Last Night From Glasgow: the radical record label

Last Night From Glasgow: the radical record label

Last Night From Glasgow – the first crowdfunded not-for-profit record label – is out for disruption by working ethically with artists, calling out exploitative practices, and with ambitions to shake up as much of the industry as it can. Label head Ian Smith talks to Popoptica about what’s wrong with the music industry and how his label is out for change. 

Last Night From Glasgow logo“I rather like being a big fish in the small pond of patronage-driven labels for now. I’m sure if more sizeable indies came in, they would ultimately drive bad practise into the pond and remove value. We are non profit and ethically driven, we can’t compete with major finances so honestly I’d rather everyone just moved on, nothing to see here…”

Ian Smith, head of record label Last Night From Glasgow muses on their crowdfunded, not-for-profit, ethical approach and how in the three years they have been going they’ve already started to ruffle feathers across the industry and show there is a different way of doing things, which can be highly focused on supporting artists to make money while remaining independent.

Smith recounts the beginnings of the label, “One night outside our local beer shop, I told my friend Stephen that I had an idea for a record label, one that would champion artists rights, be non-profit and be in a sense self-perpetuating. I asked him if he fancied setting it up with me. He agreed, we recruited four friends to help launch the label.

“I told a room of 50 people in January 2016 that we were starting a record company and we would be asking them to invest. We promised to try to not screw it up and they all came forward with support. By June 2016 we had released our first record and secured national press coverage. We had asked everyone to give us £50 and in return we would give them four records and invite them to four concerts. We wanted 60 people to come forward as along with our starting capital this would be enough to fund 300 copies of two LPs and two Singles. By June we had secured 100 supporters and by September 160. By the end of the first year we had delivered twice the output we had promised and signed twice the artists we expected to.”

The birth of the label may sound, when told this way, to have come quickly and simply and from their grown fast. Gestation however was longer and conception didn’t come solely from Smith’s involvement in the local music scene as a fan and supporter but was somewhat more political. Smith said, “It’s late 2015 – I’m still reeling from Scotland not extricating itself from the UK – how terrible does that decision look now, eh? I’d spent much of the previous years very engaged in the independence movement and a huge part of such was a collective vision of betterment, being better, doing better.

“Living in Glasgow, a city that voted overwhelmingly in favour of Scots Independence, I was immersed in the radical aspects of the movement, much was driven by, amongst others, artists, poets, musicians, authors – there was a vibrant and collective community blossoming in a vision of a better situation for all. So, when we managed to vote for the status quo of conservatism and everything that comes with that, I found myself deeply scunnered [classic Scots Word for hacked off beyond belief].

“I’m feeling disengaged, wanting to do something worthwhile and I have time on my hands. I started imagining possibilities. I’ve always been an avid music lover, record collector and gig attendee. At ones of these gigs, I met Carla from TeenCanteen, and over a period of time and other gigs, we became friends and we began discussing her ambitions for her band, her frustrations, her expectations. These discussions resulted in me one day investigating just how much it would cost to fund the vinyl release of their debut album. A few weeks later I was chatting to Joe McAlinden (Superstar) and telling him what I had been thinking, he threw some more issues and objections my way. More thought and chat followed.

“I was convinced that a collective funding approach was key. As a regular Kickstarter-er of games and occasional records and a shareholder in Brewdog, it had struck me that if you built the right community, provided said community with a product or service they wanted and made such financially attractive, why wouldn’t people want to get on board and support such an initiative.”

“…when you called me last night from Glasgow”

From the start the core mission of the label was very clear to Smith and was about attacking across an industry which is tilted in favour of everyone but the artist at its centre. He describes how the industry is failing fans and artists and in doing so almost sets out a manifesto of areas they are railing against, “The industry is failing artists and fans by perpetuating that myth that Spotify and streaming can make you rich. It’s failing by upholding unfair treatment of young bands, By encouraging gender imbalance, by supporting parasitical infrastructure that adds no value to any aspect of the industry. By not banking on the long term objectives of bands and artists, by essentially driving uninspiring auto-tuned drivel into our ears via platforms designed to encourage immediacy and ignore the brilliance of albums and development.”

This all fed into what Last Night From Glasgow set out to achieve when it was founded. Smith said, “Initially we just wanted to make it possible for artists to make physical product, to make a small amount of money from their chosen pastime or career as opposed to them facing being lumbered with debt.

“We wanted to show the local industry that a little creative thinking could make a big difference and we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could find people who would support a social enterprise like this. Sure it’s great value, yes we release amazing music but forget all that, we do good and doing good makes you feel good. Supporting good causes is good for the soul, I think we deliver a fair chunk of self satisfaction and rightly so. Our supporters make this possible.”

Three years on little has changed and Smith is effusive about the social good aspects of what the label is about and how they are constructively disrupting a model which, for the most part, undermines the artists on which is depends. The advent of digital platforms and particularly those which pay a pittance to artists while making huge amounts from subscriptions and advertising and teaching music listeners to expect music to be cheap or free. Smith is vocal about taking a stand against the likes of Spotify and respecting the art and the artist.

He said, “I don’t think we will ever change the industry direction, convenience and streaming are here to stay, more’s the pity. We can however try and educate consumers and the industry that we don’t have to expect music to be free. The only major benefactors of Spotify’s system are Spotify’s shareholders. No artist is better off as a consequence of it. Yes, Major Labels have found a way to monetise old catalogue at no expense but artists are getting screwed and the public are lapping it up because everyone else is doing it. Well there’s the route of all evil: ‘Everyone else is doing it ….’

“It costs 79p to buy a single – that’s hee haw, that’s less than it cost me to buy a single 30 years ago. That single purchase then is the equivalent to 800 plays on Spotify today. In order for Spotify to generate anything like the same revenue as a single sale you would have to play a song 2.5 times a day every day for a year. If you plan on doing that then great stream away but you won’t, you’ll listen 30 or 40 times maybe – the artist will make less than 10p. I don’t think thats fair. In a world where we pay £15 to see a movie once in a cinema why do we support a model which says you can listen to an album 20,000 times before it costs that amount of money.”

Alongside the dismissive way streaming platforms treat the artists on which they depend Smith isn’t one for holding back in other areas of the industry. Moving his way down his list of things he sees need fixing he sets his site on live music. He said, “You can apply that ‘everyone else is doing it’ thinking to so many situations in the music industry. Why do support acts get shafted on fees, why do bands get asked to play free showcases, why do promoters offer dreadful ticket splits and why do so many bands fall for it? That same ‘everyone else is doing it’!

“I’m sure a century ago as we were outlawing Child Labour, the employers were arguing that it ‘had to be this way’. Certainly when minimum wage was brought in, industry was screaming about the hideous impact it would have on everyone, we hear the same when unions clamour for Living Wage. The truth is promoters could be ethical, they could earn 10% less to ensure that their artists earn minimum wage, they could encourage headline acts to take 2% less in their fee so they can ethically support those at the bottom. The truth is its just too damned easy to write ‘Support £50’ and know that pretty much everyone else in the country is doing it.”

Smith is vehement this isn’t an idealist world he’s picturing but one within easy grasp, with only the slightest change in the approach. He’s quick to give an example of where he sees a change could easily be made, “If you’ve budgeted to sell 400 tickets for a venue at £7 a ticket and you are offering your support band £50. By upping the ticket price to £7.15 you could pay them £100 and not even think about altering your cut or the headline fee. Is the industry honestly telling me that the 15p increase in ticket price is unviable? – I was paying £7 to see bands play 25 years ago.

“If you understand Economies of Scale remotely you know that the argument is utterly nonsensical. I could sit here and explain Gross Profit margins, Net Profit ratios and Supply and Demand but really it boils down to a simple principle: if an artist at a tiny venue commands 10% of the turnover when they receive a £50 fee, then at a venue 10 times the size they should be able to command £500.

“Now of course that wouldn’t happen and no-one would expect it to but as venue and income grows, fees should grow. They do not. Ticket prices are being kept ridiculously low at the small venues so as to increase sales so the venues can make more beer money and the promoter more profit. That extra beer money is being retained by the venue and the overheads are being suppressed to keep the net profit as high as possible. Everyone wins but the bands. The event doesn’t exist without the bands but the bands are being treated like third class citizens in the whole process.

“Ticket Prices have inflated at the lower middle right through to the top end of the market. I paid £8 to see REM on the Green Tour in 1989. Recently I paid £36 to see Wilco in a similar size venue. That’s compound inflation of just over 200% in 30 years. Compound inflation that hasn’t hit the bottom of the market. Things could change and all it would take is a couple of good guys coming out and showing that it can be done. We know it can be done, we do it all the time. 200% compound inflation on a £4 ticket from 1989 is £16 at todays rate. Beer was less than a pound a pint in 1989. Back then my ticket cost me 4 quid and my four pints cost me £4, now my four pints cost me 16 quid and my ticket is still only £6. It doesn’t add up! To steal a line from the Scots Indie movement: Are you Yes yet?”

Since launching the label has added a management aspect open to bands on and off their roster, as well as started an imprint focused on composition rather than songwriting, Komponist. Across everything they are doing they’re one of a handful of labels willing to put a head above the parapet to call out poor practices and suggest practical and ethical alternatives while retaining their passion as music fans and being open to diverse artists and sounds. Even the name is intended to raise an eyebrow and reflect their providence. Taken from Abba’s Super Trouper Smith is typically forthright about the reasons for it, “Because (a) It’s singularly the greatest lyrical reference to the city (b) it’s a killer pop song (c) there is something subversive about naming a slightly radical, mouthy label after such a blatantly commercial pop song.”

Glasgow and Scotland are focal points for the label and they’ve had support from Creative Scotland for their work with and for local artists. Smith is pragmatic about Glasgow’s current music scene, “In places the scene is vibrant and exciting, in places disjointed and self serving, in places lost up its own behind and in places progressive and challenging. Like all cities there’s good, bad and utterly drab. It would be a truly magical scene if everyone in it could understand that we can all benefit from an advancement of serving the common good. It’s so easy to abandon your principles in the face of apparent opportunity, I see it happen every day.”

Power in a union

Wall of fame LP covers at Last Night From Glasgow HQWorking together, and for the common good, is a principle Smith returns to often when talking about Last Night From Glasgow, and which can be seen pulsing through their every action. It’s an approach which many would claim to be aligned to but Smith says finding those across the industry who are truly willing to walk the same path hasn’t been so easy. He said, “It sure is easy to find folks who want the benefit of working with us, we are inundated with requests. Involving Last Night From Glasgow dramatically reduces the costs of operation for bands and other labels. So yeah, it’s not difficult to find people who want a piece of what we have to offer.

“Finding people who actually want to stand aside us as we rock the industry boat is a harder job. Most folks don’t want the hassle. Most folk want it to be cool and want to be apologists for what is wrong. I guess that’s what separates us. We didn’t set up Last Night From Glasgow because we wanted to be in the music industry, we set up Last Night From Glasgow because we saw problems that needed fixing. We came with an agenda. We’d would like everyone to like us and we would love everyone to support us but we are under no illusion that we rub many folks up the wrong way. Well, if you get annoyed because we are trying to do things fairly then maybe its because you’re on the wrong side of the argument.”

Again, it brings into focus an area of the industry which Smith feels could stand some scrutiny and an overhaul of practice; PR, plugging and promotion. He said, “There are undoubtedly okay folks in plugging and PR who are trying to make a buck fairly. I think we have just met one and we hope to engage them going forward but the vast bulk are chancers. Anyone asking for vast swathes of cash in advance of doing a job is basically at it.

“I have spent my life working in an industry which rewards success and punishes failure. The music industry rewards failure. The whole gimme £2000 and I will try and get you on 6Music. How about, you get me radio play I’ll pay you for the success. You secure me a playlisting, I will reward you accordingly. I don’t get paid in my job for failing to win contracts, I lose money when I fail to win contracts. Why does the industry support an structure which encourages inactivity? If you give me £2000 whether I am successful or not what motivation do I have to be successful. It’s gibberish and it’s generally a scam. Plugging only really works when you have an an actual audience and a demand and you need someone to manage the logistics.

“If I were redesigning the industry from the ground up I’d remove plugging and PR – it has no value and it serves the wealth not the talent. Anything that puts power in the hands of wealth is fundamentally flawed. While I’m at it I’d ensure fair remuneration for all in terms of sales and streams and live performance. We have fair representation and remuneration in other artistic fields why not music? Then I’d outlaw unfair contracts – we did it in football we can do it in music. I’d demand public radio was diverse and met diversity objectives regionally ethically and gender wise. Finally, I’d bring back Top of the Pops!”

It’s navigating the industry and having the confidence to stand up to the status quo, as well as find alternatives that work better that Smith thinks is the reason for labels in the current climate. While artists can be fully DIY with fewer logistical barriers than in the past Smith doesn’t believe labels are obsolete, “The industry can be navigated without a label but the industry is chock-a-block with parasites and speculators, bad advice, poor fees and dodgy dealings that it would take nerves of steel to navigate that without deviating along a ropey path.

“But if I could give artists one piece of advice when looking for a label to work with it would be to work out if the label is actually adding value. Find out what they will do and what guarantees they can make in terms of objectives and activity.

“Musicians should get better at unionising. There is power in union. It just takes one person to lead the charge and few brave folks to follow and the whole industry would change but which young artist wants to alienate the infrastructure by standing up against issues therein. Just last week I was told by someone that our artists weren’t unhappy with the fees structure for support gigs. Well, of course they would say that because they would rather have fifty quid than nothing but I return you to my Living Wage and Minimum Wage arguments. No recipient of either ever said ‘I was quite happy on £4 an hour’. Just because we accept a beating doesn’t mean we like it.”

Outside influences, inside inspiration for Last Night From Glasgow

With a singular vision and side-eye for most of the music industry it’s interesting to think where the influence on Last Night From Glasgow might currently come from but Smith explains that there is a lot of negative actions which motivate their actions but it’s not all external, “Our artists influence us, the challenges they face can create the need for flexibility. Seeing persecution and unfairness inspires us to be better. Watching powerful people present piss poor excuses for their terrible decision making encourages us to do the complete opposite.

“The gender balance row is another piece of bullshit mansplaining from folks who cant be arsed thinking about what is and is not viable. More than half the acts on Last Night From Glasgow are female fronted, that’s not by design it’s because the talent dictates it. We don’t need another skinny jeans, winkle-picker lad rock band spitting Artic Monkeys-esque drivel into a microphone. Pretty much all of this years best albums are from female artists – Julia Jacklin, Lana Del Rey, Sharon Van Etten, Aldus Harding, Phoebe Bridgers, yet we still get the same tired old crap at UK Festivals. Although hats off to the inventors of Queen Tuts for taking a problem and solving the issue by smearing shit all over it: ‘Let’s have a special stage for the ladies where they can learn to be as good as the men’. I’m not even kidding.

“Outside the music industry a certain young Scandinavian woman is a huge inspiration and unquestionably frontrunner for Woman of the Year. There’s someone standing up for what is right in the face of extreme adversity.”

The team at Last Night From Glasgow has fluctuated a little over the years but has a steady group who work on behalf of the roster, mostly drawn from local music fans and supporters of the label. Smith says this group are who inspire him, “Stephen, Julia, Gary, Rose, Leona, Iain, Kenny, Andrew, Andy, and Hannah along with the Komponist team Tim and George. The fact I have met a bunch of folks willing to give up their time to do the thing I envisaged is massively inspiring. I’m inspired when I meet people who want to make changes for the better, people who give their time for the benefit of others.”

The membership is at the heart of the label – what started from 60 friends on the scene asked to put their trust in the idea has grown significantly and Smith says a lot of them are ‘socially minded folks who like doing good’. Its as much a community as it is a membership, but for the label it means they only have to worry about money once a year – an enviable position for many independent labels who have the ethos but not necessarily the practical means to deliver on their ideas. Once their subscriptions complete the budget is set and they can run for 12 months without worrying about the impact of sales. This sounds like a dream for many a small business but it’s who they appeal to which concerns Smith and he knows well who that might be, saying, “The first group we appeal to is music lovers who fancy having their listening challenged; then there is the socially-minded folks who like doing good. I mean its £55 a year, thats just about £1 a week to fund the arts. I am frankly astonished we have only 300 patrons in a country of 60 million. All that music and goodwill for less then the price of a cup of tea every week. Then there are the speculators – at some point one of our artists is going to explode and if you happen to have one of those rare early pressings… . Finally collectors and completists.”

There seems like there is still a lot in Smith’s sights when it comes to being a label but looking back he’s proud of how far they have already come, highlighting some of the key moments for him he said they included, “Setting up a second label in Komponist, obligated to champion music that would ordinarily be ignored by the industry at large was a nice moment. Releasing the fourth Bis album and the third Close Lobsters album are two things my younger self would never have imagined happening with anyone never mind us. Selling out 25 of 31 releases so far. Paying ethical support fees ALWAYS, championing fair play. Not abandoning our principles in the pursuit of fame and acceptance. I adore every record we have released and I am proud of all of them but I have a very special place for the second Sister John album – it epitomises what Last Night From Glasgow is about for me.”

But given these special moments and how much Last Night From Glasgow has already achieved or set in motion in its three years does Smith still have ambitions for the label? “I quite fancy opening a record plant…”

Find Last Night From Glasgow and Komponist

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Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
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