The Fiction Records story reads like a three-part rock ‘n’ roll trilogy.
From the outside looking in, the label’s history can be broken up into three distinct eras across four decades – with the music that defines each period paying tribute to the last – and the fact that it was the launch pad for one of the most influential bands of all time, The Cure, is always at the back of contemporary Team Fiction’s minds.
Fiction was founded in 1978 by Chris Parry, a musician and Polydor Records A&R executive. Parry had signed The Jam, and produced their first recordings such as their 1977 debut album (and debut single of the same name), In The City, alongside renowned engineer Vic Smith (Vic Coppersmith-Heaven).
Robert Smith’s post-punk band, The Cure had formed in Crawley, West Sussex in 1976. By 1978, Parry had heard their music and decided to sign them to his very own Fiction Records, with distribution handled by Polydor.
Fiction’s first release, FICS001 was The Cure’s controversially-titled single Killing An Arab – supposedly inspired by the scene of a murder on a beach in the classic novel The Stranger by FrenchAlgerian writer and Nobel Prize (for literature) winner Albert Camus
The Cure released their and Fiction’s debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, in 1979, with its iconic pink artwork featuring a lamp, fridge and Hoover. The grooves contained a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, as well as early pop-punk bangers like Grinding Halt and the seminal post-punk title track. The band went on to release 10 more albums through Fiction between 1980 and 2000 (before signing with Geffen), and scored their first No.1 album in 1992 with Wish, which featured the hit single, Friday I’m In Love.
From the early ‘80s to early ‘90s, Fiction also released albums by British guitar bands, like The Passions’ debut Michael & Miranda (1980), Eat’s Sell Me A God (1989) and The God Machine’s Scenes From The Second Storey. The label was then sold to PolyGram (now Universal) in the mid-to late ‘90s and became a dormant record collection on a shelf in Polydor’s basement.
The second part of the Fiction Story started in 2003 when current MD (and co-head of Caroline International) Jim Chancellor “was plucked out of obscurity” and offered a job at Polydor as an A&R. But, true to the claim at the start of this being a rock ‘n’ roll tale, Chancellor’s first job in the music business was actually as a bouncer at CBGBs for six months in 1989.
“I’ve always wanted to work with artists that I really give a shit about.”
“It was the worst paid job I’ve ever had in my entire life, and probably the best fun,” he tells Music Business UK, from the other side of a meeting room at Fiction’s HQ in West London, staring at the ceiling for a brief moment, before continuing to reminisce. “They had this record shop next door, and I would just go through the records and discover bands like The Misfits and Soundgarden and The Sick Fucks, just crazy, weird shit, and buy all these records.
“Then I ran out of money and ended up coming back to England. I worked for an insurance company and I drove a white van. I worked for Pegasus Couriers for a bit.”
After that, Chancellor’s “white van became a beige van”. He was driving bands around the UK, having started his own label called Mad Minute Records, which was run out of his bedroom with Ben Durling (now an A&R Manager at Warner Records). This was then followed by a stint as a record producer manager.
“It was great experience, because you were putting recording budgets together and all that kind of stuff,” he explains. “The problem is, you’d be part of that process, and then the record would just disappear into the label and you had absolutely no involvement in it. When I got offered the [Polydor] job, I bit Colin Barlow’s hand off, poor man.”
The first band Chancellor signed was Snow Patrol, “literally within two months” of joining the company. “The demos were floating around in the building already, but they didn’t really have anybody on the staff who actually knew anything about that world, so it just fell in my lap,” he remembers. “I fell in love with the band and the demos. The rest is history.”
Snow Patrol’s first album for Fiction, Final Straw, hit No.3 in the UK Album Charts and ushered in a new era of guitar heroes for the then-predominantly pop focused-Polydor, with signings such as Elbow, the Maccabees and Kate Nash following suit in the coming years.
The third and current era, or “Fiction 3.0,” according to Chancellor, started in 2014, when it was restructured as a standalone label, distributed by Caroline International. The current roster includes artists like The Amazons who released their second album, Future Dust, on May 24, Kate Tempest and The Big Moon (both of which received Mercury Prize nominations in 2017). Other acts on Fiction’s roster today include Self Esteem, Palace, Mini Mansions and Tame Impala, who recently headlined the O2 Arena in support of their fourth album
Fiction Records in 2019 occupies a unique position in the UK music business. It’s a Universal-owned label, largely distributed by a major owned artist and label services company in Caroline, with a 40-year musical heritage of predominantly British-signed guitar acts.
“I’ve always wanted to work with artists that I really give a shit about,” says Chancellor, commenting on the signing decisions Fiction has made, and thinking about the future of the label. “I just can’t imagine going to the wheel on something that I’m not emotionally involved in.
“It would just be such hard work. I’ve always said to my A&Rs, ‘If you’re really struggling with the B-sides, you probably shouldn’t bother.’ Because that’s the ultimate test, isn’t it?”
Polydor at that time was a very pop [oriented] label. They had Hear’Say, which I think was the fastest-selling debut album in the history of the charts or something [at the time]. So [Polydor] was very successful, but it was really mainly pop, with artists like Lolly. Polydor had [previously] had a slump, and then they brought it back; Sir Lucian Grainge had taken charge [of the label] and did what he does – which was to drive it back to success.
But the heritage of [Polydor and Fiction] was The Who and The Jam and Jimi Hendrix and all that in the basement, and The Cure, obviously. They decided they wanted to try and bring some guitars back into the building, so for some unknown reason, I got plucked out of obscurity. I was managing record producers at the time, and [then-Polydor joint MD] Colin Barlow was like, ‘Do you want to work here?’ I was like, ‘Fuck yeah’
“Polydor had [previously] had a slump, and then they brought it back; Sir Lucian Grainge had taken charge [of the label] and did what he does – which was to drive it back to success.”
The year of 2003 was obviously just getting in the chair and signing a few things. We signed another guy called Stephen Fretwell and a couple of other bits and pieces like, Yourcodenameis:milo.
I didn’t sit still, but not much happened. They put me together with Joe Munns, who’s very well known, and Paul Smernicki, who was one of the PR guys for Polydor.
We were all alternative guitar-minded, and so they stuck us together, and we called ourselves Black Lion Records, because that’s where Polydor was, on Black Lion Lane. Snow Patrol was taking a minute. They had to go and tour, and we had to make a record, so there was a lot to do.
Towards the end of 2003, the Snow Patrol thing really started coming together. I think Jo Whiley had heard Run, and played it in its entirety in the [Radio 1] Evening Session. I remember exactly where I was. We ran out to some cab and asked them to switch the radio on. It just started to resonate and the gigs started getting busier and busier.
Snow Patrol actually released two albums before signing with you, didn’t they?
They did. There were two Snow Patrol albums, and there were two Reindeer Section albums. Gary Lightbody was technically driving the bus on four albums before that. They’d had a record deal with a company called Jeepster and they’d had a publishing deal, but it had all just fallen apart. It’s a classic example of a band that weren’t going to do anything other than make music.
It was just a question of time, but nobody was giving them that, I guess, but they’d obviously learnt a lot and they just wanted it. The fact that the [breakthrough] album is called Final Straw says it all, really. Towards the end of that year, it was starting to feel really good, and yet because we were still part of Polydor, there were a few naysayers out there in the music business who were going, ‘Polydor? Why would we sign a band to Polydor?’ Snow Patrol still hadn’t blown up.
It was a weird time. It was David Joseph who said, ‘Why don’t you ditch the Black Lion name, because nobody knows what that means, and use Fiction?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ I was a big fan of The Cure. I’ve actually got a poster of Robert Smith in my bedroom in my mum’s house, still.
When you look at bands that were signed to Fiction early on, like The God Machine or Eat or The Passions, do you feel like there’s a through line connecting those bands to the artists signed to the label now? Is that something that the modern-day label team think about when signing acts?
Yeah, definitely. That’s why I was so blown away to get offered the opportunity to be part of the new look of Fiction. I didn’t want to ruin it! I just thought, ‘Let’s try and do what they were doing.’ Because you see that all the time, these label names just reappear, and to me, they never lose their flavour. But if you don’t invest in that name, what was invested into it to create what it was, is meaningless.
Do you feel a responsibility to live up to the music that’s been released on the label in the past?
I feel a responsibility to what the name represents and has represented, definitely. But the label has to survive, and it has to exist and flourish, and that’s what we’re trying to do – give it a new lease of life. And do it in the uncompromising way that it was always run. The Cure, not the most obvious band to become one of the biggest bands in the world ever, but they did, because they were so brilliant.
“I feel a responsibility to what the name represents and has represented, definitely. But the label has to survive, and it has to exist and flourish, and that’s what we’re trying to do – give it a new lease of life.”
I think I’ve always subscribed to that. It felt [like they were] a bit of an underdog that quietly conquered the world and I love that idea. Snow Patrol were [underdogs] when we signed them, and you look at how successful they’ve been. We’ve had a few artists that have come through like that, whether it was a Kate Nash, where people were like, ‘She’s not [going to succeed]’, and then just smashed it. Elbow, as well, they were all quietly doing their thing brilliantly, and nobody was really paying much attention. The Maccabees are probably the most shining example of a band that’s done that.
I was a massive fan of all [Elbow’s] previous three records and I just felt that they were getting better and better. It seemed like it wasn’t growing, or they weren’t growing as a band, despite the music. We tried to help them on Leaders Of The Free World with their then-label V2, to do a joint venture where we threw some money in and just helped them sell some records. The record was fabulous. But, for boring logistic reasons, it didn’t happen. Then I was just like, ‘Well let’s try and sign them for the next record’. Then we entered into that process. It was long and painful and a lot of ‘legal schmegal’.
The deal in the end was a bit like Lord Of The Rings, because it was like a deal with them, a deal with the label, and then there was a deal to tie all the deals together. But we finally got it over the line, and they delivered The Seldom Seen Kid, and had gone like, ‘Fuck you!’ It was all well worth it. They’re just a magnificent band, that lot: brilliant words, brilliant music and brilliant people.
Then, with The Maccabees (pictured inset), it was a friend of the manager, a guy called John Turner, who’s a radio plugger. I’d become friendly with him and we’d been mucking about doing little bits and pieces, and he gave me a seven-inch of X-Ray and said, ‘I think you’ll like this. They’re playing at The Water Rats in a couple of weeks’.
I listened to X-Ray and I thought it was fabulous. I went to The Water Rats and I just remember being right at the back, and by the end, I was stood right at the front going, ‘Hello. My name’s Jim and I work for Fiction!’ Then we were just like, ‘Right, we’ve got to sign them’. That’s how it went. It was quite pure. [With] Yourcodenameis:milo, that first EP, all the demos came in and I just remember listening to it and going, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this. We’ve got to sign it’. But it was so weird and alternative and different, and it didn’t quite work. But, for a moment, we felt like we were right at the centre of the musical universe, like something really important was going to happen.
Were there other A&R people at the Maccabees show?
I’ve got no idea. I don’t remember. I just remember when we started working with them, there were very few [industry] people who believed in them. And in the world of the media really, we struggled.
We tried to get them on the radio and we lost out to bands like The Pigeon Detectives. The press didn’t seem that interested. We were just blindly in love with them and believed in the music and in them as a live band. It was really the live thing where people started coming. When they sold out the Astoria – RIP – I remember dragging a few people along and going, ‘Look, I told you so’.
How do you break a band like that now? How has it changed since then?
There’s so little guitar music out there right at this particular moment and there are various theories for that. One of which is maybe it hasn’t been good enough. In that period we had in the Noughties, you had The Killers, and all these bands were coming through and succeeding. Maybe it was because it was really amazing music.
I was very lucky to get to work with some of that. Songs like One Day Like This, Chasing Cars and Run, and Mr Brightside were almost ten-a-penny, in some respects. But the charts are always awash with pop music. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s pop, popular, but to make rock or guitar music popular is much harder. That’s because they’ve got to be really, really good. It gets harder and harder as time goes on, because it’s quite a well-worn format. Guitar, bass, drums and vocals; where do you go from there? It’s getting harder, but it’s getting harder because there’s so much music out there already, and the artists are challenged with trying to better that.
That’s all I’m looking for in a band or an artist these days, someone that can challenge the format, or be brilliant at it – a band like The Amazons. We knew them as a band called Peers, which was a long time ago. They were very much an indie band. They had some half decent songs, but it just wasn’t exciting to me until they turned themselves into The Amazons and just pulled it all together, [with] some power chords in there. All of a sudden, you heard these alternative songs, but with this rock approach, and I thought that was really exciting. Then you go and see a live show and it blows you away. That’s what’s allowing that band to win.
In 2014 Fiction was restructured as a standalone label and, after that, you signed bands like The Amazons and Palace and The Big Moon. Tell us about that transition?
It coincided with me being asked to start Caroline International, which obviously is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s label services for Universal, which it didn’t have, and it was quite a job.
They put me together with the incredible Michael Roe. I knew very little about it, he knew everything about it. At that point, it made sense for Fiction to sit next to Caroline, rather than within Polydor, because Caroline was in an office down the road, and I had a year where I was running from one to the other, just to try and keep a handle on everything.
That was the main reasoning for that really. It coincided with the end of The Maccabees and a couple of the bigger artists; The Snow Patrols and the Elbows needing to stay within the Polydor system for obvious reasons. It felt like a fresh, new approach, and I suppose we got lucky with bands like The Big Moon and The Amazons and Pumarosa and Kate Tempest. Tame Impala arrived about the same time. So yeah, it feels like Fiction 3.0.
Just be brilliant. It’s such an impossible question to answer. It always starts with a song. There’s been situations where I’ve heard a name and I’ve gone to a show, and gone, ‘Oh my God, that was good.’ So, yeah, normally the live thing’s pretty imperative, mainly because 99% of the artists that we work with, that’s really their lifeblood. The live business has got to drive it all. But yeah, the songs, we’ve always been big on good songs, good songwriting and interesting sonics, or interesting takes on what they’re trying to do.
As I just described with The Amazons, I felt they were doing something that I hadn’t quite heard before. Not [everyone might consider it] groundbreaking, necessarily, but it feels like they’re twisting it slightly. There’s a uniqueness to them. There are definitely influences that you can hear, but I feel the way they present themselves is pretty unique. There is only one Kate Tempest. There will only ever be one Kate Tempest. And we’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of artists like that – Ian Brown and the like. That’s what I’m looking for. Something that’s unique and brilliant.
How big a role do managers play in the signing decisions that Fiction makes?
Absolutely huge. Having a good manager is key. It’s such a tough world to succeed in, it’s a huge collaboration. That’s how I feel. If we have great managers and a great band, you know you’ve got a much better shot of it happening.
Have you ever had a band that you really liked, but you weren’t that keen on the manager for whatever reason?
Yeah. Look, as I said, great band, great manager, hopefully a great label, you can do it. I think if one of those pieces isn’t stepping up to the plate, everything could fall down.
Just going back to 2003, 2004, when Fiction was first revived, what was the music business climate like at that point, from an A&R person’s perspective?
Were guitar bands seen as being potentially very lucrative? No, I don’t think so. There’d been a bit of a slump, then there came the glut of big bands, the Kaiser Chiefs and Keane, but, at that particular time, it felt a bit thin on the ground. I was actually managing a band called Athlete then; they’re still my friends.
That was taking off, and that was in that indie, alternative world, but there wasn’t a huge amount of it around. But then, there never really is. That was back when there’d be 100 Gold-selling [albums] a year, and maybe 30 Platinum. Looking at it today, it’s changed so massively. [In terms of guitar bands at that time], it didn’t feel like there was a huge amount. The Stereophonics were doing quite well, and would continue to, but outside of that it was the American bands [that] were doing great, like Queens Of The Stone Age. They were pretty much ruling the roost. In the UK it was thin on the ground. But then came this golden period.
Could you tell us about some of the key personnel at Fiction now, in terms of who’s finding new acts? Who’s doing what?
Fiction’s fairly small as a unit, and we use Caroline International’s resources. When I was at Polydor, we used Polydor’s resources, and Fiction was still a very small, little label. We started with three or four people, and we’re about the same today. A&R’s one of the key things. We have an A&R guy who consults for us, and that’s it really.
I’ve always kept my ears open. I like to be quite involved in that, because it’s the lifeblood of any label, really. We’re in a lane and I think we need to stick in that lane. We’ve never tried to sign a pop act. To make it work in our lane is hard enough as it is, so we just concentrate on it and try and get it right.
From the outside looking in, in terms of the bands that are signed, in terms of the way you talk about the label and talk about music, it seems very much like an indie sort of approach to running a record label – but within a major label system. That’s a very unique, and fortunate, position to be in, from your perspective….
Very fortunate, yeah. David Joseph has been a very good man to me. He’s just allowed me to try and do what we think is the right thing to do. We’re trying to deliver acts to be the biggest in the world, and my experience is that labels like Polydor and Island are really good at that. I’ve always looked at XL and Domino as being best in class, because they’re delivering artists to be the biggest artists in the world.
Whether it’s the Arctic Monkeys or Adele or what have you. So you don’t have to be a major to do that. It’s just about doing a great job really, and I got offered a job by Polydor and life was good. We actually sold some records and did quite well, and I’ve just tried to keep it going. I aspire to be a cool label that people look at and go, ‘Oh, that’s a Fiction record. I’m going to have a listen to it,’ which they might not do with certain other labels. Definitely, if it’s an XL signing, you go, ‘Oh, I wonder what that is?’ Whether we’ve got there as Fiction or not? God knows. I don’t get to answer that questionMusic Business Worldwide