How strange that I can’t remember much about the last few weeks of ADA, the specialist music distributor I ran through the nineties. I remember incidents in the weeks afterwards, and some of the legal processes, but the actual, physical process of packing up the warehouse and office eludes me. There was a very large, old double desk for example. Large enough for myself & Julia, my partner at the time, to have three or four feet of space at either side. I can’t remember what we did with it.

In 2020 I spent a few days in hospital, in the midst of the first wave of the covid pandemic. I was eventually diagnosed with what the nurses referred to as ’normal’ pneumonia. An odd relief given what was happening in the wards around me. As I recovered I found my memory was sluggish. Quite often I would stare at books, records or music software knowing that I knew them well, but the facts floated around somehow and wouldn’t fall easily into a coherent order. As a postponed project for an ambisonic installation was given the go-ahead I found myself almost totally bewildered by the complexities of first and third order mixing, having to learn again from scratch until things settled in my mind. This fog, and conversations with Pheobe, my daughter, and others over the years about my time in the music industry during those years, and indeed about the wider industry itself, led me to decide to try to put some of the memories down on the page so to speak.

This is more formal than I would like, or would represent these years and lots of the connections and relationships involved. There are such important personal experiences linked to these years that I have found it difficult to even start writing; at times wanting to express freely the ups and downs of working with an art form one is deeply connected to, and at others caught in the tangled net of sensitivities and attempts at objective research. As for the section about ADA and some of its achievements, this is also a thank you to the other partner in the business, Julia, with whom I spent many years in a personal relationship also. Some aspects of the time line are still slightly vague so I’ve spoken to friends I knew then, looked through papers and carried out what wider research I could. I do still have some floppy discs (!) marked ‘ADA’ but as for something to read them on...

I’ll begin with a brief timeline of my route through early interests in music to working in the industry up until 1999, when we sold ADA and I became a full time artist;

1975-6: chorister at Holy Trinity, Hull

1977: began taking a more active interest in making music. Given my first electric guitar and tape recorder as presents from my mum

1978: first live performance

1978: started also working with reel to reel tape / recorders, keyboards / synths

1980: first album; a cassette of feedback and tape works 1983: sales, Andy’s Records

1985: sales, Our Price records

1986: specialist buyer, Our Price records

1989: head of UK sales for CM, a distributor of traditional music (1)

1990-1999: founding director, along with Julia & one other person, of ADA Distribution, the first ethical distributor (2) of tradition based and other specialist musics.
+ writer of articles for Music Week, Rock ’n’ Reel, Folk Roots, Gramophone etc.


(1) I knew nothing of the reputation of this company when I started work there. Over the year or so I headed their UK sales team I tried to rectify some of the issues but eventually could not stand working for them any longer. I will attempt to detail some aspects of this later.

(2) This term ‘ethical distributor’ needs some explanation. The structure of the industry has changed somewhat but distribution is still an element and often where the ethics get pushed further aside. At the time we set up ADA, distributors could make all kinds of demands on labels as they were the only way to get releases into the shops nationally or into other countries. It’s a rather simplified way to explain the complexities but here’s an example of how the chain of supply was structured before we set up ADA;

. labels would sign artists, record and press the releases. Artists would usually only get a very small amount for their involvement, or, if they self-released, would normally do so to sell at concerts and perhaps through local shops. It was hard for an artist owned label to get distribution, for several reasons including that usually pressing small quantities of a release meant the artists couldn’t afford to sell to a distributor at the price they usually demanded.

. a distributor would stock and market a label. By the time CD’s became the main market the price structure elsewhere in the industry (in terms of specialist musics) was roughly;
. Labels would have to sell to a distributor at around £4 per disc or less.
. Distributor would push for lowest price, free stock and other deals.

. Distributor would then sell to independent shops at ‘full’ trade price of around £7.29 but lower to chains, often at around £6.40 per disc. This was partly because the chains demanded lower prices, even when they sold less copies than some of the independent stores, but also because distributors often saw the chains as a way to maximise pressure on labels to lower costs to them and supply more free stock.

. Stores would sell CD’s for between £9.99 & £11.99 at that time, more for imports.

What we did at ADA was to set about changing that established ethos. We never pressured labels to give us bigger discounts and we raised the price we paid them, whilst also ensuring artist-released albums had distribution. On average we paid between £5-£6 per disc, but also set up a system by which our profits were not dictated by how low a cost we could acquire stock but by how well we raised the profile or sales potential of the releases themselves. This seemed, simply, the way things should be done, they way the industry should work, and indeed was, largely, perceived to work by those outside of the industry (and some within it). We stood firm with the chains and made the argument that they had a duty to support smaller labels and specialist music by paying a fair price that also meant they weren’t making more on each album than other stores. In addition we changed the way artists were paid at festivals and on occasion, for releases that helped particular artists for various reasons, we waived our part of any sales. We also, and this wasn’t easy back then, tried to use recycled packaging and support projects to tackle biases within the scenes. Likewise to raise awareness of industry wide issues.

Some of these approaches helped change the industry more widely but it is somewhat telling that ADA remains, in certain contexts, the most ethical distributor to have operated in the industry, and, unfortunately, the price we paid to labels in the 1990’s remains higher than specialist distributors pay currently. I won’t go into the details here but there are ‘distributors’ of experimental music that still demand cd’s at £4 or lower but sell directly via mail order to customers, therefore making more than the labels / artists themselves.


From starting out with an xmas job in a record chain store in Hull (Andy’s Records) through to becoming specialist music floor manager / regional buyer for another (Our Price), then to head of UK sales for a record distributor that, shall we say, I came to realise was somewhat problematic in its treatment of labels & artists (CM Distribution), I had progressed to a point where I needed to do something more focused on helping to challenge some of the issues in specific areas of the music industry at the time. So, myself and another person at CM, left and formed ADA Distribution, with Julia becoming a partner shortly after.

Before I go further I should point out that ADA is not the same company as the American distributor with the same name that was founded some years after ours. We did make attempts to get them to stop using the name but they were owned by Warner Brothers, with access to legal teams way beyond our capabilities. We were advised that we would have won any legal action as we were already a well established part of the industry in Europe, but the process would have pushed us to the financial brink, and no doubt added to our personal stress levels.

Another thing I will add is that how the record industry is documented, like most other areas, is subject to some odd quirks. I’m interested in how histories develop and are subjected to either chance or intended shifts in accuracy. The internet is not a place where all facts can be found, despite that being the impression we are often encouraged to believe. There are several key companies that were involved in the independent distribution network that one has to search hard to find a reference to. Some, like Rough Trade are well documented of course, but others, such as ATP, Sterns and indeed ADA (UK) don’t even have a wiki entry. I am biased perhaps but all of the companies that worked, hard, for the changes to the industry that were needed deserve to be part of the history. Without them the industry was (and still is way too much) a place of exploitation and bias.

So, here are some of my memories of the path through the music industry that surrounded me in the years myself and Julia knew each other;



I can’t say I had any specific connection to people on the traditional music scene in the UK until I met Julia. I was aware of traditional music of course, through an interest in ethnomusicology, though this was largely around music from other countries and cultures, with some forays into Scottish and Irish music. As for English folk music, whilst I was interested in certain aspects, from the outside it seemed to have become something of a middle class clique, disconnected from the roots of living traditions. The history is one of a broken tradition, the impact of which has shaped connections, or the lack of, to wider society since in certain ways. It has also shaped the folk music scene itself, with layers of problematic attitudes and biases, as one can find in most areas of

music of course. I am currently researching how early collectors filtered traditions, selecting songs and tunes that they felt were appropriate in the context of their own social mores of the time.

I grew up around the city of Hull, which had a strong folk-revival scene through The Watersons, both as singers in their own right and the Blue Bell folk club they ran. In terms of Yorkshire in a wider context, there were equally strong links to custom, song and dance, but as new wave was the music that first grabbed my attention, aged 12, folk music seemed to belong to a culture disconnected from my own. Of course, I grew to understand that new wave / punk was, it can be argued, in some ways a form of folk music, at least for a while; protest and social commentary by anyone who wanted to be involved rather than something imposed on them from some controlling, and controlled, ‘above’. I owned a few ‘folk’ records, acquired in sales or second hand shops and I’d had an interest in non-British traditional music since getting a library card that allowed me access to the central library’s music department, stocked with rows of vinyl from most countries. I knew nothing about these musics when I started borrowing the LP’s, often choosing them based on the covers or curiosity about music that was outside of my own experience, but I soon became particularly interested in music of central Europe, Scandinavia and Asia.

I think I was 20 when I met Julia. It took a while but eventually we found our way to each other and were together for 12 years. I remember being in her room and Julia playing me some of the records she liked most. It was the first time i’d heard Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’, an album that changed my relationship to her music from then on, a revelation (3). Another was ‘The Wishing Chair’ by 10,000 Maniacs. Apart from the bands connection to traditional music, including a cover of the Shirley Collins repertoire version of ‘Just as the tide was flowing’ that album was produced by Joe Boyd, founder of Witchseason productions & Hannibal records (a label we would distribute later), strongly associated with the folk-rock boom of the 1970’s in the UK.

Julia was at catering college and in her spare time baked cakes for weddings and other celebrations, as a small business. I began helping her with that as it expanded to include vegetarian cakes and ‘sausage’ rolls, supplied to various health food stores in the area. Eventually she got a job running the cafe at a shop called Portico on Beverley Road in Hull, formally ‘Everything but the Girl’ - the shop that gave its name to Tracy Thorn & Ben Watt’s band. A few days a week I became her assistant. One of Julia’s best friends at the time, Lisa, and her family, were heavily involved in the folk club at Nellies (The White Horse, Beverley) and over time Julia and I started going to sessions each week. My mum would come along sometimes also and enjoyed some of the guest artists that spoke of contemporary issues. Our first folk festival was a trip to Towersey, the journey being memorable for our first hearing of ‘The Noah’s Art Trap’ by Nic Jones, another artist we eventually worked with.

Julia wanted to train as a medical herbalist and at the time there was only one person practising, with a legal license to do so, in Yorkshire, based in Knaresborough. So Julia applied to be her assistant and moved to a small flat in a house belonging to a women who had been an important figure in sound and dance eduction in the 1970’s (I have tried but can’t recall her name but I do remember she issued an ep of sound and movement exercises so will continue to research). I followed a couple of months later, after getting a job at the Harrogate branch of Our Price records. For both of us this was our first time living away from home and I do wish my memories were clearer, or rather more instantly available to me. I can recall some things, but there are gaps. I remember walks by the River Nidd, collecting wild garlic to steam fish in for our evening meal, or learning to cook new meals from the cookery books my mum gave us. We had a happy time there. Later we moved a few miles to Starbeck. Here we played host to musicians playing at local clubs and concerts.

(3) How much the people we love shape our lives even when we separate. I mus have listened to hissing hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in the years since and it’s also an album my daughter, Pheobe, enjoys.



The Our Price store (which later became part of Virgin Records) was managed by Sharon (last name escapes me), and there were two other members of staff; Claire and Andy. The ground floor had 3 staff; Sharon, Claire, with myself & Andy splitting our time between that general music floor and the upstairs specialist sections. Andy was in charge of dance music and some ‘indie’, with me focusing on soundtracks, jazz, classical, traditional music and indie also. That did include ‘world music’, a term that I tried to get changed and later campaigned to have removed across the industry. As specialist buyer for the store, during this time I got to pitch ideas to Sharon that she would then feed to the regional managers, and on to head office. For example, like all chains then, store playlists came from head office, based on mainstream releases and whichever label had sent the most free promotional material. It was dull and, as most people who actually liked music, I was convinced it actually limited sales, contributing to the impression that chart music was or should be the dominant form. I remember a report in Music Week (UK music industry publication) showing that chart music (pop, rock, dance) accounted for less than 5% of all music sales globally and, if memory serves, at that time the largest sales in the UK were in the genres of easy listening, country music and heavy rock / metal.

I suggested that time be given over to other forms of music and, after some back & forth, it was agreed that each morning music would be chosen by a different member of staff. Sales across all specialist areas in the first month increased significantly, and continued to improve. One important point was that most sales were to people who had no prior knowledge of the artists or music being played. Independent record shops have always known this of course, that customers like to hear new music, to them, and to have that experience of chance discovery. So the idea was then rolled out across all stores nationwide, the first chain (except Tower records and some branches of other chains in London) to allow all staff to regularly choose albums to play in store outside of chart releases as an actual policy. It sounds so odd to say that. So strange that things were so restricted. It’s rarer now to even have a branch of a record chain in the UK of course, but even those have reverted to the head office playlist / radio station.

Harrogate was an odd town, with lots of students but a total lack of clubs other than one or two very conventional nightclubs; ones where you weren’t allowed in unless dressed ‘smartly’ . So, myself & Andy started a night in a basement opposite Harrogate Theatre. ‘Sweatbox’, as I named it (the title taken from the EP by The Wolfgang Press on 4AD), became the student night and was a lot of fun to do. Our regulars were pleased to have somewhere to go and it did feel like a sort of community. Anyone who is a DJ will know the rush that comes when you put on a particular track and see folks reacting to hearing perhaps one of their ‘go to’ songs being played. I think we ran that for a couple of years, suggesting to the owner of the building, who also had more mainstream club nights, that he should really get in on the electronic / club music scene as the audience was there for it in Harrogate and suggesting a DJ we knew of through the shop. So, the night before our regular one became club music night and the DJ, Jez from Utah Saints, would drive over from Leeds.

I have quite a hunger for information and especially digging into things to bring out hidden or overlooked facts. In this context I soon began to connect with buyers at other chains, labels, distributors, regional sales / promotional teams, and to have conversations around various aspects of the industry. There were lots of unwritten policies, unspoken rules or biases. The treatment of female artists in the industry is now much discussed but it’s not so often that one hears how the ‘shop floor’ side of the industry functioned in this regard. For example, classical music policy at most chains was that work by female composers did not sell and therefore should not be on regular stock lists. Some stores dotted around the country challenged that but it is shocking to think that there were arguments throughout the industry on whether a female composer should be given their own section even in the largest stores, even when any had enough releases to warrant one.

At Our Price I challenged this, directly to Sharon and then to the regional managers. I went further and ordered certain releases, getting reprimanded for doing so. It wasn’t about separating composers out through positive discrimination (though in the 80’s and 90’s there were good arguments for doing that) but because I knew these biases had nothing whatsoever to do with the importance of the work or the reality of the response from customers if they were given access to it. I asked if I could be allowed to try something, and was given one month. Every Monday from 9-10am I was allowed to play music by female composers, as this was the ‘slow’ time sales-wise. The problem was that I then had to get hold of the albums & it is a sign of how much change there has been (lots still needed of course) that you could quite literally count on a few pairs of hands the number of albums that it was easy to get in stock quickly, with others on smaller labels needing to wait for a larger stock order from one of the distributors. Most albums I could order right away were the well known names; Hildegard Von Bingen, Gubaidulina, Coates, Monk etc. I ordered what I could, within the budget. I specifically remember playing Meredith Monk’s albums on ECM and always selling them within minutes. This pattern followed with almost every album played, not because of any skills in terms of selection but because people always did, and do, respond to music they weren’t expecting to hear in store or hadn’t heard at all before perhaps. There was an independent classical music shop in Harrogate and normally I’d be for the independent against the chain, however it was run by a man who, shall we say, was rather conservative. Monday mornings changed. I can’t say this is 100% a reliable memory but i’m fairly sure the most successful album, not only in the Harrogate store but once the policy was rolled out to all stores, was an album of music by Von Bingen by Gothic Voices & Emma Kirkby. I certainly remember that through that album and the upsurge of interest in early music more generally, I first connected with the folks at Harmonia Mundi - a label and distributor of specialist music we would eventually also work with, sub-distributing their catalogues.

I could add here a comment on how I began listening to classical music. Through my early teens my record buying was focused on new wave, punk, post punk, experimental, some traditional music. To be honest, I didn’t see the ‘classical’ music I did know, composed from the 1950’s onwards, as part of that genre. I tended to think of it as experimental music and that, then, classical music referred to the old fashioned definitions of the term. However, I remember buying a copy of an album by Delius in the music department of the store my mum worked in. I don’t remember why I bought it other than it was cheap (part of the Music for Pleasure label) and I was intrigued by the titles; ‘On hearing the first cuckoo in spring’, ‘Summer night on the river’ etc. From then on I would buy albums from the classical sections of stores based mostly on intuition. I think lots of people reading this might remember doing that, when records were cheap enough to take a chance on & before mainstream marketing really started to exploit the idea of more carefully crafted sleeve designs that often used to hint at some connection the the music when issued by labels more driven by creative aims. I’d always bought records this way; looking for those that seemed to differ in some way from the pack, or where there was a sign of strong aesthetics. 4AD / 23v added to that, but one album on an artist run label, purchased on release in 1983, that in some ways connects to my growing interest in classical music, and my connections to ‘field recording’, at the time was Virginia Astley’s ‘From gardens where we feel secure’. I knew of her through The Ravishing Beauties sessions but hadn’t heard this album. There was something about the cover, and again the titles (‘It’s too hot to sleep’, ‘With my eyes wide open I’m dreaming’) that made me think the music might open my ears to something. The tribal nature of alternative music scenes in a provincial northern town meant that buying an album by any women other that the accepted ‘punk royalty’, and one with the a drawing of a flower on the cover, could get you a swift kicking and I do remember the chap behind the counter putting the album in two carrier bags so it couldn’t be seen. This was a shop called Sydney Scarborough’s’ in Hull City Centre and every Saturday there would be a small group of punks, goths, mods outside checking to see what any of them had bought. I didn’t really have any connection to this second or third wave punk group, though I knew them, but one or two did used to police (!) what you came out of the store with. An earlier similar memory is buying a copy of Destroy All Monsters single ‘Bored’ at another shop Shakespeares in 1979. I didn’t know the band really but it was red vinyl & in the sale section (almost all records by female fronted or all female bands were put into that section, even upon release. It was a sign of the sexism around music at the time, but it meant some of us could buy several records at a time instead of one. I benefitted from a system that shouldn’t have been there & I often think about that). On being spotted carrying it I was chased by 2 or 3 lads who were determined to break the record and give me a thump into the bargain. So, the Astley album kind of felt like an affirmation of something i’d always felt, that music is music and shouldn’t have borders based on cliques and fashions, shouldn’t have access to it controlled by such things. Those reading this who lived in larger cities might not recognise such revelations as anything other than obvious, and indeed it is still a significant issue that almost all books on the music and culture of the time are written from a metropolitan point of view.

I’ll also say that hearing Jacqueline Du Pre’s recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto was another pivotal experience for me, as it was, is for many. It seemed so obviously to illustrate the difference between technical skill and what happens when real passion and personal expression is there also. Anyone who remembers the attitude towards her at times, and other female classical musicians will perhaps know what effect that could have. For me it only made me more interested in music and musicians who created work, strongly, passionately, in the face of biases and with that sense of artistic determination, whether that be through quiet subtlety or whirlwinds of fiercer expression and demand for space.

So, when I began tentatively stepping into the classical music department of Gough & Davy (a music instrument store in the city that also used to run its own record label, releasing work by little known composers) I would always avoid the usual names & instead look for the albums that were put in the back of the racks or in the reduced sections. Two men ran the department, one of whom my mum knew via his wife. He was friendly, as indeed was the other one but he was a dedicated Wagner fan and looked upon anything composed after his works as ‘modern rubbish’. If I brought to the counter an album by a female composer he would try to tell me where I was going wrong, not only with this ‘modern rubbish’ but because ‘women really couldn’t write good music’ & similar comments. There weren’t many albums by female composers in that shop of course. They didn’t get past his ordering system for one thing but also there really weren’t that many being issued in the late ’70 & early ’80’s on labels that were easy to get in the UK (4). But this determination to find releases that the mainstream, for whatever reason, pushed aside meant that by the time I worked at Our Price I already knew a fair bit about which labels has some interesting back catalogue or which distributor could source imports more quickly and cheaply.

(4) It might be news to some that back then there were strict rules on albums coming in & out of each country. Imports were something special & usually cost at least twice as much as a domestically released album. You could, sometimes, order them but the process could take anything up to 4 or 5 months as shops had to build up enough items to place an order with the import departments of distributors.

Make a free website with Yola