Garreth Ryan runs Shellshock, a UK music distribution company. He started his career in a record store in Ireland and has gone on to build up one of the best respected independent music distribution companies in Europe. Here, he talks about the things he's learned throughout his career, what his company looks for in labels and what he sees as the future for music distributors
Question: You began working in a small record store in 1979, how did that shape your career?
Answer: I was working in Golden Discs in Dublin, a small city centre branch of Ireland’s largest chain at the time. We stocked and sold everything that all other the other branches in the chain stocked: from Gloria’s One Day At A Time 7” (Number 1 in the Irish Singles Charts for 52 weeks!) to boxloads of Bat Out of Hell (by Meatloaf) at a permanent bargain price of £3.99. But Liffey Street was different: uniquely, we also stocked the best selection of UK independent releases, supported local bands’ releases, and always had The Residents’ full discography on the wall! At this time, all imported products from the UK, US or anywhere were subject to 40% Import Duty, so prices were nearly as high in 1981 in Ireland as they are in the UK today. I was completely driven by music when I started at Liffey Street, by punk rock and how music and politics intertwined, and two years in Liffey Street, with a great manager, Mr Gerry Kenny, broadened and intensified my interest and knowledge of popular music. Shop favourites such as Love’s Forever Changes, The Shoes’ first two albums, Planxty, The Watersons, remain amongst my faves to this day.
In the years ’77 to ’81, anything was possible for musicians and non-musicians gigging and releasing records, and one felt the same was possible in the music business as well.
Then you moved to London, what was next?
I knocked on Rough Trade Distribution’s front door on my first Saturday in London - and started work on the following Tuesday, doing a variety of jobs…..sales, dealing with labels, picking and packing of orders, stock contro,l etc. Quite rightly, Rough Trade has been written about extensively elsewhere and I could write pages about this experience, but suffice to say, in retrospect it was a crazy, exciting time to be involved. The world’s most exciting records and artists were passing through that building , and there was an over-riding feeling that we were making a serious difference by being there.
A couple of small incidents that stick in my mind were the morning that Tony Wilson arrived with New Order, just after they had picked up their test-pressings of Blue Monday, which they played to everybody in the warehouse, to everyone’s amazement. During the Falklands War, a CBS TV crew arrived to film us picking and packing Crass’ anti-Thatcher single How Does it Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead, to show that there was indeed opposition to that war. Shortly afterwards, on the same tip, we released Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding too. The mood was defiantly independent, and we sincerely felt that by the mid-80s, the majority of chart entries would be independently produced and independently distributed.
Then you were involved with several other distributors?
Yeah, firstly at the UK’s main ‘Roots Music’ distributor, the ill-fated Making Waves, and after that I was delighted to be involved in the very early days of SRD (Southern Record Distributors). In 1987, SRD grew out of Southern Studios, who had been known as the home of Crass, Dischord (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and many other like-minded labels. By 1989, SRD was getting albums into the UK album chart with small premises and a staff of around 5 people, doing all the sales and physical distribution themselves. At this point I learned at first hand that anything is possible with a lot of hard work, enthusiasm and a common goal. By 1990, SRD had turned these same no-nonsense skills to the seminal UK dance market. In 1990, post Acid and pre-Hardcore, the variety of the music being produced was just as exciting as 1979-1980, and it was clear that the majors and even other independent distributors didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Then in 1996 you left to set up Shellshock, why was that?Yeah I left SRD to set up Shellshock Distribution with the Ian Ballard (Damaged Goods and Fierce Panda) and Nick Head (NTT and Dubhead). By the mid-90s, although many would regard it as a golden era for UK guitar music, for a variety of reasons, it was really only the dance labels that conformed to my traditional notion of ‘doing it the independent way’. For guitar bands, the accepted modus operandi was to release say one album independently, or even just a couple of singles, and then , ‘get signed’. The independent charts were awash with ‘proto-indies’ (apparently independent labels fully financed by a major label). It was impossible for an independent distributor to base a business model on that reality, and one of my naïve motivations at the time, in setting up Shellshock, was to provide a level of service that would make labels and artists stick around. I wanted Shellshock to be all things to all men & women, to combine the ethos of Rough Trade and the dynamics & graft of SRD.
The industry has changed hugely since Shellshock started in 1996 . How have you dealt with these changes?
In 1996, the reality was that independent distribution was very competitive. There were many more distributors in business at that time than are in business currently. It was almost inevitable that if you developed an artist or label, that they would regard it as natural to capitalize on their success by going to a major or go to one of the larger distributors, and it would have required deep pockets to attract an established label with a large catalogue in the first place. The vast majority of Shellshock labels have remained with us throughout the years, and in recent years I’m happy to say that many established labels appreciate our position in the market and what we can do for them.