Radiohead artist starts record label, finds going tough

News of Radiohead’s three million sales of its pay-what-you-like-and-download release, In Rainbows, reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write up the latest from Stanley Donwood. He’s the artist behind nearly all of Radiohead’s album (and associated) artwork, and a talented fine artist in his own right. His latest independent venture is Six Inch Records, his own music label. Now his description of how it all came to pass and how it’s worked out so far honestly won’t go any way to convincing anyone that he’s less than delightfully bonkers (I’m pretty sure he’d agree.) But I enjoyed his brutally honest tale of the agonies of design decision making and the vagaries of being a music mogul so much that I’m going to reproduce his words in full:

"The story begins around the time of Christmas 2006, when I drunkenly decided to become a record label boss. Every man needs a hobby, or so the cliché has it, and if I was going to make a late-stage attempt at normality then that was one of the things that I should do. So, still reeling from red wine, I typed out a email to three musicians that I knew, suggesting that I release their music on my as-yet-unnamed record label. I have no record of what I wrote in that fateful email, and I had no recollection of it the following morning, when I awoke with a hangover.

Forgive me, for I knew not what I had done. The three musicians replied to my email with alacrity and enthusiasm, promising to send me music, and, perhaps surprisingly, not telling me that setting up a record label at the precise historical point that record labels large and small were going to the wall was probably a really stupid idea.

Never mind, never mind. I started to work out how my 'hobby' was going to work. It was true that the musicians I had contacted made music I liked, and I was fairly sure that other people would like it too. I liked music, but during the period that I had been designing record covers I had come to detest the compact disc. The CD, I had decided, was simply too small.

I began to muse on numbers, thinking about the twelve inch record, the speed of thirty-three and a third revolutions, and so on. Eventually I realised that releasing three six-inch records in editions of three hundred and thirty-three and charging six pounds sixty-six pence for each one was the only was to do this.

There would be nine hundred and ninety-nine records in total. Half the profits would go to the musicians and half would go to me. I was going to do this properly. I drew up a contract, which I mailed out to 'my' musicians and got them to sign it. SIX INCH RECORDS was born.

I was left with quite a big problem, and that was the six-inch record part. I investigated the possibility of getting six-inch vinyl pressed, but the cost was a little prohibitive. I thought that making six-inch sleeves would be relatively easy, but a little four-and-a-half inch compact disc would just rattle around in it.

I went to see my friend Richard, who had a 1965 Heidelberg printing press and a large amount of beer-mat board. Beer-mat board, by the way, is the material that is used to make beer-mats. We decided to get a cutter made in the same size as a compact disc, fix the cutter into the printing machine and cut CD-sized holes in six-inch squares of beer-mat board. We could then push the CDs into the hole in the board and then insert the whole into the six-inch square sleeves that we were going to make. It was all relatively simple in theory, if massively time-consuming.

The signed contracts came back in the post from 'my' musicians, but my glee at having these characters in my 'roster' quickly abated, and very soon I ran into 'contractual difficulties'. One of the musicians; well, half of one of the 'acts', to be more precise, had signed a contract with Electrical and Musical Industries, better known and reviled as EMI. At approximately the same time I discovered that another member of another of the 'acts' was currently, well, indisposed. Another had voluntarily exiled himself from all aspects of modern society and gone off to a distant island in the North Sea, and was only accessible via a care-of address which was a derelict crofter's cottage. On top of all this, I had done some calculations and discovered that the entire enterprise was actually guaranteed to lose money.

So this was what it was like to be the CEO of a record company. This, I told myself ruefully, was my 'hobby'.

Never mind, never mind. I put my mounting concerns to the very back of my mind and began the work of printing the sleeves. I decided to use a very minimal format for the sleeve artwork, as the manufacturing process was an art in itself. The releases would be numbered from 01 to 03, and each sleeve would have an individual number from 001 to 333. There would be no images apart from an embossed design on the reverse of the sleeve, and I would use moveable lead type and woodblock type for the text on the front. For the sleeves I used a material called 'printaboard', which is the same stuff that cereal-box fabricators use. I had to shave some costs off somewhere, and I liked the idea of a collectible piece of music being packaged in the same material that holds cornflakes. The Heidelberg printing press clanked and wheezed, and time passed. Occasionally I wrote a short email to 'my' musicians telling them how little progress I had made.

In the meantime the potential contractual difficulties eased, as Electrical and Musical Industries went into some sort of corporate spasm. We began to discuss the possibility of some sort of launch, an event somewhere in London, with 'my' artists playing live. It was possible that some of the SIX INCH RECORDS would be sold. Things were looking good. I now had all the music: Travel Notes, by Patrick Bell; Classist, by Max de Mara; and The Beyond Within, by The Joy of Living. Getting the compact discs duplicated was only delayed by my decision to use a scan of the letterpressed sleeve as the onbody artwork; this obviously meant that I had to print the sleeves before duplicating the discs. This, however, given that almost two years had passed between the original drunken idea and a realistic date for a launch party, was a minor matter.

Well. At the time of writing the tedious hand-manufacturing is about two-thirds done. As I mentioned at the beginning of this cathartic screed, I am making a website to help explain all of this, and at the same time as functioning as a shop where people can buy SIX INCH RECORDS. I am seriously considering a launch night in London this December, although on past form 'December' is rather optimistic...

And of course, Patrick Bell is unique among modern musicians in that he refuses to play at all."

Thanks, Stanley. For what it's worth, I think the results are gorgeous.