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In-depth: Local bands launch labels

Why is Cardiff’s music scene so conducive to starting record labels?

Barely Regal’s Matt Fidler and Isaac Jones looking the part (photo: MB)

You’re in a popular local band who want to record music professionally and release it to the world but feel unconfident about major label interest, especially in today’s musical climate. So what do you do? If you reside in Cardiff, you start your own record label.

Barely Regal, Shape and Bubblewrap Collective are record labels founded in Cardiff over the last five years and all were established partly because their owners wanted to get their respective band’s music out there. Now each has gone from releasing EPs of their own music to full-length albums from other artists: Bubblewrap Collective with Little Arrow, Barely Regal with Kutosis and, most recently, Shape with Truckers of Husk, amongst others.

Mark Thomas, along with his brothers Lee and John, founded Shape Records in late 2006 and, perhaps more than other Cardiff-based labels, had a singular aim in mind for the label and their band, Attack + Defend. “The main focus was on the band, not the label,” Mark explains. “Shape was something which enabled us to release our music at the time; we didn’t have a plan for expansion.”

While Shape were influenced by previous Cardiff labels such as My Kung-Fu, Slow Graffiti and Booby Trap, they themselves have paved the way for both Bubblewrap Collective and Barely Regal, founded in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The labels all share a passion for physical products, whether vinyl, CD or even cassette and Shape’s policy of limited edition physical releases is one that has seen others follow suit.

Barely Regal, with barely two years in business, has already seen founders Isaac Jones and Matt Fidler exceed their expectations for expansion, mainly because, according to them, they had none to start with. Going from an EP release with their band Among Brothers to getting their own stage at Cardiff’s annual Swn music festival was a transition the pair had never imagined happening, especially before Barely Regal had even reached its first birthday. “We toyed with the idea of curating a stage but thought ‘nah, we’re too small and off the radar’,” Matt says. “Then we got an email from [Swn organiser] John [Rostron] saying ‘do you want to do a stage this year?’ and we instantly replied ‘yes’!”

Close-knit city

Cardiff’s music scene seems to thrive because of its sense of community; there’s no rivalry, only a desire for good music to get heard. Rich Chitty, creative director at Bubblewrap Collective and drummer in Lucky Delucci, not only emphasises the importance of support from promoters and local independent music shops such as Spillers Records, but also cites the city’s localised nature as a reason for his label’s success. “It’s a capital city but it’s quite a small city as well so bands get to know each other and get to know different people on the scene,” Rich says. “It provides an opportunity for labels to promote local music.”

It helps that many of these bands practice in the same rehearsal space, as Hywel Evans from Shape signing Truckers of Husk explains ahead of the band’s album launch party at Clwb Ifor Bach. “Everyone knows everybody. You’ve got a lot of bands for the size of the place and because there’s only one good place to go and rehearse, the Music Box, everyone goes there and you get to know people; everyone plays with each other’s bands and everyone goes to each other’s gigs. If Cardiff was any bigger you would lose that.”

The future

So how do the labels hope to sustain themselves amidst constant fear of declining music sales? Rich wants to ensure that Bubblewrap Collective’s physical releases are all worth buying, saving money by designing the artwork himself in-house, as well as offering releases for digital download. “We like to do something a bit different, have some nice packaging, back it up like that,” he explains. “So you’ve got the digital side if you want to download it but if you want to get something physical then it will be something a bit special.”

Barely Regal, on the other hand, are just hoping to break even. However, with limited edition releases like the debut album from Kutosis selling out ahead of release dates, this shouldn’t take too long. The duo has a lot planned for the future, including an Olympians mini-album and tour, a Theo album and more releases from Among Brothers. “We’ve got quite a lot happening next year, probably more than we can actually afford,” Matt jokes. “I’m going to have to get a house and remortgage it or something!”

In contrast, Mark appears remarkably calm, seemingly having found a sense of fulfilment with Shape Records and current band Islet. “We don’t make very big plans; we just see what comes up,” he says. “Our aim when we started the label was to get our own section in Spillers Records, which we have. We are actually a bit lost now because we haven’t got anything else to aim for!”

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