published: 19 /
Owen Peters talks to Tom Bridgewater, the owner of Europe’s leading Americana label Loose Music, about his label’s lengthy history
Once in a while the music industry allows an insight into its inner sanctum, the opportunity to review the rewards and material returns for persistence and perspiration over the years. Tom Bridgewater, the founder of Loose Music, is living a dream, his dream. Helicopters, flash cars, yachts, worldwide travel...er…no... I soon learn I won’t find those trappings here.
On the outskirts of Acton town centre in West London, situated in what looks like a mill transported from the Industrial Revolution and up two flights of concrete stairs which echo each footstep, is the hub of Loose (as it’s affectionately known). Taking heed of the maxim of not judging a book by its cover is probably sound advice here. Bridgewater, nearly twenty years on, still works from the same office. This is where is all began, and it continues to grow and develop, his objective simply “to get better”.
The office of Loose has a personal setting. It feels like home. A selling agency would say it is open plan. In truth it is a largish, sparse, functional room. The walls are covered with artwork, pictures of smiling faces, memories and memorabilia from past decades, and the album sleeves of artists with past careers, some of them with careers still ahead and some with only stories to tell. Files and records are strewn around the place, on tables, the floor, and even a pool table doubles as part of the furniture. He runs the business with a small team. Julia Grant, who is working the morning admin, teases her boss. “I came on work experience years ago and wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t get rid of me,” she says. He’s pleased at her tenacity.
Loose Music was created in 1998 by Bridgewater, after he decided his original idea of promoting and selling vinyl records through his former company Vinyl Junkie had completed its turntable cycle four years after he had started it up in 1994. He’s attired in open neck shirt, chino trousers and deck shoes that reflect the ease and comfort of the surroundings. Furnished with a mug of tea, I occupy a well-worn suite. He pulls up a chair whilst the office settles into another day.
Bridgewater had what he terms a “decent education” but decided not to pursue the option of university life. He settled into a management position with Thames TV, where he remained suited and booted for some ten years. When Thames lost their franchise, he and his team were made redundant.
As he was taking stock of life's opportunities, his mother had an accident whilst out horse riding.
“It was a bad head injury, leaving her unable to lead what would be deemed a normal life. My sisters and I were given a stark warning. This is our life. It’s not a rehearsal,” he recalls.
“My wife and I decided to travel. I knew my future wasn’t in TV or a similar profession. What I was going to do with myself, I wasn’t sure. We went to South America, Jamaica, North America following carnivals and festivals along the way. Everything we did followed the route of music.”
On returning home he decided to take a flyer setting up Vinyl Junkie Records during the summer of 1994. He explains part of his rationale. “At the time I thought that I probably knew as much about country music as anyone. The actor and old family friend Kenneth Cranham made up tapes for those long family car journeys. I was introduced over and over again to Jesse Winchester, John Prine, J.J. Cale, Randy Newman and Emmylou Harris. So I thought, with youthful endeavour, I’ll give it a try.”
“It was a hard four years, learning as I went along. The guy selling chips from his van at the top of the road was probably making money than I was at the time,” he says with some humour.
“Something had to change, so I moved out of the broom cupboard at home, took up this place (the office) along with my ex-partner Mark Rogers and decided to start putting out CDs. I guess the breakthrough was a compilation CD, ‘Loose New Sounds of the Old West’. Even now people tell me how much the CD defined their adult choice of music. A review in ‘Mojo’ at the time said it separated ‘wheat from the chaff.’ I also wanted to start signing bands, not just continue as a distributor of music.”
Loose symbolize mainstream Americana in the UK. They epitomise quality, a label to which artists want association. Listening to Bridgewater it’s abundantly clear hard work has been his bellwether to success. There is no magic formula, or clever marketing plans, or short term objectives, just graft, an ethos of hard work. “Nothing gives me greater pleasure,” he states with a fiery conviction, “than to sign artists who I can put on any stage with the knowledge that there is quality and class.” This is Bridgewater living his dream.
“I wanted to build an established respected music label. To be honest, I sometimes have to pinch myself when I realise what we’ve achieved. I meet up with the guys from Heavenly and Rough Trade on the streets of South by Southwest (Major annual music festival which takes place each March in Austin, Texas), and they want to talk about my acts.” His surprise is palatable.
He describes the music business as “bizarre, full of pirates and beauty queens”. It’s a nice categorisation which would only lose its definition and mystique by more explanation.
Loose has come a long way with well-established bands such as the Handsome Family, Justin Townes Earle, Danny & The Champions Of The World and Willard Grant Conspiracy along with new kids on the block like Andrew Combs, Israel Nash, Barna Howard,, Vikesh Kapoor, Joe Pug and the recently Grammy nominated Sturgill Simpson.
I’ve seen many of the above, some in front of packed venues Saturday nights in London. For other artists, it has been in front of thirty or forty punters on a wet Wednesday evening who have turned up to hear something promising or maybe say “I was there” depending on how their musical career subsequently unfurls.
I’m intrigued to know the criteria Loose use when signing artists.
“Well, for the first time, we’ve just signed a guy who sent in a 7” demo by post. I’d never heard of him, but we signed him up. Usually our initial interest is by recommendation. The Americana community tend to pass on acts they like. Sometimes they approach us, but most of the time we are already aware of them. That said, we’ve missed or decided against signing artists for various reasons who have gone on to success. Seasick Steve was sat where you are sitting. We could have signed him, but decided not to.”
“Anyone else?” he asks Julia. Rather sheepishly, she says, “The Lumineers, the Civil Wars both fall into the same category.”
He nods in agreement, providing a brief explanation.
“Some of my decisions not to sign bands were from a financial perspective, while with others it was a gut feel. Who knows what would have become of them if they’d signed for us?” It is more of a pondering statement than a question searching for an answer.
“I don’t get out and watch bands as much as I used too,” he continues. “Unless I’m interested in signing an artist, I probably won’t go to the gig. Julia and the others in the team and on the fringes get an input in signing or not signing an artist as well. It’s a gut feel. Do they excite us? That’s the test.”
Bridgewater gives a definite no when I ask if he signs artists hoping one of the many will come through in terms of exposure and financial return.
“We don’t work like some of the major labels, sign bands and maybe one will stick to the wall. Although we are a small label and our overheads are low, it is quality that we are striving for all the time. Yes we’d like a major success story, but, believe me, if we don’t rate an artist, Loose won’t get involved.”
As an attendee of numerous gigs I’m sure others in an audience of 30/40 have wondered how is this performance making any money?
“It’s a matter of not over exposing ourselves. I think we are better at controlling our costs. Selling merchandise is always a good revenue earner, but production of too many CDs takes away any profit we hoped for. Our volume of CD returns is a lot less than it used to be, so we are getting something right. Some of our more established bands sell lots of stuff and this does help support those, say, on their first tour. Yes it’s a Peter to pay Paul situation in some cases.”
Although I try and pin down him down on business plans, direction and strategy, he won’t engage. It’s not though that he’s being evasive. He’s hands on. It is a take your eyes off today and there isn’t a tomorrow type of concept.
“In some sense I’m not your archetypical business man. I’m doing something I love, I know what I like, which is Americana music. It is as simple as that really. We do have some future plans with the US and that will take us forward, but my style is involvement with the business each and every day. I do learn lessons along the way and act on them. I also have an instinct for survival.”
Bridgewater pauses, removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. He’s new to the world of spectacles. It’s probably the only item in the room he’s not yet found comfort with. When he talks, he sells, most times with a controlled passion on his lifelong project, other times more intensely, such as when we discuss disloyal bands and larger labels nicking his proteges.
“It can be very frustrating to have a band leave when you’ve put so much work into getting them the right level of exposure. Some days I think if you want loyalty get a dog. Overall, the majority of bands we sign stay though. We support and look after them. They understand what we are trying to achieve.”
Loose has grown its reputation by being the benchmark for Americana music in the UK. I test the water and check if he has ever dabbled in other genres. “We’ve discussed some of the options available to us. I’m pleased we’ve stayed with what we know, namely Americana. I’d say Vikesh (Kapoor) is folk, so yes we can tip over to other styles, but in essence we stay with what we know best. It’s the music we like”
He knows the industry, its players, their strengths and weaknesses. When we discuss competitors, he immediately opts for the US. “Labels such as New West and ATO cover a similar type of artists. We have artists signed for worldwide release and others for the European market. Working in the US is difficult. We are the size of a bum pimple to some of their distributors.”
“We deal with Thirty Tigers in Nashville. It’s a new concept, but I see more sales from that agreement. As for Europe, there isn’t really a small label doing what we’re doing. Maybe Fargo in France, but I think they’ve moved into other areas.”
Bridgewater talks on business and the music industry in simple straightforward and clear language. Not once has he used any “business/corporate speak.” It’s refreshing. I can’t imagine anyone being confused by his rhetoric.
When asked “How’s business?” from what I’ve see and read he seems to have a stock answer, which runs “I’m still here” or “Still going.” There’s no doubt he can deflect certain questions with a subtlety which doesn’t cause offence. Is this one of those statements?
Off come the glasses again, with a brief pause for eye rubbing. “No,” he begins with a slight chortle. “Really, this is a bloody hard industry. When I am asked about business, to say we, Loose, are still here is a sign of success. I enjoy what I do, wouldn’t change it for anything else, but it is about survival in a very difficult market.”
He shares a story. Some would say it as psychosis or insecurity. I’d probably file it as wrong job for wrong bloke.
Whilst working at Thames TV as responsibilities increased, he felt as though the business was going on around him. There were decisions to be made, deals to be done, deadlines to be achieve, but he didn’t really feel in control of the business animal which required constant attention. Years later at a memorial service for a friend he met up with old colleagues from his time in TV. As they delved into days gone by, each one outed themselves, agreeing and admitting they too had exactly the same thoughts on their ability to manage the situation. Stressed, anxiety, interrupted sleep pattern, a dread of the next working day. A tap on the shoulder, confirming they had been found out: the game was up.
For Bridgewater those days are well and truly gone. Now he’s running a business built on solid business foundations and principles, supported by a small skilled team. He’s in control, living and enjoying the dream.
As we close off and I start to pack up my notepad and recorder, I ask, “So, Tom, if we say the same place, same time in two years’ time what would you have hope to have achieved?”
He smiles, “Oh just to still be in business, to still be here.”
Tom Bridgewater - the question deflector and business protector - I have no doubt he’ll survive.
Loose Music (53)
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