Label Profile: Fierce Panda on reaching 15 years young

Label Profile: Fierce Panda on reaching 15 years young

1994 – With Grunge just a trigger pull away from its violent, visceral finale, and the criminal justice bill rattling the cages of almost anyone who liked to hang around in a group of more than 2 (maybe), people needed something wicked, dirty and filled with speed.

Enter These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H with Grange Hill Adidas apparel and feather cuts so sharp you could have cut out sociable sized lines of Amphetamine Sulphate on them.

Soon, a stable of half a dozen or so more punky, indie bands were bullied/cajoled into being part of a new movement. Simon Williams – an ex-NME Live Editor – loved this scene so much he felt it deserved its own release, and so he set up Fierce Panda purely to put out an EP entitled ‘Shagging In The Streets’, featuring the aforementioned S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men, along with Blessed Ethel, Done Lying Down and Action Painting.
This year Fierce Panda celebrates its 15th birthday, and while Williams considers himself “a right prat” for not signing Elbow when they came knocking, his label is still going strong, having released Coldplay, The Maccabees, Placebo, Keane, Ash and the infamous ‘Wibbling Rivalry’ interview between Noel and Liam Gallagher. Which is exactly why we’ve asked him for his 15 tips to making a success of a truly independent label.


DON’T call yourself something as stupid as Fierce Panda if you expect to be around for longer than three months. When we first started in 1994 other independent labels had very grown up, austere names like Deceptive, Dedicated and Indolent. Believing as we did that we were going to release one record – the ‘Shagging In The Streets’ new wave of new wave compilation EP – and retire, we thought it would be very big and hilarious to call our company something extremely un-austere like Fierce Panda. Somewhat ironically, we have survived while the Indolent’s and their ilk have long since gone to the great overstock warehouse in the sky.

DO be sensationally lucky. The Fierce Panda label was invented in a pub by three music journalists who had absolutely no idea how to put records out. Fortunately, we knew the chap who ran Damaged Goods Records. By plugging into his system we overcame all possible manufacturing, production, marketing and distribution hurdles with one great leap. Fifteen years down the line that pub (The Blue Posts) is now a Boots chemist on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Hanway Street, and it still stuns me just how sensationally lucky we were.

DO be passionate about indie labels. I grew up in Walthamstow, which in the late 1970s was home of Small Wonder Records who put out the first singles by Bauhaus, The Cure, and The Molesters. Small Wonder was also a record shop which closed in the mid-’80s to be replaced by Ugly Child and this was where I’d buy releases on Creation, Chapter 22, Zoo, Pink, Rough Trade, Waap!, WXYZ, 4AD, Subway, Beggars Banquet, Factory and dozens of other labels we have gleefully and liberally cribbed from in Fierce Panda’s lifetime. It’s IMPORTANT!

DON’T be too passionate about indie labels. You’ll drive yourself mad and become a bore going on and on about Walthamstow and Small Wonder and blah bloody blah blah.

DON’T aim for perfection. You can make the greatest of plans for your releases but there are so many obstacles and stupid people ahead of you it’s best to realise very early on that everything will go horribly wrong. We spent several months building up towards getting ‘Emily Kane’ by Art Brut in the Top 40 a few years back. For the first five days following the single’s released our midweek chart position was nudging between 36 and 38. Then at the last minute there were rats in the stats and on the Sunday ‘Emily Kane’ went in at 41, missing the top 40 by two sales. We haven’t listened to the Sunday afternoon chart rundown since.

DO be frugal with money. If you are starting an indie company by yourself the chances are the meager finances are all yours so you decide how much the band spends in the studio, not the singer or the manager. Our ‘Brothers & Sisters’ single by Coldplay cost ¬£450 to record in Southgate in 1999. Chris Martin absolutely loathes those recordings mind you, but every band has to start somewhere.

DON’T run an indie label expecting to make any money. Really.

DON’T be afraid to put stupid ideas into practice. Fierce Panda is commonly known as a seven inch singles label but over the years we have released split CDs, t-shirts, a mug and over 60 albums and mini-albums as well as a string of six-track double vinyl 7″ compilation EPs with names as ludicrously excellent as ‘Mortal Wombat’, ‘On The Buzzes’, ‘Screecher Comforts’ and ‘Otter Than July’. Our best-selling single release ever was ‘Wibbling Rivalry’, which to all intents and purposes is Liam and Noel Gallagher royally swearing at each other for 15 minutes. Go figure.

DON’T trust people from major labels. Obviously. And DON’T trust people from indie labels, either. In fact DON’T trust people from record company’s full stop. They’re bastards. I should know, I am one.

DON’T send snotty emails or cuss at people on the telephone. You aren’t Notorious B.I.G. and you’ll get a very bad reputation and nobody will sign to you. So always bite your tongue. Or, in the case of emailing, bite your fingers.

DON’T ask for too much advice from experts, or think too much about what you are doing. If you ask too much and think too much you will eventually know too much and when you know too much you will realise how eye-wateringly stupid this whole exercise is and you will stop putting records out and get a proper job.

DO release one-off singles. One-off singles are great because you don’t need contracts or loads of money and if all goes well you become part of the most innocent and exciting time of a band’s career, i.e. the beginning. Over the years we have released one-off singles by Kenickie, 3 Colours Red, Placebo, Idlewild, The Maccabees, Embrace and Hundred Reasons, plus dozens more by people like Toaster and Ultrasound and The Bellringers and Lolita Storm, and others who might not resonate in the nation’s memory but who still sounded pretty bloody good to us at the time.

DON’T release too many one-off singles for too long. You don’t make money from them and eventually you’ll get arsed-off with helping all those bands on their way to major deals or watching them crash and burn. Or both, as so often tends to be the depressing case.

DO release mini-albums. Mini-albums are great for new bands. They last longer than a single, in many senses, and they are less expensive and (frequently) less painful than a full album. That’s why wise people like Ash, Idlewild, Sugar, U2 and Arcade Fire have released them. And that’s why we have cracking mini-albums by iLiKETRAiNS, The Blackout, The Computers and Capital all out on Fierce Panda right this minute.


Originally published in issue 4 (Vol. 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2009

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