Editions For You
Record label spotlight on the innovatory people who bring you Brian Eno and numerous others.
Richard Walmsley probes a unique approach to the record industry in the form of Editions EG.
Record companies are funny things; it's often very hard to feel any admiration for them, and yet where would we be without them? After all, unless you've got plans afoot for taking over the means of record production yourself, then the only people likely to thwart the corporate ambitions of the powerful and expanding major record companies are the record companies; companies able to combine business acumen with a genuine interest in music and a care for the intentions of musicians.
Whether such a paragon of a record company exists in deed as well as intention would certainly be a subject for much controversy (a lot would depend on what music you are into for instance,) but certainly there are operations which, in the face of massive music biz pressure to find and then flog a formula, continue to release innovative and inspiring records.
One such operation is Editions EG, which began as an outlet for the musical alter-egos of some of the artists already signed to EG Records, the company formed by Sam Alder and Mark Fenwick in the early '70s which has been responsible for the careers of Brian Ferry, King Crimson and Roxy Music. As such, EG's operations are in the big scale record marketing bracket. However, a new departure in marketing tactics, namely using the more sensitive and off the wall distribution facilities of Cartel, led to the release in 1981 of John Hassell's Possible Musics album, the first release on the Editions EG label. The addition of Eno's Obscure and Ambient series of records, and some re-releases of records from the EG catalogue formed the basis of the Editions EG catalogue, which has since grown to include some thirty-five titles.
Careful assessment of demand, courtesy of Cartel and, lately, through a questionaire included with every record, together with selective promotions through interviews and radio play, has enabled Editions EG to find markets for music that would have been regarded by the majors as unsaleable.
This is all very well, but as far as the music biz is concerned finding a market is generally only the preliminary to exploiting it. So are Editions EG really any different? What, for instance, do they do for the artist? And perhaps most importantly, what do they do for the listener?
In the first place the company makes it a policy to be very accessible to the artist, and they are prepared to sit down and discuss ideas with artists which many companies would barely consider. Alder, Fenwick and general manager Alec Byrn are aware that these records are no competition, saleswise, with Duran Duran, and therefore ideas are not assessed purely from that angle. Their main concern is that the artist does not become self-indulgent, and that each successive release by an artist is a new departure. It has also been a conscious policy on the part of the label not to expand on a purely corporate basis, which has meant that they don't have to put undue pressure on their artists to produce new material. Quite the opposite in fact; they do not like to release new material from an artist until the previous release has had time to permeate the market thoroughly.
Selective distribution also means that they can have artists on the label who, whilst being successful in say Japan (as with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra), may have only a limited following in this country. In addition, the records are pressed up according to demand, which means that records are not deleted from the catalogue if they fall below some arbitrarily decreed sales level. So just because your taste in music does not happen to be shared by 100,000 other people doesn't mean you therefore have to resign yourself to buying only Wham! records.
All this has resulted in a catalogue that extends from avant garde jazz and rock albums such as The Lounge Lizards and Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen, through experimental electronic albums by Eno and Roedelius, to avant garde classical works by John Cage, Gavin Bryars and others. Established artists tend to approach the label with new ideas, and clearly Fripp and Eno are very happy to be marketed in this way.
As a label, Editions EG generally aim to release two or three records every spring and autumn, which means that they are not exactly begging for new signings. (In any case, the agreements they enter into with artists are not signings in the conventional sense of the word, since most records are regarded as a one off enterprises; the most they ever ask for is an option on three). However, they do listen to demos, and they also try to get as much feedback as possible from their licensees and publishers abroad regarding new acts. The main criteria in the selection of new artists and groups for release on the label, is firstly, that the artist does not expect a massive advance to meet production costs. They regard themselves as an artist based label, as opposed to a producer based label like ZTT, and expect the production costs to be met by sales quite soon after release. Secondly, they are looking for music that fits into a particular category, music from the region where the avant garde rock and the avant garde 'classical' musics meet up.
This concentration on such an obscure and indeterminate sphere of the music world makes the label not only unique, but also a final link that breaks down the barriers between musicians with classical backgrounds and musicians with less conventional backgrounds. Ever since the late sixties when classical musicians, rock musicians and would be musicians mingled in Cornelius Cardew's anarchic Scratch Orchestra, artists and composers such as Chris Hobbs, Michael Nyman and perhaps most notably, Brian Eno, have made music that cannot be defined as either 'serious' or rock. This music tends to encounter prejudice on the classical side and, of course, phillistinism from the chart conscious pop and rock world, and Editions EG are largely responsible for enabling the record buying public to have continued access to this interesting — and important — musical movement.
As for the future, Editions EG are to release new music from Michael Nyman, and are discussing a totally electronic project with Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz focussed around Simmons drums and Kurzweil. The label will continue to release music by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, and plans to extend video operations are underway. In addition to videos by Eno, a video of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra has just been completed for Japanese TV, and there are proposals to screen videos as television programmes in this country. Editions EG was also responsible for marketing Brian Eno's and Robert Schmidt's Oblique Strategies, an I-Ching style system of playing cards each with an off-beat suggestion on it, intended to break deadlocks in decision making during recording and other artistic processes. Eno uses them all the time with great effect, as have other musicians such as David Bowie. Also on the cards (not those ones, groan!) are compact disc only releases on Editions EG.
For the time being at least, it would seem that Editions EG's careful analysis of the relationship between music and business is paying off. For whilst independent record companies go to the wall, victims of their own utopianism, or start jumping on the commercial bandwagon, Editions EG seems comfortable enough in its Chelsea Office and has retained an unusual consistency in the style and quality of its releases. Sam Alder and Mark Fenwick's method has been to apply traditional business methods to the music world, and the result has been an operation where both artist and listener are considered as more than just units of production and consumption. Now I'm not saying that they do something for everybody, indeed a typical buyer of these records was described to me as being in their late twenties, a Guardian reader, and a filler-in of questionaires! But the point is that it's a field that would otherwise be stream-rollered out of existence by the commercial pressu res of the music biz, and so at least it's there if you are interested; you never know, you may very well grow into it.
Feature by Richard Walmsley