Indie music label Cherry Red rocks on at 35
- 27 May 2013
- From the section Business
When the managing director of a leading independent UK record label set out to reissue one of his favourite albums, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
Adam Velasco of Cherry Red Records knew that fans of space-rock legends Hawkwind were clamouring for their 1975 LP Warrior on The Edge of Time to be made available again.
But true to the band's science-fiction background, getting the album back on sale turned into a Star Trek-style five-year mission.
"We did a deal for a large chunk of Hawkwind's catalogue, but 24 different band members were involved, and we had to get the signature of every single one," he recalls. "That took a long time, tracking them down. It's like private investigators - sometimes you have to go chasing all over the world."
Warrior, the most popular album from that era, was the last to feature bass guitarist Lemmy before he left to form heavy metal hitmakers Motorhead. And getting Lemmy to approve the reissue was the most difficult obstacle of all.
"Finally I managed to sit down with him before a Motorhead gig in Bristol and work out a deal with him," says Mr Velasco.
"It took me a long time - there were so many missed meetings with Lemmy. Even as I was driving up to Bristol, I was expecting a call to say that it was all off.
"But the public response has been great and we've had so many pre-orders. It wasn't just me who wanted it out."
Thanks to that kind of tenacity, Cherry Red, now celebrating 35 years in existence, has become one of the biggest companies in the music reissue market.
Every month, the firm puts out 40 to 60 albums in a wide variety of genres. And to mark the company's anniversary, special releases are being planned, including a five-CD boxed set, Scared To Get Happy, that charts the history of indie music in the 1980s.
But when Mr Velasco joined the company two decades ago, it was a very different set-up. At that time, Cherry Red was focused entirely on newly recorded music, mainly punk and post-punk, and put out just one or two releases a month.
Back then, the label's founder and chairman Iain McNay had gone away on sabbatical, leaving Mr Velasco and just one other person to staff the entire operation. Now, including subsidiary labels, the company employs nearly 30 people.
"We've had many different faces over the years," says Mr Velasco, "but the real turning point came when we decided not to release new studio albums by new bands. It was difficult to compete with the majors and financially, it just wasn't working for us.
"But over the years, we've been buying up different catalogues, so we started concentrating more on reissues."
A look at Cherry Red's latest release schedule reveals an eclectic mix of styles. There's reggae and ska from Jamaican singers Keith Hudson and Laurel Aitken; 1960s pop from Gene Pitney; 1970s smooth soul from the O'Jays and Gwen McCrae and many, many more.
Mr Velasco says no type of music is off limits for Cherry Red. "We look for LPs that are not available on CD or that have been deleted for a long time. We're a long way from running out of ideas."
Some of these re-released recordings are owned by Cherry Red, while others are licensed from major labels. Since it is a smaller company with lower overheads, Cherry Red can make a profit on reissues that would not be viable for the bigger firms that actually own the rights.
But after building a reputation in the reissue market, the company noticed an interesting development.
Some of the neglected bands whose back catalogue had been revived by the label, such as the Blow Monkeys or the House of Love, saw a resurgence in their fortunes.
Some bands even re-formed as a result and started recording new material.
"We've now come full circle," says Mr Velasco, "because we concentrated on reissues for many years, but then the artists we were dealing with started offering us new albums. We've enjoyed working with them and we've been reasonably successful."
Veteran artists who have released new albums through Cherry Red this year include Todd Rundgren and the Fall, whose Re-Mit made the UK Top 40 earlier this month.
And the company has high hopes for its forthcoming venture with former Oasis manager Alan McGee, who is partnering with Cherry Red to set up a new label, 359 Music.
"Within three days of announcing the label, we had over 1,000 artists contacting us, wanting to be on it," says Mr Velasco.
"Now it's nearer 2,000. Alan is listening personally to everything. It's going to be an adventure."
Every sale counts
Most rock and pop fans should be able to find something they like in Cherry Red's roster of releases, given the sheer breadth of what they put out.
But many other record labels have issued fine music only to go bust because of poor business decisions. So how has Cherry Red succeeded where they failed?
"It's quite basic," says Mr Velasco. "We try to work with the artists. We're known for paying our royalties on time. It's amazing how many artists come to us saying, 'We've never even seen a statement for that, let alone received a cheque.'
"We've also built up a network of overseas customers, which is a big part of our business. We try to get every sale we can, all over the world. Territories like Japan, Germany, the United States are very important to us.
"We've been around for 35 years and we hope to be around for many more. We want to be the last one standing."