Colin Newman – Figure Out How To Make Something

Ian Maleney spoke with Wire‘s Colin Newman about the music “industry”, running a record label and the absolute necessity of being DIY. 

Ian Maleney spoke with Wire‘s Colin Newman about the music “industry”, running a record label and the absolute necessity of being DIY.

1977 is somewhat of a year zero for many people, the year that punk broke. While the Sex Pistols and The Clash soaked up all the attention, much of the really great stuff was either already happening, or about to unfold. Wire are one of those acts. They never really had the same headline-grabbing tendencies as some of their peers but rather preferred to get quietly on with the business of releasing arguably the finest record of 1977 in the form of their début, Pink Flag. One slightly over-looked album would be understandable, but in the following two years, the trio of Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed (now Grey) would go on to lay the groundwork for some of the most important and forward-thinking post-punk with Chairs Missing and 154, their second and third albums respectively.

Despite the thirty years that have passed since they released some of the most singularly impressive albums of an era, Colin Newman is sure that the band are still getting better. “Wire are better now than it’s ever been and it is so for a number of reasons,” he says. “It sounds almost pathetically simple but basically it comes down to everyone facing in the same direction.”

Much of the reason for this new spell of increased productivity is the band’s decision to become masters of their own destiny and start their own record label, Pink Flag records. Newman is the one behind the machine, keeping things in line and making sure as much goes to plan as possible. “I tend to be the person that ends up doing a lot of stuff that nobody else wants to do,” he says. “Just because I’m kind of responsible and I feel like I should and somebody needs to. If I don’t do it, nobody will do it and then everyone suffers.”

It was almost twenty years ago when Newman and his wife, the artist Malka Spigel, started Swim records at a time when Newman had to figure out how to make his music his life again. “I had reached a point in my life where I didn’t really have much in the way of income but I couldn’t get a job because I was already unemployable,” he says. “So I had to figure out a way to make it work.”

“That started with Malka and I having a studio in the house and making productions there. We thought we were going to be a production house but we turned it into a record company because that seemed to be a better way to do it. Once you’ve put out a record and you know how the system works, you get confidence by succeeding. The first Swim release in ’92 or ’93 was Malka’s first solo record and we got it reviewed in NME and Melody Maker, we sold a load of them and we got to keep all the money. We didn’t have to pay anybody else because we did it all ourselves. It was a great time, a time when a lot of independent labels were starting up. There was a real scene in London for independent labels, especially those releasing electronic style music. It was a period in which things were happening which meant you didn’t need someone giving you a pile of cash to make something work. Times have changed radically now, it’s a different period now but we were lucky to be able to start at that point.”

As a result of his involvement in the business side of things, Newman has an opinion or two on the state of the industry these days. “The whole idea that there’s even something called a music industry and that consists of artists who sit around making fantastic music in the earnest hope that somebody is going to give them a huge pile of money, it just seems highly notional,” he says. “Certainly when you get over a certain age, nobody’s going to give you anything to be quite honest.”

He is certain that the artist needs to have ever increasing levels of confidence and initiative to get by in this world. “I think the DIY ethic has become essential,” he says. “You have to basically do it yourself and figure out how to make something out of what you have. It really seems to me that a modern artist, and this has applied since the nineties really, has to know how to make it work financially with what they do as well as being able to do the art and part of that is not doing rubbish. It’s not about doing any old rubbish to make some money, nobody wants that. It’s not about doing some kind of thing trying to figure out what the world wants and trying to provide that, art doesn’t work like that. You have to strive for excellence, be really good at what you do but also be smart enough to know how to market it in a way that will bring you a return for the effort that you’ve put into it.”

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