In 1972, a little shop in Notting Hill was about to change music. Virgin Records and Tapes, a hippy record store that dished out free vegetarian food to customers (if you believe the tales) was about to branch out into releasing records itself. With a student Richard Branson at the helm Virgin Records was born. Initially a prog-rock label, their debut release was a gamble; Mike Oldfield, after being turned down by virtually very other label, was signed up and together they released Tubular Bells, an album that would stay in the UK album charts for the next five years, and win Mike Oldfield a Grammy.

In the late 70s and 80s Virgin turned its attention to punk and new wave. Happy to court controversy, Virgin signed the Sex Pistols in 1977 and subsequently enjoyed a police raid on their shop in response to their infamous Nevermind the Bollocks window display. Where the big movements in music were, Virgin was never far behind (they even invented the modern Compilation album when they released Now That’s What I call Music in 1983, fact fans.) Their artists included The Human League, The Smashing Pumpkins and Blur.

The 90s was the last time the record industry really felt secure and Virgin was one of the biggest labels around. Branson sold Virgin to EMI in 1992 with the condition that he would not set up another label for at least five years, leaving Virgin, under EMI’s global supervision, to scout for exciting new acts without fear of losing any existing artists to a new Virgin label. For a large label they were still innovative, feeding into popular culture and picking out interesting acts that would define the era. The success of the Spice Girls left money to help break bands like the Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack into the mainstream.

In the late 90s, post Britpop, things took a downturn, for years we’ve been hearing about the demise of the record industry; the arrival of auction sites like Amazon and Ebay eliminated the middleman from second hand record sales, which has resulted in the gradual closure of independent record stores. Next came digital downloads, signalling the final call for music retail; albums covers, editions and weirdly bearded sales assistants are no longer a part of our music buying horizon. So where did this leave Virgin?

Adrift, it would seem. New bands Bloc Party, The Cribs and At the Drive-In were getting people interested in music again; the common thing between them was that they were signed to V2, Branson’s new label. They recruited the type of bands that Virgin before them had prided themselves on. Around the same time EMI had downsized Virgin and moved their premises to a building next to EMI’s offices, effectively leaving them identity-less.

Over the past few years things started to look up again, EMI might not be making much profit, but Virgin was finding itself back where it was comfortable, promoting radio friendly guitar acts. Recent successes like the Kooks and The Good The Bad and The Queen were both slow builders that spent a lot of time in the charts.
Following on from there seems to be the problem. Limited edition albums, dvds and free link to downloads and interviews are being used as purchasing incentives. They have the right idea, scouting artists such as Laura Marling and Unklejam, but then they squander them. After Amy Winehouse everyone is jumping to get hold of a staple female singer; Universal’s Duffy seems to soundtrack everything available, Sony BMG’s Lily Allen is spread all over blogland and Laura Marling? As unsuited as she is the faux female jazz genre the others find themselves in, she could have done a lot better than the niche indie market she was presumably aimed at. The effort was there, Virgin added a unique touch to sell hardcopies of the album – a free intimate gig ticket with every purchase of the special ‘Song Box’ edition of the album. The problem was that it was too intimate and too expensive at £20.

Unklejam too, were an exciting new band, money was spent on them but the records didn’t sell. Everyone heard and remembered ‘Love Ya’ but nobody bought it and it peaked at number fifty five in the charts. Once a band with personalities as loud as Unklejam would merely have to smile from the cover of Smash Hits to guarantee a number one single. Things are different now, people don’t want a personality, they want that song they just heard a moment ago, a couple of clicks and a few seconds later the song’s theirs without them having to leave their seats. Unklejam so far haven’t released an album, although promos were sent out, and the band have subsequently found themselves dropped.

So what happens now for Virgin? Since EMI created the Capitol Music Group in 2007, a merger between Virgin and Capitol records, there ceased to be a Virgin records in all things but name. The label has been merged and streamlined to within an inch of its life and no longer has the creative edge that it once commanded.

Perhaps the problem is that these days they can’t afford to fail on the bigger artists so they dedicate their time and resources there and consequently neglect the smaller artists. There have been some great success stories this year, Late of the Pier and Black Kids are just a couple, but in major label terms just how successful are they? Of course there will always be big label casualties that sink in the competition; Vincent Vincent and the Villains spring to mind, but likewise there will still always be the unlikely success stories, who would have thought Jamie T would have broken down the barriers into the mainstream when he signed to Virgin? It just shows that all the gimmicks in the world can’t substitute a really great record and a little bit of luck.

CE For 3E News and research by LW

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