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Factory Records Profile


Factory Records Profile

Factory Co-Founder, the much missed Tony Wilson

Photo: Jo Hale/Getty Images

Factory Records: The Basics :

  • What: Factory Records, legendary label responsible for the birth of the "Madchester" scene in the 1980s
  • Where: Manchester, UK (though now defunct)
  • Label Founders: Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, Peter Saville, Martin Hannett
  • Founded: 1979

The Early Years: Club Origins:

Factory Records began as a club in 1978, started by Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus. They were joined by designer Peter Saville and Producer Martin Hannett to form Factory Records and released their first EP, A Factory Sampler, featuring acts that had played at their club, in 1979. A very small operation at first, the label was initially run from an office in Erasmus' apartment. Success, however, was just around the corner.

Joy Division and New Order:

The first album released by Factory was 'Unknown Pleasures' by melancholic Mancunian rock band Joy Division in 1979, at the same time that their manager Rob Gretto joined the label. The album received great critical acclaim, the band appeared on the front cover of the UK music mag the NME and recorded a session for influential BBC DJ John Peel. Wilson credits this success with turning the label into a “true business”. Plague by ill health and depression, singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980 just before the release of their 2nd album. The remaining members went on to enjoy huge success with Factory as New Order.

Other Factory Records Acts:

Joy Division and New Order are the two Factory Records acts that have had the longest lasting impact on music, but it wasn't all about them. Factory worked with other well known acts, including:

Factory didn't only put out records, however. The label was at the center of a music scene of their own making - the so called "Madchester" scene - named, of course, for Manchester, Factory Record's base. And at the center of that scene was a Factory Records run club, the famous (or infamous) Hacienda.

The Hacienda: Start to Finish:

In 1982, Gretto had the idea to open a Factory Records supported club in Manchester, and thus began The Hacienda. The club was pivotal in the evolving music scene in Manchester in the 80s, and many world famous DJ started their careers behind the decks there. Designed by Saville and Ben Kelly, the club was immediately popular, but due to a policy of too low entry and drink prices (and the fact that the large majority of customers were spending more money buy drugs from the bouncers than drinks from the bar), the club rarely made a profit. However, Hacienda outlived Factory, finally closing it's doors in 1997.

Tony Wilson:

Wilson, initially a TV presenter in Manchester, unquestionably was the driving force behind the label, and he loved his city as much as he loved his label. He was dubbed Mr Manchester for his work in the development of the city and towards the end of his life lobbied heavily for a devolved parliament for the North of England. After Factory's, demise he set up In The City, an annual music industry festival often held in Manchester that has been responsible for launching the careers of numerous bands. He died from a heart attack in 2007, leaving a hole in the cultural life of Manchester.

The Rest of Them:

Wilson tends to get all the credit for Factory, but the other partners were actually very crucial to the label. Seville designed all the labels early sleeves and had a long running relationship with Joy Division and later New Order. His designs were a big part of Factory's image, and his aesthetic fitted with Wilson Situationist leanings. Producer Hannett's work on the early Factory releases defined the post-punk sound and, according to bassist Hook, “he created the Joy Division sound”. Joy Division's manager Gretton insisted that the band sign with a Manchester label, which gave the label it's initially success.

Catalogue Numbers:

Unlike most record labels, Factory had a eccentric system of catalogue numbers for it's releases. Rather than running in the normal chronological order, different sets of number were used for each band. For example, Happy Monday's releases usually had a catalogue number ending in a 2. Other “productions” by Factory were also given numbers - FAC01 is a poster advertising a club night. FAC61 was the number given to a law suit brought against the label by former partner Hannett. FAC501, the final catalogue number, was given to Tony Wilson's coffin.

The End:

Financial trouble eventually brought Factory to a close. The Hacienda was swallowing money, the label was financing the recording of a Happy Mondays album in Barbados, New Order's second album costs were spiralling out of control, and the label faced bankruptcy. A potential rescue deal with London Records fell through and the company was declared bankrupt in November 1992. After Factory's demise, many of the acts moved to London records, often taking their back catalogue with them.

A semi-fictional account of the story of Factory Records was depicted in the film 24hr Party People in 2002.

“True Business” - Well, Maybe Not So Much....:

While Wilson credits Unknown Pleasures as the start of Factory as a “true business,” it is fair to say that the label was never run like any other company. Few of the acts had contracts, a fact that cost the label what would have been a life saving deal with London Records. When London realized that Factory owned none of the recordings that they had released as they'd never had contacts with the bands, they recinded their offer.

In addition to not having contracts, the labels finances were always on shaky ground - New Order's Blue Monday became the best selling 12” single in the UK, but due to high production costs the label lost money on every copy sold of the original die cast cut sleeve. Sending The Happy Mondays to Barbados to make a record and allowing recording costs for New Order's album to spin out of control into the hundreds of thousands of dollars range set the label up for almost certain failure.

Despite all of these questionable decisions, Factory remains a lauded label - why? The answer is probably down to a combination of really great music, the force of nature that was Tony Wilson and the label's knack for creating a story about itself.

Since Wilson's death, there have been rumors off and on about the re-launch of Factory, but even Wilson tried that himself in the mid-1990s to no great effect. Factory is as much a moment of time in music as a great label.

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