Stewart Henderson, Chemikal Underground

Chemikal Undeground label boss explains why the time is now for Scottish music...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 19 Dec 2013
  • min read
Over two decades Stewart Henderson (second from right) has gone from being the bassist in much-loved indie outfit The Delgados to releasing records by many of Scotland’s most critically acclaimed artists.

His label Chemikal Underground, which this year celebrated its 18th birthday, has issued instant classics and award-winning LPs by the likes of Mogwai, Arab Strap, Roky Erikson, RM Hubbert, Bill Wells, Miaoux Miaoux and more.

Operating out of the East End of Glasgow, the label has helped define the city’s sound and encouraged a whole generation of DIY enthusiasts to set up their own equivalents.

Stewart now chairs the Scottish Music Industry Association (SMIA) and has been integral in setting up the Scottish Album of the Year Awards which recognises national talent.

We spent time with him to learn how Chemikal Underground has evolved as a label and why the time is now for music in Scotland…

We’ve achieved veteran status in Scotland which is part something to be proud of and part something to be embarrassed by! I feel like a Chelsea pensioner a lot of the time because I’ve be around the block for so long. But the fact that Chemikal Underground has endured for as long as it has and has had the critical – if not commercial success – has been hugely satisfying. I’m intensely proud of what the label, and everyone associated with the label – has managed to achieve over the last 18 years. Having done it for so long, it brings a degree of gravitas and with that comes a lot of opportunities and that’s why I’ve found myself working with the Scottish Music Industry Association and all that sort of stuff.

Do you think the label has spurred others on the city?
If Chemikal Underground has in any way, shape or form been able to demonstrate to people that it’s possible to set up a label in Glasgow and have it endure, then that’s great. It would be nice to think that Chemikal Underground was a shining example to people but we flap around like everyone else trying to figure out what we’re doing. I’m always a bit nervous about making out that we’re a shining light at the vanguard of Scottish music – we’ve done what we’ve done and tried to do it as best we can.

I suppose it might not be for you to say…
You’re right! But for us, we came along in the mid-nineties when a lot of the labels that had burned quite brightly in Scotland had come to an end. I’m talking about Alan Horne and Postcard and Bob Last’s Fast Product – both very influential DIY indie labels. We weren’t the first ones, Soma Records were already up and running. We’re just another link in the chain. It’s just great that we’ve been able to keep our head above water for so long.

How has the label grown and changed over the years?
It’s changed radically. We grew very quickly, shrunk a bit, grew a little bit more, shrunk a lot and we are where we are now. We’re all in an industry that’s going through an unprecedented degree of flux and we all after adapt in various ways. We’ve had some pretty torrid times financially and things we’ve had to cope with and you come up with plans that will get you from A to B. It’s stopped being a straight upward trajectory for Chemikal Underground but we’ve continued to work with incredibly talented artists and we’ve released a load of really great critically acclaimed records – in some cases, some of Scotland’s finest albums – so we’ve been very fortunate.

A record label is only as great as the sum of its parts and that comes down to the artists we’ve released. Even though the retail market is much weaker we’ve still been able to consistently work with great artists and put out great albums and I think that’s helped to keep the name and credibility of Chemikal Underground going.

It’s interesting you talk about some of the common tribulations that London based major record companies often talk about, even though you are geographically removed from that side of the industry. What’s it like to run a label through these times in Glasgow?
It’s very difficult. It’s interesting because a great deal of our challenges are common to record labels throughout the industry, independent or major; it’s just an issue of scale I suppose. Our difficulties with unit sales are the same as Sony’s but everything is about economies of scale. I think, in some respects, we’ve been able to adapt much quicker as a smaller label because a lot of the painful decisions we’ve had to take over the years – including staff numbers, wage bills, what we’re able to spend on marketing and PR – all of these decisions were taken a while ago.

The way I perceive Chemikal Underground is different now – while I still see that releasing albums is a core part of what we do and it defines our ethos, we recognise that we are going to have to broaden out our role. We’re going to have to somehow recalibrate what Chemikal Underground does, because simply releasing that music will not be enough to sustain us as a company - which actually means exciting things for us.

How will you recalibrate?
We’ve been based in the East End of Glasgow for 18 years and with the Commonwealth Games coming here next year we were successful in an application to do a cultural project surrounding the Games called the East End Social. We’re curating and delivering a programme of music in both large and small venues. But crucially the other part of the East End Social project, and in my view the most essential characteristic, is that we are going to be doing a lot of community engagement work within the East End of Glasgow, whether that’s for younger people in schools, teenagers or elderly people in care homes – it’s a very broad project.

The future for Chemikal Underground certainly isn’t in turning its back on releasing music but I would see it more as a community-engaged arts organisation, moving forward. We’ll release albums but also work with and within music inside the community we’re in. And I think there are a whole load of other labels and companies that will be asking themselves similar questions about what they can do instead or as well.

Do you see others in Glasgow doing that already?
In this day and age you have to be a skilled multi-tasker. You have to be culturally, artistically, creatively articulate enough to be able to apply what it is that you do to as many different areas are possible. I think [Glasgow based label] LuckyMe is a great example of that. Those guys, whether you’re talking about Numbers or LuckyMe, were really quite inspirational new kids on the block. They recognised very early on the importance of taking a very broad-based diverse approach to what they did. They have done everything in a really interesting and creative way. For us at Chemikal Undeground, we look around at other labels in the city and try to take that on board as much as we can.

Why do you think Glasgow’s local music industry is so resilient? Are you more self-sustaining?
Well, I know there were really brutal cuts in the North East of England – 100 percent in some cases. This is by no means a party political broadcast but in Scotland we are going through as vibrant and as buoyant an era for the arts that I can remember and there are all sorts of reasons for that.

With the referendum coming up next year there’s almost an inevitability to the fact that culture and the arts will start to swing round front and centre when you have any kind of debate about our national identity. We happen to be operating within a very positive, supportive environment in terms of arts funding. I think Creative Scotland have – whether through their own actions or through Scottish parliament – have protected us to a degree from the brutal cuts which have hit England. Arts Council England have had to shoulder harder cuts than we have up here. So we’re in a very supportive environment and that feeds into the Glasgow music community.

Scotland is really out in front in the way we perceive the arts, both in relation to our society and who we are as a nation. We’re the most artistically switched on we’ve ever been and Glasgow is both a big benefactor and a big contributor. I find it as exciting a time in this city as I can remember.

When we set up Chemikal Underground in the mid-nineties Glasgow was in the very early stages of what has become an extraordinary transformation. Glasgow has gone through the same transformation that a lot of the UK cities have, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle – we’ve moved from being a post-industrial city to become a cultural metropolis – a really cosmopolitan arts-based city. It’s great, but it was certainly not the case when Chemikal Underground started. It was quite a difficult environment in which to function as a label and try to tap into any resources in terms of support or finances or grants. Whereas now, I think the arts in Scotland are much more joined up. The sectors – whether it’s music or art or film – are far more comfortable talking to each other than they were before. I think it’s an exciting time.

What effect has that positive change had on musical activity in the city?
Maybe it’s grown. The internet has definitely been an enabler in the mix. Let’s be absolutely clear: Glasgow has its fair share of shite bands – more than its fair share as far as I’m concerned! So we’re no different than anywhere else. But there’s a really vibrant diversity and life-affirming spectrum of music that comes out of Glasgow, and Scotland generally. I don’t think Edinburgh would grumble too much – I think they would accept the fact that traditionally over the last 20 or 30 years Glasgow has always seemed to have an edge in terms of his contemporary music output.

There are a whole load of reasons, some of them legitimate, some of them not so much so. Glasgow has always been home to an incredibly vibrant community of musicians and it’s fed by venues, pubs, cafes, rehearsal rooms. There are any number of reasons why this has always been the case – its always pissing down with rain and people are indoors all the time. You can throw any number of theories at the wall.

On the down side there are a lot of venues – some of them good, some of them not so good – and there’s a real industry around having bands paying to play. I think that’s common to a lot of cities now. Glasgow’s no different.

But I think generally, we’re part of a city that continues to attract an awful lot of bands and an awful lot of people to gigs.

Does Glasgow have its own musical identity do you think?
I think Glasgow is more similar to London now than it’s ever been in the sense that there’s good stuff on pretty much every night of the week. There’s always something interesting or eccentric or exciting to go and see. But there’s a down side that comes with that – the apathy that comes along when there’s so much on. It used to be something that was always associated with London, gobby audiences and people chatting loudly at the bar when the music is on. But it doesn’t just happen in London.

How have you found your involvement with the Scottish Music Industry Association?
The music industry is an extraordinarily diffuse business – there are artists, labels, managers, agents, venues – so for a trade association to be tasked with somehow representing all of these constituent members is a difficult job. But it’s a great thing to be involved in.