Ups and downs of local labels

Record shop interior, with racks of browsable records in the foreground

Recent photograoph of Probe Records © Mark McNulty

The heyday for local labels in towns around Britain was the 1960s and early 1970s. By the late 1970s problems had begun to beset this kind of freelance record production. On the plus side it was possible for a new sound to be recorded locally and distributed more widely via a wholesale cartel such as Rough Trade, but Rough Trade could only guarantee good distribution for local labels provided the group/artist fitted into the punk or new wave genres. For those artists working in other fields such as cabaret, country, or trad jazz (all still very popular music genres in Liverpool, and all still seeking to expand their audiences), distribution was practically non-existent. There was little likelihood of locally made recordings receiving anything other than occasional local radio airplay and a smattering of sales via gigs.

When Geoff Davies, co-owner of Probe Records (formerly of Button Street, Liverpool), branched out into record production and established Probe-Plus Records in 1980, he did so with the knowledge that the independent record distribution service was in full flow. Independent record charts were being featured in the weekly music press and both Probe and Penny Lane Records in Liverpool (and Skeleton and Rox in Wirral) were doing a roaring trade in punk and reggae singles.

Eric's club proprietors Roger Eagle and Peter Fulwell had already experimented with an Eric's record label prior to the closure of the famous nightclub, but Davies saw great potential in the indie network and developed Probe-Plus along these lines. Probe-Plus represented several important local and national artists and groups of the 1980s and 1990s such as Mr Amir, Attila the Stockbroker, Gone to Earth, Half Man Half Biscuit and Marlowe. Davies still believes in handling all aspects of a record's development and this hands-on approach has garnered for him a great reputation among all those musicians who have fallen under his influence.

Throughout the 1980s many local recording labels came and went. Most were one-off labels but one or two have weathered the storm and still survive to this day. These include indie labels Probe-Plus, Viper, and Audio-Visual, reissue label Mayfield (begun in the early 1980s by music entrepreneur Joe Flannery), distributors Pink Moon and several dance music labels. Today however the music industry is changing so rapidly that what was once a people-based manufacturing industry is now moving (albeit unsteadily) towards being a technologically based service provider. The chances of any independent record label existing in the ways that they have previously done are extremely low - a great pity when, according to Flannery;

"...the technology should still be seen as secondary. Its only a way of making music, not the be all and end all."