The head of the PIAS label in conversation
There is a large pane of glass behind me and to my left and right. I am sat in an office within an open plan office. It’s just after lunch and people are slowly returning to their desks. I’m exposed. A bespectacled man walks in, hurried but cheerful. It’s Peter Thompson and his broad Northern tone feels welcoming. Peter is in charge of the label arm at PIAS and we are here to bust some myths, which he seems pleased about. We begin as work continues all around us. “I am sure when Domino or Rough Trade go and sign an artist they don’t have to explain thirty years of the history of the label, whereas every time we sign someone we do,” he laughs, as he mock rolls his eyes endearingly. ‘There is a lot of clarity needed for our artists to understand what the label is,” he finishes, handing me a cup of tea.
So to be clear as crystal, PIAS is a label. It’s called Play It Again Sam and has had various guises, such as PIAS Recordings and a lesser known dance label called Different. “That’s right,” nods Peter. “PIAS is a label but it has three distinctive repertoire areas.” He points all around him. “We’ve got the label here, then Co-op that side, we sign artists and they sign labels… and upstairs is the Sales and Distribution area that provides access to market for us along with lots of other labels as well like Beggars, Domino and Warp, OK?”
Yep, got that Peter, it’s as clear as the glass around us.
An awful lot is achieved in this building I’m sat in. An enthusiastic Belgian named Kenny Gates is responsible for the PIAS we see today. He began the label as Play It Again Sam in 1983 and never looked back. A varied roster that included national heroes Soulwax and an attachment to specialist dance imprints created an impressive contact book and when they branched into distribution and rebranded as Vital in 1993 a new road was forged. In 2005, now key distributors, they became PIAS once more and in 2012 the label was re-launched with Peter at the helm. “It’s only really in these last 2 or 3 years when I started getting involved we made a very definite idea to go right that’s it, the label is going to be called Play it Again Sam run by me and based in London, let’s just follow those three basics and keep getting that message across. Obviously PIAS is the abbreviation; everyone thinks we’ve signed Fat White Family or Basement Jaxx [who’ve actually set up their own imprint’s via PIAS’s label services]. People we’ve dealt with for years are suddenly saying, ‘oh I never knew what PIAS stood for!’”
We both stop to sip our tea, and as if anticipating my next question, Peter says. “I work on a slightly different mindset.”
Peter is quite unlike others I’ve met in this Record Head series. He might have the wisdom of Mute’s Daniel Miller, the deep love for music like Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde, even the diverse musical taste of Rough Trade’s Jeanette Lee, but he also has a solid business backbone where such idealists felt it out as they went. “It’s funny,” he says, “as most record labels are run by ex band members or someone with an A&R background but that’s not what I have done, I come from a sales and marketing background so we have our own A&R man. As the label’s grown I have felt I needed to get more engaged. If I go into a studio I don’t tell people how to make a record. I don’t tell people what’s right or wrong. I can tell them whether I like it or not! Whereas a great A&R man will be able to do that, be able to change a record.”
Before Peter was the label boss he successfully guided the Sales and Distribution side of the company; Kenny Gates then handed him the reigns to his beloved Play it Again Sam label.
“I have been at PIAS since it started, I suppose. I think I have a broad knowledge of the industry as a whole – I know sales and distribution really well, which is still very important and I understand the retail side. To be honest, I do know the business side but I am still learning on the live side, which is becoming more and more important as a label – what we can give to the artist on that front. Before, the artist did live and everyone else did there other bit, whereas now these roles are getting more intermingled. I think the whole record industry is learning more about what they can contribute.”