Interview with Mike Harding by Rebels in Control, July 2004

You began as enthusiasts who found an audience.

When we started out, the system that supported the underground was flourishing. Seventeen percent of UK sales were run by Rough Trade and the independent scene. There were small record shops in every town, a thriving underground. But I think that these days, the underground is too divorced from and cannot challenge the mainstream. Instead there is a collection of groups, such as the goth market, the nu-metal market and so on. They used to be part of a collective underground.


Each group is servicing itself with its own niche publications, niche websites, niche forums…

With so many fragmented niches, it is hard for any of these groups to reach a large audience because the retailers have been concentrating exclusively on the biggest selling artists. Meanwhile the distributors are owned by massive, megalithic companies. There used to be lots of different major labels, some of whom were quite small, labels like Island and so on. They had more of an equal shout in the large stores. And there were independent chains too, at one time.


Did you expect to keep going for twenty five years?

Oh yes. Right at the beginning, we sat down and said "if we want swimming pools and nice houses, forget it. It is just not going to happen, go and become a plumber". We were all fine with that.


I learned about Touch by reading Paul Morley in the NME, reading people who were theorizing about something that was more than music, something on a bigger cultural spectrum that went right back the way through 20th century art.

We wanted to change the world. We thought we could change it for the better. It's no coincidence that almost all the people we work with are in their forties. Because they did have experience of the eighties, of the analogue world if you like. And they know the sort of work you have to put in to get something worthwhile out.

Over time, the people we have worked with on the basic template of ideas we wanted to express, have also developed and matured. So we have ended up working with artists who can contribute to our development, to what Touch is about. So hopefully they are as integral to us as we are to them. I hope that Touch is showing people, younger people in particular, what is possible. What they can do with dedication and time and commitment.


How much involvement does Touch have in forming an album?

I think Jon Wozencroft is really good at showing an artist how to turn a collection of pieces into an album. And I think Touch is really good at showing them how to make it into a product. The whole thing is based on collaboration. The artists that we've ended up working with at this point, after twenty five years, are the ones who are receptive to collaborating. If you take that away, it's just no fun. The collaboration is an essential part of what we do, but it should really remain invisible.


Surely lots of artists think they know best how to execute their own vision?

Yes but grown up artists know their own weaknesses. And the weaknesses tend to be "how can I communicate my ideas?". Some artists are brilliant communicators and know exactly what they are doing, right through to the end stage. But some need help.

To be a good artist you have to be a good listener, you've got to absorb everything around you. Artists are often treated as something separate and apart from the rest of society. Much of the public hates art. They aren't sure what it's for, they resent it because it eats up resources, they despise it when it gets into the media. The media encourages this and likes to depict artists as strange or mad.


You have done this for twenty five years. What keeps you interested?

There is a certain personal security in doing what you know you can do well. I am sure that is why people become whatever they become, painters or plumbers, they carry on doing it because they like doing what they are good at. That is the way a human being fulfills him or herself. The problem is most people don't get an opportunity to find out what they are good at because they are herded into a certain lifestyle. I am quite good at organizing creative production, where I can put two people together, and say "why don't you work together, off you go". There is a certain amount of ego because there is a bit of reflected glory when it works but mainly I like it because the creative juices are flowing. I feel very privileged working with our artists. Sometimes people can be difficult but I understand the artist's temperament much better now than I did when we started.

You have to ask everyone why do they get out of bed in the morning. What is their motive? I think it's important to know what drives you. It is so easy to say "oh I want to be a writer". Well no one who wants to be a writer would ever say that, they would be writing, getting up in the morning, and doing nine hours of writing, working on the craft, out of which you hope comes something.


Are you ever tempted to opt for an easier life, by signing a deal with a major label, for example?

No. We have never been approached by a major label. Maybe they steer clear of us because we clearly know what we are doing. Perhaps it is the crisis of capitalism. It doesn't have any critical judgement. I think major labels would be tempted to throw money at our artists which is not really what it's about. We don't taste nice to the majors so they don't try and eat us. They look at us and go "eugh I don't like olives".

After all we are not a record company. We are not Touch Records. Touch is an art project. Most record labels have one agenda, which is to sell records that will get into the charts and everything they do is geared towards that. Whereas none of our daily routine is to do with that.


You project an expensive image, very controlled. I always felt that Touch represented very high quality, the fact that the paper was the right stock and that kind of attention to detail.

We give equal seriousness to the artistic process as we do to the production process, and the manufacturing and the distribution and all that. For us, it is all part of the recipe. Our agenda is fairly well set now in terms of how we do things, how our products will look, and how they will be presented to the world.


Because the music is quite severe and strong maybe the major labels and the mainstream media are unsure how to react.

If we suddenly got into the colour supplements, if somebody did a feature on Jon Wozencroft, would that be a good or bad thing for Touch? I am not convinced. If all of a sudden five hundred people went to the TouchShop and bought cds, of course I would be thrilled because we want to sell as many cds as we possibly can without changing the product. We are unashamedly commercial in that sense. But we are not going to change the product to do it. Each product has its reason for existing. We do get reviewed in some of the mainstream papers occasionally.


Do you feel that you will have to change the business in the future to take into account online downloads or are you very much interested in the physical product?

It would be throwing the baby out with the bath water if we did that. Part of Touch's attraction is that it is physical, is that it's beautiful. But I think that runs alongside downloading. I think if it's done right, they can feed each other.

But it feels like there are too many bands, too many products, too many albums available so no one can keep track. That forces people into buying only what they already like. If you have got ten thousand releases a month and you are interested in fifty of them, you can't afford to buy fifty, so you are going to stick to the five that you know. When there were two thousand cds a month of which twenty might have interested you, you were more likely to experiment in your choices. Now I think people are overwhelmed. But the internet is crucial to keeping people aware of what Touch is doing.


What do you think will happen?

The big distributors are starting to go bust. The retailers and the majors are under terrific pressure. One company starts to put in bad figures, and someone else buys them, and then they fire half the staff, half the artists, slim down. I think that the current system is in danger of collapsing. So I think we are in for a really interesting time.


© Rebels In Control, 2004



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