Local record labels: the importance of 'demos'

old photo of a smiling man in a small room with lots of technical equipment

Percy Phillips in his Kensington studio.
Courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

For many musicians a record deal with a national or international company is the main way they hope their sound can become widely heard. But alongside these large organisations the role of local labels has also been important. Although they have become less common, local labels have often given musicians their first opportunities to hear what they sound like on record, as well as providing them with a 'demo' record that they could use to try to persuade record companies that their sound was different.

Up to the late 1940s recording facilities were generally concentrated in the hands of record companies who could afford and house the equipment. When those companies did venture out of their studios to make recordings on the road their presence was a great novelty in the areas they visited. But gradually, as tape recorders in particular became more common, and affordable, recording facilities began to be set up by individuals with no connections with the centres of the record industry.

Liverpool's first recording studio of any note was that of Percy Phillips in Kensington. Country music fan Phillips had originally run an electrical shop in Liverpool and decided in 1955 to buy a portable tape recorder and disc-cutter, adding microphones and a four-way mixer. This studio was no more than a recording booth set up in the front room of Phillips' terraced house. One-off discs were produced however: spoken word messages to relatives, birthday recordings and occasional contract work for choral societies and church choirs. Phillips would first commit the performance to tape and then transfer this to a shellac disc, wiping the tape in readiness for the next customer. The only historical traces of these recordings therefore reside with those for whom the records were actually cut. The studio's name did appear on the mustard coloured record labels, each label contained only hand-written details of the recording. The world's most expensive collectable recording - the Quarry Men's 'That'll be the day'/ 'In spite of all the danger' was recorded here. Various dates in 1958 are given for this event but none can be verified.

Although basic, Phillips' studio was something of a novelty. Word spread among young local musicians in the 1950s that there was an easy way of cutting a record at his studio and several local groups made 'one take' recordings there. Sadly, Phillips' so-called mobile equipment was seldom if ever used away from home, and so many opportunities for remote recordings of some of the burgeoning sounds in and around Liverpool were lost.

detail of label in the centre of a vinyl record with text: 'Recorded by P.F. Phillips, Kensington. 'That'll be the day'. Play with a light-weight pick-up. Holly, Percy'

Demo recorded at Percy Philips' Studio.
Courtesy of the Institute of Popular Music

CAM Studios in Moorfields, Liverpool, run by electrical engineer Charles Weston, was a little more sophisticated than Percy Phillips' studio and began life as a genuine demonstration studio. Weston also provided a 45rpm service for those wishing to have a single recording to tout around publishers and record companies. This service was named 'Unichord'. All artists who received their Unichord disc(s) from CAM had to guarantee payment for the entire process, including studio time and microphone use, in addition to final pressing. By the mid-1960s a few local artists such as the Almost Blues and the Blue Mountain Boys had recorded for this label, but it was an expensive business.

Alan Peters of the Almost Blues states:

"All the demo recordings undertaken by The Almost Blues [at CAM] were performed live with no overdubs. They were normally completed within one or two takes. This was general practice at the time due to recording costs and limited studio time. Most of the sessions were spent adjusting the microphones etc in order to achieve the most representative sound of the band for prospective major label A and R departments."

By 1966 the CAM label had been introduced. The deal was that the artists would not only pay for the recording but also multiple pressings and packaging to order. Basically CAM provided a product that could be retailed. Local shops did take the recordings but there is little evidence to suggest that CAM records sold elsewhere. Perhaps the most significant CAM record was the Klubs' 1968 classically psychedelic 'I found the sun'/ 'Ever needed someone'. The renowned ex-Anglican Cathedral choirboys-turned-folkies the Crofters also recorded an excellent (picture sleeve) EP in 1967, containing a beautiful version of the little-heard Cyril Tawney song 'Sally free and easy'.