The Golden Age of Britain and Ireland’s Independent Record Labels

Words and image by Natalie Graham

Signing to an Independent record label carried a certain type of musical superiority. The Smith’s Johnny Marr stated in The Guardian that “The Very act of being on Rough Trade at the time was a statement in itself… It cut across our whole aesthetic”. A product of Punk Rock, Independent labels welcomed with open arms the rejection of musical restraint at the hands of the corporate machine for a model based on a DIY ethos and commitment to producing innovative music with a unique sound. Independent labels were notoriously underfunded, reliant on a family of brave independent record stores, a chain of promoters and fanzine publication. An alternative media was created to unite the disengaged, and provide easy access to the developing Indie genre.

The 1980’s were to be the golden decade of Independent record labels, run by individualists who traded business savvy strategy for musical prowess. With no definitive British pop sound, avant-garde music was being produced from all over the UK, representing each regions identity and creating a melting pot of musical genius that would remain hugely influential in contemporary music.


Alan Horne and Edwyn Collins Postcard Record’s was the Glasgow based record label with the trademark motto, ‘The sound of young Scotland’. Originally launched to release Orange Juice’s first official single; ‘Falling and Laughing’, the label also signed Aztec Camera, Josef K and The Go-Betweens. Run from a small flat on West Princes Street, the indie label which embodied the DIY ethos and provided a platform to homegrown post-punk bands would remain one of the most influential of all time. Glasgow was a key location for American imports, including records; which would become the sound that influenced many Scottish musicians. Scottish bands have rarely drawn inspiration from their English counterparts, as a result the synth was side-lined and the humble indie jangle of the guitar remained. This was definitely the case for Postcards first signing; Orange Juice. Lead singer Edwyn Collins mixed the sound of The Birds with punk and disco, creating a new kind of music; Post Punk. Postcard like all trailblazing institutions ended as quickly as it came, having only 14 official record releases between the summer of 1980-1981. But, the sounds of Postcard influenced Scottish success story; Altered Images, the first Collins inspired group to make it big with an ‘indie jangle’ that stood out against rival bands like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell. Postcard was also a major contributer to the outstanding Scottish Experiment.


Rigid Digits was the Belfast based record label formed by the four original members of Stiff Little Fingers. The band formed at the height of The Troubles, a period which produced some of the most influential bands and music to come out of Northern Ireland. The appeal of Punk was huge amongst Irish bands, a unique sound that accurately reflected an era defined by violence and sectarian conflict. Stiff Little Fingers embraced the sound of Punk, collaborating with journalist Gordon Ogilvie to write about their own experiences of The Troubles and Belfast’s turbulent political climate. The band’s first two singles ‘Suspect Device’ and ‘Wasted Life’, were distributed by Rigid Digits with ‘Suspect Device’ selling over 30,000 copies. It was a powerful response to the police brutality and increased violence normalised into daily life. The musical King maker John Peel began to play ‘Suspect Device’, resulting in London based Indie Label, Rough Trade striking a deal with Rigid Digit to release Stiff Little Fingers first album ‘Inflammable Material’. The album became one of the first independent punk albums to chart in the UK. Rigid Digit does not exist today; in mid-1979, Stiff Little Fingers signed their Rigid Digits label to Chrysalis Records. However it still remains an important institution for Irish Independent music.


Post War Government regeneration programmes forced the start of fundamental cultural change in Britain, the arrival of Jamaican immigrants benefitted not only Coventry’s workforce but also the music scene. Jamaican Ska and reggae music had made its way to Britain and influenced a whole generation of young musicians. Ska is a sound made up of Caribbean Mento, Calypso, American Jazz and also RnB. It’s offbeat rhythm and walking bassline meant it was made for dancing, appealing to the population of Coventry who had faced desolation and despair during and after the war.

The brainchild of Coventry arts student Jerry Dammers; 2 Tone Records prompted the ‘second coming’ of Ska through a fusion of traditional Jamaican Ska, Punk Rock and an incorporating of the piano style of Fat Domino. This created a more up tempo and high-energy sound than first wave Ska, and brought it to mainstream audiences across the United Kingdom. Major record labels rejected the sounds of Punk Reggae leaving Dammers to embrace the DIY attitude of the era, creating music from his house in Coventry through 2 Tone and signing fellow Coventry devotees; The Selecter, as well as Madness, The Beat and The Prince.

The name 2-Tone itself was created by The Specials to represent the racial integration of the band and record label, still an uncommon sight for the times. As a target of National Front overt campaigns, gigs were interrupted and both Black and White members of the band harassed and threatened. 2 Tone was undeniably political, their music had a deeper message than just bringing Ska to mainstream British air waves, the band questioned and condemned the deep rooted racism of Thatcher era Britain. A prime example of this was the success of The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ which won them single of the year after the explosive summer of ’81.The label collapsed in 1982 under the pressure of in house fighting and cultural change within the music industry. However 2 Tone became its own biggest legacy, the label had something to say and achieved what it set out to do; change people’s minds on race.


Manchester and music have an unbreakable bond, from Jazz cafes in the 1950s to the Northern Soul movement of the 60’s, the city became one of the most influential in the development of British Post Punk with Factory Records emerging in the late 70s. Tony Wilson threw his life savings into the company he called “an experiment in art”, a high minded, anti-corporate, post punk record label that was to reshape the musical terrain. It quickly gained notoriety due to its innovative bands, such as Joy Division, New Order, The Durutti Column and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Talented associates, producer Martin Hannett and fellow Northern graphic designer Peter Saville were vital to creating the Factory concept of musical innovation and style.

Peter Saville designed a large proportion of Factory signed artists record sleeves, giving the bands their own image. Contemporary audiences now celebrate Saville’s record sleeves as respected pieces of art, independent to the Vinyl inside. Saville’s design for Joy Division’s 1979 album Unknown Pleasures has led to it becoming one of, if not the most well-known record sleeve of all time. Originally from a Cambridge University astrophysics publication, the iconic image of the dark and cryptic radio waves reflects the mood of the album, aiding itself to the melancholic and euphonious tones of Ian Curtis. Martin Hannett, with all his studio dexterity and technological experimentation rejected the pristine sounds of Southern sophistipop and determined the sound of Manchester for an entire decade. Hannett portrayed the gritty sounds of austerity and industrial nature of the city through the use of an AMS digital delay machine. Used on Unknown Pleasures to create a haunting echo on the drums it produced a sound unheard before, a calculated gamble that assured Joy Division were ahead of their time.

In December ’78 Joy Division, alongside The Durutti Column and Cabaret Voltaire were included on the ‘A Factory Sample’ EP; the first official recording released by Factory Records. Off the back of this, a deal was proposed to the members of Joy Division, a record contract with Factory in the loosest possible form. As an embodiment of DIY ethos and rejection of corporate manipulation it was a deal which ensured Wilson would not own any of the band’s work, entire creative freedom and profits split 50/50. This became the template for all future Factory signings, instantly setting Factory aside from the rest as unique to the music industry. In April ’79 Joy Division rejected offers from major record labels to record ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (FAC10) with Factory as the labels first album issue. Although only enjoying limited commercial success, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ gained Joy Division and Factory a dedicated following. After the death of Ian Curtis, New Order emerged from the ashes to release their debut album ‘Movement’ in 1981 and handed Factory ‘Blue Monday’, the band and labels biggest hit to date. The single went on to become the biggest selling 12″ of all time but keeping true to the care-free hedonistic lifestyle, Factory failed to capitalise from its success resulting in huge losses. The label was left penniless, despite having sold millions of records by Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays. In 1992 Factory was sold to London Records. Factory owned archetypal nightclub; The Hacienda (FAC51) had also begun reaping more financial risk than reward eventually closing its doors in 1997.

Factory Records was as Wilson had intended, an experiment in art, it was always about artistic aptitude rather than writing a commercial success story. Profit and fiscal prosperity wasn’t the point of Factory, Wilson once stated “It seemed correctly anarchistic not to want to be rich”. Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus achieved something far more meaningful. They built an international image of Manchester through music, art, design and ethos. Factory Records left it’s mark on pop culture, remaining a beacon for musical independence, and continues to inspire new bands.


Rough Trade has been crowned ‘the label that changed musical history’, David Sinclair wrote in the Independent that “John Peel gave new acts radio space, Rough Trade gave them shelf space”. Opening its doors in the late 70’s, Rough Trade quickly became a record store and more importantly independent distribution network. The aim? To get independent DIY artists the exposure they need to facilitate musical growth. Rough Trade gave artists an inroad to the retail market, any band with a batch of pressed records ready to sell could take them to Rough Trade to be stocked and sold. Rough Trade attracted artists such as The Fall, The Smiths and Jarvis Cocker, all of which contributed to the labels air of imaginative and diverse musical superiority.

Rough Trade like all dominant labels of the 80’s fall from grace at the end of the decade, and it’s divorce from success resulted in the label losing everything including Rough Trade success story; The Smiths, back catalogue. However the resurrection came in 2000 when Rough Trade began trading once more and have continued to be the chosen label of artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Alabama Shakes.