From Fairport’s Ashley Hutchins and Iain Matthews to echoes of the ‘60s Canterbury Scene.
Regular readers of Americana UK interviews will be aware that from time to time we speak to non-musicians who none the less have an influence on what listeners can hear. This week Martin Johnson speaks to Talking Elephant’s Malcolm Holmes on the challenges and pleasures of running a UK-based independent record label that not only releases new product but also has a strong tradition of selective reissues. Talking Elephant has never branded itself as an americana label per se, but they do release americana friendly albums including folk rock pioneer and ex-Fairport Ashley Hutchings’ catalog, one of the most successful UK country rock artists, and also ex-Fairport, Iain Matthews latest albums, albums by Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull all the way to modern folk releases that are in the indie folk, country, Irish mix. As well as americana friendly folk, Talking Elephant are ‘70s legends Wishbone Ash’s current record label and they have a new release by members with links to the ‘60s Canterbury Scene and Van Der Graaf Generator for anyone who has an interest in ‘70s rock and prog. Malcolm Holmes gives an insight into running an independent label that is now twenty years old, and this insight will help listeners who are interested to understand how this part of the music business operates from a label and artist point of view. He also shares how he has to juggle his heart and head when deciding what to release and admits when push comes to shove, his heart tends to win out.
How has COVID impacted a small record label?
I work from home, so it hasn’t been too bad from that perspective, and it hasn’t really affected me. From a business perspective, I would say more people were buying and listening to music in 2020. Last year, 2021, I think people were just getting fed up with the pandemic and were just doing other things. Having said that we’re definitely ticking along OK, but the first year we were very busy. It was also very creative because we had lots of artists effectively doing nothing, so I was tapping into the artists and saying, look, you are doing nothing and you have your home studio, let’s do something together and get something down, which we did.
Quite a few of the artists I’ve spoken to during the pandemic have said the artistic benefit of having quality time to write and record music has been great, notwithstanding the attendant financial concerns depending on where the artists were in their careers.
Yes, and a good example is the Iain Matthews and B J Baartmans one we did, ‘The Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy’, which is just pure lockdown, haha.
It just goes to show nothing is ever completely bad, I suppose.
The one thing we did suffer from this year was Brexit, however. With us, exports just died, it was just crazy. Hopefully this year things will be sorted out with the customs and everything because things just took a lot longer and cost more. A lot of my exporters were hardly doing anything, fortunately, I have distribution through the Proper Music Group in the UK, and I switched them on to the exports as well, so I don’t have to have that worry.
Tell me what Talking Elephant is all about?
It is a bit of a strange one, actually. I’ve been in the business thirty-five years this year, haha, which is a bit of an anniversary, but not for Talking Elephant. I started out with a company called HTD Records which I set up with my best friend at the time, and we rang that through until 1999 when we sold that to the Sanctuary Group. There were no ties in the deal, so we could set up a new company, which we did in 2000 and Talking Elephant was born out of the ashes of HTD really, and then five years ago my business partner died, suddenly, and I had to decide whether I carry on, or do I put it all away, and for my sins, I decided to carry on. Someone had to do it, haha, and what else would I do, stack shelves at Sainsbury’s?
Do you have the sense of a brand around it, how do you sell it to artists and listeners?
As I said it continued from HTD Records, and the whole idea of that came out of the fact we were doing promotions for bands, and we were trying to get them up to the major labels after they had fallen off the perch. We sat on so many comfy sofas, with so many record labels, with no result. Had one nearly, but it went to the legal side and there was a problem. After that, we thought why not make a label ourselves and sell what we like, and it sort of went on from there. Talking Elephant as I said was 2000, and we built up relationships with people like Magna Carta and Chris Simpson, and Ashley Hutchings, and if Ashley wants anything done, we’ll chuck it out for him, haha.
For an old guy, Ashley Hutchings is still very prolific, isn’t he?
He certainly hasn’t stopped, and he is just going on and on. So, we kind of went into the folk rock market with English folk, but we also had contact with bands like Wishbone Ash on the rock side and we have stayed in touch with them, and we’ve just done a live double with them just before Christmas. So, it is English folk and English rock. With Iain Matthews, we are very much in the americana area, and his lockdown album with B J Baartmans is very much a lockdown americana type album. We’ve also released a new album by Linda Moylan, ‘The Merchant’, and she is a London Irish girl, and she has now found her roots and it was produced by Phil Beer of Show Of Hands. That is doing very well, and it is folkie, Irish, and americana as well.
Iain Matthews was a full-blown country rock artist in the ’70s when he worked with Michael Nesmith. You mentioned Proper Music earlier, so in terms of your own business model, how much do you do for yourself and how much do you contract out?
I do an awful lot myself, really. For the distribution, we had to use a bigger company to get it out to the shops, and we have the website, and with a lot of small labels like us dealing with the artists directly they sell most of their physical music on the road, that is of course when they can get on the road.
What is Talking Elephant’s position on vinyl?
Vinyl is so scary, really expensive, haha. I was doing vinyl, but very carefully, and I sort of moved towards Record Store Day, because I knew I would be able to sell via that, and I also tied it in with Record Store Day in Holland and America, because a lot of people don’t realise that they are separate organisations that are running it, and we did well out of that. I think about two years ago I sent some titles to UK Record Store Day, and they wouldn’t approve them, and they had changed their model where they now have a committee. You can still sell it on Record Store Day, but you can’t get the Record Store Day approval tag and I thought, well, that is not worth it, and I haven’t done a vinyl since. The cost is phenomenal, and on the flip side I didn’t sell a lot, not compared to what rock typically sold, and folk definitely didn’t sell. Before the pandemic I used to do about ten festivals a year, so taking Talking Elephant out into the different fields was a big promotional tool and it helped sell the product as well. People would look at the display and it would be like wow, vinyl, look at it, and they would just walk by without buying it. It seemed they liked the look of it, they liked the touch of it, but they didn’t want to pay £25 for it.
That’s kind of understandable, haha.
Fans in the folk and folk rock area tend to buy a lot of music, and if you are buying new vinyl then you don’t get a lot of music for your money, and vinyl can get extremely expensive as a listener. It is different if you shop second-hand stores and charity shops for second-hand vinyl, that is very different. Possibly an unfair question now, out of all the artists you have, who do you enjoy working with the most?
That is a good question, I guess it has to be Ashley Hutchings. We have known each other for many years, and we can talk through things and ideas, yeah, Ashley, he is just a great guy to work with. On the rock side I would say Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash is another of the gentlemen of the business, he is good to work with. I would say those two are the top, the high note that has been reached over many years. The new one is Iain Mathews, and I was lured into that by a friend in Ireland, and Iain was looking for a UK distribution deal, we spoke, and we got on, and we released ‘Fake Tan’. Then during the lockdown, we released the ‘Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy’, so Iain is a kind of a new friend who is coming online with The Elephants, haha.
Ashley Hutchings pedigree is amazing in terms of what he has achieved and the influence he has had on folk rock.
Back in the day, he was the one who introduced Nick Drake to Joe Boyd, and history grew from there.
He releases a lot of albums so how does he manage to make any money out of them?
Again, it is on the road. He is slowing down a little bit now, but he was going out before the pandemic every year with various people, we have the annual Albion Christmas Band tour, and they completed their tour this year which was a nice surprise. They got through it, and we have just agreed a Christmas album for next year, and that will be that band’s first Christmas album in four years. That will sell on the road, it will do well there, and we will mop up with Proper Music distribution, and sadly Amazon as well, haha.
I don’t think you have a lot of choice as far as Amazon goes, haha.
Haha, not really, you have to work with the devil, and we don’t have a real choice. We released Ashley’s 99th album, so his next album will be his 100th and we are going to have to make something of that.
I can’t think of many artists who have reached that milestone.
I don’t think there are. Mind you, he has to record it first though, haha.
What will 2022 bring for Talking Elephant?
I’m doing a lot of bits and pieces, the big one is going to be a prog album. We released an album about three years ago by a band called Kaprekar’s Constant, and they are a collective of different artists and this will be their big third album. This one has Judie Tzuke in a guest slot on it, and it is a concept album called ‘The Murder Wall’, and it is about climbing The Eiger, which is an interesting concept, haha. I’ve just had the masters through, and I’ve been listening to them, and it sounds good. Their last album with us did well, and on that one, they had Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull guesting, and that is their thing where each album has a new guest from the business, haha. They have Mike Westergaard on keyboards, and he was in a band called The Blessing some years ago, and he does a lot of music for the BBC now. The drummer is from Caravan, the new drummer obviously not Richie Coughlan who sadly died in 2013, they have the saxophonist from Van Der Graaff Generator, David Jackson, and his daughter is singing as well so it is an interesting recording. We will have a bit more rock with ‘An Introduction to the Ian Gillan Band’, which is a compilation and I’m releasing Clive Bunker’s, the ex-drummer with Jethro Tull, solo album which hasn’t seen the light of day for twenty years, and we’ve remastered it as well. We are also reissuing Heron’s ‘Twice As Nice & Half The Price’ from 1971. There will be other things as they appear, haha. Typically, I try and release one album a month.
Is that the right business model for the current climate?
Yes, with HTD we were doing two a month but then there were two of us in the business. When I took over the business with only me running it I used to do all the artwork with HTD but now I obviously can’t do everything so I use a guy called Mick Toole, who does all of Fairport’s and Cropredy’s artwork, and I’ve been working with him for the last five years. We have a good relationship there and he is sort of bolted onto the company.
How does the reissue side of your business work?
I mainly approach labels, though I did a private deal with Jan Schelhaas, keyboardist with Caravan, but a lot of the reissues are now with BMG who I have a good relationship with. Universal are very difficult to get stuff out of at the moment, I used to do a lot with Sony, but their game plan changed when Americans came over and dictated extortionate costs which means it is now just not viable for a small company. If you look on our website you might think we are bigger than are with all the releases, but we are really only a small cottage industry with limited sales because of the age group and the different platforms that are out there. I can’t do streaming with the licensed material because they keep that for themselves, for my own releases we can do the whole package, which includes worldwide streaming. So, at the moment, it is mainly BMG that I’m licensing from. Mind you, their back catalogue isn’t bad, haha. It is an ever-evolving situation where you need to be constantly researching what may sell enough to cover the costs and make a living from. Like any job, you have to make sense of it, but it works well.
When you are looking at potential re-issues, how much is down to your heart and how much is down to your head? Once you think you can cover your costs, what approach to risk do you take?
I guess a lot of the music I want to re-issue is music I was really into when I was younger in the ‘70s. When I was growing up, I wanted to go and see these bands live, I would buy the vinyl, and it is now such a joy when I can release it myself. But yes, you have to choose carefully because you know you are not going to get a 100% rate every time. With some releases, you think that is going to do really well, and it just bombs, but what can you do? A lot of it is with the heart I think because you are looking at stuff and thinking I used to really enjoy that. I feel there is a market for it, so I take that punt and go with it. Occasionally you go, I know the name, I know they were big, I don’t know them personally and I never got into their music, but I will give it a go. Allan Holdsworth was one like that, he is sort of a jazz guitarist, and I didn’t really know him, but I put it out and it did really well, so that was a good bit of risk-taking, haha.
In the 20 years of Talking Elephant, which albums have been your biggest success and biggest failure?
Wishbone Ash has probably been our biggest seller, and I’ve always liked that twin guitar sound. I remember seeing them at The Oval in 1972 for the Melody Maker Poll Awards, so there is a lot of sort of love with that one. One that really bombed was someone called Andy Steele from Liverpool. He is a very, very talented guy, and he went around the country recording with a lot of modern artists, but it just never worked. It was almost like Marmite when I gave some away at festivals some would say that was fantastic, but others were like, no, that’s not for me. For me, it sounded really good and, yes, we lost on that. But it is what you do in this business, you win a few, you lose a few, and hopefully win more than you lose, haha.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Because I am constantly listening to new music my head is full of it, but what is my current favourites is a difficult question, haha. One that I enjoyed last year and sadly they have both gone now, is the Judy Dyble and Dave Longdon album ‘Between A Breath And A Breath’ and it is a beautiful album. I worked with Judy many years ago and it all went wrong with us. The releases we did just didn’t work, but to hear her on her last album, and the collaboration she did with Dave, really surprised me and sadly can’t be repeated. That is one album that really did move me, yeah. I would also say check out Linda Moylan and her new album ‘The Merchant’, which we have pushed a bit and it has got some good radio play, and it has a good feel to it. Phil Beer is playing on it a lot and that always helps, she has written a lot of the material and it is getting a lot of respect. If you like it, buy, buy, buy, haha. Sales pitch over, haha.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
I wish everyone a better 2022 than 2021 and if your interest has been piqued please just check out our website.