Simon Raymonde has enjoyed two brilliant careers in music. As an artist, he was a key member of the influential atmospheric act Cocteau Twins. When they split in 1997, Raymonde set out on his next journey at the helm of an independent record label, Bella Union. It wasn’t the easiest segue, Raymonde admits, but he did discover a real knack for signing cult and cutting-edge acts. Over time, Raymonde helped build the careers of such artists as Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Father John Misty, Midlake, the Dears, The Walkmen and Explosions in The Sky, plus Australian artists Dirty Three, Howling Bells and Decoder Ring. The company expanded in recent years with the launch of a publishing division, Bella Union Songs. BMG Chrysalis US recently struck a publishing joint venture with Bella Union Songs, an arrangement that will see the N.Y.-based company provide worldwide rights management services to artists signed to the JV.
In its 15th anniversary, Raymonde won the award for Independent Entrepreneur Of The Year at the Assn of Independent Music’s 2012 gala in London. Raymonde is currently on Australian turf. He’ll attend the 2013 Bigsound conference as a keynote speaker.
What was the moment you decided to switch from being an artist to an executive?
Actually, there wasn’t really a “moment.” I probably took six or seven years to think I could run a label. Initially it was more a case of doing it because there wasn’t an awful lot more on the horizon to do given that my band had just broke up. It was more a reaction to a series of unfortunate events, and I couldn’t ever have seen myself running a record label. For the first few years, I just stumbled through it, not really sure what was going on. And just learning by making lots of terrible mistakes. I guess that’s a good way to learn. It’s not good if you can’t recover from them but I was lucky enough to have a few good breaks and stuck with it. I’m nothing if not a trier.
What was that magic factor that enabled you to have success?
I guess running a label from the perspective of an artist is useful in many ways. I can relate to many of the problems the bands might be having. It’s very likely at some point I’ll have experienced the same stuff they’re going through, whether it’s financial or in-band problems or management problems. I had a good grounding in my own band for things going well and going badly. I wouldn’t say I was confident at it until about 2004 or 2005, or maybe the signing of Lift to Experience in 2001 and working on that record, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads– a double album about the end of the world; it wan an unusual double debut album. It did very well. At that point, we still had the Cocteau studio going, somehow. I was able to use it for those early Bella Union releases, to produce and record and offer bands pretty much free studio time. It helped me make great records for the cost of next to nothing. Once it had all gone horribly wrong and the studio had gone bust, and we’d recovered from the financial ruin of that, and the label was still standing, I thought, “Maybe there is something in this. I can do it.” I don’t think there was ever a “Eureka” moment, but the success of Live to Experience and how it was received by the critics and the audience made me realise I could do it. Leading on to Midlake and Fionn Regan, and a few artists who started to blossom over the next few years. The confidence started to grow a little. It’s never been comfortable to me until probably Fleet Foxes.
As an artist, were you paying attention to the record industry? Were you taking mental notes?
No. I was just concentrating on having a good time, really. Touring and recording and keeping the band together. Our band was pretty complex as far as internal relationships go; that in itself was hard enough to maintain. Along with my own relationships with my wife and my friends, it was hard enough to keep that going without paying attention to the independent labels (business). I didn’t pay attention at all. But being so close with the guys in 4AD, in the first few years anyway, I’m sure that did rub off. It was a particularly exciting time in music in the mid ‘80s. The proliferation of regional independent labels in the U.K. was so great, and many were so influential. Whether it was Kitchenware in Newcastle, or Postcard in Scotland, or Factory in Manchester or Rough Trade in London. There was a great label scene there, and I’m sure that did rub off on me. I worked in a record shop myself for a few years. It didn’t go unnoticed to me how cool it all was.
You mentioned a bunch of amazing British indie labels. What’s the mantra behind Bella Union?
If there is one, it’s to run a label I would have been proud to have been signed to. That’s an ever evolving process. With Fleet Foxes, you might think “gee they got that right.” The danger is when you have a success like that you think, “we’ve made it now. We don’t have to do anything else. We just have to put the records in the shop and they’ll sell.” Really, that’s so far from the truth. You have to work harder then ever. We didn’t expand at that point which I think is crucial, given that the industry has gone into somewhat of a sales decline over the last few years.
Of course, it’s more than a label. You have Bella Union Songs, a publishing company.
Yup. That’s important to me. I’ve had a few beginnings with publishing over the years but it hasn’t quite been the right fit. Given the success that BMG Chrysalis has had with a lot of my existing roster with Fleet Foxes and Beach House, I have built up a strong relationship with those guys over the years. I got to know (Senior VP of Creative) Kate Hyman, and it coincided with my own dissatisfaction with where the publishing side of things Bella Union was at. And also the (expansion into the) U.S. It’s still very new, and we’ve only signed a few bands. I love publishing, it’s a lovely area of music to be involved in and in many ways it’s much less stressful than it is running a record label. Perhaps one day that’s something I’ll be able to grow and develop more.
Are there any other activities you’re keen to get into?
I’ve been developing a TV show for the last year. That’s close to fruition, but I don’t want to jinx it. I’ve recorded three pilots for a live music TV show, (featuring) brand new bands. I wanted to do it properly rather than a hand-held camera kind of thing. This is high-level, 8 cameras, full 24-track recording, a huge live venue the Village Underground in Shoreditch, London. It has high production values and its something I’m passionate about, but I appreciate it’s not a world I know so much about. It’s looking as though we’ll have something to talk about publicly in a few weeks.
What sort of carrot would a major have to dangle to bring you into their world?
As you know, we were in the background with Universal over the last few years (through Bella Union’s deal with Cooperative Music), before the big merger bullshit with EMI. I’m not designed to circumnavigate that world, I don’t feel comfortable in it. There are some great people in major labels around the world, who do great jobs. And I have ultimate respect for them. But it’s not for me. I don’t feel comfortable in that environment. With the Cooperative situation, where I don’t think I met anyone from Universal over the six years we were there. Where we are right now with PIAS, pretty much everywhere in the world, it seems like a natural fit.
What’s your stance on subscription services?
That’s hard to say at this point, in terms of numbers. It’s a long game. That’s what everyone says these days. My own personal view is that I don’t like them, I don’t use them. I’m an old guy, I was brought up on records and I still spend an unnatural amount of money on vinyl every week. That’s just what gives me pleasure. I don’t have a Spotify account or an Rdio account. I chose not to because it doesn’t suit me. As far as all my artists go, I ask them the question regularly. In light of the comments from Thom (Yorke) and Nigel (Godrich), I made sure that all my artists were comfortable with the streaming side of things and if they chose to withdraw from it. I don’t put my own personal opinions across to the artists, I just offer them the option of doing whatever they feel most comfortable with. There are lots of diverse opinions about the values and the pluses and minuses and the return to artists. It is minimal, we understand that. I know when some artists have questioned it, and have thought about withdrawing their services quite often they’ll look at comments from fans who are consuming their music through Spotify or whatever and they realise if their music wasn’t available through these services there would be a large gap. That’s what we’re finding today. We’re not all listening to music in the same way. Some people are listening to it 10 different ways. I’m open-minded.
You mentioned vinyl. I spoke with 4AD’s Simon Halliday and he like you is pretty much obsessed with vinyl, and all his artists release on the format.
It’s been growing steadily over the last couple of years. Looking at vinyl sales in America, specifically, it’s been really strong. You can’t ignore it. There’s a microcosm of it in my own family. When my kids were in their teens, they were downloading anything that moved and not paying for it. When they got older and started having some disposable income, they found the whole free music thing boring and uncool. At some point of your life, you want to own an artefact. You want something to put on your shelf. Vinyl is a beautiful thing to own. The more who get into that the better. I can’t honestly see it grow that much more. It is expensive, let’s not forget that. To buy a really nice piece of vinyl is upwards of £20. Not everyone can afford that.
Watching John Grant’s development. He won the Mojo Album of the Year last year and it looks like he’ll follow up with the pretty big year this year. Seeing somebody at the age of 43 make a debut solo record and having it acclaimed so extensively across the world, and going from someone no one knew to selling out venues in many countries makes you super-proud. I’ve worked with John Grant since 1998. I cite that example to a lot of artists. And I point out, hopefully it won’t take 16 years to sell some records. But there’s an example of someone who never gave up, and we never gave up on him. Dirty Three is another special one. We’ve worked with them 16 years. I can’t remember a bad word, a cross word between us and them. And of course Fleet Foxes going from nothing to half a million records in the U.K. in eight months. That’s an incredible journey.
What are the key records on your slate?
We’ve got a really crazy end of the year. We have an all-girl Manchester band called Pins, who are starting to do incredibly well here; their album is out later this month. We’ve got Lanterns On The Lake’s second album, it’s a huge leap for them and a really special record. A new album from Midlake coming up in a few months’ time. Which is an absolute blinder. Roy Harper’s first new album in about 15 years. The second album from Jonathan Wilson. And then some new bands we’re developing, like Ballet School, Horse Thief and a Manchester band doing well for us called Money. We never take the foot off the gas.
Is there anything new from Fleet Foxes coming up?
We hope so. Robin Pecknold’s definitely back in the studio, back in writing mode at the moment. He took a little time off to get all cobwebs off, and he’s back in writing mode. We’re hopeful.
Do you pine for a reunion of Cocteau Twins
No. I never did.