The Hot Seat: Simon Halliday, Worldwide Label Head, 4AD

Published in The Music Network

Simon Halliday is a music man, a brand steward and a raconteur. They’re all requisite skills for the executive charged with running 4AD, an independent label whose legacy is greater than all but a small few. Established in 1979 by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, the label enjoyed a golden era of indie credibility through the ‘80s. The Pixies, the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Throwing Muses are all “classic” 4AD bands. The genre-defining 1987 club- track Pump Up The Volume by M/A/R/R/S was a 4AD release. The likes of Beirut and TV On The Radio have recorded for 4AD. Halliday is an Englishman in New York. He arrived at Martin Mills’ Beggars Group at the end of 2007, having led Warp Records’ U.S. division for the previous five years. The following year, the affiliated Too Pure and Beggars Banquet brands were folded and the two imprints’ staff and artists were migrated to the 4AD label. With a current roster featuring the likes of the National, Bon Iver and Deerhunter, 4AD is arguably enjoying another golden era.

What are your thoughts on Australia’s music scene?
Australia is our No. 3 market behind the U.S. and U.K. From the ‘80s, it’s always had an active live scene. With radio here being strong and accessible, and with good press and distributors, you can connect the dots. In France or Germany, it’s a lot more difficult to connect. Here you can make things happen at whatever level you want. I don’t mean blowing things up and sell hundreds of thousands. Sometimes selling 2,000 records is a real success if it’s something underground. It’s a well rounded market. And it has been for 20 years. There’s always something here that suits my palate, like Tame Impala, Cut Copy, Nick Cave and Avalanches many years ago. They’re not really selling on their Australian-ness. I always felt bands like Midnight Oil were “professional Aussies.”

Are the plans to beef-up your presence here?
We usually go where the music takes us. If we start seeing Australian acts who are suitable for us and want to sign with us and work with us, then yes. We go wherever the personalities are and the music is. When artists like Chet Faker come up and start to get your juices going, then why not?

Where’s the pulse of indie music right now?
Over the last 10 -15 years, if there was a league table the Americans would definitely be ahead of the U.K. on the adventurous independent music front. If you think of Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Bon Iver, they’re just wiping the floor with the U.K. for ‘album’ acts. The U.K. has some solid ‘singles’ acts, and it’s gone a bit more poppy and fake R&B. But if you’re looking at the stuff 4AD and the people like Domino and Warp sign, America has been leading independent music for a good 10 years now. That’s where we’ve been gravitating to, where I’ve been gravitating to. And 80% of 4AD’s roster is American.

Are there moments in your role where it’s terrifying that you’re at the helm of a ship with a history?
I’ve had to ignore the past, because it would make you trepidatious of either ruining that legacy or just getting it wrong. I felt we had to live in the moment. We had to sign things that were great contemporary, and not think about the past. And we had to look at the label with fresh eyes. The label then tried to sign the best music for then. If you start thinking about those things, you’re going to lose. What we’re trying to do is sign the best music for now. We try and do the best new music you can in any genre, which is timeless, original, that even if you had no commercial success you look back in ten years and say, “well that was a great record. History proved us right there.” It’s not a struggle, but it’s a challenge to go through the oceans of music there is at the moment to try to get a vibe. We think we’re pretty varied in the musical output that we do. We do hope there’s a thread running through it.

What’s the future for 4AD?
Just keep improving every year. We want to have four or five pivotal albums every year, like this year we’ve got Daughter, Deerhunter, The National, and Grimes. If we can keep doing that for another five years, having as many records as possible that are defining of their genre of their time, we can hold our heads really high that we’re a great label. And that we’re a great label at a time when maybe labels mean less than they used to.

 

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