2.7.15

Document and Eyewitness

























I loved this book. It's put together from comprehensive interviews with all the involved parties. Only a couple of people are notable in their absence: the promoter Scott Pierling (who died) and Morrissey (who presumably wouldn't co-operate). Though the lucid and generous Johnny Marr more than covers for Stephen's absence.

The Paul Smith of the cover, blurb-whore, isn't the more famous Paul Smith (fashion emporium owner) - but the Paul Smith of Blast First. I wonder if the publisher grasped that? I suspect somewhere wires got crossed.

This came out ages ago in 2010. I was totally oblivious as to its existence. I think it must have been sitting untouched on the shelves of Waterstones on London Wall for five years now. I can't imagine many financial services people would be interested in buying it. Although, ironically, it does dwell largely, and with increasing complexity on the economics of the music business. There's almost nothing on the substance of the music itself, but it still makes for a fascinating prism.

The picture it paints is of a complicated scenario. Rough Trade saw themselves as being socialist. The reality was different. I should emphasise that not being a socialist myself, I don't think any the less of them for them having "missed the mark". Perhaps the fairest way to describe their path is that that they meant well.

The best things Geoff Travis did seem less to do with well-intended gestures like the Rough Trade Worker's Trust (put in place just as the organisation began to fall apart, and therefore presumably not worth very much to the workers in the final reckoning...), or equal wages but in sticking fast to the bitter end as the company collapsed around him. Or, unrelated to economics, reaching out to people like Robert Wyatt and enabling The Smiths by giving them the unmediated space they needed to blossom. One couldn't imagine a major label allowing Morrissey to dominate cover design like he did.

Because of course, Cambridge-graduate Geoff with his accountant dad who advises upon and invests in his son's fledgling record shop - in another harsher light it looks a little "trustafarian". Again, not that I would be critical of that, because I believe in parents supporting their children and in families working together. It should be reported that in the book, central figure Jo Slee, when it is recounted to her that Travis has described himself as a socialist, she and another employee laugh.

It does highlight the gap between the perceptions of what was going on and the reality. This disconnection was at the root of their problems. A very good example is the absurdity of the Cartel, Rough Trade's distribution wing. You don't need an MBA to grasp how stupid this was. In the name of trying to give young people in the provinces the opportunity to be part of the music business (honestly, that's their spiel, not mine) - they arranged to parcel up deliveries of records to different distribution nodes through the UK (for example to FAST in Edinburgh). These parcels were then taken apart in these regional centres and split up and sent to smaller shops. Why didn't Rough Trade just mail directly to these smaller shops? The reason is ideological. They thought they were doing the hicks in the sticks a favour.

Reading accounts of the shop floor madness, for instance the RT warehouse staff refusing to allow management into the warehouse, drums home that capitalist institutions work better when there is some degree of acceptance of the individual's role within the pyramid. No, the managing director is not inherently superior to the delivery van driver, but even as someone like Richard Boon reflects in the book when it comes to the issue of equal pay, he shoulders a greater burden. Ultimately staff are best served by a company that rewards diligence and which doesn't go tits up and throw them onto the dole.

I think it matters to highlight this financial insanity because although Rough Trade was turning over huge sums at the end of the eighties (turnover - that chimera of economic success), they went bust quite spectacularly. I wouldn't know how to manage the cashflow of a massive business like that, so again, I don't come in judgement. However, I do think it needs emphasising that running a large company requires great prudence and due attention. It is a position of responsibility and arguably one Rough Trade jeopardised by wonky ideas.

We hear a lot in the book about how terrible everyone felt about Rough Trade collapsing, but little from the poor debtors who worked very hard to supply the organisation with product and who trusted in them. Geoff Travis saw his life's work in tatters but presumably many people, most especially smaller labels, experienced the gut-wrenching misery of losing their own money ostensibly because of Rough Trade's mismanagement. To think nothing of the employees who faced redundancy.

In moral terms it is a difficult thing to call. In some ways, as I struggle to extract money for work I did from a company which is experiencing its own financial woes, it's sobering to have a view of the misery on the other side of the equation. As much as I feel, in righteous fury, that the situation is of their own-making; I still have a fundamental respect for employers. The way socialists talk about pernicious "bosses" gives no credit to the task of generating work for other people. Employing other people is a pretty nifty trick to pull off. In twenty years I've only ever hired in other people on two occasions. For every one fat cat, there are ten thousand employers who, with nerves of steel, have the responsibility of looking after ten or twenty people. Here's to them.