Ordering a few classic and soon-to-be classic indie records in recent times, I was surprised to find an emerging label I was getting to know through an impressive catalogue happened to be operating from just up the road in Preston, Lancashire.
There’s Action Records of course, the much-loved edge of the city centre shop and occasional record label, and there’s electronic/experimental specialist Concrète. But how did Northampton lad Ian Allcock, who runs Optic Nerve Recordings, end up in the same locality?
“I moved from London to Cumbria, and from there to here. Yeah, it’s surprising who’s on your doorstep! There’s also A Recordings (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleaford Mods, Tim Burgess) in Blackpool.”
Was there a personal link to Preston before you moved here?
“Not at all. My ex-business partner, who now runs Brian Jonestown Massacre’s label, and me were working in Northampton in the early ‘90s on The Enid and their back-catalogue, then some indie stuff. We were doing that part-time then went full-time, moving to London, getting into import and export … but it was getting too expensive in London.
“I always wanted to live by the seaside, but Brighton was too expensive, so I decided to head for the countryside, heading up to Cumbria, stopping there a long time. That didn’t quite work out, and my business partner moved back to London while I stopped on. I realised I had all the contacts and knew there was a market for vinyl, so looked into licensing. I didn’t have any distribution and no profile but planned around half a dozen albums … although I over-estimated the size of that market, importing from the United States, and got it wrong at first. Fortunately that vinyl market grew.”
That was in 2012, although Ian’s roots in the business stretched back nearly two decades, and by 1997 he’d issued his first Optic Nerve release, Acrylic, a solo LP from John Ellis, at the time playing guitar for The Stranglers (he was with them from 1990/2000).
“In my naivety, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ but when the album turned up there were no guitars on it – it was music accompanying an art exhibition in Germany. It didn’t sell, but John was a lovely bloke. He said he didn’t feel he fitted in with anything else I was working on, suggesting, ‘What about ‘Optic Nerve’?’ and came up with a logo, the one we still have.
“When we started up again in 2012, I didn’t want to go back to any of the other labels I did and cause confusion (with an established catalogue), instead deciding to use Optic Nerve again.”
That early licensing catalogue included not only The Enid but also records by the likes of New York’s Ned Hayden’s Action Swingers, featuring among others Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, and even a dance outlet … for a short while.
“There was this dance thing that became a Happy House anthem, around 1992, but we bailed out of that because we didn’t know what we were talking about! Even though the single we put out totally sold out.”
When Optic Nerve restarted, Ian carried on where John Ellis left off, Acrylic’s OPT 4.00 catalogue number built upon for the first release of the rebirth, John Peel favourites Cud’s treasured Leggy Mambo album re-released with cat. no. OPT 4.001.
A fair few releases that followed have allowed me to relive my late-‘80s/early-‘90s indie past, records by the likes of BOB, The House of Love, Pete Astor‘s pre-Weather Prophets outfit The Loft, McCarthy, The Pale Fountains, The Primitives, The Wedding Present and The Wolfhounds causing me to go back and re-evaluate, and new recordings by, for example, One Eyed Wayne (featuring BOB’s Dean Leggett) and (again) The Wolfhounds suggesting this was about far more than nostalgia.
There’s a forged link to another of Preston’s leading lights too, Action Records owner and fellow record label founder Gordon Gibson.
“I like going in and talking to Gordon. I can talk to him about Magna Carta and he’ll know what I’m on about. I like a lot of late ‘60s /early ‘70s music, sunshine psychedelia like The Millennium and Sagittarius.”
On a similar note, the kind of market he moved into regarding sometimes fairly obscure indie acts is hardly an obvious choice for a financially successful business plan. Yet many of those into that scene from the ‘80s onwards have gone on to professional careers and are now going back to buy product reminding them of their younger days. Does that ring true with Ian’s knowledge of his market?
I’d argue even slightly higher in some cases, for example for his Girls at Our Best reissue. I have their 1981 LP, Pleasure, on a 1994 Vinyl Japan pressing, and know it’s since been released by Cherry Red (2009). But Optic Nerve put out a version in 2014 and now plan to repackage again. So how does that work?
“Yeah, we’re going to repress that, as it’s sold out. Every deal is different, and it’s not easy. You can’t just license what you want. It’s not like picking apples off a tree. A lot of stuff we want to do, we can’t, and sometimes a lot of the people want to do the same things.
“That Girls at our Best album is one of my favourite-ever albums, so the chance to license that was great. We pressed it up and when it came to a Pleasure bag, I got carried away – doing my own, a bigger, better Pleasure bag, involving three or four posters, postcards, stickers, the original press release and press photo. There was too much! But it sold out, it was a great release, and it looks lovely.
“Cherry Red own that, and I do a lot of business with them, and have a lot of contacts who help me if I’m struggling to find people. They’ve helped me a lot. It also needs the artists’ approval, and we got that from Girls at our Best, and while that license later expired, we’re now going to repress it and get a new one, as there’s still demand.”
The label’s Optic Sevens catalogue has also sold well, two series of classic indie singles released in limited editions proving a success.
“Yeah, it was a total gamble, just a hunch. Not everything I release sells out. In some cases, I have hundreds sitting on the shelf. We lose money on that, and with albums it’s very expensive to do, especially how I do them. And what I make on pre-sales just increases the advance to the artists and studio costs, not pressing costs. It takes a long time for the money to come back in.
“I was in a situation where I couldn’t afford to put anything out, sitting around until I’ve enough money to release something else, then sitting around another few months before I can release the next thing. That’s not really what I want to do. My goal is to do this full-time. I was just thinking of what I could do that didn’t involve as much financial outlay and got a quicker return. I looked into finding singles that were in demand, expensive to get. For me, music should be accessible at a decent price. I’m also of the age – and I know younger people who totally disagree – where I feel that if you only own it on digital release, you don’t own it!”.
It’s nice to see someone seemingly bucking the trend of economic downturn, at a time when we’ve lost so many music venues and are likely to lose more (and a few businesses) following the pandemic restrictions, Brexit, and so on.
“Well, The Wedding Present single went in at No.2 in the vinyl singles chart this week, but let’s just say I haven’t been able to build a swimming pool.”
Point taken. He does his groundwork though, keen to learn more as he goes along. By way of example, in his preparation to see the best way to market his Optic Sevens series – after a lukewarm reception within the industry, wanting to work out the best way to go about it – he contacted a company marketing e-books.
“I asked a few questions, they were really helpful, and a lot of what they told me gave me the confidence to go forward. What I’m trying to do is build up, so I can put a couple of albums out every month. But I haven’t got a bottomless pit of money. It’s very tight financially.
“I don’t want to get a loan or end up beholden to the bank. But the idea of the 7” series is to get to a point where we can put those two albums out a month. At the moment we’re nowhere near, although we’ll continue with this series as long as we can license the right products.”
Is it just you running the operation?
“It’s just me. I’m sure there are a lot of other labels who employ staff, but this year I’ve had seven albums out and the plan is to later this year do another (7”) series, one a week for 12 weeks. I’m just working out the logistics of that.”
Do you think your neighbours realise what you’re up to?
“There are enough pallets in my garden … and with the amount of trucks that arrive … they probably do! But it’s about trying to keep the cost down. I’ve got storage and everything, but it’s that fine line. I think I can do two albums a month and two singles series a year if I set my stall out correctly, but I can’t do any more than that without employing staff. And premises would eat up a lot of money.
“I also do all the artwork myself, having realised it would cost me a lot of money to get an artist involved. So I felt I better learn to do it myself. Artists like BOB will do their own, but others just give me all the files and I’ll assemble it, as with The Wee Cherubs and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. That can be very time-consuming.
“I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m not short of stuff I can put out, but I’m always looking, and I’m frightened that the day’s going to come.”
When I asked how he got into all those indie bands but also those late ’60 underground outfits, Ian blamed his Northamptonshire upbringing.
“I don’t know what my parents were doing. We had Oklahoma, Carousel, The Tijuana Sounds of Brass and The Sandpipers, but also all this other stuff, from sunshine psychedelia to The Beach Boys. I then had my brother, older than me, buying some punk stuff, and I liked that.
“Then I heard ‘Better Scream’ by Wah! Heat. You know where there’s that one single that makes you think, ‘Oh wow! There must be more music like this out there.’ Then you go and find it. That was my gateway really, to indie like Girls at our Best, the Young Marble Giants, and the Postcard stuff. I was spending ridiculous amounts on 7” singles then albums, probably all my wages when I left school in 1979 and started work.”
Discussion followed about bands he saw on his old patch, such as The Cigarettes (another band he’s reissued on Optic Nerve), The Dead Kennedys, The Fall, and The Psychedelic Furs at The Paddock (‘on the A45 on the outskirts of town. I think it’s a Berni Inn or something now’), and New Order and Killing Joke in the early ‘80s at The Roadmender’s, where he tells me he DJ’d in the late ‘80s.
Ian’s first career was as an apprentice carpenter and joiner, ‘but I was rubbish at that and didn’t like it much’. So ‘16 enjoyable years’ followed with camera manufacturer Kodak, ‘something that taught me a lot about colour and film’. That said, even in recent times there have been part-time jobs to keep a roof over his head, including work as a hotel night manager. So does this label primarily remain a labour of love?
“I wouldn’t say that! These singles all come with a poster, and I fold them all. That’s 12,000 posters, folded three times each. There’s no love there!”
I see that argument, but still have this romantic notion, thinking back to The Undertones and other Good Vibrations label artists helping fold their early singles at Terri Hooley’s Belfast record shop of the same name in the late ‘70s. But Ian’s not to be convinced.
“There’s no romance!”
And what’s next for Optic Nerve Recordings? Apparently, next month there’s a reissue of McCarthy’s The Enraged Will Inherit the Earth, licensed from Cherry Red, with a tie-in single licensed direct from the band; then some newly re-found tracks from The Wee Cherubs follow in September; and a long-awaited new release from BOB later that month, something I’m definitely keen to hear and Ian is proud to be associated with.
“When you think that the original recordings for that were done in 1992 … they were ahead of the curve. I love listening to that album. It’s absolutely great and at the same time quite sad because they were ahead of the game there – ahead of the Britpop thing. There’s one track, six minutes long, ‘Sundown’, and it’s like Oasis … but before Oasis.”
He hasn’t finished yet, enthusiastically talking me through more upcoming releases.
“From October, assuming we get the licenses, we’re going to do another 12 singles in 12 weeks (a third series). Then in January we have an Apple Boutique album, done directly with Phil King, which was going to be put out on an Australian label; a Tess Parks re-press, having already sold 2,500 copies of that; and a repress of a sold-out Cigarettes album.
“There’s Girls at our Best too, and hopefully next year a couple of Momus albums. I’ve also been talking to David Callahan about a new pressing of The Wolfhounds’ Bright and Guilty and a Moonshake album. And I’m hoping The Vaselines are going to go into the top five next week, maybe even No.1, having sold out everywhere.”
A double-check before publication saw the Scottish outfit made it to No.14 with a reissue of 1987’s ‘Son of a Gun’. A respectable outcome, I’d say. What’s more, Ian told me there were plans to go back to around 1979/82 for a future (Optic Sevens) series, back to the days of Pete Wylie’s Wah! Heat and the single that sparked his love of indie, albeit ‘purely for romantic reasons’.
He was still going strong at that stage, but I had a deadline looming as he continued to mention various other options Optic Nerve are working on, from those he’d love to put out but would struggle to get licensed, through to those he’d love to get out but it would make no sense to publicise and give the game away at this point … some which would certainly tantalise indie fans and be sure to sell fast. Watch this space. More to the point, keep an eye out for Optic Nerve Recordings.