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Bearos Records

“Purveyors of fine music from the Midlands and beyond since 1998” says the blurb on the front page of the Bearos website. And boy, if it ain’t right. Bearos has been the labour of love for one Alan Farmer for over five years now, documenting the sounds of bands based around Birmingham with a whole shedload of seven-inches and CDs. He’s been responsible for exposing us to the likes of Saloon, The Starries, Dreams of Tall Buildings, Grover, Yellow6, and many, many others. Recently, flushed by the success of the much-lauded debut album by The Workhouse, Alan kindly took the time to answer our inane questions in fabulous detail for our debut interview.

Why the hell did you call your label that?

The wife and I formed a focus group of two and decided we needed something cute and cuddly for indie girls and foppish boys. Cats were an obvious choice but that theme had been done to death. However, we’d cat-sat two felines so fat that we had called them bears and we were in Spain at the time, so… BEAROS! It’s a Spanish bear (or cat), but not really. Confused? John Peel always calls us ‘beer-os’ and Steve from Avrocar refused my advances saying the band would never work with a label called ‘bare-arse’ – the Bearos Bare Arse 2001 calendar was commissioned, but the initial shots of Simon from CrazyFace (too spotty) and Russ from Baxxter (too dangly) put me off and almost got me banned from Boots.

Could you give the readers a little history of the label? When it started, what you were doing before?

It all started with the We Brought our Friends magazine. 1997 had seen bands like Pram and Broadcast finally get the recognition they had long deserved, and Plone, Avrocar, Novak etc were hot on their heels. John from Magnetophone had run a monthly night called ‘We Brought our Friends’ because that’s all the people he expected! When it really took off I thought I’d immortalise the moment with interviews with various bands, promoters and label bosses like Keith Jenkins (Wurlitzer Jukebox) and Dominic Morris (Earworm) from late 1997 to early 1998. Even though I say it myself, it is a great read, catching each band at a different stage of their development. I’ve recently found five copies which are available via the Bearos website.

I’d always thought that putting out records was way beyond my abilities (and budget) until someone told me that you could produce 500 7″ singles for £500. Initially Bearos001 was going to be a three-way split between Magnetophone, Avrocar and Jameson, but when the first two were snapped up by Earworm we decided to concentrate on Jameson. That was June 1998, and along with the Saloon 7″ and the new Workhouse CD, it proved to be one of our fastest sellers – Rough Trade top ten, Radio 1 airplay, rushed restocks to satisfy a mysterious Japanese market! Who could look back after that!

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

Earworm and Wurlitzer Jukebox inspired a generation! Also Dominic and Keith were so friendly and helpful. Keith actually produced a tip sheet that was yours for an SAE. My copy’s very dog-eared and I’ve plagiarised it for my own advice on the resource pages on the Bearos website.

There’s a whole community of people running labels around the country, and I think there is a self-perpetuating pool of enthusiasm despite occasional dips in sales and general media disinterest.

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?

It’s been invaluable. We’ve got a huge e-mail list (with a free CD if you join!) and in 2003 we started taking payments over the web. This has worked wonders and boosted mail order sales through the roof – 20% of our web hits are from outside the UK – I’ve just had to send money to France and it’s a nightmare to go through conventional channels.

I’ve set up MP3 sites for Jameson and The Starries and for the last 15 months have been running the ‘MP3 of the month’ via mp3.com. We’ve had exclusive tracks by Jet Johnson, Grover and Meets Guitar as well as studio outtakes, live and deleted tracks. Unfortunately mp3.com is ceasing to be after 2nd December 2003 but I’ll be looking for alternatives in 2004.

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

I love downloading music, it’s addictive! I’ve got into so much new stuff and been to loads of fantastic gigs as a result. I’ve yet to hear of a musician harmed by downloading music – if the big companies suffer then I’m in favour of it – what do they care about music! I’ve seen some Bearos stuff on WinMX and SoulSeek – I’m flattered!

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

Never – it’s a labour of love!

Do you have any hot musical tips for us at the moment?

Hopefully people will have heard of The Workhouse by now. Their John Peel session was fantastic and the glowing NME review of their album was the first we’ve achieved as a label. There’s an XFM session to be broadcast in January which should keep the momentum going.

One of the best live bands in Birmingham is Grandscope who recently supported The Workhouse on a few dates. They share the musical outlook of contemporary electronic and underground dance music, effortlessly combining analogue sounds, lo-fi drum loops and live instruments. They are as happy producing the gentle pop vibes of Air and The Orb as they are the full-on grandeur of Tortoise, Kraftwerk or Radiohead.

I’m also very very excited about the return of Jameson after an absence of almost two years.

Who decides on artwork for your releases? Do you have a particular design policy or format you like to adhere to?

Keith from Wurlitzer Jukebox told me that he allowed a two colour sleeve design and that if the band wanted full colour they had to stump up the difference! I’ve always been more of a soft touch, though coloured vinyl has gone up in price so much that I’ve had to put my foot down there.

We had a couple of colour coded early releases: Los Planetos del Agua 7″ (Bearos004) was blue vinyl and packaging, yellow6 (Bearos006) had to be yellow. We also had a run of dogs as cover stars; Grover (Bearos010) and Lazarus Clamp (Bearos008). I’ve always let the artists decide on artwork. Sometimes they’ve come up with ideas and I’ll put things together for them. The most adventurous band have been Dreams of Tall Buildings. The double 7″ (Bearos021) was in a card mailout with hand stamped cards stuck on the front. I thought that was labour intensive, but the new album (Bearos047) is hand-drawn card sleeves and CDs, sealed with an embroidered name band and then wrapped in distressed brown paper, tied and branded with the DOTB stamp (PS the music is fantastic as well!) I hear that they are planning a wooden record with Static Caravan!

Vinyl vs CD in one final grudgematch (after knocking out tapes & eight tracks in the semi-finals). Who wins?

I’m afraid it’s got to be CDs, which to some ears would be like the organic butcher admitting a love of McDonalds!

Got any advice for the prospective new label mogul?

Here’s a random stream of consciousness to finish things off… Never work with lazy or disorganised bands – it never works out, however great the music is. Keep it local to start with and get bands involved in selling and promoting their records – see if they will buy a load at cost price. They’ll quickly recoup recording costs. Consider short runs of CDs or CDRs rather than vinyl – good way of testing the market and testing the willingness of the band to promote it. Record gigs – it’s feedback for bands and every now and then you end up with something worth releasing, even if it’s just a couple of tracks to supplement demo recordings that you can sell at the back of gigs. Use imagination rather than loads of money when thinking about packaging. Never be afraid to ask for advice from other labels – I’ve not met a bad egg yet amongst our nationwide brotherhood. People aren’t often angry when you don’t like their demos – try and say it in a nice way and give constructive feedback or advice where they might get a better response… and, according to Mr Wurlitzer Jukebox, “Have fun!”

Bearos Website