Simon Raymonde is the owner of Bella Union, a 13 year old very influential UK label that has attained the sort of status and brand recognition of 4AD, or Mute. Originally started with Cocteau Twins band mate Robin Guthrie, the label’s original intention was to be a vehicle for the release of Cocteau Twins music. The label has grown a following that is tied to it as an avatar of taste, not just due to connections with individual artists on the roster. The label’s roster includes or has included Dirty Three, Laura Veirs, Fleet Foxes, and The Dears. Cocteau Twins have made a lasting impression on modern pop music, achieving iconic status on 4AD (f not the supposed riches that are often connected to such status). I spoke with Simon about the state of the industry and the value of formulating a strong identity, the struggle to be a young musician in today’s market, and the past (and still present) impact of the model of indentured servitude of artists to the music industry.
PH Simon, it’s been years since we have spoken, and life has taken its circuitous course no doubt. Bella Union has survived and grown in a very turbulent economy and chaotic time for a music industry that is in the process of re-inventing itself. Can you talk about the history of Bella Union over the past 12-15 years and how the company has refined its niche and working method considering the aforementioned conditions?
SR It started as a way for my band at the time, Cocteau Twins, to release its records. Our experience with labels, 4ad and Fontana wasn’t all good, and it seemed to make sense to set up our own label and then we could do whatever we wanted. So we broke up! The label name had by now been chosen and printed on some lovely little postcards so we figured, oh well, let’s release SOMETHING at least. My solo record became the first release on Bella Union in 1997, and so it seems not the last! Quite how we got here, 13 years later is beyond me I have to say! Two or three times I have been on the brink of packing it all in , when V2, our licensing partner for a while 2003-2007, went bust, and then in 2008 when our distributor went bust. These events bankrupted several other companies and may well have done so to Bella Union, but I am nothing if not a “Trier” and somehow I kept it all going, Of course I signed some great bands along the way and it was this that saved the day really. Honestly my working method hasn’t changed since day one. I just do what I do, run a label that I would like to have been signed to, and sign bands whose records I would have bought anyway. It’s a pretty simple philosophy. I am not overly bothered about the industry’s problems with file sharing as there’s very little I can do about it on my own, and trying to cope with the problems is like trying to catch Niagara Falls in a thimble. Probably the only change in my methods is that I won’t sign bands now without being sure, as sure as I can be that they’re as into my label and philosophy as I am into theirs. And I have to like their manager!
PH What have been the important milestones in your own life these past 15 years, as an artist and person in the world?
SR Meeting my girlfriend Stephanie Dosen was very significant. We work and play together and do both very happily which is a joy. Not always easy to do so. We make music together under the name snowbird and will be releasing our first record soon. It’s been a long time coming, getting me back into the writing side, but I’ve loved it. It’s been very spontaneous and just a massive amount of fun. I don’t take it too seriously and I am not going to be releasing music as a career move or anything like that. This is just because we really wanted to do it. Seeing the label do well over the last few years has been wonderful as there were times when I wondered if it was all worth it. I have put a lot of blood sweat and tears into it, so I am glad people seem to trust the label now and look forward to our releases. As a parent I am just happy to see my kids healthy and enjoying whatever they want to do.
PH What is Bella Union’s working model concerning the business interface with its artists? What are your philosophies regarding ownership of work, rights, and support of the artists work?
SR I license music from the band I don’t ‘own’ it for ever. My own painful experiences with Cocteau twins where all the 4ad releases are owned by them forever, along with the publishing, mean I do not favour this kind of ball and chain deal. Our deals are short-ish, sometimes 50-50 profit share deals and sometimes traditional royalty deals. My aim is to be a home for the band, and my contracts anyone will tell you are very ‘artist friendly’. I designed them to be so. I don’t like to be a stepping stone label, so fight the idea of one album deals. I am not into those at all, although conversely I don’t mind the occasional 7inch single deal to test the water. I let the artists do what they want in general. If they want advice, direction, I will offer it, if they don’t I wont. I am hands on and hands off!
PH It seems that the distinction of “full-time professional” musician is a very difficult life to live outside the bounds of dire poverty these days. I have a friend who is a very accomplished musician that has 300,000 last FM plays or something like that, who makes very little money, and is very financially constrained. Interest in her music does not readily translate to economic reward. What is your advice to young musicians that want to sustain themselves through their music?
SR I don’t know if it is possible in today’s business. Performance income is poor and with Spotify and MySpace paying miniscule amounts through to bands it is going to be difficult. I think taking an approach like you would if you were going to college is wise. You’d need a loan to get through school; I think you need the same for getting through the early years in music. You can’t rely on labels any more to pay advances etc so more and more musicians will have to be part time until that point where they can choose to do one or the other. I think it’s more a reflection of the way we live our lives now. No one has any money and everyone is doing 3 jobs where 3 years ago you might only be doing one.
PH The influence of Cocteau Twins on pop music today is inescapable. I would argue that it would be difficult to have a Sigur Ros without the legacy of Cocteau Twins. How do you see the influence of the band these many years removed?
SR I don’t know really. You still see the name cited in reviews of new bands like twin sister, wild nothing etc so I guess there’s something in it. I don’t think about it really. That part of my life seems so long ago. The band made some beautiful music so I think its lovely people are still discovering that and while my own view on it is jaundiced somewhat by the feeble amounts of money we make due to the dreadful deals we’re on, it is comforting to know that there is still an awareness of what we were doing.
PH Are you working on anything musically at this time? I always thought it would be very interesting to hear a two-bass collaboration between you and Michael Manring, are you familiar with him?
SR No, I released a band called Rothko once who had just 3 bassists, that was it. It was a cool sound for sure. I am working on my band Snowbird which is basically just piano (me) and vocals (Stephanie Dosen), there will be other instruments on it by the time I am done, but that’s the basic set up. We write and record in a very spontaneous and odd way, similar in method to Cocteau Twins , but much quicker! I only do one or two takes of something, and never rehearse it for more than a few minutes. I like to have that energy that surrounds creation, on the recorded work. For me personally, once I play something over and over to attain perfection, I get bored and lose interest in it. I just like to record ‘jams’ if you like and then see where they go. I’m not reinventing the wheel here; it’s just a way of having fun and keeping it exciting. Probably is a bit hit and miss but I don’t mind that!
PH The melding of the business and personal is always a tricky consideration. Some years ago I submitted some music for you to consider releasing on Bella Union, and in my immaturity at the time, thought you might consider releasing it because we had some personal connection. I’ll never forget that you told me that you would never consider releasing something on that basis. A few years later the reality and necessity of that objective analysis of the business of making recordings made perfect sense to me. In fact, I was rather embarrassed, because it would have been ridiculous for you to release my music on your label, people would have thought you nuts! Considering the aforementioned dynamic, how have you managed the fragile egos and self-images of artists you have worked with over the years?
SR Not always successfully. I suppose I have a unique view on the business as musician first, label man second, but it does help me to have been in the shoes of every artist on the label, and for them to know that whatever they may be going through, there’s a fair chance I have been through it too. We all just want to be loved I think, right? So as long as I am there, available, things tend to work out fine. I am not here to win a popularity contest but at the same time, I do care about the people I work with, and I make every effort to ensure that they’re happy. I know my own mind, and back my judgment every time, and this does help me at times. Having said all that, there are times, when people are being such jack-asses that you have to stand up and tell em so! That can be amusing.
PH What do you look for when considering a relationship with a new artist?
SR An understanding of Bella Union, of how shit the music business is, a great live performance, and some evidence that the brilliance I hear is only going to develop. I don’t want the first record to be the peak! A nice manager who isn’t here for the wrong reasons. (Bad management is the ruination of most great bands), a lawyer who is fair and not greedy (there are a couple), but most of all, if I can invite them round to tea and the dog doesn’t bark, I am sure we can work together.
PH So much of Cocteau Twins music was completely filmic, overtly emotional and infused with bitter sweetness, which made it especially a good match for film, for images, yet there seems to be little Cocteau Twins music that made it into films. Is this so, or have I just missed it?
SR There were a few bits and pieces, recently the lovely bones film by Peter Jackson featured Alice, a song we actually wrote for stealing beauty by Bertolucci! We were always being told that when our band was over, we’d have a wonderful career composing music for film, getting huge syncs etc. well plainly, neither has happened! When we turned down the opportunity to write music for blue velvet at the request of David Lynch I think we blew it! That wasn’t our best decision in hindsight!
PH What are your thoughts about monolithic pop-cultural insta-icons like Lady Gaga? Thoughts in general, first things that come to mind….
SR I have no thoughts about them. There’s always one or two every generation, and they fulfill a need for the tabloids to sell papers, but they’re just like a freak show to me. I don’t hear the music, or see the videos, cos I am not looking, or listening. So I couldn’t even tell you if her music was any good. She looks a right state to me, but I am not her target audience am I?!!
PH Have you taken anything from the working methodology, aesthetics, or general concept from 4AD and infused it into Bella Union?
SR Not consciously but a few people have compared what I am doing now to what 4AD was doing in the 80s/90s. I don’t know if that is just cos UK independent labels that remain in business for this long are quite few and far between and comparison would be inevitable due to my band’s history, or if there is something in it. I care about music, the artwork, and packaging, the vinyl, the artist and the way the label is portrayed, I care about the website, the logo, our events, our bespoke products, the ‘brand’ (hate that word) of the label, so in that sense, there may be a thread to this, but I am certainly not conscious of it. There was a lot about it I didn’t like, and I have probably learnt more from those parts than the others!