A label of love

Island Records, which turns 50 this year, helped shape the modern music business.

The soul of a record label. Now there’s a quaint notion, when most kids no longer associate music with a tangible object encased in cardboard. Yet the packaging that gave music another sort of life was always crucial to the founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, proud Jamaican and Old Harrovian (expelled). That is made clear by a photo exhibition now in London, part of Island’s ongoing 50th birthday party, thrown with the parent label, Universal. In a shiny leotard, Grace Jones prowls the edge of a skyscraper rooftop on hands and knees, snarling. U2’s hand-painted Trabant from East Berlin, a relic of their 1992-93 Zoo TV tour, seems tiny, even in the back-room gallery of the Phonica record shop, Soho.

My favourite artefact is a strict, typewritten letter from Blackwell, threatening to fine the heavy rockers of Spooky Tooth for every gig they missed. It’s a reminder that in the early Sixties Blackwell often managed bands whose music he released. Today it would be seen as a conflict of interest, but back then everyone was making it up as they went along – inventing a British record business that’s now convulsed by change.

Recently, Music Week magazine voted Blackwell the most influential man in the UK music industry. Island without Blackwell is like trying to imagine the Jamaican shaman Bob Marley, his most potent collaborator, without a big spliff. Nonetheless, in 1989, Blackwell sold the label to Polygram. He remained involved with special projects, but when that company was absorbed by Seagram and merged into Universal in 1999 – and Island with it – the art-driven culture that Blackwell had pioneered was eroded. Staffers recall the label’s eclectic and progressive aesthetic being systematically undermined by the bottom-line fixations of corporate bean-counters.

Even though the big paydays of Marley or U2 tempted corporate raiders, they learned to their cost that music will always be an unpredictable business, best left to passionate aficionados who sign acts on the basis of gut feeling, not a computer projection. People like Blackwell, in fact, who left his native Jamaica for Britain at independence, when transistor radios were young and hand-crafted vinyl singles had not long taken over from shellac 78s. Having produced a few local hits in the American jazz and R’n’B mould, Blackwell spotted the benefits of collaborating with and distributing his “rival” producers – the likes of Coxsone Dodd of Studio One and Lee “Scratch” Perry, whose radical riddims were doing the real heavy lifting of creating an independent Jamaican sound.

The pattern of working with inspiring artists and label-makers persisted while I worked briefly in the Island press office in the early Seventies, promoting the then little-known Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear and those young lions of Ladbroke Grove, Aswad. We distributed records from hot new labels such as Richard Branson’s haut-hippie Virgin; folky Witchseason, which boasted Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and John Martyn; and EG, home to Roxy Music.

Musicians were always wafting about the Edwardian stucco villa, a former laundry in Chis­wick, west London. The canteen was decorated with cheese plants and a fussball table, and the air was often scented with Jamaican greenery – and I don’t mean Blue Mountain coffee. For years, Island was the epicentre of music industry cool. As the label’s reach broadened, it pushed Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the Slits, African artists such as Sunny Ade and Angélique Kidjo, and the hip-hoppers Eric B and Rakim. Throughout, the central ethos remained unchanged: a commitment to personality, artist development and quality.

After Marley played his last concert in London in 1980, Blackwell was taken by the company’s PR guru, Rob Partridge, to a south London pub to see a young Irish band named U2. It would be unlikely to happen with today’s corporations, but Blackwell stuck with them until 1984, when The Unforgettable Fire propelled the group to global stardom. U2 returned the favour when the label was near collapse in 1986 by deferring millions in back royalties and fronting some more cash besides. As Babylon fulfils Bob Marley’s prediction by falling about our earphones, what price artist/label loyalty now? Is it a gesture from a simpler time? Would Lily Allen ever bail out MySpace?

Cynically, or perhaps just efficiently, the old industry has tested the extremes of manufactured pop music. Now it is in a well-documented crisis. Island, or Polygram, or even Universal, once seemed to be the all-powerful parent, dictating the fate of its artists. The industry has had to realise that the reverse is equally possible. Now it is the independent all-round cultural worker who really runs today’s music business, ducking and diving, promoting and producing, throwing warehouse parties in east London.

One such entrepreneur is Ross Allen, who stopped working at Island in the Nineties, when the corporate restrictions were in force. On his rounds, he has noticed that all the big-label execs have come round to Blackwell’s view. At a time of confusion, with sales so thin they’re anorexic, the advantages are increasingly obvious: connect – across the internet or in person – with people making fresh music; distribute a small indie and let it carry the risk of developing the artists. The cash created by niche markets can be just as useful as the income from those Three Big Hits that old-school executives chased obsessively.

In short, when all around is chaos, Island’s core values are reasserting themselves. We’re talking qualities like the interdependency of all participants in this brawling, sprawling business; the need for a constant flow of music drawn from the underground; and the ability to follow the wise words of Spencer Davis: keep on running.

Vivien Goldman is the author of “The Book of Exodus: the Making and the Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century” (Aurum Press, £9.99) For details of the Island celebrations, visit: www.island50.com