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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Bella Union Case Study

 Bella Union was founded in 1997 by members of the Scottish band Cocteau Twins; Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie. The label was set up after the band left their previous label, 4AD, in order to be more in control of their releases, though the band split up not long after and the duo kept it running, currently being run solely by Simon Raymonde. Named after the word Native Americans called a place of entertainment, Bella Union is currently one of the UKs biggest labels for critically acclaimed indie rock and folk, with a massive roster of award-winning artists. This case study will look at the rise of Bella Union, the organisational structure of the company, management style and key decisions that made the company what it is today.

History of Bella Union

Simon Raymonde was born in Lewisham, London in 1962 to a family with a background in music, namely through his father, Ivor Raymonde. He joined the Cocteau Twins in 1984 after the departure of the previous bassist. Robin Guthrie was born in Grangemouth, Scotland in 1962 and co-founded the Cocteau Twins in 1979.

Cocteau Twins; Guthrie left, singer Fraser middle, Raymonde right (date and author unknown)

Starting as solely a means to sell their own music without having another label over their heads, Bella Union was to be the Cocteau Twins creative output from then on. However not long after starting up the label, the band split up and the point of Bella Union was now moot. Bella Union's first non-Raymonde/Cocteau Twins record was the self-titled debut by Francoiz Breut in 1997, who among others such as Dirty Three, Nanaco* and Sneakster were signed by both Guthrie and Raymonde; the early signings of Bella Union. The first key decision made by Bella Union was the signing of The Czars and the connection with one John Grant.

Robin Guthrie had hated running a label from the start while Raymonde thought he may as well keep it going, which led to Guthrie departing from the label in 2000 to live in France and focus on his own music (Raymonde, 2017). Without striving for massive commercial success with his label, Raymonde, who was leading the helm solely after being in a partnership for only 3 years, made it his goal to sign artists who he believed were not only excellent artistically, but also decent people. Raymonde states in an interview that he wants Bella Union to be “a label (he) would like to be signed to” (Orchard, 2017). Throughout the early and mid 00s, Bella Union would release critically-acclaimed albums such as The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place by Explosions in The Sky and The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake. However, these albums were not giving Bella Union much commercial success.

 Bella Union started to enter a financial uncertainty in 2007. While Raymonde was optimistic about the operations involved in running a record label, his disappointment at the sales of Midlake's afformentioned second album, Trials of Van Occupanther, gave him a taste of pessimism of the music industry, as he felt that it was one of the greatest albums Bella Union had ever released (Nash, 2017). However, Raymonde and Bella Union's fortunes were about to turn around and send Bella Union into an indie success story.

A small, unsigned band based in Seattle, Washington had their Myspace page sent to Raymonde by the booking agents of a current Bella Union signee. This band just so happened to be Fleet Foxes, Bella Union's largest commercial success. Fleet Foxes released their self-titled debut album on the Bella Union label in the UK in June 2008 and a single release of White Winter Hymnal to rave reviews. The album came in many “Best of 2008” lists, went gold in US sales and platinum in UK sales. Fleet Foxes went on to release a second successful album in 2011 under the label, making Bella Union an indie household name.

The environment in the music industry during the first period of success of Bella Union, 2007-08, was a difficult one to thrive in. In 2007, it was reported that music sales were down 10% of what they were in 2006. Music downloads were on the rise, but this seemed to enhance the growth of music piracy, as technology was making it easier to illegally download songs and albums. As a result, physical sales were also down (BBC, 2007). The global recession of 2008 also had its knock-on effects on the music industry too. All of this made for what should've been a really difficult time for Bella Union, and 2007 still was a difficult time for Bella Union, as not long before Fleet Foxes were slated to release their album, the labels distributor, Pinnacle, and licensing label, V2, both went bust (Nash, 2017).

After the success of Fleet Foxes in 2008, Bella Union went on to have a few more commercial successes, though none as commercially successful as Fleet Foxes. One of these successes were American dream pop duo Beach House, who were based in Baltimore, Maryland.

Beach House had already completed their two-album record deal with Bella Union in 2008 and were free to sign to any label of their choice. Their first two albums did not do particularly well in terms of sales, something which Raymonde wanted to amend. Beach House had a number of offers from different record labels including some major labels. However, Raymonde wanted to re-sign Beach House to Bella Union and attempt to make up for their previous shortcomings. Beach House chose not to sign for another label and recommitted to Bella Union. Their following two albums, Teen Dream (2010) and Bloom (2012), performed much better financially, with Bloom peaking at 7 and 15 on US and UK album charts respectively.

Another success for the label came in the form of an ex-member of the currently signed band, Fleet Foxes. Josh Tillman, now going under the moniker of Father John Misty, released his debut album under this new alias in 2012 titled Fear Fun (Mateer, 2012). The album was a critical success, and this praise pushed his following albums I Love You Honeybear (2015), Pure Comedy (2017) and God's Favorite Customer (2018) into high positions in the charts globally.

The management of Bella Union

Raymonde's management style is rather unique, as he is the founder of the label and still the most involved in almost all of the day to day activities within the label. Bella Union still operates as a very small label, with its “contact” page listing only 8 different employees. whose jobs include:

• A&R

• Artist Projects

• Film and TV licensing

• UK/International Promo

• Marketing

• Press

• Radio and TV enquiries

• Finance

• Touring

With employees usually performing multiple jobs, you may think that Raymonde may not be that active within the operations of the company, but he is still the main man; still in charge of almost all operations, in what looks to be a paternalistic or perhaps a dictatorial management style. However, it is hard to say whether or not this is the case due to a lack of sources that go into detail of what sort of leader Raymonde is.

Bella Union has made many joint record deals with Sub-Pop, which include large artists such as Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty. Sub-Pop is an American record label owned by Warner Music Group and based in Seattle, Washington. This means that Sub-Pop are the label the artist releases in the USA and Bella Union are the label the artist releases in the UK and Europe (and depending on the circumstances, everywhere else). Bella Union also pays in advance when they sign an artist, something that is very common in today's music industry (Hardy, 2010).

In 2010, the previously mentioned John Grant, who had been working jobs in New York after The Czars broke up, was encouraged to return to the music world by members of the band Midlake and did so with his highly-regarded album The Queen of Denmark. Raymonde kept faith in Grant since the dissolution of The Czars and his faith ended up paying off. This dedication to his signed artists is one of the many reasons why artists see Raymonde and Bella Union in such high esteem, as has been previously stated with his dedication to other artists such as Beach House.  

Raymonde's tactics in A&R are very straightforward and simple. He will find an artist he likes and will try to sign them, finding them through various methods however in the modern day it is usually online. The way he discovered Fleet Foxes was through Myspace, for example. Other sites he has said he uses to scout and sign talent is Bandcamp and Soundcloud. One of the key factors Raymonde considers when signing an artist is whether he likes them as people before musicians (PIAS, 2016). He has almost always received demos through digital means and has only ever signed one artist through a physical demo; Laura Veirs (Williams, 2017). Raymonde does not take into account any idea of “pop potential”. Instead, for the most part, he will only sign artists that he likes to listen to.

Bella Union also operate their own merchandising. The merchandise can be found on the Bella Union website. Bella Union has also had exclusive ‘Bella Union only' merchandise which includes different coloured limited-edition vinyl. For example, in the vinyl release for Father John Misty's “God's Favorite Customer”, the Bella Union limited edition comes in a special light blue colour and the album artwork is also slightly different.

Financial situations of Bella Union

While there isn't very much evidential information on the financial situation of Raymonde and Guthrie at the time of establishing Bella Union, we can assume that they weren't exactly poor to start with. While the Cocteau Twins weren't the most commercially successful of bands, one can imagine that, being in the music industry for a decade or so, would recognize the funds needed to establish a small indie label with the intention of signing other artists.

Companies House shows many different pieces of information about Bella Union. These include the incorporation date (24th of October, 1996), the type of company (private limited company) and the status of the company (active). The filing history however shows us the balance sheets for each year the company has been running. The first available balance sheet is for the years 1999 and 2000, which shows that in 2000, Bella Union had £37,501 in assets and £54,517 in total net liabilities, meaning that the company from the start was pretty much in debt. The total assets after taking away all liabilities in 2000 was £-52,327. This only got worse and worse, which is evident in the balance sheet for 2007 and 2008, where you can see that the recession and the circumstances of the licensing label and distributor of Bella Union going bust has taken its toll. The total assets after taking away all liabilities in 2008 was £-354,747.

However, it is evident that the Fleet Foxes money along with other factors started to have a positive influence on the Bella Union balance sheets, as the company was rapidly decreasing the labels debt. In 2010, the total assets minus liabilities was £-3,583 and in 2011 was finally into a positive number; £56,150. The most recent balance sheet information from 2015 shows that the company was making net profits in 2014, with £90,817 in net assets (Companies House, files accessed 2018).

This financial stability has been brought about by the growing exposure of Bella Union as an indie label, and the cultural impact it has had on indie folk and indie rock. More exposure as a label means more exposure for the signed artists, which usually equates to more record sales and more merchandise sales. All record labels may have good years and can be susceptible to bad years however, and Bella Union is no exception.

Bella Union in recent years

Raymonde is releasing music again in a new band with Richie Thomas called Lost Horizons. They have released an album with many of the Bella Union faithful present and guest starring; Tim Smith formerly of Midlake, for example.

In recent years, Bella Union has lost and signed a good few artists. A big loss for the label came when Fleet Foxes decided to release their newest album, Crack-Up, under a major label; Warner Bros and its child label Nonesuch Records. It has also lost increasingly popular artists such as Wavves, Xiu Xiu and Clarence Clarity. However, Bella Union has also signed artists to its label that look to be big successes such as BC Camplight in 2015, Susanne Sundfor in 2017 and the already established Flaming Lips in 2013. The label has also retained the services of some of its biggest acts, such as Father John Misty, Explosions in the Sky, John Grant and Beach House (Bella Union, accessed 2018).

Bella Union in 2018 is still a very successful indie label, and 2018 as a year has not been a bad one at all for it. Beach House released their album 7 in May 2018. It sold well, peaking at 16 in the UK album charts. Father John Misty's God's Favorite Customer also sold well, peaking at 12 in the UK album charts. With the talent pool Bella Union have, it looks as if it can't ever decline as a successful and scene-leading indie label.

Bibliography for the Bella Union Case Study

References used for information

1. [PIAS], author unkown (2016). Bella Union: 'We only sign artists that we like as people' - [PIAS]. [online] Available at: https://www.pias.com/blog/bella-union-simon-raymonde-signing-artists/

2. Hardy, T. (2010). Interview: Simon Raymonde (of Bella Union). [online] Consequence of Sound. Available at: https://consequenceofsound.net/2010/04/interview-simon-raymonde-of-bella-union/

3. News.bbc.co.uk. (2008). BBC NEWS  Music sales in 2007 'down by 10%'. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7206837.stm

4. Nash, E. (2017). A Love Supreme: Nine pivotal moments in 20 years of Bella Union. [online] The Line of Best Fit. Available at: https://www.thelineofbestfit.com/features/interviews/nine-pivotal-moments-of-20-years-of-bella-union

5. Williams, L. (2017). Bella Union 20th Anniversary Interview - BRISTOL IN STEREO. [online] BRISTOL IN STEREO. Available at: http://bristolinstereo.com/bella-union-20th-anniversary-interview/

6. Mateer, C. (2012). Interview: Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) Delivers "Fear Fun" - No …. [online] nodepression.com. Available at: https://archive.is/20130130201219/http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/interview-father-john-misty-josh-tillman-delivers-fear-fun

7. Orchard, L. (2017). Interview: Simon Raymonde, Bella Union. [online] Bristol 24/7. Available at: https://www.bristol247.com/culture/music/interview-simon-raymonde-bella-union/

8. Long Live Vinyl, author unknown. (2017). Bella Union turns 20 - interview with record label boss Simon Raymonde. [online] Available at: https://www.longlivevinyl.net/bella-union-celebrates-20th-anniversary-in-2017-simon-raymonde-interview/

9. Dobson, G. (2007). Label Focus #3: Bella Union. [online] DrownedInSound. Available at: http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/1829146-label-focus-3--bella-union

10. Beta.companieshouse.gov.uk. (n.d.). BELLA UNION LIMITED - Filing history. [online] Available at: https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/03268836/filing-history?page=1

11. Bellaunion.com. (2017). Lost Horizons announce debut album “Ojalá” | Bella Union. [online] Available at: http://bellaunion.com/2017/07/lost-horizons-announce-debut-album-ojala/.

References used for images

1. Hall, D. (2017). The Passion & Paradox of Father John Misty. [online] Austinchronicle.com. Available at: https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/music/2017-08-23/the-passion-and-paradox-of-father-john-misty/

2. Van Hatten, P. (2015). Beach House share full versions of 'PPP' and 'Beyond Love' - NME. [online] NME. Available at: https://www.nme.com/news/music/beach-house-3-1224278.

3. Redfern, W. (2008). Fleet Foxes Announce Massive New Box Set | Pitchfork. [online] Pitchfork.com. Available at: https://pitchfork.com/news/fleet-foxes-announce-massive-new-box-set/.

4. En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Bella Union Image. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bella_Union#/media/File:Bella-union.svg.

5. Upload.wikimedia.org. (2018). Cocteau Twins Image. [online] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/81/Cocteau_Twins_promo_sheet.jpg.

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