Independent’s Day: A Very British Institution, Part Deux

The next step was inevitably to take a trip to London and visit Rough Trade and Small Wonder Records. These shops had established and credible mail order capabilities and could usually be relied upon to take anything from 25 to 50 copies, albeit on a consignment basis.

(As opposed to sale or return. Consignment is when after an agreed period you get paid for the copies the store has sold, sale or return is when the store buys all the stock from you, then gets credited for any remaining product. A crucial distinction since on consignment you didn’t actually get any money up front. It did however clear a bit of space in the cupboard. Not enough however.)

So, that was 100 out of 1000 relocated, albeit temporarily. Just HOW the hell were you going to shift the remaining 900? A couple of plays on John Peel stimulates interest, Rough Trade order another 20 copies, the local shops reorder another 20 and you start to get orders by post. All very encouraging except the vast wall of unsold vinyl doesn’t seem to be getting much smaller.

What you rally needed was some kind of national distribution network, regional variations on the Rough Trade model. People with passion who had access to the kind of stores in their area who would stock your single. Wouldn’t it be amazing if a band from Inverness in Scotland could get access to the indie shops of Portsmouth on the south coast of England?

Isn’t it amazing that exactly the same idea had occurred to others around this little island of ours, people with the ability, drive and belief to make it happen.
The Cartel;

Now it should be said that the name Cartel was something of a misnomer. It may even have been meant ironically since a dictionary definition of the term includes ; ‘The aim of such collusion (also called the cartel agreement) is to increase individual members’ profits by reducing competition.’ wikipedia.
This was actually the very antithesis of what was intended. Ironically it actually became something of a self fulfilling prophecy and signposted The Cartel’s ultimate demise.
(But more of that later.)

More kindly ; Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF described the Cartel thus, “The Cartel is, as the name implies, a group of independent distributors across the country who work in conjunction with each other providing a solid network of distribution without stepping on each others toes.(Wikipedia)
The Cartel started as a loose alliance between a number of indie shops dotted around the UK.

There was of course the aforementioned Rough Trade in London, generally regarded as the epicenter of all things punky, round and with a hole in the middle. In York there was Red Rhino Records covering the north east of England, in Liverpool, Probe covering the north west. In East Anglia there was Backs. Revolver covered the south west and Wales whilst Fast looked after Scotland.

Things started small and special relationships formed. It was perhaps inevitable that Rough Trade would take a leading role in supplying stock to other regional distributors, but as things took off, so the flow of regional records began to hit the shelves of stores across the UK.

The regional operations varied in size, from back rooms of shops to fully kitted out warehouses.
In the early days most of the Cartel ran on a staff of one person to man the phones and one or two to send out and receive stock. As things took off, these numbers increased, but not hugely. Bands can thank a febrile mix of liters of strong coffee and lines of white powder for their endeavors ever reaching far flung stores.

Things moved quickly. Rough Trade was an established and hugely credible label in its own right boasting The Smiths amongst a phalanx of other household names, and with labels such as Mute (DepecheMode etc), Factory (Joy Division/New Order), Creation (Jesus & Mary Chain, JAMMS/KLF), Red Rhino (Sisters of Mercy, Pulp), 4AD (Cocteau Twins, Birthday Party, Bauhaus) and Fast (Human League, Dead Kennedys, Pop Aural Records) pledging their support we had the credibility and product to be able to get less well known bands into stores on the back of the bigger names.

Crucially, the stores were able to trust our judgment in a way they never could with reps from the major companies. I would be so bold as to state that I doubt if a single record was ever deliberately foisted upon a store in the knowledge that it was a dud. And that’s something to be proud of..very proud in fact.
For a brief and glorious period we had the field pretty much to ourselves. There simply wasn’t any competition until Pinnacle started their own independent distribution service and pet label Cherry Red. Pinnacle were the opposite of the Cartel, being a large, centralized operation with experience in the field of distribution..albeit of garbage!

As the like of Factory, Mute and 4AD grew, so did their desire to maximize sales. Pinnacle had access to major high street retailers that we had yet to infiltrate and established relationships with stores we already serviced. It was a rivalry certainly, and there was many a race to pre-sell to shops the new New Order single before Pinnacle did. But for as long as the cake was big enough, we co-existed more or less peacefully.

With increased cash flow, Cartel members were able to facilitate bands manufacturing their own singles themselves, fronting part or all of the pressing costs for the band and (hopefully recouping the outlay from sales. It was all a bit wing and a prayer but somehow it seemed to work.

The cake however was soon to become smaller, and as times became tighter so some of the altruism and amateurish goodwill was exchanged for brinkmanship, with fatal consequences.
As Pinnacle cut into the Cartel’s market share, so Rough Trade felt that some sort of ultimatum needed to be made to the larger of the indie labels, namely Factory, Mute and 4AD.

Rough Trade had taken a stance that demanding distribution exclusivity for the Cartel from these labels was the only way forward, much to the disquiet of other Cartel members who felt that this was pushing our luck. Rough Trade were adamant however and since we, for all the supposed democracy, were powerless without Rough Trade, we had to follow.

A meeting was arranged at a Godforsaken motorway service station somewhere equidistant from all regions and convenient to none. To attend were representatives from The Cartel and from the labels. I was at the meeting and it was one of the more frank exchanges of views I’ve witnessed.

4AD and Mute more or less politely declined Rough Trade’s ‘offer’/threat whilst Tony Wilson of Factory fame basically told the Cartel to “fuck off” and that if we were going to “act like tossers then he’d go exclusive with Pinnacle.” Which he duly did!
A rather large cat had been put amongst some increasingly worried pigeons. Without Factory, one of our major selling points had disappeared. Some of the smaller retailers had only stuck with us because the Factory back catalog was a regular seller. Without it we were buggered.

For the large members of the Cartel who had their own successful labels it was a manageable blow, for others it was to become terminal and once one or two members of the Cartel had gone under, so the very raison d’etre evaporated.

The remaining members struggled on until there was only Rough Trade and Red Rhino remaining. An alliance of indie stores titled “The Chain With No Name” was a qualified but short term emollient but the fact was that by 1990 the wounds were too deep and the party was over.

As a former member of The Cartel myself, I think Drummond & Cauty sum up the ethos of the (dis)organization that I’m proud to have played a part in. Mistakes were inevitably made and I suppose it kinda proves that size does matter but for maybe 6 years the flame burned bright, we achieved so much in those years and when you listen to a track by Depeche Mode, Human League, Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, Gang of 4, The Smiths, James…just remember that without the Cartel, you may just never have heard of them.

nick haines 2011