
How would you sum up the ethos of the Beggars Group today?
“Very much the same as it has always been. We don’t want to be a huge business and we don’t aim to make huge profits, though we don’t mind it if we do. We just aim to put out great music and do it well. And we’ll continue to grow as our artists do.”
Finally, what’s next? What can we hope to see in the decades ahead?
“I hope, more of the same. I hope we keep anticipating the future correctly, I hope the independent community continues to flourish, I hope we continue to find unique artists and serve them well.”