25 Years of Electric Honey

Electric Honey is the Glasgow-based independent record label that first signed the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro. Not bad for a company that's run as a project by a class of music management students. How do they do it?

Feature by Chris McCall | 10 May 2017

Every truly great music city should be able to boast of having at least one great record label. Mention Detroit, Memphis or New York and a collector will immediately think of Motown, Stax and Columbia. But what label defines Glasgow and its proud history of nurturing artists of all varieties?

Standing out in any list of contenders is Electric Honey, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It can hold its own against any other independent label by pointing to the several heavyweight artists it’s nurtured during its two-and-a-half decades. Yet as any fan of Glasgow’s music scene will tell you, Electric Honey is very different to its rivals in one important regard. The label is not run by some cigar-chomping impresario, but by a class of music management students based in Maryhill.

Overseeing them is Ken McCluskey, some-time singer in pop rockers The Bluebells and full-time inspiration to those seeking a job in the music industry. His own career took him from the Glasgow punk scene of the late ‘70s to singing FM radio classic Young At Heart on Top of the Pops. He began lecturing at the old Stow College in 2003 and now heads up the music business course at the merged Glasgow Kelvin College. “We’re strictly a label, not a publishing company,” he tells The Skinny one Thursday morning before the Easter break. “Our remit is: we’re looking for a band who need developed. There’s lots of good music about – but some bands need a wee lift. That’s where we come in.”

Electric Honey was set up in 1992 by Alan Rankine, one half of the creative partnership behind 1980s favourites The Associates, as the in-house label of Stow College. It was designed to give students practical experience of spotting talent, drawing up contracts, booking recording sessions and marketing a finished product. Since its inception, the label has signed at least one fledgling artist per year. Its famous alumni include Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro, while in recent years it has offered a helping hand to the likes of How to Swim and Be Charlotte. Such a strike rate led Uncut magazine to declare Electric Honey as “possibly the most successful student-run label in the world”.

So how does a band get signed? “We try to do it as democratically as possible,” explains McCluskey. “One of the students might recommend a band and we’ll take a vote. But sometimes I need to be the big bad man who asks, 'is that going to get played on the radio?' Because I’m a commercial guy. I’m a pop guy. I started off as a punk rocker, moved to pop and ended up in a folky band. I know what sells and doesn’t sell. I know what will get played on the radio.

“Part of my remit is I don’t take on extreme death metal – I don’t like it and I don’t know how to sell it. The same goes for extreme Dutch techno. But everything else – it could be folk, jazz, indie, whatever – is fine. In the last couple of years we’ve done an album with a guy from Mali, Yacouba Sissoko. He was introduced to us by someone from Glasgow. He had a record, but didn’t know anything about the digital side of things, so we helped him there. Last year we released a single by Be Charlotte, who was a student in the class. She played me a demo and I said it was great. It’s all different.”

Electric Honey was based at the landmark Stow College building at Garnethill, close to the M8 motorway, until 2016. Thanks to a series of mergers in the Scottish higher education system, the label is now part of Glasgow Kelvin College and has a new base at the former Garrioch school in Hotspur Street, a short stroll north from Byres Road. “I first became aware of the label when I worked at CaVa studios in the 90s and the label was always in,” added McCluskey. “I’d be working in studio one and they’d be in studio two. I knew of the college as I lived in Garnethill – everyone’s dad went there when they were an apprentice joiner, or tailor, or whatever trade they had. It was a huge part of the city.”

Richard Colburn, best known as the drummer in Belle and Sebastian, is among the Stow graduates who went on to full-time careers in the industry. When he moved to Glasgow in the mid-90s to take the music management course, it directly led to both the formation of one of Scotland’s best-loved bands and the recording of an album still treasured around the world. “I ended up living in Glasgow with Stuart David, the band’s original bassist,” he tells The Skinny. “He and Stuart Murdoch had already been writing songs together for a while by that point. Because I was about they asked me to sit in on drums and it all kind of went from there, with more people joining.”

Thanks to Colburn’s in with the label, the young band were asked to record an album for Electric Honey. The result was Tigermilk, released in 1996, which many fans still consider to be their finest work. “I think only one of us had been in a proper studio before,” he adds. “We did the album in five days, but the first was pretty shambolic. But having that first record in the can gave us so much bargaining power when other labels came chasing us.”

Among the college’s other famous alumni in the 90s were the Johnston twins – better known as the rhythm section in Biffy Clyro. “Thinking back to our time with Electric Honey brings back some great memories,” bassist James Johnston recalls. “It was such an exciting time for the band to be chosen to work with a label with such great pedigree. The students were very enthusiastic and took a hands-on approach to working with the band, so much so that a decade later I find myself married to one of them!”

Five key Electric Honey releases

Belle and Sebastian – Tigermilk (LP, 1996)
The debut album from Stuart Murdoch and co was recorded at Glasgow's CaVa studios in just five days in March 1996. Drummer Richard Colburn was a music management student at Stow College, as was the group's first manager, Neil Robertson. The original pressing of the album ran to just 1000 copies – and has since become a prized collector's item.

Polarbear – Starfighter Pilot (EP, 1997)
A band of mostly Northern Irish students who met at the University of Dundee, Polarbear would later rename themselves Snow Patrol and go on to achieve worldwide success. Lacking a drummer during their Electric Honey sessions, Richard Colburn of Belle and Sebastian was asked to step in. The title track would later be rerecorded for Snow Patrol's debut LP.

Biffy Clyro – Thekidswhopoptodaywillrocktomorrow (EP, 2000)
Twin brothers Ben and James Johnston arrived at Stow in the late 90s to study electronics with music and audio engineering, respectively. Their band, Biffy Clyro, soon came to the attention of the music management students at the college and an Electric Honey deal was soon agreed.

Be CharlotteDiscover (Single, 2016)
Charlotte Brimner, a singer-songwriter and producer from Dundee, arrived at the newly-named Glasgow Kelvin College and soon impressed her classmates and lecturers alike with her unique pop sound. This 2016 single remains her calling card and hints at a performer with a very special talent.

Pronto Mama – Any Joy (LP, 2017)
Electric Honey's latest signings released their debut album this month and the label will celebrate its launch with a special show at Glasgow Art School on 26 May. The Glaswegian six-piece are definitely ones to watch.

Electric Honey's annual label showcase takes place at Òran Mór, Glasgow, 9 Jun as part of the West End festival. https://www.facebook.com/electrichoneymusic/