Almost every record label boasts some form of obsessive following and fandom, yet few if any sit close to 4AD. Founded in 1979 the label drew inspiration by indie forerunners Beggars Banquet, Postcard Records and Factory. Combining co-founder Ivo’s curation of dark, twisted and beautiful music with album artists Vaughn Oliver’s distinctive creative direction, 4AD created discography few music obsessives could resist.
Looking back on more than three decades of music, there can be little question that the London label leaves a distinctive imprint. 4AD not only contributed to post-punk canon, it defined college sound of the ’80s and sat at the heart of the alternative music explosion of ’90s. The failure to licence This Mortal Coil’s cover of Song to the Siren for the 1986 David Lynch film Blue Velvet inspired the director to collaborate with others to capture a similar sound on his own distinctive scores. Yet despite its prominence a favouring creativity over the commercial certainty led to several twists of fortune and near misses with financial oblivion. Even in lieu of its coloured history, the label persists to the present day.
College Rock and Dark Beginnings (1980-1990)
Officially rebranding in 1980, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent’s DIY label Axis became 4AD. Kent did not remain long, selling his share to Ivo the following year. Unlike some industry minded counterparts, 4AD entertained a true indie philosophy. Fresh off the heels of the punk explosion of the ’70s, the enthusiastic project gained momentum within UK indie charts with some small scale successes of acts like Bauhaus and Modern English. Despite imposing an unusual emphasis on album art, the label’s core belief was that ultimate creative discretion should rest with the artist themselves. It’s perhaps this principle more than anything else which led to the greatest creative and financial triumphs as well as blunders on the label’s record.
While the label would never use the term, the dark atmospherics of early releases became a synonymous cornerstone goth subculture. In 1982 the label signed definitive Australian post-punks the Birthday Party, most notable for launching the career of Nick Cave. The label was also quick to establish its own musical and visual aesthetic. The off-kilter pop of The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and label project This Mortal Coil created a distinctive visual and sonic archetype: odd haircuts, ethereal lyrics, shimmering riffs and cavernously reverberant production.
Despite its non-commercial leanings, the label’s left-of-center music met with considerable commercial success. The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil not only dominated indie charts but made inroads on UK pop culture. By 1987 the label set sights on the US, signing alt-rock acts Throwing Muses and The Pixies. While these acts had been rejected by US indie scene, their pairing with 4AD rocketed all involved to new heights of success. The label also benefitted with a lucrative, but divisive move into dance music. The release of Pump Up The Volume by MARRS was one the labels most commercial successful moments.
Peak Ivo, Alt Rock and Shoegaze (1990-2000)
Having captured music markets both side of the Atlantic the 4AD entered the ’90s on a high note. The label had become a near-mythic centre of alternative music. It was early in this period that the seeds of Ivo’s ultimate departure from the label were sewn. In 1992, 4AD entered into a distribution deal with US branch of Warner. In step with the deal, Ivo relocated to LA. Yet increased commercial dealings and success brought considerable pressure for even more hits. With the styles and sounds the label had perpetuated in the ’80s becoming mainstream cultural currency, 4AD was forced to measure up to previous decade in terms uncharted creative directions and commercial success. Post-punk die-hards were alienated by increasingly commercial signings.
Hit singles and large selling albums with a college rock acts led to continued work with the Pixies. Yet, internal tensions between band members and a failure to break into the mainstream world of rock led the band to separate after delivering 4th LP Trompe Le Monde in 1991. Ironically former bassist Kim Deal solo project The Breeders’ The Last Splash reached a level of commercial and critical success which would eclipse the Pixies for a decade to come. 4AD also became seminal presence in the dreampop and shoegaze scene signing acts like Lush, Mojave 3 and the Pale Saints.
The late 90s saw some of Ivo’s most bizarre signings. The addition of country band Tarnation and Icelandic electronic 9-piece Gus Gus left many 4AD completionists scratching their heads. A personal breakdown saw Ivo suddenly part ways with the label, entering a mysterious form of musical reclusion that lasts to this day.
After the co-founder’s shock departure, the label was sold to Beggars Banquet. It was a divisive moment. Many fans still refuse to reconcile this second life of 4AD with the Ivo-era which came before; a critical view would be that the label ceased to be a trusted brand of curation and slipped back to the status of simply another indie label.
Post Ivo (2000-2010)
Yet the story was far from over. While Ivo’s lingering musical tastes remained, new owners, Beggars Banquet assessed the label’s direction. The period marked by consolidation and a leaner number of signings. There was a heavy focus on pushing big albums from existing bands. This said new acts continued to join the label with Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, TV On The Radio, Blonde Redhead and the legendary Scott Walker signing on. This period also saw further criticism from diehard fans. What had started as a two person DIY project had become a full-scale commercial operation.
4AD Present (2010-2016)
In the last decade at least some scepticism has been allayed. With acts like Grimes, Bon Iver, Deerhunter, The National, Ariel Pink, Future Islands, tUnE-yArDs, Daughter and Purity Ring it seems that the label has seen a return to form, perhaps finding the balance point between commercial success with creative endeavour. It may not parallel the heights of Ivo’s tenure, but there’s an undeniable tenacity. If 4AD doesn’t recapture the glory of the eras past, it stands as something more than a perverse degeneration.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, the label survives in the departure of its distinctive founding-personalities. The longevity and persistence of an aesthetic of brooding, ethereal and off-kilter pop has become something greater than the sum of its constituent parts. At its peak and arguably to this day, left-of-centre musical leanings of the label touch upon a unique resonance. A vein of music which if left unstruck and unnurtured may not have emerged on its own accord. A true testament to the pairing of its artists and founders’ work.