interview with martin mills

-Martin, welcome!

-So can you tell us how Beggars Banquet started?
It started as a mobile disco initially, then it became a record shop, selling second hand and new records side by side, and then it gradually got up to being six record shops and during that process, one of our shops in Fulham started a rehearsal room underneath the shop, this was in 1976 so it was a place where all the new Punk bands used to rehearse - Generation X and lots of bands like that. One of the bands that used to rehearse down there was The Lurkers, and the shop manager started to manage them, he needed help so we started managing them, we tried to get them a record deal but nobody wanted to because at that point, everyone had already signed a punk band and they were only interested in insurance policies at that point. And so we did what seems really normal these days, cause the road map is really well travelled, but in those days was almost unprecedented, we put the record out ourselves.

-Where did the name Beggars Banquet actually come from?
Well, I’d better not say it came from the Rolling Stones album, because it didn’t. It actually came for some bizarre historical reason the mobile disco we were running was called ‘Giant Elf’ which was a pretty unfortunate name, we used to get a lot of hoax gay bookings, and we merged with some friends who were running a mobile disco in Oxford who were already using the name Beggars Banquet so in fact the mobile disco became Beggars Banquet and I think they named it because they loved that Stones album - and so we got it, and its continued!

-So why music, when you studied Philosophy, politics and economics - so what drew you to music initially?
Being a fan, loving it! when I was at University, I spent all my time listening to music and not working! It was what I loved so it was why I started the mobile disco, and I suppose it never occurred to me I would spend my working life in music. When I left University I wrote to every record company, and there were only about six at the time, asking if I could get a job in the warehouse and absolutely nothing happened. At one point in my life I was doing a fairly academic job and I got a job in a second hand record shop - at the Record and Tape Exchange in Shepherds Bush, which is a famous second hand shop, and I got a job there just for fun as a contrast to having an academic life - simply because I loved it and I bought records all the time and I was up all night listening to music, it was the thing I loved. I never thought I would really be lucky enough to combine hobby and career, but I have.

-So you set up the Beggars Banquet shop, was it ever your intention to set up a record label?
No, its all been a series of accidents, quite frankly! One thing that’s been conspicuously absent from us is a grand plan! And we only ever opened a second shop because we did well with the first one. Its all been a series of building bricks really. The only reason we started the label was because we were managing a band we couldn’t get a deal for. And the only reason we put a second record out was because the first one went well! and the only reason we put a third one out was because another band walked through the door! and it kind of went on... obviously its a lot more organised than that these days, but it kind of went on like that for a long time!

-Beggars Banquet’s first release was ‘Shadow/Love Story’ by the Lurkers - how did it feel to release your first record?
oh it was very exciting and very personal and very hands-on. We’d never booked a recording studio before, we’d never got a record manufactured before and we never distributed a record before - obviously we didn’t man the pressing plant, but getting them in through the door, obviously this was being worked from the record store, but just getting the record in, and putting it into the back of our cars and taking them off round various wholesalers was fantastically exciting, and I’m sure it still is today, when people do it today, except back then it was almost unheard of to do that!

-Not long after this you did a deal with Warners - what exactly did this involve and what involvement did they have?
It involved Warners saving us from bankruptcy to be honest, because we’d been running the label out of the shops cashflow and had pretty much reached the end of our ability to do that. So we got a license deal with Warners, which quite frankly saved our bacon. It meant we sub contracted everything really except the making of the music and the product managing of it, to a big global corporation. Which I think was probably the right growth pattern at the time. It enabled us to be really successful with Gary Numan at the time, and we probably couldn’t have done it - in fact we certainly couldn’t have done it on our own. But it was a temporary situation as far as the growth of the label was concerned

- You signed Gary Numan’s band ‘Tubeway Army’ and in 1979 released ‘Are Friends Electric’ which got to the top of the charts. What was it like getting a record that went to number one?
It was unbelievable to be honest. when I first heard that track, Gary was recording it in the studio in Portobello Road, which I don’t think is there any more but it was a really pokey tiny little studio. Are Friends Electric was not a song he’d written before he’d recorded the album and I remember going to what were the final album sessions, walking through the door and he played this new song that he’d just recorded; ‘Are Friends Electric’ and I thought it was a mesmerising song and we frankly released it as a single because it was such a good song. We never thought It was never a single shaped record, and even now it doesn’t look like a single shaped record. We released it, and Gary’s whole profile just caught the public’s imagination and at the time we got him on Top of the Pops and the Old Grey Whistle Test in the same week which you weren’t meant to do because one was for albums and one was for singles, and suddenly it flew up to the top of the chart. It was amazing, it was fantastic!

-Did this give you the inspiration to continue the label, now you had more financial security?
It wasn’t so much the inspiration, as we had that, it was more the ability to do it, I think. It showed us that we could be really successful - being successful wasn’t really what we were about, it still isn’t really, we do this because its fun to be involved with really great music and certainly being involved with Gary at this point was very exciting. Now history looks at it differently and history has been through varying views of Gary, its constantly in an “up” phase of Gary. Notwithstanding that, ‘Are Friends Electric’ is one of those outstanding singles like ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ or whatever it is - one of those singles that stands out.

-When did you start thinking about other labels and extending Beggars Banquet?
Really that was because of Ivo (Watts-Russell - 4ad founder) and Peter Kent who were both working in our shops at the time. At that point we were pretty completely occupied with Gary Numan and we were a bit concerned about being just Gary’s record label. We had to do that at the time but we wanted to be more than that - in a sense we wanted to get back to what we had been as well as being what we had become. Ivo and Peter came to us and said “we’ve got an idea, we want to start a more left-field label and we’d like you to give us £2,000 to start it with”. And so we said yes, and we allowed them to get started. The idea initially was that the artists once successful would then transfer to the parent, Beggars, but the only act that ever did that was Bauhaus because pretty soon, Peter left and Ivo established what has obviously become a strong identity for 4ad and it started ploughing its own course.

-Can you explain why the Situation 2 label was set up?
That goes back to the difference between majors and independents, in the late 70’s early 80’s really. because Beggars were distributed by Warners because of our historical license agreement it was part of our liberating ourselves from the license agreement, which was in effect a sub contracting agreement, and turning it into a distribution agreement which meant they put the records in the shops. We were tied to Warners which was fine because it was a good relationship but it didn’t allow us to be seen as independent, which we really were - we were just as independent as Rough Trade, we were just distributed by a major. So we invented Situation 2 as an independent arm of Beggars and through that came The Associates and artists like that.

-Can you tell us about the other labels that are now involved with Beggars?
Well its quite a family now, they’ve all come through for different reasons, I suppose 4ad was the early model, after that it was City Beat which turned into XL and that really came about because in 1987 it was fairly clear something was happening in the dance world that had paralleled what had happened in the punk world 10 years earlier. It was exciting to be involved with, but it involved better contacts and skills so we brought in Tim Palmer who started City Beat with us and gradually that turned into XL which has become an amazing label these days. Then following that, Mantra was a label we started ourselves because we wanted a companion to Beggars to do what we’ve traditionally done but with a bit of a twist, we got involved with Too Pure and Wiiija both because they were small labels who were struggling financially who needed big brother and we felt they were doing something musically very interesting and Mo’Wax was for the same reasons, just a little bit later on!

-Are there any plans to take on any more labels?
Not currently, the concern is that we have to be able to do the right job for what we have and we’re involved with a lot of great creative people and we obviously have a capacity to do that. There are a lot of other labels I really respect and admire and I’d like to get involved with, but it would be pointless doing that unless we feel we’re already doing everything we should be doing, as well as we possibly can. And we’ve got the space to do it. So if we get to that point, then yes!

-Beggars Banquet is now known as the Beggars Group - with the company now officially recognised as a group, how do you intend to maintain the independent spirit of the company and can you avoid the corporate label?
I certainly hope so, because we don’t feel corporate - the intention of taking the Banquet out of the Group was simply to differentiate between the label and the family of labels. Beggars Banquet having been the founding label, is now one amongst seven, so we wanted to make that differentiation. I think frankly, we’re about as independent as you can get, we’re not owned by anyone, we don’t owe anything to anyone, we do exactly what we choose to do, which to me is the definition of independence. We’re completely different to the world of the majors, we do what we wanna do, and the people running the labels do what they want to do and they all act fairly independently of each other and independently of the mother ship, so its a loose collective of creative people, I’d like to think.

-what's your most memorable moment?
I’m not sure there’s one singular most memorable moment.... they’re mainly to do with music I suppose, they’re mainly to do with hearing things or being at a gig or something - I remember a Bauhaus gig at ULU, where you could see it was gonna happen, it was one of those spine tingling shows where you knew they’d got it and it was gonna be great for a period of time. So I guess that was one. Another was going to see Mercury Rev in the studio in Upstate NY in Albany and hearing the first tracks from ‘See You On The Other Side’ which was fantastic. Its things like that...

-anything you regret? Bands not signed... labels you didn’t take on... anything like that?
not really. I mean, clearly there’s always music you’d admire on other labels, I mean it would be incredibly blinkered to think that the only great music was on our labels and I enjoy music from other artists whether they’re current or in the past. In terms of bands we’ve not succeeded in signing, yes, there are some. you can’t get everything you want, obviously. I suppose the big one that we should have signed but never, and I’m not sure why, was REM and we were never aware that we’d missed them - in an interview 10 years ago they’d said they only wanted to sign to two record labels, IRS and Beggars Banquet, and Beggars Banquet turned them down! But I don’t know who did!!

-is there a genre of music that you see developing and becoming pivotal to popular music?
not really at the moment. But I kind of think its not for me to see that. Its for the people making it to see it really. I think what's interesting about the music scene at the moment is that there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on but its diverse, its fragmented. I suppose if there’s any kind of thing at the moment, its what people are calling “new softies” the kind of gentle electric acoustic music, and frankly a band like The Delgados who I’d associate with that, i think are completely wonderful! I don’t think you could say there was any particular great scene at the moment , I suppose the American nu-metal scene is one of it, and its clearly appealing to young kids in quite an unusual way at the moment. But I think in the area we’re involved in, alternative music, by which I mean not immediately pop or commercial music, I think its very varied which I think is no bad thing. It makes it more difficult for a scene to develop, it makes it easier to approach things because it gives you a broader canvas on which to work.

-what for you has become the most significant development within the music industry over the time you’ve been involved?
well I guess the obvious answer today is the web, the internet, mp3 and so on but I think I might skip that one and say the ability for independents to operate on their own, separately from majors cause its easy these days to look and see how strong independents are and how a label like us with just no support from any majors can get The Prodigy to number one in 27 different countries and sell seven million albums and Mute can do something similar with Depeche Mode. Its easier to take that for granted now, but when the first Depeche Mode album and MARRS’ Pump Up The Volume on 4ad, when they hit number one in 1987 or so, they were the first number ones through independent distribution in the UK. But it was those records that proved that the indies could do what the majors did, and that if you were on an independent you didn’t have to sacrifice potential success in order to be in the company of your peers. You can actually get the best of both worlds. You can be making music with the people you wanted to and have it promoted and marketed by similar minded people. But at the same time not diminish your potential for it to reach millions of people at the same time. And I think the big development is the ability whether its ourselves, or Epitaph, or whoever you want to say, is being able to stand on our own two feet, work collectively to our mutual benefit where necessary but still be independent.

-Beggars started around the same time as other independents that haven’t survived, such as Creation, the original Rough Trade label and Factory. What do you think has been the key to Beggars survival and success?
I think its probably that we’ve done it properly, I don’t think our music has been any greater than those labels. I think we release great music and so have they! I think Creation were fantastic within a particular snapshot - they were a label who had one musical identity and never went beyond that. I think to be really lasting as an independent label you’ve got to develop and you’ve got to catch one musical wave and move from one to another, AND you’ve got to be making great music AND you’ve got to do it in a businesslike way because that’s what your artists expect of you ultimately. And I think Geoff at Rough Trade and Tony at Factory were just as great with music, if not greater. But they didn’t hold it all together and it didn’t make it work, and frankly its no good being great creatively if you can’t make it work. And I suppose that’s the difference.

-do you have any advice for people who are trying setting up labels and release their first records?
do it! its not easy, and the marketplace both here and overseas is not easy to access unless you are brilliant or very lucky or ideally both, but its fantastic fun to do and you should certainly try it!

-and the future of Beggars - what can we see happening over the next few years?
that depends on our artists mainly, I think. Whether its the Avalanches or the Tindersticks or Six By Seven or whoever it may be today, I think where we go will be where our artists take us. Clearly we’ve been very aggressive with the internet in general and we will be moving forwards and doing an awful lot more with the web but ultimately it will depend on the music we sign and the records those artists make.