“The big labels in the current economic climate don’t take risks like they used to do. In the ’60s, major labels signed people like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart – people like that would have no chance on a label like that now!”
Joe Murphy knows all too well what the major labels are missing out on. Early on in the interview, the man behind independent London record label Blang hands me a CD. It’s called Lucky Dip – a compilation of tracks from the first 10 years of the label. I inspect the cover: a painting of an amusement arcade grabber plucking a flower from a pile of rocks. Or is it a three-armed alien holding a bouquet of flowers? I turn to the reverse and breeze through the list of madcap names: Milk Kan… Filthy Pedro… Dan Edelstyn and the Orchestra of Cardboard. It’s like they have been lifted from the pages of A Clockwork Orange.
As The Kings Head pub in Waterloo begins to fill up with a lunchtime throng of corporate darlings, Joe continues to fume about the current state of the music industry: “There is nothing good on the major labels, and there hasn’t been for years. There are good acts out there, but they’re all doing day jobs and can’t afford to tour. You see a lot of very untalented people with nothing to say and they’re professional musicians just because they’re rich.”
In any creative discipline, time is the most precious commodity. When Joe found himself living on the dole, he had enough of it to learn his craft as a musician: “I spent five years of my life on the dole. And in those years I learned to play the guitar. I used to write a song a day, so I developed as a songwriter.” With the skills he acquired, Joe would go on to become a regular solo performer at the 12 Bar Club in London’s Denmark Street, convincing the club’s promoter to let him run a performance night to ensure he had a gig to play. These nights were to be called Blang, and as their popularity soared, a decision was eventually made to launch a record label.
He goes on to enlighten me further about how the music industry is currently functioning, which highlights where independent labels like Blang stand in the record company ‘food chain’: “There’s something like three major record labels, and then there’s a few smallish-medium size ones like Rough Trade and Domino. Then there’s a bunch of people who market themselves as an indie label, but they’re sponsored by one of those majors. Then there’s lots and lots of tiny insects like us among these dinosaurs.”
Joe refuses to be swallowed up by these big labels, however. The Blang nights are still going strong at The Windmill in Brixton (the 12 Bar Club has since closed), and he’s always on the lookout for the next Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart. “I think there’s loads of great music still for us to put out,” he announces. And while independent labels like Blang may not be at the top of the record company food chain, they are undeniably the most human. To paraphrase Orwell: if there is hope, it lies in the underground.
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