Maisie Allen explores the rise of new independent Welsh record labels and its implications for the future of the Welsh music scene.
South Wales grown band Panic Shack have just finished playing at the prestigious SXSW Festival in Texas.
After reaching Tik Tok fame last year with their single ‘The Ick’, the four-piece all-female punk band has been going from strength to strength. Unusually though, for a lot of Welsh bands and artists trying to make the mainstream, they are signed with Clwb Ifor Bach’s in-house record label, artist management team, and publishing company Clwb Music, set up to promote homegrown artists, rather than with a label outside of Wales.
Cardiff has built up a firm reputation for new music. In addition to new labels, an ecosystem of young music publications such as Radar and Buzz have also helped promote artists at the beginning of their career.
Clwb Music are not the only independent record label to have been set up recently, especially in South Wales, but they are a signifier of how the Welsh indie scene is being shaken up in the face of an increasingly London-centric music industry.
‘Wales is seen as a region rather than its own nation’ by a lot of the British music industry
Ray Thomas is the founder of the new label Phwoar and Peace and creator of the popular New Welsh Indie playlist, which also attracted a lot of attention on TikTok during the Covid-19 lockdown. He argues that for a lot of Welsh artists, cities like London and in some cases, Manchester, are seen as the way to build a following for their music in the hope of attracting record labels’ attention: ‘London has such a monopoly on the music industry…it feels inaccessible a lot of the time for artists but also for us working behind the scenes’.
To a large extent, according to Thomas, ‘Wales is seen as a region rather than its own nation’ by a lot of the British music industry, in a similar way to the North-West of England. Even after the critical and commercial successes of artists like Gwenno, who was recently nominated for a Mercury Prize, and Adwaith, who recently performed with international headliners IDLES, Welsh artists are still seen as regional acts.
Despite its status as one of Wales’ well-known labels, Clwb Music put on a Welsh music showcase at The Social in Oxford Circus at the end of last year to highlight artists like Panic Shack, Minas, and Shlug to a London audience. It is showcases like these that feel necessary to increase their visibility and attract industry attention outside of Wales. However, these showcases require a lot of effort and investment from labels, many of which remain passion projects with no consistent funding or income.
While Clwb Music were able to show their artists off in Central London, for a lot of other labels this is simply too expensive and would likely mean a financial loss. As Thomas says, ‘we need to find ways of bringing the London people to Wales, rather than the other way round’. In this context, it is no wonder that a lot of artists have become increasingly reliant on social media for their promotion.
Phwoar and Peace held its own showcases at the Cardiff-based venue Buffalo last year, but Thomas has since decided this kind of venture is not currently sustainable for the label where he is currently the sole employee, alongside his primary job as a driver: ‘it’s so much work, and I also don’t want anyone else to do unpaid work…the music industry relies a lot on that which I’m keen to stay away from’.
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Phwoar and Peace currently represents several artists, including Flying Alps Tiger, who have just announced a UK-wide tour, another increasingly costly aspect of the music industry. Long tours are also becoming harder to justify amid discussions about the creative industry’s contribution to climate change. However, touring is still vital for exposure in the current climate of oversaturation, and can be a crucial source of income for artists with low payout from streaming services.
Much of the Welsh music industry remains imbalanced in favour of South Wales. Many of the current independent record labels in Wales, including Clwb Music, Phwoar and Peace, and Bubblewrap Collective operate primarily out of Cardiff, and Lavender Sweep Records out of Swansea. This asymmetry also speaks to a language divide, with many Welsh-language record labels operating in and around North Wales. These labels include Recordiau Cae Gwyn, based in Snowdonia, and I KA CHING, who are explicitly bilingual and represent bilingual musicians such as Mared Williams.
The recent boom in independent record labels, including the new community interest company Rose Parade Recording Co, aims to put music back in the hands of musicians, and back into the hands of the Welsh music scene. The label is described as democratic and collaborates across communities, and appears to seek a rejection of a traditional business model adopted by larger labels, including lots of London-based ones, that prioritise streaming figures and sales over artists’ wellbeing and craft. Rose Parade are not unique in this approach, with large aspects of the Welsh music scene working cohesively together to promote each other, and build a strong music industry to encourage future generations of musicians.
Wales is invested in curating its own distinct music scene alongside London’s major record labels.
There has always been an appreciation for the Celtic ties of Welsh music, and its rich traditions of choral singing and classical music in Eisteddfods. However, amid the London calling of the music industry and big record labels, some musicians have felt the pressure to leave Wales to pursue their careers. Others however, are determined to pursue musical ventures in Wales, and let opportunities make their way to them. One such recent example is that of the artists Cerys Hafana and Gwilym Bowen Rhys, who both performed at the Celtic Connections showcase in Scotland as part of a partnership with Wales International Arts – Arts Council Wales. This shows that beyond independent record labels, public funding is also being used to promote Welsh music, a desperately needed support in a post-lockdown Wales where many venues and artists are still struggling.
The surge in support for new independent record labels, alongside veterans like Libertino and Bubblewrap, shows that Wales is invested in curating its own distinct music scene alongside London’s major record labels. This new climate for Welsh artists is even backed by the Senedd’s claims to support mentoring and development schemes for artists and those working in the music industry, from promoters to technicians. As young Welsh artists receive more coverage and continue to build their following, new independent record labels have potential to help bridge the gap between countries and sales.
This article was written by Maisie Allen thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.