Record Heads: Peter Thompson is a rare thing – a label boss who’s no stranger to business

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.”

Peter is passionate about music. I know this as he gives more of his precious time than necessary at the end of our meet chatting about new and not-so-new bands on his label, such as CHAMPS and Enter Shikari. I also know this as he’s pounded every corner of this industry in the last 30 odd years, starting at Red Rhino Records in his hometown (York). “Prior to Vital there was a period in York at Red Rhino,” he explains. “We were a little distributor and part of the Cartel; Red Rhino was the Northern hub of that, but then it went bust and Play It Again Sam bought Red Rhino.”

If you’re having trouble keeping up, the Cartel was an early distribution network that joined the dots of independent music in the UK at a time when they really needed joining. Peter explains: “The idea in the late ’70s was that records would be dropped off in the Rough Trade shop and they’d sell them over the counter. Then Rough Trade worked out they could sell these records to other stores and as it expanded nationally they couldn’t sell them to places like Newcastle, Liverpool and Edinburgh so they found a group of likeminded shops in all of these places that would become sub-wholesalers. Red Rhino would buy off Rough Trade, they would supply us with a couple of hundred records and we would then supply all other stores within a radius of 100 miles of York, so you had this patchwork of record stores selling to other record stores but all of our music was coming out of one source, from Rough Trade.”

It was at Red Rhino that Peter began to build a special rapport with artists. “The first band I really worked alongside was The Wedding Present,” he says. “They were kind of my first signing. The band came in with a bunch of singles that they’d just pressed up, we would then sell them to other stores, and Cartel members, but then we had a stronger relationship with the band than others. I don’t know if it was a record deal, but we did a deal, and we released ‘George Best’ and it was probably one of our first success stories.”

Peter leans back in his chair and looks contentedly around his glass fronted office. Twenty seven years and he’s at the heart of things, working alongside artists once more.

“It suddenly dawned on me that actually I wanted to get more emotionally involved with everything we were doing,” he says, “and be able to work with artists from scratch and build their careers up.”

Peter’s sympathetic outlook and friendly disposition mirror that of his company. In their label services and distribution specialty, PIAS have a rep for being a big brother to some of the chief indies around the globe. “It’s a very clever relationship,” he says. “I think it has to be managed very diplomatically. The simple basis is that most of the labels Co-op work with are basically A&R operations ­– all these guys, Geoff Barrow [from Portishead and the Invada label], or the guys at Moshi Moshi or Simon Raymonde; they’re all fundamentally music guys, A&R guys, so Co-op provides the backbone to what these guys do. So Jason (Rackham) who runs [Co-op] won’t get involved in recording the records or even with the presentation of the artists, he leaves it with the labels and they get delivered the tools, then they work with them in the UK or a broader international sense. It’s a balancing act for them, they provide the boring side of it with the services and the marketing, leaving the label to go out and get drunk with the artists!”

Sinking into our surprisingly soft sofas, we’re having a mid-afternoon lull. Time to ask an awkward question about his labels identity; that’ll perk things up.

“It’s really, really hard to get any sort of identity,” says Peter. He sighs and begins again. “PIAS is this big operation that does many things and when you go into Europe the work specs are even broader than they are over here. In Europe it can be really confusing. For example, PIAS used to do Domino in France so the Arctic Monkeys were probably seen as being on PIAS rather than Domino in a territory like that so the areas of work are pretty vague. Play It Again Sam was the name we inherited – that was the starting point of the company when Kenny formed a label, but it’s never had a consistent identity; it’s been based in Belgium and London and back.”

Doesn’t that get complicated when you’re pushing to sign an artist?

“Yes, I think it’s one of the more frustrating things for us when we sign someone [explaining that there’s PIAS, the label I run, and then PIAS label services, which distributes other labels]. But we are a relatively well-resourced label. When the artist comes in and sees us and they come in and they meet the team, it’s a personal industry, isn’t it.”

For that very reason, Play It Again Sam, the label, is a breath of fresh air. Working with an array of acts, Peter’s business (and music) nounce has seen him pick up established bands like Editors or niche but well liked artists like Ghostpoet, giving the label a sense that anything’s possible. “As you probably know, you lose money on new artists until you get to the second or third albums,” he says. “As long as you work with them long enough you will probably see the dividends further ahead. There were times when you worked with an artist and they sold 100,000 copies and you wondered how you did it, well now it feels like it’s a bloody nightmare to get the thing moving. There seems to be a case of labels just getting music out there and then not knowing what to do afterwards. No strategy, no planning, no budgeting… just knowing what’s affordable and when to say no let’s stop there and move on to the next phase. You need all of those skill sets otherwise it feels like you are just sitting in the Wild West. I don’t know how the public copes; no-one is really thinking about the broader campaign it’s just next, next, next, next. I mean am I right or am I wrong?’

Using Peter’s Wild West rhetoric, the debate stopped there at fear of being shot down or thrown through glass by the experienced Wyatt Earp across the way. Instead, I ask about the infamous PIAS fire [the distribution company warehouse was torched in the 2011 London Riots, destroying the records of many labels who worked with PIAS to get their pressings into shops]; that felt a little Wild West itself… “Do you know, at that point I was running the sales and distribution,” he says. I was in America at the Grand Canyon, not at the South side, which is the bit that gets you to Las Vegas, but the North, which is very remote. When I go away from work I always say I’ll read my emails when I can but if you really need me you can text me, so it got to a point about ten days in where I was in the middle of nowhere I didn’t have any signal. One day right near the end I thought OK I’ll try my phone again and for some reason it worked, it was obviously fate. All of a sudden my texts were going mental, I just thought fuck, I have got 56 texts, what is going on. So I phoned the office and they said the warehouse burnt down in last nights riots, so I thought what riots?! What on earth has been going on since I have been away. So it was actually quite exhilarating because I think it united everybody. You know when you do something wrong and you are having problems, it’s a worry, but when you have one big mother fucking problem, which nobody can do anything about, you go right OK, we’ve all got to pull together. I think that was almost a really great experience just to see everyone support us. Our competitors supported us, artists who had nothing to do with label supported us, everyone just pulled together.”

As I get up and leave, walk out of one office and through another, I can’t help but feel that that was inevitable. PIAS and Peter Thompson do so much for everyone in the independent world; their payback was due.