There is a long-held assumption that independent record labels only emerged in the wake of the late 1970s punk movement. While that is a noble concept (`independent' certainly went hand-in-hand with punk's Do-It-Yourself ethos), the reality is somewhat more widespread. In the USA, for example, all manner of self-financed independent labels had been issuing blues, R&B and country records since the 1920s.
With the emergence of Rock’n’Roll in the 1950s, the major record companies lacked an understanding of and were ill-equipped initially to deal with the youth culture phenomenon. Since that time, independent labels have continued to spring up as a viable alternative to the major record companies.
As the term implies, independent labels existed outside the mainstream music industry, thereby creating an outlet for the bands and artists that the majors considered inappropriate to their focus, commercially unviable or that they simply had no knowledge of how to market and promote. Often set up and driven by enthusiasts who knew the value of the music that the major labels rejected outright, these labels operated out of small backrooms, working within shoestring budgets, with low margins but boundless enthusiasm all the same. Quite often the people who ran the labels, and the bands involved, also packaged and distributed the records themselves (i.e. took them around to the record shops that stocked independent releases).
In Australia two of the most successful independent labels throughout the 1970s were 'Albert Productions' and 'Mushroom Records'.
Albert Productions was is one of Australia's longest established independent record labels to specialise in rock and roll music. The label was founded in 1964 by Ted Albert, whose family owned and operated the Australian music publishing house J. Albert & Son. During the 1960s, Ted Albert signed two of the most important Australian groups of the mid-1960s, Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs and The Easybeats. In the 70s they signed many successful bands including AC/DC, The Angels, Rose Tattoo and John Paul Young.
Mushroom Records was set up in 1972 by impresario Michael Gudinski, and caught the mood of the times by issuing records by Chain, The Dingoes, Madder Lake and Skyhooks. Skyhooks were the most successful band of the 1970s. The band's debut album, 'Living in the 70s', sold an unprecedented 226000 copies (it eventually reached the 375000 mark), thereby launching Mushroom Records as a premier league player in the record company game.
Just prior to the advent of Punk, independent labels like 'Clear Light of Jupiter', 'Real/Electric', 'Champagne', 'Rainbird', 'Oz, Eagle', 'Living Sound', 'Laser' and 'Eureka' were catering to eclectic tastes. The Punk/New Wave explosion of 1976 has been described as the "Big Bang" of the independent universe. Almost overnight, bands began issuing and distributing their own limited edition singles, sometimes with homemade production values and picture sleeves to match.
The Saints and Radio Birdman kicked the
Australian Punk movement off with a shower of teenage sweat and pure
adrenalin. In 1976 The Saints issued their howling, milestone debut single ‘(I'm)
Stranded' on their own 'Fatal Records'; the record scored a glowing review in UK
music paper 'Sounds', which led to major UK label EMI signing the band. That
same year EMI also signed the Sex Pistols to a two-year contract.
Likewise in 1976, Radio Birdman set up the 'Trafalgar' label to issue its mail order 7-inch EP 'Burn My Eye' and debut album 'Radios Appear'. Later on, 'WEA' stepped in with a distribution deal for the album, but Birdman remained fiercely independent and openly cautious of major label concerns.
Meanwhile the USA saw label 'Sire Records' also transform itself into a successful independent record label that went on to sign artists from the burgeoning Punk rock and New Wave scenes, including the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Undertones and Talking Heads (in 1978, 'Warner Bros. Records' acquired Sire Records).
In 1977 Barrie Earl, who was a booking agent for Premier Artists Melbourne/Sydney (also run by Michael Gudinski) had just returned from the UK where he had witnessed the Punk explosion first hand. Upon Earl's return Mushroom Records decided to exploit the Punk/New Wave movement that was taking place all around Australia and took an entrepreneurial gamble by creating the 'Suicide' label to see if they could replicate their own version of commercial 'Punk'.
With Earl as the coordinator, the first
major Australian Punk/New Wave L.P was released. It was a
brave and creative production entitled 'Lethal Weapons' and featured The Boys Next Door, JAB, Wasted Daze, Teenage Radio Stars, X-Ray-Z, The Negatives and The Survivors.
Engineer for the majority of the tracks on Lethal Weapons was Michael Shipley, an Australian with recent experience working with the Sex Pistols – who has since gone on to become a world-famous record producer.
The cover image – blood oozing from a gun – is bizarre. The credits are so convoluted you need a pen and paper to work out which tracks were recorded by whom: the 2007 reissue corrects this absurdity with a straightforward track listing. The original LP was pressed in white vinyl as a limited edition (Chris Walsh and Garry Gray turned theirs into ashtrays).
If Suicide came together under Barry Earl spectacularly fast, the way it fell apart was similarly dazzling. Lethal Weapons was released in March 1978; by the end of the year, JAB had split, Barrie Earl was managing James Freud and the Radio Stars which was, effectively, Freud and a whole new backing band – Freud had a hit single, ‘Modern Girl’, 18 months later. The Negatives spilt up even before Suicide terminated, with Garry Gray decamping to Sydney to, he now says, get away from hairdressers. The other groups soldiered on in various forms. X Ray Z changed their name again, to the Popgun Men. Models – the group formed by Ash Wednesday and manager Karen Marks and featuring ex-TRS member Sean Kelly, JAB’s Johnny and Ash and, before long, crack bassist Mark Ferrie – were already hugely successful on the live circuit by December of that year.
Chris Walsh has the same feeling: “Mushroom was making sure there wasn’t money to be made out of this punk rock thing. They didn’t understand it, but they didn’t want to let it escape.”
“The content of the record is probably not all that significant, what is significant is that all these people got noticed, got some experience in a recording studio, started to feel that they might have a serious shot as musicians, and went on to do pretty creditable work. Some of them never got anywhere, like the guys from X-Ray-Z although God knows we tried, but a very significant part of the Melbourne inner-city music scene in the late ’70s can be traced back to this record. I personally think the X-Ray-Z tracks are among the better tracks on the album...” Andrew Picouleau
“We went round for the pre-signing talk at Barrie’s apartment in South
Yarra. There’s a white fluffy carpet, nice white fluffy lounge, a white
afghan hound, and a nice human lady incarnation of the hound. Barry gave
us a tacky initiation speech; it was all "hundreds of thousands,
hundreds of thousands, money money money”; he behaved as if he was right
in there at the pulse and he knew what was happening…”Ash Wednesday
- http://web.archive.org/web/20040828074835/www.whammo.com.au/encyclopedia.asp?articleid=941 - Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop / Ian McFarlane 1999