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Cityscape Records

Cityscape Records is a record label based in Bolton that has been running since 1996. They’ve put out records by Merchandise, Mazeppa and Microcosm, though I’m assured that they are not restricting themselves to bands that have names starting with the letter M. They’re releasing an album by Ian Jackson later this year! We talked to Brad B. Wood, label founder, owner, runner, and member of at least two bands that have names beginning with the letter M.

Why the hell did you call your label that?

Cityscape comes from Merchandise’s wordsmith Roger Williams from when we were in sixth form. He had written a set of lyrics which I had set to music called Cityscape, and it was supposed to be a play on city and escape and came from looking over Bolton and Greater Manchester from the all surrounding moors near where we lived. We both had the feeling that we wanted to travel, but felt pretty hemmed in at the time – I’m glad to say we both realised our teenage dreams of travel, and I suppose when I set up the label as a student I felt that the label could be my way of escaping creatively. All very earnest stuff – I’ve cheered up a bit since!

How did you get the whole thing started? How long have you been running now?

I have always loved listening to records from all over the globe and hearing something private and intimate to the people who made them. I’ve particularly always had a thing about 7″ singles and finding gems that get released and so often overlooked. So when I set up the label on a student loan back in ’96, I wanted to put out one of these obscure gems that people I didn’t know would come across and hopefully love. Fortunately I met Con (the other musical half of Merchandise) at uni and we started to put together this dark electronica which I put out as a 10″ without so much as a band name to identify it, only known by the catalogue number. I have since seen the problem with this policy! We did get one fan letter from a bloke called Geoff in Dudley and another from an old bloke who had misread the article in the local paper and wanted to buy classical vinyl so we did manage obscure, but we’ll let other folk decide if it was a gem or not.

Have you been inspired by any labels in terms of style/ambition/enthusiasm?

I’ve always liked labels with a cohesive image and the idea that they’ll put out whatever they like if they think it’s worthwhile, so that if you generally like what they do you can be pretty sure to like something new from them and take a punt on it. The labels I like and look to are plenty and varied, but here are a few: Thrill Jockey, Dischord, Factory, Blue Note, ECM, Saddle Creek, Sub Pop, Warp, Domino, Jeepster, Soul Jazz…

What kind of a role has the internet played regarding your label? Some people these days operate exclusively via the ‘net, whilst others are still very much mail order based. What’s your stance?

I suppose I was a little late getting on the net, and the first few releases were done by more old fashioned means – typewriter, phone, fax, etc. But I knew I was going to have to get it sorted, so I bought the domain name www.cityscaperecords.co.uk well before I got around to buying a computer and writing the website. I’ve had a computer for just over a year now and it’s changed the way I work completely – I’m able to get in touch with so many more people, and so much quicker than before and I’m pretty positive about it all until the bugger plays up when I swear a bit. But I’d find it difficult to go back now as everyone expects you to be up to speed with computers.

Is downloading killing music? Do you harbour any strong feelings sympathetic to or against the RIAA?

I don’t download music myself because I just like to have the physical product, but I suppose a lot of people do. I think we can help matters by releasing whole albums that are good instead of a couple of good tracks filled out with crap nobody wants anyway – though with a high speed broadband connection, you can get whole albums pretty swiftly.

I do think it’s wrong to rip musicians off but I also think it’s a matter of scale. Before computers, people always taped things and photocopied stuff without consent and if it’s the odd album you’re doing for yourself and you still buy the originals of the ones you like, I can’t say I have too much of a problem. If it gets to ripping off whole back catalogues and effectively distributing them to everybody else on the web then I think it’s not really playing the game – not quite cricket! The result of that will be that the big companies will have to cut costs even further by releasing even more pap that guarantees a profit, instead of developing new artists over a period of time. It will also mean that the money will have to be made from branding and merchandising and I think we’ve got enough of that. On the good side, it could mean that more bands have to make their money playing live but it will turn a lot of serious people into hobbyists who can’t get a proper wage out o f it. The knock-on effect of that is that the smaller people won’t have the resources to make their music in the way they want or the time to develop new material, as they have to do other jobs to make their money. If the RIAA help stop large scale free distribution I think it’d be a good thing, as long as they don’t take it too far. Pay-per-download sites are the only way you can ensure that the small labels you like will have the money to record and release new music.

Do you feel an affiliation with other labels out there? Is there any kind of community or so-called ‘scene’ – be it local or not – that you feel linked to?

There is definitely a loose scene of people who care about music, write fanzines and e-zines on it, and generally live it. I spend a lot of time e-mailing enthusiastic people who care more about the music than the image. I don’t feel we’re particularly connected to a local scene but we are part of this larger, more disparate scene of creative types flying the flag for our music.

Has there ever been a time when you felt like calling it a day, that the label was too much trouble?

Oh yeah! When you’ve put so much into something and someone doesn’t like it or is just very nonchalant, you can get pretty dispirited. Every time the computer plays up I have mini transient crises but I tend to get over those! Getting through the glass ceiling from indiedom to getting your music into mainstream shops takes some doing as well, and you often want to yell “just listen to the music” at industry sorts who are more worried about such prosaic things as advertising budgets! Ultimately though, good reviews from people you respect and the feedback from those around you keep you going, but you can’t get away from the financial worries which either allow you to carry on recording or mean you have to stop and rely on someone else to release it.

Where have you found bands you’ve released stuff by so far? Do you get demos etc sent to you? Do you ask the bands or do they ask you?

Merchandise is the band I formed with Conrad Astley and is the band the label was formed to release. I had always wanted to set up a label anyway but Merchandise gave me the excuse and the reason. I was later in a band called Mazeppa and it seemed natural to release those records through Cityscape as well. I’ve always intended releasing music by other people, but having the money free to invest is always a problem. We’ll be releasing two EPs by Ian Jackson later in the year and I hope to find more people I’m interested in working with. I do get sent demos and they’re appreciated but they’d have to be pretty special for me to get the chequebook out!

Speaking of which, do you have any hot musical tips for us at the moment?

Well obviously I’m excited about Ian Jackson’s stuff or I wouldn’t be putting it out. He’s from England but now lives in Perth, Australia and can be seen live down there. We’re hoping to get a few gigs booked here though to tie in with the release of his music in summer. As always, it’s pretty difficult to describe the music but I think Bonnie Prince Billie, Violent Femmes and the Pixies are fairly close. But you’ll just have to wait and see!

Who decides the artwork for your releases? Do you have a major say in the matter, or do you let the bands decide?

I’m afraid I’m a bit of a control freak and I do design the sleeves. Photography is a hobby and like some of the labels I mentioned above I want some cohesion between the releases visually. Obviously I come up with ideas and everybody has a chance to change this and that but I have to be happy with it before it goes out and I am a pedantic, fussy bastard – but I think that’s good for quality control! (Though I do admit that the inside cover to the first Merchandise album was unforgivably bad, and can only say in my defence that it was an early effort!)

Who do you use to make and print your records? Would you recommend them to others?

We supply the mastered CD and film artwork to Lemon Media in Bridgwater, Somerset and they do the rest. They’ve always done the job on time and well so yeah, I’m happy to recommend them!

What’s your opinion on the importance of press and media coverage? Do you have any particular policies on how to get it?

Obviously, the more people who find out about your music the better. The most difficult thing is to get your music heard by people in the first place, once they’ve heard it you’ve got a chance, so the more people read about you and hear your name, the more likely they are to look for your music and give it a go. At our size good reviews are everything as they are what can guarantee decent distribution, which ultimately gets your music to the people who want to hear it. Without press coverage the distributor can’t sell it to the shops because if the shops haven’t heard of you why would their customers have?

As for how we get it, we look for magazines, fanzines, e-zines and radio shows whom we think will be sympathetic to our sort of stuff and we get it to them. Then hopefully the music does the rest and if they like it we get some great coverage. With that we can put it on the site, later press releases and on it goes. It’s frightening but it seems that many writers seem to be afraid to be the first to say much about a new band either way until they’ve read the opinion of someone else. That seems to give them a reference point to hang their own review on, so good reviews tend to beget good reviews.

Do you have any Grand World Domination plans for the label, or is it a case of natural evolvement?

We’d love to have our music noticed by the sort of folk who can get it distributed all over the world, get it playlisted and on movies and obviously we send material and reviews to those folk. We’ve got a few irons in the fire and hopefully something will come of it so keep your ears open!

Got any advice for the prospective new label mogul?

You’ve got to be in it for the love of it and you’ve got to realise the amount of thankless hard work that goes on behind the scenes to a) create the music and the product carrying it, b) get it noticed and reviewed, and c) get paid by your distributors! If you can hack that and aren’t just in it for the image you’ll be okay, but if you think it’s a quick way to kudos forget it!

Finally, what would be your dream release – which band, which format, and how would it be packaged?

I can’t believe how many American Music Club albums are out of print. If I could afford it I’d make sure California was available again – probably my favourite album that you just can’t get at the moment. I had my copy nicked in a CD case from my car and it couldn’t be replaced – I did copy Roger’s copy and I think that was justified! If that ever becomes available again I’ll be getting it for sure and if I’m ever rich enough I’d love to be the one putting it out

Cityscape Records website