Anybody with an ear pressed tightly to those musical landscapes that echo to the sound of the seventies (and overflow a little on either side) will already be well aware of Angel Air Records.
For almost twenty years now, Angel Air has devoted itself not only to the straightforward reissuing of forgotten period classics, or reawakening old careers and drawing fresh (and often brilliant) new music from them; but to the exhumation, too, of utterly lost and abandoned albums; discs ditched by labels, demos filed by their makers, live shows that even the band had forgotten were ever recorded.
In terms of mining the archaeological vein, Angel Air has so few genuine peers that one almost wishes the label was bigger, simply so it could get to everything that demands to be discovered.
A few names from the catalog, just to establish some parameters… Atomic Rooster and Affinity; Stackridge and the Sweet; John DuCann and Johnny Warman; Mo Foster and Mott the Hoople; Jackie Lomax and Robin George; Greenslade, Jerusalem, Heavy Jelly and Adam Faith. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal is alive here, but so are Glam Rock, Jazz Rock, Bo Diddley and the Blues.
And more, as label head Peter Purnell explains.
“The label was created back in 1997 following on from a meeting with John McCoy [bass player with Gillan], who was a client of our fledgling artist management company CeeDee Management (CDM) which my wife Shirley and I had started back in 1994.
“John had this album he owned called Think Hard, and asked me to find a record company whom I could license the album to. The conversation then drifted into who was worth approaching, and who were honest and trustworthy to account.”
At which point McCoy suggested the Purnells do it themselves.
“This was a ‘light bulb moment,” when considering we already had clients who had been in bands such as Deep Purple, Quatermass, Procol Harum and Gillan. There was no question to answer. Our very first release was McCoy’s Think Hard Again and, over 500 CD and DVD releases later, it is still in our catalogue with the prefix 001.”
Purnell already had a business background and had been MD of “a mini conglomerate which at its peak was turning over in excess of $200 million per year. Having reached the age of 40, however, I’d had a ‘midlife crisis’ in 1994, and left the company to do my ‘own thing.’
“As music was very important to me (as a fan, not a musician) Shirley [a former legal executive]and I formed CeeDee Management to handle artists historical business affairs, and CeeDee Music UK as a publisher which today publishes over 2,500 songs including one of my favourite tracks ever “Rock n Roll Queen” written by Mick Ralphs. (My beloved Mott the Hoople were yet to become part of our business affairs).
“With my business background and experience, I had no difficulties in getting Angel Air off the ground. The choice of company name was Shirley’s. I wanted a label that started with the letter A, so we would always be listed first - she chose the name and created the logo.
“Fortunately, I was able to provide myself the finance to launch the label and every year since the company has made a profit and been cash generative. Did I expect to be here twenty-plus years later? Yes! I am fairly bloody minded and not easily deterred underneath my mild exterior, and have always believed that if you have a passion for your business, and believe you can change and adapt your business strategy to suit market conditions, you will at least survive and hopefully prosper.
GM: Angel Air has one of the most varied catalogues of releases, but also a very solid "stable" of artists. How did you go about building those relationships?
PP: “CeeDee Management (CDM) was, and is still, one of the major sources of Angel Air releases.. Today, for example, we manage the affairs of three of the founding members of Mott The Hoople (Buffin,Overend Watts and Verden Allen) and also handle the Mott The Hoople affairs of Morgan Fisher and Luther Grosvenor. Out of that involvement over the years has come releases on Angel Air by Mott, Mott The Hoople, Mick Ralphs,The Silence, Doc Thomas Group, British Lions, Morgan and Luther Grosvenor to name just a few.
“Our standing amongst musicians has risen and risen and word of mouth has spread our name as well as our simple but fair business model. We share all income from the label on a 50/50 basis. 50% for the artist and 50% for the label. The majority of the artists we were working with a decade plus ago we are still working with today and we are proud of our ability to not only create relationships but also to sustain them in what has been for the past decade an ever changing landscape in the music business.”
GM: The Mott catalog is certainly one of the stand out jewels in the label’s arsenal, not only incorporating the four original Island/Atlantic albums released in the years before stardom embraced the group, but a slew of vital live albums and studio out-takes too. Equally impressively, Purnell/CDM was also a part of the management team that brought Mott the Hoople back to life in 2009.
PP: “I will never forget Buffin telling me in the late 90’s that Mott the Hoople was the only band he ever really wanted to be part of, and wanted one day for the band to reform. He alone kept that mission alive and strong after the band broke up in 1974 and, in 2009, I was proud to part of the team that achieved those wonderful warm up gigs in Monmouth for the fans and the five night sell out at Hammersmith Apollo, London - although sadly, by then, Buffin had Alzheimer’s and was only well enough to perform an encore.”
GM: What do you look for when deciding what to license/release?
PP: “Can we work with the artist? Do we like what we are about to release? Will it sell? Digital and streaming must be part of the release strategy, so we can work the release in all markets. Our overall philosophy in business is a ‘can do,’ and if we can work with artists who share that philosoph,y then we are half way there in my opinion in achieving our goals.
GM: What is the "typical" process for getting an album from "idea" to "manufacturing plant”?
PP: “We are pitched almost daily albums and projects for release. But we never release any album or DVD unless the person we are dealing with is over forty! We are unashamedly a ‘heritage label,’ and value tremendously pop and rock from the 60s to 80s, as well as new albums from heritage artists.
“The market today for CD’s is ‘mature’ at best. and statistically is showing year on year declines. Our philosophy is to offer our releases on as wide a number of platforms as possible, and now over 50% of our gross income co,mes from downloading and streaming.
“When we agree to release an album it is typically a four month period of gestation before the actual release date. Once we have licensed in the product normally from the artist themselves, we employ an independent journalist to interview the artist and write the sleeve notes. The artist approves them before we are supplied same.
“We raid the artist’s archives for photos and memorabilia from the period the album was recorded, and then we pass everything over to Lawrence at our art studio to prepare artwork. Once the art studio has prepared the art, and added all the legal bits, we hook up the artist with the art studio to approve the artwork. Whilst this is happening, Karl at the recording studio prepares masters for the pressing plant from a variety of sources - from vinyl to cassettes to Ampex tapes for baking to CD copies of masters. The artist approves masters and artwork before they go off to manufacturing plant.
GM: Have things ever gone awry?
PP: “One of the strangest things to happen is the case of Overend Watts's solo album. We allocated the number SJPCD050 to the release back in 2000, and the demos we heard of the album was that it was simply stunning, with Overend initially delivering to us the wonderful “Caribbean Hate Song” which we released on a Mott the Hoople Family album..
“With Overend, however, life was and never is simple and he had other passions outside of music, including his beloved walking, so the album kept getting put back and put back as he walked the UK and wrote a book about his experiences The Man Who Hated Walking.
“Then the reunion in 2009 was agreed and Overend in reality is Mott the Hoople’s Musical Director as well as band member, so all his time and energies went into that. Time passed, the 2013 reunion took place and still no finished album.
“Will it ever happen? I hope so and as long as I am here, our fiftieth release will be by Overend Watts!”
GM: Tell us about some of your personal favorites among the albums you've released
PP: “That is the hardest question you have asked!
“Some of our releases have been real journeys of hope, ambition and achievements. As I said earlier, we have to like the album and the artist/band to release it ,and our tastes are eclectic! Some releases have, by association, brought us into contact with artists we personally adore, but have found them to be not the nicest of characters in real life. We have, for instance, turned down representing some artists at CDM as it would have taken me into head to head conflict with guys/bands that I grew up admiring.
“However, some of my real personal favorite stand out tracks include British Lions ‘One More Chance To Run’ (written by John Fiddler who we represent and also publish this track), Mott The Hoople's ‘Rock N Roll Queen,” written by Mick Ralphs who singlehandedly has written a number of rock anthems for both Mott The Hoople and Bad Company; Eric Bell (who was in Thin Lizzy) ‘Irish Boy,’ and McCoy ‘Because You Lied.’ Plus quite literally dozens of other stand out tracks.”
You’ve already mentioned liner notes, and Angel Air has always impressed in that department. How important do you think they are, and why?
PP: “Informative liner notes are essential to our releases, unless it is a brand new album. Our releases are pieces of history, and the sleeve notes written and approved by the artist tell a story. If you are interested in that artist, you are in my opinion privileged to share their innermost thoughts on what was happening then.
“I am amazed at the number of times that I see detail and minutia that originally appeared in our sleeve notes being shared on, say, Wikipedia when reference is made to an artist from the past. Artwork is very important too, and our ability to work with the artists and raid their photo memorabilia makes some of our releases unique. The final say on artwork detail goes to the artist.
“Some of our artwork is also iconic. Take for example the absolutely brilliant new album by Linda Hoyle The Fetch. It has original cover art from Roger Dean.”
GM: How do you feel about mp3s and digital releases?
PP: “They are, as I said earlier, an essential part of our business model today. Angel Air have, in fact, released a small number of digital only singles over the past couple of years, and see ourselves releasing a steady number of singles in future. However, for album releases, they must be on CD, as well as downloads and streamed, and I do not foresee yet a time when we will only release an album digitally/streamed only
GM: Would you say "piracy"/illegal downloading has affected you in any real way?
PP: We belong to the label trade organization AIM in the UK, who were responsible nearly a decade ago for setting up Merlin, who represent thousands of independent record labels (including Angel Air) all over the world. Merlin are responsible for negotiating major deals with everyone from iTunes to Spotify to YouTube and Vevo for the independent label sector. We also belong to the BPI, who have fought hard and represented the independent sector against the pirates over the years.
I guess, like all labels, we have suffered in the past, but have worked hard to monetize all copyrights we control for the artist and ourselves, and with the growth in income from neighboring rights from all over the world today, there is less piracy today than there was, in my opinion, ten years ago. My philosophy is to focus on the areas where we can make a difference and achieve our goals and leave representation against pirates to the trade organisation that represent us.
GM: Have you given any consideration to releasing albums on vinyl?.
PP: Every year we review whether to be involved and release high quality vinyl, and each year we decline and follow a route to sublicense our ‘heritage’ albums to specialist vinyl partners. We have a number of long terms partners in territories such as USA, Germany, Italy, Korea and Japan.
“Why do we not do it ourselves? Logistics, really, It is still a very small overall vinyl market. We have a firm belief in doing a few things and doing them well. With the label, artist management and publishing, we feel we are doing a 360 degree business model already. Why do more just to chase that last minute niche part of the market?”
GM: And finally, what does the future hold for Angel Air?
PP: “From day one, we took a policy decision to outsource as many services as possible, and keep our core staff levels (and costs) as low as possible. Today we still only employ four ,including myself. Art, studio, web hosting, web sites, Facebook,Twitter feeds, etc, we outsource from different companies and individuals all over the UK, but with Skype and Internet we treat them like our back office.
“We intend to keep doing what we do, dealing with people we like and respect. We work in the countryside about seventy miles north of London, and have offices and a warehouse there, and enjoy coming to work each day. As long as we can continue to sell sufficient quantities of our releases each year, so we are profitable with no bank borrowings, we will continue,”