Earlier this month (10 July) Thurston Moore was invited to give the keynote speech at the Association Of Independent Music's (AIM) annual AGM. Taking a career-spanning look at his career so far and his experiences with "the music industry", the Sonic Youth man spoke to Q's Paul Stokes in front of an audience that represented many of the UK's most influential and successful indie labels. Here's an edited version of the conversation.
You've done everything in music, you're in bands, you run a record label, you've owned a record stop and are still a music fan... "This is true. Thank you for having me here, it's a real honour. This is a crash course for me... Musicians often don't really know how labels work, and I speak as one who doesn't pay too much attention to it. I have some idea, seeing how Beggars works successfully and I'm impressed by that, but like most musicians you keep a certain distance from the industry..."
Speaking of the industry, when did you first become aware of record labels as a fan? "I've always been collecting records [but] I never really had any interest in the label. It was all about the artist. It wasn't really until I started seeing records coming out of the independent UK scene, specifically Rough Trade, in the late 70s that I noticed. I was 19 around '78. We didn't think about labels, the icons of our music at that time were Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television who were all signed to labels that weren't exactly independent in our consciousness, there wasn't really a distinction between their labels and any other releasing records, but if you looked at the artists themselves there was the distinction. So it wasn't until the seven-inches that started coming out of Rough Trade and The Buzzcocks' record that we realised there was something cool about it. We were very curious about what they were and then there was an explosion of independent labels, loads of punk rock records which led to the discovery of reggae, where there were all these different imprints. There seemed something down to earth and homemade about this stuff, rather than the grandiosity of the major labels. I would also read magazines, like Creem and Circus, veraciously. Creem was the most interesting because they would actually write about records on smaller labels, that was always very attractive, especially if the idea of the other resonated with you."
So when Sonic Youth started looking for their first deal, did you know what you wanting from a label? "There was never any ambition to garner recognition from a major label. That seemed impossible and completely out of reach. That was in tamden with the idea of punk rock anyway, you're never going to be Eric Clapton and why would you want to be? I'd much rather be the guitar player in The Buzzcocks, so the idea of wanting to be on a major was uncool in 79. So Sonic Youth in 1980 didn't have any aspirations in that direction. If anything, we thought we'd make a record ourselves and sell it on commission to the local record stores in New York City. What happened though was I was playing with Glenn Branca - an iconoclastic guitarist working in Manhattan - and he had decided to start his own label to release his music so he could have control over everything he did, his music was off the grid. He created Neutral Records and I was its first employee! I was supposed to call distributers but eventually they got rid of me because I didn't know what I was doing. Calling overseas to me was a mystical thing back then. Basically I was more focused on what I wanted to do with the band, so he ousted me after a couple of weeks and brought someone in who I believe had worked for Rough Trade in London called Peter Wright and then things started happening. I was really happy not to have to sit behind the desk."
Yet despite not enjoying the desk job, you set up your own label, Ecstatic Peace!, in 1981... "I always liked the idea of making records. So when I saw smaller labels in the early 80s coming out of the west coast, especially those associated with this band Black Flag who were voraciously independent and were encouraging bands to get in a van, crisscross the USA, play every little donut shop you can, put out your own records and don't respond to the success factors you see in the mainstream. For us in the USA that was really great. Our situation was so different to the UK because of how big the country is, it can feel quite disparate. So to see labels like SST Records and their sister label New Alliance Records which was run by The Minutemen... I really loved the esthetic of those labels. I like the simplicity of it and so I wanted to start a label that was cool as that. Originally I did cassettes. The first one was a spoken word thing, on one side it was Michael Gira from Swans reading this nefarious track that he wrote and the other side was Lydia Lunch with an erotic fantasy piece [laughs]. I photocopied the sleeves then hand magic markered all the lettering. That was Ecstatic Peace #1, then there was Sonic Death which was a Sonic Youth live thing. From there I wanted to do a seven-inch, but because there was no internet you'd just ask other people who'd already done it. You'd just save up your money to do it. It was a big deal."
Moving forward, what was the reaction among this community when Sonic Youth signed to a major in the 1990s? "When Sonic Youth signed to a cooperate label, Geffen, we got a lot of heat for doing such a thing because we were always seen as these representatives of true independence. One of the reasons we Sonic Youth signed to a major label was in the USA it meant we could acquire health insurance which was an important thing. No independent label could offer us such a thing. Also we had the privilege of getting cogent accounting which is not something we were offered in any real way before! The heat we got was for selling out, but for us it was like we're buying in. It was facetious in a sense, but there was a certain reality to it, it allowed us to pay our rent and focus a hundred percent on what we were doing as musicians and not get jobs... I had a real issue with the disparaging of major labels because one of the people who was crying the loudest was a musician named Steve Albini. He was very pro independent: stay away from the majors! His whole thing was if you look at it systematically the majors spend all this money on showing you a good time but they're spending your money and basically you don't know this. I took umbrage with that: Your presumption that this bands are being systematically ripped off by major labels is interesting to me because you're kinda presenting these bands as being very stupid. One thing I felt that we wanted to represent is that we were very conscious of where the money was spent. There was a way for artists to work with major labels where you're still working in a modest way. This was true back then. So I always wanted to defend that. There could be a relationship with major labels if the artist had a certain awareness of what their situation was. It was almost like an employer or a banking situation."
You took 80s indie spirit and applied that to dealing with a major? "Well we hoped that was the case but at the same time when we signed to Geffen records they were a unicorn of a business, they had their own distribution, they were seen as an 'independent' among the majors. Six months after we signed David Geffen sold the company. That was a hard lesson to learn, anything like that can happen and the dignity of their independence was amorphous."
With a perspective from both sides of the fence, is there a case for looking again at how we measure success in music now? Sonic Youth do not have a hit, for example, does make you a failure or has it liberated you? "We never sold loads and loads of records. We got loads of attention and we're a reference for anyone who plays a weird chord on a guitar: the Sonic Youth stylings of... but that doesn't equate to record sales. I've never really subscribed to the idea of bands and record labels having success that competes with the high success rate of a Michael Jackson. We never related to that. It was almost like professional sports: How many people can become that kind of player and institution? It's ok to work on more modest levels within your industry... When we first came to the UK our label said to us: If you work with us, tour in time you can be as big as The Birthday Party, maybe in five years. To me that was unbelievable! I couldn't even think how I would get to the level where I'd be as big as The Birthday Party. They may as well have said, as big as The Beatles, because The Birthday Party were The Beatles in our culture! I'd lie awake thinking, What would it be like to be as big as The Birthday Party? I always retain that memory. To be as big as The Birthday Party is a good as goal as anything... and it kinda did happen."
Is there anything we can learn from that modest outlook now we exist again in an era of, er, modest sales? "To me there was a distortion of what success means for bands like us and our culture, which was basically the result of the nova success of a band like Nirvana. They created, all of a sudden, a new standard of what a band can attained. There was definitely this flurry of activity and excitement at all the major labels to try to copy that. For bands like Sonic Youth, or say the Butthole Surfers or the Meat Puppets, who'd existed without success for a decade it was quite unnerving. There was a lot of anxiety about it, to all of sudden to have to work towards something like that. But a lot of the success of that band was wonderful too. It came to us. For ten years we'd had a demographic who really liked us and were defined by what we were doing, but we never sought beyond it. Suddenly we could break out because Nirvana were as big as Springsteen. That was unusual, for better or worse it changed things. I felt people were saying: Now's your chance to be the Pink Floyd of your generation. I think the A&R guy at Geffen definitely said that! I was really worried about it because we'd come out of punk rock. I'd much rather reference Wire than Pink Floyd, so it was never to be."
The Birthday Party to Pink Floyd in one career. Finally, baring in mind your new group, Chelsea Light Moving, has signed to Matador, are you optimistic for the future of independent music? "To me it's all about this dignity in modesty in the independent scene that I like. Nobody starts a record label, or even a band, with the intent to get rich... For me you want to be able to do this so you can support a modest lifestyle and that's completely perfect in a way." Paul Stokes @Stokesie