Tuesday 6 May 2014

Sarah Records - "We were opposed to the sexism of the music industry"

Outside the Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014 
There was so much interest in the Sarah Records retrospective in Bristol last weekend that it sold out far in advance, leaving fans clamouring for tickets. The afternoon talk with label founders Matt and Clare was moved to a bigger events space to accommodate the growing demand until the auditorium was packed out. And all this enthusiasm for a label dismissed as twee at the time. Incorrectly so considering Sarah’s political leanings, feminist inception and anti-capitalist philosophy.

Sarah Records ran in Bristol from 1987-1995 and thrived in a society that was celebrating the emergence of the ‘lad culture’ of bands like Oasis, the grunge guitars of Nirvana, where women were treated like decorations and feminism was as unfashionable as it’s ever been. Which makes it all the more fantastic that Matt and Clare of Sarah stood their ground and did things exactly as they wanted to.

Back then, the music press tended to ignore anything that didn’t happen in London, meaning the best way to find out about exciting new bands from the rest of the country was to read fanzines (an early form of social networking), which were sold by their writers at gigs and posted out across the country and wider world. Many of those fanzine writers then formed lasting friendships, united by a shared love of music.

Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

Matt and Clare started out as fanzine writers, who met after Clare tried to sell Matt her fanzine at a Primal Scream gig in the Bierkeller. Before long, even though she was still at university, the pair had launched Sarah Records as a two fingered salute to the money-grabbing major labels that just wanted to rip fans off rather than celebrate great pop music.

Matt says, with his tongue in his cheek: “The label was in opposition to the capitalism of multi format releases on the major labels. We were an anti-capitalist business, changing the world through the power of the 7” single. CDs in 1987 were £15, and major labels wanted everyone to re-buy their record collections. While 7”s were £1.50, so they were accessible and affordable.”

It was so affordable that in the mid-1980s you could put out a fanzine with a two-track flexi disc on the cover priced at 50p and still break even. “It was part of the post punk DIY ethos,” says Matt simply. And even now, in an era of illegal downloads and online marketing, Matt still thinks there’s no need for bands to sign to the majors: “I don’t see why any band now needs a record label, unless they’re going to invest millions in you. You can do it all yourself.” Although Clare adds that a website doesn’t have the same personal touch that Sarah offered with their hand-folded sleeves, personally written letters to purchasers and the postcards inserted into the records.

Sarah posters inside Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

And the pair really did do everything themselves – famously they ran the label initially from their basement bedsit in Bristol’s Clifton, where they didn’t even have a telephone. And later from a house on Windmill Hill overlooking Bedminster train station. To start with, they didn’t even have a car! “We used to pick up 7”s from the distributor Revolver in a taxi,” remembers Matt, “then bring them home, put them in wraparound sleeves, add in the posters and postcards, and take them back to Revolver in a taxi.” 

Everything that could be done themselves, was done themselves, even if it took five times as long, because it was the only way to keep costs down. But as Matt adds, things changed quickly in the eight years of Sarah: “When we started in 1987, you’d take the record to the distributor on the Thursday and it’d be in the shops on the Monday. By the time we ended in 1995, there was a three month lead in for each release.”

Sarah 58 (aka The Hit Parade) at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

Matt and Clare insist they never intended to cause provocation by calling the label Sarah, and they chose the name with pretty much no discussion. “I’d just been reading Emma by Jane Austen,” says Clare, “and thought that if you could call a book Emma, you could call a record label Sarah. And Matt just agreed.”

But they really did rankle the mainstream music press, who hurled abuse and venom at the label with delight. Although perhaps this was less aimed at the music press’ dislike of the music, than their distaste for the labels’ founders who made it quite clear that they disliked the music papers! Clare says now: “You like to hope that some of the journalists might now be a bit embarrassed about some of the things they wrote about us. We never thought calling a label Sarah was a provocative thing to do. But we got a lot of patronising comments for doing it.”

One thing that fascinated me, was learning that when they launched the label in 1987, Matt signed on to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme where the government dished out £40 per week to help new businesses. This interested me because in 2013, I signed on to the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme… where my new business received £65 per week (that’s a rise of 62.5% in 26 years – which sounds a lot, but not when you consider that inflation overall has risen by more than 140% in that time). Anyway, I digress.

Amelia, Rob and Pete (formerly of Heavenly) at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

The feminism of Sarah Records was lost on many people, yet it was one of the inciting reasons for founding the label. At the time, Sarah was one of very few labels to have a woman as its co-owner. And even now, 25 years later, there are still hardly any record labels run by women.

Clare says: “We were opposed to the sexism of the music industry, we were a feminist record label. It got more important to us when we realised what we were up against. It feels like feminism is at the fore at the moment, which is great, but nothing has really changed. I feel like I’ve been whining about the same things for 20 years!”

But it was about more than just having a woman at the helm. At the time, fanzines and indie bands had a tradition of – when in doubt – dredging up an old cute photo of a 1960s’ girl in a miniskirt and putting this on their covers. Women were nothing more than decorations (which is still, of course, a big issue today).

As Matt says: “We came from an era when the girl in the band tended to be the boy in the band’s girlfriend. We avoided that at Sarah.” Clare adds: “My pet hate is women singing men’s lyrics, so we also avoided that as much as we could.”

But one recurring problem was with photographs. If a band had, say, five members and one of those five was a woman, the photographer would either want to put the woman in the middle of the picture, of foreground her while fading out the men in the background. Matt and Clare would repeatedly try to steer photographers way from this, which baffled them.

Both Matt and Clare make it clear that when they killed Sarah after 100 releases in 1995, that was it – they weren’t doing any encores. So there will be no deluxe box sets, no re-releases… nothing to make you spend money on what you already have. As Matt says: “A lot of the bands want their material available and it would be wrong of us to stop that happening, but we wanted the 100 records to be the end. So there will be no more Sarah records ever. But a lot of the stuff we released is available for download and that’s fine with us. It’s not important to have the 7”single 25 years later… it’s about the music not the product.”

The Orchids at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

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