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Cherry Red Records: Independence at 45

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Iain McNay, Chairman of Cherry Red Records (on the right), Cliff Cooper, CEO of Orange Amps (in the middle), and sound engineer Alan Wilson, founder of Western Star studio, unboxing legendary Tea Chest Tapes of Joe Meek.

Independence is an ambiguous phenomenon, particularly in the music industry overridden by the manipulative behaviour of bigger corporations. Earlier this year, we saw multiple examples where the independent scene was challenged by new regulations, e.g. Bandcamp being purchased by licensing company Songtradr and the utterly shocking policy of Spotify introducing a 1000-play threshold for royalty payments.

Still, the presence of independent labels is tangible. Represented by such associations as AIM, Impala and Merlin, the alternative tastemakers often make themselves heard. One such example is the Warner Divestment deal when dozens of independent labels got an opportunity to purchase 10% of the Parlophone catalogue which had been acquired by Warner Music Group in 2013.

Among the companies that took part in the deal was Cherry Red Records, whose forty-five history makes it one of the most long-standing and venerable labels in the world. Co-founded by Iain McNay in 1978, Cherry Red has gone through a series of transformations – from a propagator of punk in the late 70s, a purveyor of maverick talent in the early 80s and, finally, a label specialising in reissues of individual artists as well as thematic compilations.

By the time of the label’s first release – The Tights’ “Bad Hearts” single, Cherry Red existed as a promotion company that ran events at Malvern Winter Gardens in Worcestershire and some other venues. The diversity of the programme which listed artists as different as Judas Priest and Kevin Ayers signposted the direction of the future label. In the first five years of its existence, Cherry Red secured the success of now-legendary American punks the Dead Kennedys as well as gave way to such collectives and individual acts as Eyeless in Gaza, Felt, The Monochrome Set, The Marine Girls, Tracey Thorn, Ben Watt, Thomas Leer and The Passage. “We were learning as we went along”, Iain McNay, the founder and chairman of Cherry Red Records tells The Music Void. “We were working with pretty much exclusively new acts, and that was challenging, and our cashflow was always challenging”.

Talking about the multifaceted nature of Cherry Red, Iain McNay admits that diversity has been its trademark element from the very start. “We have always been diverse and that is what stood us apart from other independent labels at the time we started – Mute, Factory. They all pertained to a certain image, and our image was a bit all over the place. We were not trying to be trendy and were not trying to stick to one musical area. So this diversity has always been there”.

Over the decades, Cherry Red has become an umbrella for fifty-four smaller labels and acquired dozens of catalogues which fed into their image as diverse and all-inclusive. The company puts out 20-30 releases per month, most of which are reissues. Astonishingly, the overwhelming pressure of streaming on the physical media seems to have left Cherry Red unaffected. According to McNay, 70% of the label’s income comes from the sale of CD box sets, with the remaining 30% attributed to releases on digital platforms. Such proportion is partly due to the loyal fandom of Cherry Red and the fact that it put out music that would otherwise remain out of reach. “We put out a lot of lost music which is music that has been unavailable for years or was never available in the first place”, admits McNay. “We also have a very loyal fanbase, an email list with nearly 60,000 people”.

Any form of independence is questionable by today’s standards, and Iain McNay reminds us that it is a way of thinking rather than the state of being entirely on your own financially. “There is a certain spirit, and an independent spirit is around in different forms. There is a historical situation where certain labels like Beggars and Cherry Red have always been independently owned and they tried to stay as independent as possible. Our distribution goes through ADA which is owned by Warners. So you could say that we are not truly independent in terms of distribution”. Iain McNay continues after a pause: “It’s a lot to do with your spirit, the way you think, the way you act. And then it’s very difficult for a new label starting off not to get funding from somewhere. They get their funding and stay as independent in terms of their control as they can”.

Although their reissue activity and focus on physical releases imply the past-oriented approach, Cherry Red don’t shy away from contemporary technology. When asked about the development of AI, McNay sounds optimistic. “It’s still early days for us but we are exploring how AI can help rework our old masters. So it provides other ways of interpreting old tracks. I would say for us, there are certainly positives there. If people tried and copied our acts, I wouldn’t really care because I think people who buy our product appreciate authenticity. So, I don’t think the evolution of AI would affect us much”.

Author

  • Irina Shtreis

    Irina Shtreis is a music writer, researcher and musician. Her byline has appeared in British publications such as MOJO magazine, The Quietus and Louder Than War. Irina has been a news editor of the latter since 2020.

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