The Leaf Label
The Leaf Label was established in late 1994, with the sole intention of releasing music by Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis. That first Boymerang 12" sold out in a matter of weeks, and thus a label was born. In late 1996 label founder Tony Morley took the plunge and left his day job at the influential 4AD label, making Leaf a full-time priority. Over the following 23 years the label has been called home by artists such as Susumu Yokota, Murcof, Polar Bear, Snapped Ankles and more. After enduring the ups and downs of the music industry, the label is now stronger than it's ever been!
Rough Trade Exclusives are now available from The Comet is Coming and Warmduscher, plus nine white coloured vinyl exclusives from artists including Asa-Chang and Junray, Colleen, Caribou and more available online and instore.
Five Minutes with Tony Morley
How did The Leaf Label begin?
TONY: It started as a hobby really, as these things often do. I was doing press at 4AD at the time, as well as a fair bit of DJing/promoting around London, and my then partner in crime, Julian Carrera, was working for another music PR company. He was working with Bark Psychosis, who we both loved, but they’d just split after releasing an album through Virgin. Graham Sutton from the band started to make some really interesting music on the fringes of drum & bass, and we agreed to put a 12” out there and see how it went. With the help of a small loan from 4AD we were on our way. The Boymerang EP got a feature in the NME, and we sold out a thousand 12”s very quickly (I’m happy if we can do that with a new artist now, 23 years later!).
We put out eight 12”s in the first couple of years, after which I parted company with Julian and decided to go out on my own. I did PR for other artists and labels, and that was my bread and butter for quite a few years. Things started to pick up in the late 90s, and by about 2002 I was employing staff and running something approaching a proper business.
What were some the early challenges you faced starting a record label?
TONY: I was lucky in many ways, in that 4AD was a relatively small operation, and I was able to dip a toe in most aspects of the machine, on big and small releases. So I had a reasonably good idea how things worked, and was able to get a distribution deal quickly, advice on how to go about manufacturing a record, and so on. Things were simpler then - there were no digital services, barely even an internet, so you pressed some vinyl, sent out a few promos and hopefully people bought them. You could turn a run of vinyl around in about a month, and the 90s were a good time to be selling records. That was about as far as it went. Cashflow was (and still is!) always an issue, but we got by not spending more than we could afford to lose - relying on word of mouth and only spending money on marketing once we had a head of steam for an artist.
To be frank, I think the real challenges came later, when we had staff to pay, illegal downloading was in full flight, and the market for physical products started to nosedive. I think the industry is finally back on the right path, but there have been a lot of casualties, and we’re not out of the woods yet.
Tell us a little about one of your most recent releases/projects?
TONY: Snapped Ankles is a good example of what I like to think we do well. They’d been knocking around for a few years by the time I became aware of them, and I’m not sure they’d ever had much music industry interest beyond their hardcore fans, which I found hard to believe - they write great songs, they have a brilliantly wonky worldview, and the live performances are unmissable. We don’t tend to go chasing after the things everyone is talking about - that doesn’t really interest me.
They appealed to me right away, and I was confident other people would like them too. We were able to build a nice story around them, and then let them find their way to the right people - with a nudge in the right direction of course. It’s been a proper word of mouth success, and the album is still ticking over nicely, nine months later, which is unusual these days. I’d much rather build a band organically like that than hype them up - that’s a very short term way of doing things and one of the reasons the music business has got itself into such a pickle in recent years.
Can you pick out five releases that define the labels story so far?
TONY: This would be incredibly difficult - if we hadn’t already kind of done it with Leaf 20 box set we put out a couple of years ago. Most of those albums are available on white vinyl as part of the Rough Trade label focus, so that’s a pretty good overview.
‘Sakura' was the third album we released by Susumu Yokota, back in 2000, and was the one that really caught people’s imagination. Again, a real word of mouth thing - he hardly spoke any English, he only played two or three live shows in the UK in the whole time we worked with him, but the album went on to sell in the tens of thousands of copies. It’s actually picked up again since he sadly passed away - that album apparently above all of the other albums he released, for some reason. It’s a good example of the power of “otherness” - people don’t want or need to be spoon fed every last titbit of personal information about music to enjoy it, and often the opposite is true. We like to play with that a bit in the way we have presented artists like Melt Yourself Down, The Comet Is Coming, Snapped Ankles, Warmduscher.
After that, we had a fair bit of success with artists including Murcof (specifically ‘Martes’, which seems to have become something of an electronic classic - I picked that up from an unsolicited CDR sent to me from Tijuana), Asa-Chang & Junray (who’s ‘Hana’ is the only track we ever had in John Peel’s Festive Fifty, and also made it onto his Fabric mix CD) and perhaps most notably, Caribou, then known as Manitoba of course. ‘Up In Flames’ marked a real step up for us in so many ways, and is still the best-selling album on the label.
We’d dipped our toes into jazz before them, but Polar Bear’s ‘Peepers’ album (2010) was a huge success for us, and directly led to other signings like Melt Yourself Down, and of course The Comet Is Coming. That was definitely a turning point for us.
I’d also like to mention Warmduscher, whose second album we’ve just released. They’re certainly not a typical Leaf artist, but it’s been a lot of fun working with them - we’re enjoying being along for the ride! Maybe we’ll see more in this direction, but who knows?
What can we expect from The Leaf Label in 2018 and beyond?
TONY: This year, we’ve got new releases from Julia Kent, Szun Waves (Luke Abbott, Laurence Pike and Jack Wyllie), LWW (Luke Wyland of AU). Hopefully a new album by an artist we haven’t released for a decade… Snapped Ankles are currently working on their second album, which will be out next spring. There are two or three other new artists in the pipeline as well - feels like we’re going through one of our periodic transformations as a label… We’re also finally getting our hands dirty with a new publishing company, and, if all goes to plan, a new reissue label. We’re going to be busy!