Sarah Records was always a label with a difference. They never wavered from doing things their own way, and rather then depending on political rhetoric for PR, they made sure their convictions shaped their business practices. Here Sarah Records founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes discuss setting up the label, the bumps they encountered along the way and their views on the music industry in the 21st century.
How did Sarah Records come about?
Clare Wadd - We started the label because there were a lot of great bands around and we wanted to release their songs - and I guess to be a part of what was going on, which was a pretty exciting scene at the time. The initial bands on the label we knew before we started - we'd both released flexidiscs by The Sea Urchins, who were Sarah 1, The Orchids had also done a flexi for Sha-la-la, which Matt was involved with. We were in touch with a couple of the other bands, and then demos started coming in, and never really stopped. Some of the bands had already had releases on other labels (14 Iced Bears, Even As We Speak, The Wake), but most sent us tapes.
Matt Haynes - I think it's also true to say that we saw what a lot of other labels were doing, and didn't like what we saw, so we were determined to do it differently - and to make a big song and dance about doing it differently! Labels like Creation, which had been there at the start of the scene we emerged from, but which had quickly gone from being fanzine/7"-based to producing rip-off 12" singles and the like. I'm not too keen on the phrase "value for money", as it misses the whole aesthetic side of things (does adding another demo/live/remix version really make a single better value for money?), so I'd emphasise the "not ripping your fans off" aspect - making sure all the tracks on a single were good (even the supposed B-sides), giving away posters and postcards and inserts to make each release special, not including "unreleased bonus tracks" on compilation LPs - that sort of thing.
How did you go about promoting those early releases?
CW - Promotion was a mixture of things from very small to very big scale - word of mouth to Radio 1. John Peel was incredibly good to us and played almost everything we released, if not everything - and we had support from The Radio 1 Evening Session too. There was the music press, which was primarily weekly then, plus fanzines, people talking to each other and gigs & indie-clubs. Our approach was generally quite belligerent - we'd write Peel letters complaining about the rubbish he was playing, and at the outset we knew barely anyone on the press, and didn't see why journalists should have new releases ahead of the fans - it worked with some people and really didn't work with others. We did really peculiar press releases instead of your normal sheet of A4 type. Pre colour-printing you could get things colour-copied in individual colours, and we'd make these bright sheets which were more like short-stories with different sized type & pictures & stuff, barely mentioning the records. Being in Bristol not London seemed to make us very suspect too - nobody in the industry had any idea who we were and we liked being outside of it, it kind of kept us pure I think, but it certainly counted against us.
MH - I think that's true - journalists knew they could ignore/insult us without having to worry that we'd throw a drink over them at the next gig they went to. It's extraordinary in these days of internet and digital radio to think that, back then, your only possibilities for publicity were John Peel, the Evening Session, and the three weekly music papers. Once you'd sent out those five copies, you were left scratching your head, and everything really was down to word of mouth.
Any Problems you encountered?
CW - The first few releases went really well in terms of press, radio, acclaim and sales (all selling out pretty fast) - we wasted a lot of money on things like the centre-labels, being too proud to ask for any advice off anyone, and we had a fair amount of trouble getting sleeve-printing and pressing-quality we were happy with - but the quality problem was an issue all through the label, I always seemed to be on the phone trying to get manufacturers to redo things and getting fobbed off with 10% discounts.
MH - In case you're bemused by the "centre-labels" thing, we naively thought we could print one side of the label in two bright colours, and have the other in black and white; we didn't realise that we'd essentially end up paying for three separate "spot" colours, and that the pressing plant would have some exorbitant fixed "set-up charge" for these - off the top of my head, something like £125 per colour. Basically, we ended up paying as much to print the labels as to press the records, and possibly more than it cost to record the songs in some cases... but, because we wanted each series of 10 singles to match, we were stuck with it for 10 releases...
And the name, where did that come from?
CW - The name was just a whim; it's astonishing how much stick we got for being "girlie" and therefore fey & twee because of it, and of me, being female.
MH - Male music journalists (though in 1987, the adjective "male" was pretty superfluous...) clearly had great problems with a label calling itself Sarah rather than Boys Own or whatever. Why they should equate femininity with tweeness, feebleness and general lack of seriousness, is an issue for them and their psychiatrists. See also the abuse bands like Talulah Gosh got a few years earlier, for having the temerity to have women play guitars and write the songs and wear polka-dot dresses and generally not fit the "rock chick" mould.
You riled against the sexism and blatant, and often hypocritical, embracing of capitalism by much of the music industry. How do you think things have changed over the last 20 years?