One last spin for Setanta Records
AND SO it has come to pass — one of Ireland’s most unsung but influential record company bosses is hanging up his Access All Areas laminate and retreating into the rather more anonymous life of selling first edition books online and acting as (according to the man himself) “an aggregator for artists’ music on iTunes”. Not only that, but the label he founded will no longer be operational.
Keith Cullen, founder of Setanta Records – the label that brought us the likes of Into Paradise, Brian, Divine Comedy, A House, The Frank Walters, Cane 141, Pony Club and Edwyn Collins – isn’t going out with a whimper, however. Instead, he and his label are bowing out with a compilation album called The Separate, a 12-track gathering of some of Cullen’s favourite artists (including Martha Wainwright, Patrick Wolf, Joan As Policewoman and Jaymay) covering some of Cullen’s favourite songs (respectively, U2’s Stories for Boys, Phil Lynott’s Old Town, The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes, and The Kinks’ Big Sky.
“It’s totally a vanity project, but is it deserved?” he posits. “Well, I paid for it, so I guess I deserve it in a way. In my head I always wanted a record that reflected the taste of the label owner. It’s different now, of course, but there was a time when music fans would follow a record label just for the acts it had. That doesn’t mean anything any more, sadly. I have no illusions, though, that just because The Separate is on Setanta that anyone will give a monkeys.”
As a record label Setanta has been inactive for about six years, but Cullen made an exception for himself.
“I started The Separate in or around 2006, and so it seems to have become a bit like a DIY project – it takes ages to get around to doing it and finishing it, but when it is finished you look at it and go, ‘yes, that’s okay, I’m enjoying this now’.”
Cullen started Setanta in London in the early 1990s, initially signing Irish acts but gradually broadening out its catchment area to Britain (including Richard Hawley) and America, Hem, Josh Ritter, and Evan Dando). Eventually, he stopped signing Irish acts altogether, because, as he pithily says, “they were so f**king apathetic. But then you don’t feed people things to make them creative, you take things away from them. That seems to be the way it works.”
You can sense that Cullen won’t miss the money-minded and often nonsensical cut and thrust of the music industry game. It has changed so much from what he knew and loved, he asserts, and what motivated him to start Setanta.
“Rather than stay at it and keep trying to make a living, I’d rather step away and not be embittered. Someone was talking to me recently about the notion of graft, hard work, perseverance – kids don’t have that now because rather than doing an apprenticeship in music, all the majority think of is that they’ll get onto X Factor and become famous with their latest f**king app or online project. It’s an instant-fix world we live in, and that whole idea of the body of work, the consistency of work, is gone.”
You’d be wrong if you thought Cullen was suffering from indigestion due to swallowing a bunch of sour grapes – whatever bile he may have is tempered with clear-cut logic.
Having worked at the coalface of a commercially small but culturally significant independent record label for the guts of 20 years, he has watched them come and go, and, frankly, he’s tired of it.
“The idea about being gung-ho about new bands,” he ponders, “building them up, bigging them up? I’m too old for that, and I say that not in a sad way at all. I just think the music industry is for young people, and I find a lot of people still work in it because they don’t know what else to do, and so they get bitter. In my head, I’m thinking what are teenagers going to believe in, music-wise? There are very few of those music acts around anymore. I mean, who is believable these days?”
It’s a good question that Cullen takes time to answer (“The only one I can think of is Plan B,” he says), yet belief surely has to come from both sides of the music business divide.
Cullen is the epitome of a record label boss (formerly) with enough belief and faith in his acts to fill a cathedral. What he didn’t have is a head for crunching the numbers.
“I’m fine with that,” he says half bullish, half sheepish. “Essentially, I was driven, and when I started Setanta it was me against the world – me and my this-band and that-band. It was that bloody-minded determination that made the label succeed, but that same bloody-minded determination was married to a lack of business acumen. Everything had to be on my own terms.”
A new and potentially fascinating phase for Cullen is his burgeoning writing life. His 2009 debut novel, God Save the Village Green, received highly encouraging reviews; future projects include a second novel and a play about The Pogues. The prospect of making buckets of money, as usual, seems remote.
“Looking back at Setanta, I see the commerce aspect of it. I was so oblivious to that, but you know what, there was more beauty to it for me because of that.”
The Separate: Orchestral Variations V.01 is on release through Setanta Records