Last Night from Glasgow on their first two years
As Last Night from Glasgow prepares to celebrate its second birthday, we catch up with co-founder Ian Smith to find out what the future holds for the crowd-funded, not-for-profit label
“There seems to have been a noticeable change in the response of the press in recent months,” says Last Night from Glasgow co-founder Ian Smith, “and maybe it’s simply because we’re still here after two years and we’re still putting records out, still garnering critical acclaim. So maybe those people who thought it was a bit frivolous and was never going to work, well maybe they’ve realised that perhaps we’re onto something?” Smith reflects on the developing success of this unique enterprise as he and The Skinny talk over phone at the start of both the year and the Glasgow label’s 2018 membership plan. Yes: membership.
Last year, LNFG’s 200 or so members crowdfunded the not-for-profit venture with a £50 subscription and benefitted to the tune of four vinyl LPs, one vinyl EP, one USB album, and seven digital singles. Artists such as TeenCanteen, Sister John, Annie Booth and Radiophonic Tuckshop ensured quality went toe-to-toe with quantity. This year will at least match 2017’s haul and see debut albums from extraordinary noise-poppers L-Space, folk-rock collective The Gracious Losers, singer-songwriter Zoe Bestel and a new record from indie-pop legends Bis.
Smith refers to this as an “act of love and madness,” one that, in the current climate, surely inclines towards the latter. “Well,” he continues, “I wonder if, now that we’ve gathered some confidence after having done it for a while, the thing that separates us from other labels that we’ve been compared to, such as Factory, Cherry Red [and] Postcard, is that all of those were started by maverick music lovers at a time of great opportunity. Factory started as independent music and new wave was really taking hold, and people were consuming music at a frightening rate. But we started at a time of great necessity. It’s not us trying to make a pot of money – because we don’t make a penny. So because the label was formed as a business, it was never set up to be a hobby or a fun experiment. This is a business set up by six businessmen.
“In the first year, we quickly realised that, in order to function, the business was going to have to be bigger than we had originally anticipated because we were getting more money from people than we had expected. That’s still very much the case. We’re growing exponentially. More money to spend means more artists, more artists means more records, and more records means more money to spend. I remember my friend Stephen [Kelly], who started the company with me, saying that we seem to have created the world’s first [successful] Ponzi scheme!”
The work involved in starting an independent label at any time can’t be underestimated. Neither can the fleet-of-foot manoeuvring required to keep the thing afloat – LNFG is, of course, run alongside full time job jobs. With the vinyl revival still gathering pace, two decades after the internet and MP3s removed reliance on the traditional corporate label model, who even knows what the means of distribution is any more? “Well, we actually wanted to be a vinyl only company,” says Smith. “We felt that was the only way to get people to engage and buy. CDs at merch stands is pretty dead; you can’t get any money off digital. I mean, I’m a vinyl enthusiast – I’m standing in my room right now and I’m looking at a couple of thousand records on the wall. So, it was always about records for me.
"But at some point in our first year, we came across an album we were convinced could not be released on vinyl because it had been written, recorded, produced and mastered on a phone. Now, nobody can release music created in that fashion on a record, so we released it on a USB stick. That was Stephen Solo’s Pii2 album. TeenCanteen saw this and wanted to do the same [for their debut album Say it All with a Kiss]. So we did it for them too, and it sold out. So, you’re having to constantly rework your idea of what you think is sensible or appropriate at any given time.
“All of us involved in the label have differing levels of expertise. You know, we sit around and talk about what we should do. There might be a couple of dissenting voices, but you find that you generally come up with the right path and the right strategy. I think we’ve now found a natural groove – our instincts are pretty good. If I allow myself to be egocentric for a moment” – Smith pauses and laughs – “it’s not the committee-run business it was. If you run a business by committee, you end up with a watered down version of what you should be doing. So we eventually found a way of breaking that committee structure, so that we could get things agreed and decisions happen quickly. I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that 75-80% of what LNFG does, happens from inside the hub of the label – which is my house.”
Even without the backdrop of a still major label-dominated industry, as focused as ever on breaking flash-in-the-pan newcomers for as many 99p downloads as can be hoovered up before the public and the media moves on, the LNFG approach shows uncommon care for the artist. “Absolutely it does,” says Smith. “We had a situation the other night where Zoe Bestel, who is someone I was very keen to work with, played her first show for us supporting Carla J. Easton [of TeenCanteen] at a Celtic Connections show. Midway through the set, Murray [Easton], one of our co-founders, came over and said to me ‘Now I know why you drove to Dumfries and Galloway to see this girl.’ He had heard her music and liked it but suddenly he saw her onstage and he was like, 'I get it now.'” Older heads, it should be noted, prepare for how Bestel reclaims and reworks Judie Tzuke’s 1978 heartbreaker For You. “Oh I’ve seen her play it live. It’s astonishing.”
Taking their expanding roster out of Scotland is important to Smith – the live experience is key to the label’s identity. At a LNFG gig, you're very likely to receive your entry stamp in the form of a hand-drawn animal on the back of your hand. “I could be wrong,” says Smith, “but I think that that sort of introduction to a gig, alongside us actually wanting to chat to people on the door and make them feel included, immediately warms the audience.
"To be given the chance to actually hear and enjoy the music – we’ve got a pretty aggressive policy with gig-talkers – I have to say, is hugely important. People don’t want to hear some guy telling his mate what he did at the weekend.” Inspired, we set about those champs who spend the entire gig – coincidentally, it would seem, more enthusiastically for female acts – snapping and filming shark-eyed from the front row. “Oh tell me about it. We won't tolerate that – it’s just terrible. And it’s that kind of thing that adds to a situation where people are not being allowed to enjoy the show as much as they might and as much as they deserve to.”
With the label looking to expand membership into the likes of Manchester and Liverpool, the ‘Glasgow’ in its name remains key to the label’s identity despite Smith’s worry that it might nudge observers to presume they’re purely a Glasgow-centric operation. “I was saying to someone the other day that the real disappointment for me with LNFG is that we’re a socialist construct who have had to be inward-looking to succeed. Because if we were outward-looking, we wouldn’t be able to look after our artists. That said, in Glasgow there are four or five labels all of similar size to us, and we work together.
"For example, if we’re putting on a show and we don’t have a support, then we’ll go and talk to Olive Grove and ask them who they have who might fit, and vice versa. And what I'm actually hoping we achieve over the next 18 months is that we build an even bigger community, where these labels promote the city’s overall music scene in an ethical and committed way. With the artists, and not, for once, the media, the promoters, and the record companies, at the forefront.”
Last Night from Glasgow celebrate their 2nd Birthday with performances from Bis, L-Space, Sun Rose and Stephen Solo at Stereo, Glasgow, 31 Mar