Since releasing the debut EP by The Coral in 2001, DELTASONIC RECORDS have basically provided the soundtrack to Merseyside for the past 9 years. Now completely independent, Craig G Pennington met up with label boss and Deltasonic founder ALAN WILLS to talk about the challenges facing the music industry and the future of the label…
In July 2001, Deltasonic released the Shadows Fall EP by The Coral. This predated the first iPod by three months and came out at a time when the music industry was still, on the surface at least, sitting pretty smug. True, there were rumblings of discontent, largely growing from the whole Napster affair, but that little niggle had successfully been nipped in the bud. There was no myspace, facebook or twitter. Going by the rabid consumption of these digital hangouts by the folks of today, it’s hard to remember what people actually did with themselves back in 2001?
Digital radio was in its embryonic infancy, BBC 6Music hadn’t even been launched yet and blogging was about as commonplace within sixth form common rooms as bird watching, that of the aviary variety.
So, as the trains start rolling into Lime Street, carrying with them some of the music industry’s biggest noises for Sound City, what is the state of the industry in 2010 and how have we got here? Alan was only too happy to help me out.
Bido Lito!: We constantly hear about the music industry being in turmoil, how would you say this has come about?
Alan Wills: Essentially, the cat is out of the bag. In the old days it was all about the song, before recorded music there was publishing and you would buy the sheet music for the hit song of the day, to play at home on the piano. When disks came along, singles still outsold albums for a long time, before it moved the other way and the album became an art form in itself, which probably peaked around 1967 until 1982. Eventually the album became diluted. In the 1980’s when CDs came in, you had a lot of the marketing guys running A&R at the major labels, who came with a different approach. They didn’t really understand how to make records properly and wanted to market them as cheaply as possible, which meant getting them on the playlist at Radio One or the equivalent network in America, on the back of two singles plugged to radio and a load of filler on the album.
BL!: Which seems to be completely evident today?
AW: Yeah. You buy a Kaiser Chiefs album for instance, its two singles and a load of shit. It’s not like Dark Side Of The Moon where its a whole album as a piece of art, or Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring which works as an entire album. All that’s happened now is digital has come along and kids can pick their tracks, breaking the record up. But, if you can release a really strong album, kids will check it out and be like ‘Hey, I like all these tunes, it’s cheaper for me to buy the album than the tracks individually.’
BL!: So where does that leave the future of the album?
AW: People need to make the effort to make amazing albums and if you can’t, you shouldn’t be in the business of making albums. And people will make amazing albums. Pop people on the other hand will only really release singles in the future.
BL!: One of the main concerns about the future of the music business is the reduction in investment which will inevitably occur as the revenues in the industry contract. What do you see happening in that situation?
AW: When people are going around saying ‘fuck the record companies’ and all that, they’re actually saying ‘fuck the bands’, because the bands will be much worse off. A major record company is an investment vehicle, when that vehicle becomes unprofitable, the investment goes elsewhere and bands suffer as the money isn’t there to develop them. If you’re currently investing in Universal Music and the money is being used to develop new music, but buying shares in Apple is going to yield more money, as an investor, where are you going to put your money? People will just stop investing if you take the incentive to make money away. Young musicians need a recording deal to pay for their equipment, to pay to go on tour, to pay to travel the world, to pay for John Leckie to record their new album, its not the labels who’ll lose out, it’s the young artists. Nobody else is willing to pay for that development.
BL!: But with illegal downloading now being such a huge issue for the industry, it makes it incredibly difficult for record companies to make their money back from purely selling records. How do you see that issue being tackled?
AW: I think fine every Internet Service Provider (ISP) that allows people to download illegal music. They are making billions of pounds a year providing pirates with a getaway truck. You can track every illegal download so for every one you can charge the ISP 79 pence. It’s not the music industry’s responsibility, this is theft. If people were walking into HMV and stealing records, it would be HMV’s responsibility to stop it. It’s up to the ISP’s, but this is big business, Google and all the ISPs are much, much bigger than the record industry and the US Government won’t step in, they don’t really care.
BL!: Deltasonic was for a number of years affiliated with Sony. What happened to result in the label going it alone?
AW: We were with Sony for seven years and towards the end of the term they wanted to renegotiate and extend the deal. Rob Stringer had gone to America and Muff Winwood had retired, these were the guys I had dealt with originally at the label. The new people who’d come in didn’t share the same vision that Rob and Muff had. I fealt that we’d never make a great record with those people. They were so focussed on Radio One and that is not the business I’m interested in being in, if we get played on it great, but I’m not interested in sitting down and trying to make records to get played on Radio One.
BL: So Sony’s influence was adversely effecting the direction of the label?
AW: Towards the end it got really boring. Making music should be fun, that’s why we do it. When you start selling records you can apply marketing, but until you’ve got a business it’s purely artistic. There was a lot of messing around with The Zutons’ third album and the band were put it a really shit position they shouldn’t have been. If it was down to us Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer, was going to make the record, but the people at Sony, naming no names, changed it all.
BL: Is that part of the deal when working with majors? People are widely sceptical?
AW: No, its not down to working with majors, its down to working with wankers. There’s some really good people working at majors, they just weren’t at Sony at that time. They’re interested in making money, not music, and they’re not very good at it. They’re sitting in a building where one guy is really good at it called Simon Cowell. I’ve got no problem with Simon Cowell, he doesn’t say he’s into music, he’s honest, says he’s into money.
BL!: So what is Deltasonic’s role in the whole process now and where do you see Deltasonic in the future?
AW: We’re in the business of finding new artists and developing those artists and we’re quite hardcore with it. Its like if you’re playing football, you’ve got to be George Best, if you want to be average player you won’t go down in history. If you’re not aiming at making a truly great record, what’s the fucking point? Deltasonic will no longer just be a record company, we’ve gone into publishing and management, we manage a new band called The Red Suns, and we’ll probably go into other services. The brand of Deltasonic will essentially be a broader music company.
BL!: In a similar way to Rough Trade, having various different facets within the industry?
AW: Yeah, exactly and they’ve been really successful. We, like everybody, don’t really know where the business is going to go, but we know if you’re small you can move really fast.
BL!: The Suzukis’ album is due out this year. Is the LP ready to go?
AW: We actually finished the album today so it’s very exciting. We’d originally done it once, but it didn’t work. We, the label, had made a mistake. Sometimes as a label you need to hold your hands up and say ‘the band played great, but the production wasn’t right’ and it’s our responsibility, so we needed to record it again.
BL!: That’s a pretty refreshing perspective
AW: Well it’s your responsibility, you’d be letting the band down otherwise. The band are releasing a record that in history is always there as a representation of them, and you’re responsible for it.
BL!: The Coral have recently rejoined the label. How do you see their career developing from here?
AW: I remain a huge Coral fan, but, I just don’t think they’ve made an album which is as good as they are.
BL!: Even the first one?
AW: Even the first two. People who saw the band live at that time will know that the records, though amazing in parts, aren’t as good as they were. Don’t get me wrong, The Coral’s debut is a classic first album, but its not quite as good as The Stone Roses first album, yet the band were every bit as good as The Stone Roses live at the time. The difference between a really good, amazing band and a truly great, classic band, is delivering that album. Forever Changes, What’s Going On, Pet Sounds, Sergeant Peppers, y know, the album for all time. This new record by The Coral, Butterfly House, is the moment where they’ll be come a truly great band, as opposed to a really, really good band. The Coral are the best band in the country yet release their great work.
BL!: Would you say that Deltasonic is a label for Liverpool? Could it be from anywhere else?
AW: It’s fundamentally an opinion on music but, the reality is it’s from Liverpool and based on the early work with The Coral and what we built on that. Even though we’re more inspired by Factory Records than anything else. There’s a lot of boring, retro nonsense in Liverpool. Everyone goes on about how amazing The Beatles were, but they were focussed on the future, they weren’t sat around making Revolver going ‘we want to sound like Buddy Holly’. Listen to Tomorrow Never Knows, they’re constantly moving forward, people need to focus on that part of The Beatles career and stop regurgitating this retro nonsense because its bollocks.
BL!: What is it you love then about Factory?
AW: Firstly, Joy Division. Secondly, the artwork. Thirdly, it was the fact that Tony Wilson could take a band like The Happy Mondays and get across to people that it was art and wax lyrical about why Shaun Ryder was a poet. It was the fact that Tony Wilson loved Manchester and everything he did hat a root in the area he was from. I love that Tony Wilson didn’t have contracts with his bands, even though it lost him £40 million, I completely admire him. If he didn’t do it, I’d have been stupid enough to do it. He was a visionary. Tony Wilson and Factory will be around for a long, long time in popular culture.
BL!: So you share a northern affinity with Factory?
AW: It’s why I like northern bands, it’s my culture and I understand it more. I guarantee you one thing, if Nirvana were from England, they’d be living somewhere north of Birmingham, that is a fact of life. The Velvet Underground would have been from the north of England. You know for a fact that The Smashing Pumpkins would be from London. You can go around the world, Can or Kraftwerk would definitely have been from Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow, certainly wouldn’t have come from Swindon. It’s a northern mindset that translates to the rest of the world.
BL!: But when we talk about great bands and truly great albums, Factory only ever had one truly great band.
AW: Who’s that?
BL!: Joy Division
AW: Yeah you’re right. But they then went on to serve the rest of Factory and that’s brilliant. And we’ve had The Coral who are a great band and that legacy will go onto serve something else. I think The Red Suns will be The Echo & The Bunnymen of their generation.
It would be easy for Deltasonic Records to rest on what they’ve achieved, sit smug in their Mersey royalty and become a pastiche of themselves. But, in much the same way as Alan is infuriated by our city’s pang for nostalgia and encourages musicians to drive their creativity forward, the label is set to be anything other than retrospective. After our conversation, Alan played me three songs from Butterfly House, The Coral’s new LP. When he says this record is set to be their truly great work, their Forever Changes…I tell you what…he just might be right.
This article was originally published in May 2010, in the very first issue of Bido Lito! On 12th May 2014, Alan Wills tragically passed away after a road accident. Read our article from our June 2014 issue which looks back over Alan Wills’ career and legacy in more detail.