His hair is frizzy, his body thin. He is like a nerd who likes to spend time in the library, looking for scientific journals, and working on lecture material given by lecturers. But don’t get me wrong! Behind his outward appearance, Geoff Travis – as his name was called – turned out to be a lover of hardline music.
Every day, Travis never missed listening to his favorite songs. One by one the album he listened with all his heart. Not only that, he also diligently visited the concerts of old bands and musicians like The Who, John Mayall, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and regularly listened to air broadcasts John Peel – BBC legendary broadcaster – who promoted ballads – The Doors on Radio London every night.
His love of music that helped take Travis around America in 1975. There, he traveled from city to city looking for treasure in the form of album culture. Armed with £ 4,000 given by his father, Travis obtained about 150 vinyl that made his suitcase crowded with Tim Buckley’s recordings, The Stooges, to New York Dolls.
On arrival in London, he was confused by the “fruit”. It is impossible if left idle, he thought. Then his friend named Ken Davidson gave advice to set up a record store.
As told by Dorian Lynskey in the article The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Rough Trade in The Guardian, Davidson’s proposal without thinking was realized. Plus, he had dreams of making a place like the City Lights bookshop he had visited when he stopped by in San Francisco.
“I want people to be able to listen to music all day and they can find good and interesting music that is not found in mainstream stores,” he said as The Guardian noted.
In 1976, the Travis music store was established. Taking location on the streets of Kensington Park, the shop was named Rough Trade. Later, besides the music shop, Rough Trade will also be a monument that tells how the independent British music scene bloomed like a sunflower.
The early days of Rough Trade did not go easy. Everyday, Travis must stare at his deserted shop.
“It took a while for people to realize we were there,” Travis recalled Michael Hann of The Guardian. “It was completely empty during the first six to seven months.”
But, Travis did not give up and look for ways to make the shop crowded. He then changed the arrangement in his shop by adding chairs and large speakers. That is not enough, Travis also plays loud collections of songs from his punk-rock bands to attract people around.
Over time, Travis’s efforts paid off. People came to his shop. Not limited to buying albums, visitors interact with one another by discussing — or debating — about the development of music at the time.
Crowded Rough Trade also attracts attention of local British bands. To help these bands, Rough Trade built a network of independent British labels by acting as a distributor. This role is in fact played very well by Rough Trade. Quickly, the popularity of Rough Trade surged, matching the stores that had previously existed such as the Liverpool Probe, Soho’s Rocks Off, and New York’s Red Rhino.
Feeling on the right track, Travis then spread Rough Trade’s wings to the recording industry. The purpose of forming a label is to provide a kind of “challenge” to the larger record companies – in this case the mainstream label. The first band they worked on was Metal Urbain, a punk collective from France with an album titled Paris Maquis.
Metal Urbain’s anti-fascist album seemed to open the Rough Trade tap to capture other bands. Noted, the bands that signed cooperation with Rough Trade after Metal Urbain were Stiff Little Fingers, The Raincoats, Aztec Camera, Cabaret Voltare, Scritti Politti, Desperate Bicycles, August Voltaire, Young Marble Giants, Augusto Pablo, until The Smiths.
Starting with the many bands that Rough Trade worked on, according to The Independent in the article “Rough Trade: Rough and ready”, marked a number of things. First, Rough Trade is no longer ignorant of punk-rock music like the early eras. Bands in collaboration with Rough Trade show the diversity of genres, from fuzz-rock, pop, to experimental. Second, the management of Rough Trade is more professionally organized. And third, in this period, Rough Trade found massive success through The Smiths’ album that exploded in the market.
In practice, Rough Trade adheres to the principle of collectivity in which each party involved in being paid the same – regardless of their role. As for the deal with the band, Rough Trade offers a 50/50 profit sharing. This kind of model has never been applied before and it is believed Travis will give space and freedom to musicians to produce the best work.
However, Rough Trade encountered a wave of complex problems in the mid-1980s. Their foster bands like Stiff Little Fingers and The Smiths began to break free and move to mainstream labels. The reasons for the two bands are the same: they are not satisfied with the equal profit sharing system and consider it “unfair.”
The situation worsened in 1989 when Rough Trade was declared bankrupt due to a combination of bad management, accumulated debt, and taxes due. Two years ago, they could no longer operate. Travis even had to sell all of the Rough Trade assets (except the music store because in 1983 it had been handed over to employees) to pay off existing debt.
“This company is too big and that’s where Rough Trade fell,” Travis said. “So big, so that it becomes a monster that doesn’t have expert and reliable management.”
Travis’s love of music, once again, made him make big decisions. In 1999, after lengthy negotiations, he managed to redeem Rough Trade. In this second round, he runs the Rough Trade business with Jeannette Lee, a former Public Image Limited guitarist, in an office located in Golborne — not far from Kensington.
The existence of Rough Trade as a label with sharp intuition does not necessarily fade away. In this period, according to The Independent, they scored a new generation of pithy bands such as The Strokes, The Libertines, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, British Sea Power, to Antony & the Johnson. Suddenly, the public was made proud because Rough Trade was born again with a row of bands that were no less qualified from the 1970s.
The euphoria did not last long. Rough Trade must find bitter facts. Sanctuary, its main investor since 2000, is experiencing a financial crisis. In the midst of this uncertainty, Beggars Group, a record company that also houses the XL, Matador and Too Pure labels, came to rescue Rough Trade in 2007.
Reported by Billboard, Rough Trade was acquired by Beggars for £ 800,000. That figure is equivalent to 49% of Sanctuary’s shares in Rough Trade. In his official statement, Martin Mills, Beggars leader stated: “It is impossible to reject the attraction to combine their amazing musical heritage with us. This is an interesting proportion. ”
While Travis and Lee revealed, “To continue to be a fully independent label, with Beggars’ support, is the best of all possibilities. We are truly excited about the future, new opportunities and new musicians who will be able to get the world’s attention. ”
After Beggars bought, Rough Trade again showed its ability by cooperating with new potentials that were no less hot, such as Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket, Belle and Sebastian, to Dean Blunt.
In the end, no matter how often the Rough Trade falls, they can always stand up and rearrange their journey. Rough Trade is proof that the resurrection will come if there is a great intention behind it. “[…] The notion of a future that seems very uncertain gives a different mentality. I do not want to feel hampered about the future. I think the future is whatever you want from it, “explained Travis to Dazed.
So far, Rough Trade is the face of music – especially independent – Britain (and possibly the world). Long before the word “indie” was determined to be a genre, category, or ethos, maybe people only understood “indie” as a reference to a collection of music stores. However, with the presence of Rough Trade, which consistently fosters bands around the world from a variety of musical genres, the word “indie” is no longer that simple. He is like a symbol of resistance and a great community spirit.
“Reacting to big corporations [mainstream record companies] and making music in your bedroom and then uploading it on the internet is a modern version of what we were doing. People try to make their own way because, sometimes, it’s difficult to find another way, “Lee told The Independent.
Rough Trade, again, is more than a label. It is an impetus for those who grow, collapse, and then grow again, and help define music not only as an era — nor as a trend — but also as its values.