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Ian Green and the legacy of the Folk Label

Ian Green and the legacy of the Folk Label

Greentrax Recordings is without doubt the country’s leading folk label, with a catalogue in the hundreds that reads like a who’s who of traditional music in Scotland over the past thirty years. The business model for recorded music has substantially changed in recent times, almost to breaking point some would argue. Ian Green, Greentrax’s Managing Director, shares some thoughts.

Greentrax Recordings is without doubt the country’s leading folk label, with a catalogue in the hundreds that reads like a who’s who of traditional music in Scotland over the past thirty years.  The business model for recorded music has substantially changed in recent times, almost to breaking point some would argue. Ian Green, Greentrax’s Managing Director, shares some thoughts.

In the past when we made a transition like from the LP to the cassette, and from the cassette to the CD, it was always a smooth transition.  One dropped away and the other one rose.  But on this occasion CD sales have dropped quite dramatically, especially abroad, and the downloads have not risen in comparison to that drop.  So for the first time there’s been a change of format, but a complete change in the way people are buying.  To me it’s plain and simply down to the fact that downloads are not rising to meet the drop in CD sales.

CD sales in the UK are not too bad, they’re fairly buoyant. Gig sales for artists are still quite good.  But it’s the exports.  It used to be that 40% of our turnover was exports.  It’s dropped now to something like 2 or 3%.  So that’s a big hit.  You just can’t live at the same level with a hit like that.  Most of the countries, the distributors that we’re working with, they just found that they’d reached the point where CD sales had sunk so much in their various countries that they just decided to abandon distribution completely.  That happened in several countries that we had quite good distribution in previously, and I would quote Germany and America and Canada, places like that, where the distributors just walked away from it.  Trying to find a distributor to replace them is just impossible, because the remaining distributors don’t want to take a risk.

There will be a certain amount of our stuff that’ll be stolen, pirated, but I’m not entirely certain that that is the real reason.  There are two reasons for the downturn.  First the accessibility of downloads – there are a lot of people that were our customers, maybe an older generation have not been able to follow the technology and been able to purchase by other methods, websites and Paypal and all that kind of stuff. They’re just not geared up to that. 

But then also there’s the crisis of all the record stores in Britain collapsing more or less one on top of the other.  Fortunately HMV was bought over and got up and running again, but there was quite a period where they weren’t buying anything at all for several months. And maybe people that wanted to buy from the record shop chains had gone in, found there was nothing there, and just given up. I’m not entirely sure about that, but we are finding that we’re selling more and more on our own website.  Paypal’s been absolutely essential to us, and has proved a real boon.  Because before, people had to phone in and give you credit card details and all that kind of stuff, and I don’t think they could be bothered.  Whereas now you can press a button, click on Paypal and the transaction’s all done there and  then.  So we’ve seen an increase in that.  But that’s still not sufficient to make up for the drop in sales.

We’ve seen a real drop in mail orders from abroad, so that’s another indication that the CD has gone out of favour in a lot of foreign countries quicker than it’s gone out of favour here.

Although folk are still selling CDs at gigs, the message is coming back from artists – or a fair percentage of them – that they simply cannot get gigs, that gigging has become harder and harder. That’s what’s been coming home to us from some of the young bands that we’ve signed in recent years. They’re having a real struggle to keep their head above water.

We’ve done all that we could over the last two or three years to reduce overheads  – staff unfortunately, advertising, reducing high cost studio bills, reducing the number of releases that we’re putting out. That has helped us to stay on a level footing but we’re waiting to see now, this coming year, if that will help us.  In the past we’d put a band into, say, Castlesound for ten, fourteen days.  We couldn’t even contemplate doing that now.  That would just wipe us out for a year!

And that has a knock-on effect on the studios as well.  The thing that saddens me about it is, one of the things I thought was one of our strengths in the past, was that we were always in the forefront of bringing in young artists and young bands and giving them a break.  And maybe by the second or third album we’d start to see a return.  Now if we do have a young band that we’re putting in to the studio we’ve got to sit down with them and say, look, you’ll need to pay some of these costs yourselves, and we’ll do a licensing or a royalty deal.  The artist pays for the recording and the artwork then we take it over and do the advertising and promotion and the selling of it, so it’s a kind of shared risk.  But to take on an album, 10,12, 15 thousand pounds, as we did at one time, that would just finish us off completely.  It’s touch and go as it is.  We suffered a big loss about three years ago and are just coming out of the effects of that.

We’ve got quite a few things for this year, though, most of them on licence.  We’ve just released an album by Luke Daniels. An interesting album, he got hold of all the old 78s of William Hannah, who was Jimmy Shand’s hero, and wrote down all the arrangements, then set about recording them with Ian Carr, Neil Ewart and others. Tried to do them just exactly as William Hannah had done them.  It’s a really tasteful album.  And we’ve got another School of Scottish Studies album coming out, material collected by Calum Maclean who was a great collector back in the fifties.  The School are very upbeat about this, because he was one of the greatest collectors of them all.  It’s a double CD with the songs on the first CD and instrumental music on the second one.  So that’s just bubbling to the surface just now.

We’ve just put out a project Brian McNeill’s been working on with Falkirk Community Trust.  It’s an album of local musicians, some of them fairly well-known, some of them not so well-known, himself and various other people.  Songs all associated with Falkirk and the surrounding area.  It’s a really interesting project.  But again, the Trust got funding for it from Creative Scotland, and we’re simply licensing it, and putting our distribution and promotion muscle behind it.  Gordon Gunn’s just finishing off an album and again it’s the same story. We’re licensing it from him.  Lorne MacDougall’s trying to rustle up some money to put out another album.  We’re doing a project, Scotia Nova, with Luath Press, which is proving to be quite interesting.  We’ve had a lot of feedback from songwriters saying they’re going to submit something, so there might be something good comes out of that.  Again we’re hoping we’ll find some funding for that.  So that’s not too gloomy – better than we might have expected!

 

Ian Green was talking to TMF Co-ordinator, David Francis