Photos of the final Fortuna Pop show by Paul Hudson
Sat in a coffee shop underneath Walthamstow’s Travelodge – never let it be said that working in music media is anything but non-stop glamour – waiting for Fortuna POP! head honcho Sean Price, the scene nearby almost looks staged. Two tables over, various members of label alumni (and former touring partners) Sodastream and the Butterflies Of Love are having a catch-up for the first time in about ten years having been funnelled – like yours truly – towards the same hotel through Price’s subtle suggesting. In fact, the only thing that stops it looking staged, apart from the convenient proximity to the hotel, is Price’s own look of amused surprise when he eventually joins us.
It’s physically demanding because you don’t have enough sleep AND mentally demanding because you’re constantly under pressure not screw up.
With Price not only packing up the label but preparing for a medium-term emigration to Japan in the near future, it’s an interview that also feels like the start of our long goodbye and the pausing of a friendship that began years prior (fittingly) through press work. Not that this concerns Price, who ponders this news briefly before offering a cheery and mischievous “oh well!”. Similarly, during the label’s grand finale as Chorusgirl (like every band all week) pay tribute to him and lament the label’s ceasing he’ll wait for the crowd’s collective ‘awwwwww’ to die down to deliver, with perfect comic timing, an emphatic ‘hooray!’. Not, as we’ll see later, that he’s above the underlying sense of sentimentality and emotions that permeates the label’s final week, despite describing candidly his relationship with it and how “you have to constantly think about what you need to get done – you don’t want to let anyone down but at the same time you have a day job and you don’t want to let anyone down there either. It’s physically demanding because you don’t have enough sleep but it’s also mentally demanding because you’re constantly under pressure to get things done and not screw up.”
Started in 1996, Fortuna POP! arguably came to be during the late 1980s/early-mid 1990s British independent record label boom that saw the likes of Sarah, Creation and Factory all punch well above their weight and prove major headaches for the major label establishment. While Price was at university in Manchester during Factory’s golden period and admits that it felt like something was brewing, he also concedes that it wasn’t always his cup of tea as he dryly notes that “it was widely known that people were coming to the Hacienda with guns…which doesn’t sound like a good night out to me”.
Sarah, on the other hand, provided a more relatable entity, with inspiration coming not only musically – Price says that Sarah’s Shadow Factory compilation was a turntable staple of his at the time – but also organisationally, as he details how “Sarah influenced me in that by reading the sleevenotes you could see that running your own record label was possible and I wouldn’t have known that doing it with one person was possible were it not for those liner notes, they gave you a real insight into how things could work. There was nothing in Creation or Factory records about the mechanics of running a label.” While musical comparisons between the two labels have become commonplace, Price also believes that Sarah’s influence extended to FPOP’s ethos and personality. “[Tony] Wilson and [Alan] McGee are characters in a way that I’m not” he says “I think I’m more in the mould of Matt [Haynes] and Clare [Wadd, Sarah founders] – as a record label that did things in the right way.”
The start of the label is a mix of the happenstance and the prosaic, beginning with the purchase of an 8-track recorder from a chef at East Midlands airport hotel (“only 6 of the 8 tracks worked” recalls price, who was living in London at the time but spending time back home in Leicestershire). One day, a friend of Price’s brother one day took the recorder away and emerged with the basis of Fortuna POP!’s first single, Taking Pictures’ ‘Fallen Angel‘. “That was the catalyst,” says Price “someone had done something that I thought needed to be put out on a proper record. The easiest thing would have been to get a label to put it out but it all seemed so impossible to us at the time that we never contemplated.” So starting a new label seemed more viable a strategy than getting someone else to put it out? Price, seeing the ridiculousness of the logic, laughs as he exclaims “Yeah!”
For a record that was “recorded on a broken 8-track in someone’s bedroom” and “never went anywhere near a studio or a mastering facility”, it made an impressive impact and received favourable press in Record Collector and plays by John Peel. But sales-wise, it was a “disaster, with most of them sat under my bed after a year.” Despite that, those early glimmers of press gave hope, as Price recounts how “it wasn’t as though nothing was happening, there were encouraging signs. We just kept going because I met people who wanted me to put out records. It was all people that I met or lived with or knew.”
The next pivotal moment came when John Peel played The Butterflies Of Love’s ‘Rob A Bank’. Immediately smitten, Price made it his mission to seek out those behind it and would eventually spearhead its UK release. It marked the label’s first international band early on in its development (FPOP6, as Price recites proudly, highlighting his uncanny ability to recall catalogue numbers). It was an experience that solidified the notion of the label becoming an actual, regular entity in Price’s mind as he describes how “When that album came out – How To Know…, FPOP16 – it landed us with a song that became NME single of the week at a time when the NME was a big thing and it really meant a lot. Tom Cox gave it 4 stars in The Guardian and it sold a decent amount of copies. Then they came over and played gigs and while it wasn’t necessarily massive there was genuine interest. It felt like a real thing.” While it the initial stages of the Butterflies Of Love story were still very much being run on a shoestring – “we employed a press person for the first time – I’d never done that before. Probably because I couldn’t have afforded to. I think maybe they might have paid for the press over here” – the eventual results kickstarted the label’s trajectory, leading to the release of the widely-acclaimed Aislers Set album, The Last Match, and heralding a partnership with Slumberland that endured until Fortuna POP!’s cessation. In the early 2000s the label also added Melbourne’s The Lucksmiths, the deal done over a bleary-eyed coffee in Victoria coach station after Price had shared an early-hours bus from Nottingham with singer Tali White. “They already has US labels so I was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in that regard” he remembers, before adding with wry affection that “the thing with The Lucksmiths is that they’re such nice people they’ll never discuss business, so we worked for years without any of us really knowing what the deal was or who was releasing what in which territory.”
“We worked for years without any of us really knowing what the deal was or who was releasing what in which territory.”
While for many people a lot of the label’s coverage and attention has come during its later years, Price contends that “ all the way along there’s been these amazing bands who’ve got great press but I think over time I’ve gotten better at capitalising on that press”, though he also concedes that “the label’s trajectory have been a mix of times where I’ve not had the next big band and other times when it’s gone through the roof”. For him, the early wave of attention afforded by the Butterflies Of Love and The Aislers Set wouldn’t be replicated until the arrival of the two albums that would once again herald widespread recognition and praise ten years later – the débuts from The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Allo Darlin’. “I feel like I probably fucked The Butterflies Of Love’s career,” he reflects “because the process of running a record label was one of learning for me. So that success was more a culmination of me fucking up bands’ careers to that point and it finally all came together and got fairly adept at running a record label.”The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s self-titled debut fueled not only their own rise to recognition, but by extension the label too. Looking back over the time, Price muses on how “In a way they were perfect candidates in that they hadn’t released a record yet, so I was able to do what I wanted to do, as well as getting to work with Slumberland who had a very similar set of ambitions to me. All of a sudden I had this band at a time when I knew what I was doing and a band who were willing to go along with me, too.”
Though, according to Price, the record’s success did little to change the way the label operated on a day-to-day basis (despite it being the its biggest seller), he concedes “it was a manifestation of everything I’d worked towards up to that point – finally I was able to realise what I’d been trying to do for a long time.” Additionally, for Price it proved a personal validation having come off the back of a pair of troubling experiences where he built up two bands in his characteristic style – in one case sending 2,000 emails in twelve month’s on one band’s behalf – only to have them unceremoniously leave the stable for supposedly greener pastures after a solitary single apiece. “I had these two bands where I’d wasted two years of my life to put out one single by each of them and then they fucked off elsewhere having benefited from me getting the ball rolling” he recalls, testily, with a tone that suggests it still cuts deep even after all this time “it was really soul destroying. I hope they watched what happened with the Pains – alongside what happened with their career – and thought that they’d fucked up. Pains were a validation that I knew what I was doing, but was also a giant ‘fuck you!’ to those other bands who’d fucked off after I’d worked for them for a year – that success could have been them if they’d had a bit of faith in me.”
While some may have rested on their laurels on the back of their successes or continued to plough that same path in the expectation of a repeat success, Price instead went on to sign a trio of socially aware, politically active and outspoken bands in Martha, Joanna Gruesome and The Spook School (the trio joining longtime label staple Milky Wimpshake, fronted by its left-wing lynchpin Pete Dale; sample song title ‘White Liberal Guilt‘). “ I like political music and I love political lyrics,” says Price “‘Shipbuilding’ by Robert Wyatt is one of my favourite songs and I love Billy Bragg. It’s never been a turn off to me to have bands singing about political stuff” When pressed on the whys and hows of signing the three bands in question he adds that “I don’t necessarily think those bands were around before. I just think there’s been a resurgence in bands that have an interest in politics – not in a Billy Bragg or The Jam way – and the whole DIY/punk scene has in recent years crossed over into the indie-pop scene. I don’t think there was a Martha or a Spook School for me to sign before that. Look at Joanna Gruesome – there’s not a lot in their music that’s political but the way they operate is very political and the interviews they gave were fantastic, it’s great that you have those people who talk openly about their politics and experiences.” Not that the bands haven’t had the songs to boot, as he effervesces “I just like the songs! The bands I release do it in a way that’s very empowering and intelligent but it’s also really fun.” Suddenly, his voice cracks and his eyes simultaneously well up and burn with intense conviction “I think it’s an amazing thing, what the Spook School do. I think they’re really important.”
The signing of Martha, Joanna Gruesome and The Spook School coincided with a change in how Price operated the label (“things got fucked up in my personal life and I started running the label in a different way”, he says with characteristic honesty) in that he paired the existing roster that he’d cultivated and nurtured with a fresh injection of talent, a decision that left him reflecting on how it “felt like there were two trajectories running at the same time – there’s these great records but also these new kids on the block that makes it fresh and exciting. Towards the end I think I had a really good roster with a really good mix. I’ve had everything from 17-year olds singing DIY punk to Pete Astor, a 50-year old singing about ageing.” Not that everyone’s always noticed this, with Price having had to constantly deal with reductive, inaccurate descriptions even in supposedly positive press. Despite trying to ask about it in as delicately a way as possible, there’s no fooling him: he buries his head in his hands and says, with a heavy sigh, “you’re asking about the twee thing, aren’t you?”
While he admits that “undeniably, there’s been a lot of indiepop bands on Fortuna POP!” he also swiftly counters that “we’ve had bands like International Strike Force which have been very shouty and a lot noisier. You know, I’ve put out a lot of stuff that’s not been all jingly-jangly flowery dresses skipping-through-the-flowers shit. I don’t think I’ve ever released that.” Describing the difficulties he’s had in breaking out of that misconception and detailing the difficulties a label can have in shedding itself of a particular image, he adds “when you start putting out Lucksmiths records…you have a load of bands that sound like The Lucksmiths coming to you asking you to put out their records. You hang around with people who like The Lucksmiths. The band you release next might sound like The Lucksmiths because you’re now moving in that particular circle. Once you’ve become known as an indiepop label it’s quite hard to break out of that. I’ve tried to cover the full spectrum of my taste. It could be really quiet and sensitive or it could be noisy, and I think both have equal merit.” Given he’s put out everything from albums centred around piano ballads and witch trials to blazing punk commentaries on gender politics on the surface it would seem difficult to pinpoint a common thread running throughout the label’s discopgraphy, but in reality, as Price explains, it’s perfectly simple. “In a way I’m surprised Fortuna POP! hasn’t been more successful than it has been because I like smart, clever lyrics and a good tune. I like songs with good hooks and good lyrics. It’s not like I’m releasing anything radical – maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong, who knows – but that’s what I like. The common thread is I like melody and smart lyrics and that can manifest itself in different ways.” And his signing policy? “I sign what I like. That’s it”
Throughout Fortuna POP!’s two-decade duration, Price hasn’t been afraid to do things his way; he detailed as much when talking about the first single the label put out, and he’s even more forthcoming when he comes to the label’s spending compared to its contemporaries. “I understand that if you’re releasing a band’s record you’ll press 500 CDs and think you might sell 200,” he says of the way others have operated “and by the time you’ve paid for those CDs and sold 200 you’ll have £$50 left in the pot and you can’t afford a press officer. But I never saw it like that. I saw it as we might sell 200 CDs this time around but throw a load of money into the press and radio and promo and get it out there and we’ll make it back somewhere along the line. I felt like we needed to invest in bands early on to make them successful and I still think that when that’s paid off then it’s paid off really well.” Like any other label, Price views units shifted as the truest indicator of how well an album has done, but not necessarily in the way you’d think as he explains how “the end game is having that record heard by the most amount of people, so the more a record sells the more it’s achieved. It seems a really reductive way of thinking but when you think about it it just means that more people have heard that record and have heard that music, and that’s what’s important to me. It sounds like I’m obsessed with sales but I’m not, I’m obsessed with more people hearing the bands.”
Using Martha’s Courting Strong as a working example, he adds “I could have put out Courting Strong with no promo behind it, but instead we had a press officer working behind it getting good results and we paid for a radio plugger with good results again – it turns out getting your radio heard on the radio is really good for exposure because people can hear that band and get to understand what they sound like. I feel like, had it been another label releasing Martha they probably wouldn’t have done that, because it’s their first album.” It comes back to a comment he made earlier about the advantages a smaller label has over its major counterparts, with him attesting that “you’re more agile than they are. You can see a band and not have to think about where they’ll be in three albums time and have to formulate a financial plan. You can see a band and five weeks later put out a release – you have that advantage.” Price, though, refutes any notion that he’s spent the past twenty years acting out of carefree impulsiveness and naïve enthusiasm, claiming that “I made a conscious decision to promote those bands in the expectation that further along it would pay back and down the line I’d get that investment back. I am very enthusiastic about the bands I release but it’s not like I did it without any thought. I did it because I thought it would pay off…” he pauses to laugh before finishing with “…it didn’t!”
“I’ve done it for long enough and there were no sign that it was going to get any better”
For Price the decision to stop was an easy one, despite the label having been a major part of his life for two decades. On one hand, he cites economic factors – especially those surrounding Brexit – and how the cost of records (he, like most, used a plant in the Czech Republic) will likely rise due to both currency devaluation and import tariffs. He’s even more forthright on the personal front as he lays out, with surprising openness “there’s been points in the last couple of years where it’d be ten days to pay day and I’ll have no fucking money at all. I might have £5 with no way to make it to the end of the month. I work in a job that pays well and I’m 47 years old – I shouldn’t be in a position where I can’t afford a fucking pint of beer for a week. It’s stressful to be in that position and it’s really fucking tough. I just didn’t want to do it any more – I’ve done it for long enough and there were no sign that it was going to get any better. I just wanted to change my life and I’d done everything that I feel I could have done with the label. I wanted to bring to an end, move on, and have some time to myself to enjoy life. It was [a decision] that was quite obvious after some thought. It was just glaringly obvious that I needed to get out if I wanted to be happy.”
Price is initially reticent about whether his final achievements matched his initial ambitions, as he describes bluntly how “my ambition was to do it full time and in that I completely failed – in twenty years I never managed to do this record label full-time and I’ve never made it into a paying business.”. Later, though, our conversation touches on the topic once again and his position softens. “I achieved something, but it’s really difficult to tell what. It’s like when Allo Darlin’ ended…” he says, tailing off. Suddenly, having been a model of stoicism for the past hour and a half, Price crumbles as the enormity and finality of closing the label hits him all at once despite his earlier complaints. “I know Paul [Rains, guitarist] found it quite difficult, while he’s sad it’s ended he felt he’d done something. He’s not entirely sure what it is that he did but he knows that he’s done something. I guess I feel the same.” As quickly as he breaks down, he regains his composure, wiping down his face with a smile and a shrug. “Sorry, I’m just really tired…”
Come the final night, though, and Price revels in an evening that’s very much one of celebration rather than sadness. He briefly adds extra percussion for Joanna Gruesome and gets crowdsurfed around the Scala to a Martha/Spook School cover of 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?’. He assembles a crowd of label alumni on stage for a mass bow, preceding it by reading some Big Star lyrics (“This sounds a bit like goodbye/In a way it is I guess/As I leave your side/I’ve taken the air/Take care, please, take care”). Then he implores the whole of the 800-strong sellout crowd to descend on The Lexington and get rat-arsed. Seeing him spending the night act as the proverbial lord of the manor and working a room filled with friends made across his two-decade journey of personal sacrifice in pursuit of the championing the bands he believed in, it’s difficult to think of a more fitting closing chapter.
“I suppose I’d like other labels and bands to think that it is possible to get some decent press and get on the radio,” he reflects at the end of our encounter earlier in the week “and that if you put something into a project that you might get something in return. I hope it could be encouragement for someone else to do a label, in the same way seeing Sarah Records do it was an encouragement to me.”