Sarah Records: On the record

Sarah Records was the indie label that signed the acts no major label would touch, but whose sounds you wanted to hear. It put out a board game, produced cut’n’paste fanzines and thumbed its nose to the mainstream music industry. It was your secret world and it was located in the heart of Bristol from 1987 to 1995. In her new book, Jane Duffus celebrates the significance of this most independent of indie labels.

If asked to define the Bristol music scene, the names that spring to mind might include Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead. Only the more astute music fans would add Sarah Records. But this internationally adored record label really deserves to be better known in its home city.

Sarah’s co-founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes were driven by feminism, ethics and a passion to truly embrace the DIY ethos of the post-punk scene. And fans were drawn to the label right from day one. When Sarah launched in November 1987, Clare was 19 and still at university, while Matt was 25 and a physics graduate who had been working as a car park attendant.

Clare and Matt were not concerned with forming a capitalist monolith to rival Virgin or EMI. Instead, they were eschewing the posturing and vanity of the pop charts and focusing on promoting the kind of bands that the major labels would be too scared to touch.

“I remember spending the summer of 1987 walking around Clifton village and it was endless sunshine, which sounds unlikely, planning out what we were going to do,” says Clare. “It wasn’t like we had a plan that we were going to do 100 7in singles and then throw a big party but we always knew we wanted to do more than one – we weren’t just putting a record out, we were starting a record label.”

Talking about the ethos of Sarah, Matt says: “The label was in opposition to the capitalism of multi-format releases on the major labels. We were an anti-capitalist business, changing the world through the power of the 7in single. CDs in 1987 were £15, and major labels wanted everyone to re-buy their record collections. However 7in records were £1.50 so they were accessible and affordable.”

Frustratingly for Clare, she had to get used to people assuming that she was called Sarah when answering the phone; or, worse, that because she was a woman she must be the receptionist, and they would therefore ask to speak to the person who made the decisions. “And I’d say, “Yes, you are speaking to them.” And they’d sort of go, ‘No, the person who really runs the label’,” she sighs, eyes rolling all over the place. “That used to drive me absolutely mad.”

However, Sarah didn’t have a home phone line initially. Instead, they’d go to the phonebox down the road to make calls. Clare remembers lamenting the fact that Ric Menck of the US-based Springfields had a drawl so slow that they had to feverishly fuel the phone with 10p coins in order to catch the end of his sentences.

Sarah was pretty much the only label at that time to have a woman as its co-owner, while no label anywhere was owned solely by a woman. “We were opposed to the sexism of the music industry,” says Clare. “It got more important to us when we realised what we were up against. It feels like feminism is at the fore at the moment, which is great, but nothing has really changed. I feel like I’ve been whining about the same things for 30 years.”

Birmingham band The Sea Urchins launched the label with Pristine Christine, a whoosh of pop that brilliantly introduced Sarah to the world. But nobody was asked to sign a contract; things didn’t operate in that way. This meant the bands were free to leave at any point, and that the label was free not to put out any further records by a particular act. “I suppose no one really had any security,” says Clare, “but it also meant no one was forced into doing anything they didn’t want to do. We never wanted to put records out because we thought they would sell, we always wanted to put records out that we thought were absolutely brilliant and hoped they’d sell.”

Which is why, in May 1988, Matt was writing to Glaswegian band The Orchids asking: “I take it you do want to do another single? And, assuming you haven’t been offered vast sums by EMI, would you be happy doing it with us? We’re a bit unsure.” And a few years later, Clare wrote to The Orchids to let them know that major label subsidiaries including Go! Discs and Food were interested in the band: “Assuming you have now quit the label as it were (or even if you haven’t), they might be worth following up.” Being The Orchids, the band stayed put.

Clare and Matt initially lived in a tiny rented flat at 46 Upper Belgrave Road. “The flat was about £80 a month when I moved in,” says Clare. Being a basement, No 46 felt especially dingy given it only had one window. “It was a glorified studio flat. The kitchen had no windows and no heating, so the only way of getting any warmth was to turn the oven on,” adds Matt.

Sometimes strange things happened while working from home. “We heard [our compilation album] Shadow Factory coming through the wall once before we released it and it completely freaked us out. No one had a copy, so how could we be hearing it through the wall?” says Clare. Their next door neighbour was Mike Gartside, the indie music writer at listings magazine Venue. Mike had taken his promotional copy of Shadow Factory home to review. “I looked at the address at the bottom of the record and was like, ‘That’s next door to me!’ It was a real shock,” remembers Mike.

“I was at No 45, and the partition between the two walls was practically non-existent, so I could put on a record in my flat and I’m sure they heard it almost perfectly in theirs. I deliberately put it on loud so they couldn’t possibly not hear it.”

Although Clare and Matt moved to London after they ended Sarah, they remain enormously fond of Bristol. “If I wasn’t living in London, Bristol would still be my top city to live in,” promises Matt. “London is where I’m from and I was starting to miss it. But I miss Bristol as well. Bristol is lovely because it’s a self-contained big city. You can stand on Brandon Hill and there’s greenery all around. So even though you’re in a big metropolis, it doesn’t take ages to get out.”

• Containing almost 130 interviews and more than 250 pictures, ‘These Things Happen: The Sarah Records Story’ by Jane Duffus, published by Tangent Books is out now.
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