Christian record companies come in all shapes and sizes. But few have shown such tenacity to stick it out supporting grassroots CCM as London's PLANKTON RECORDS. Andrew Long investigated.
Christian music in Britain has always had more than its fair share of independent record companies, a dedicated bunch who over the years have continually blown raspberries (metaphorically speaking of course) in the face of the Christian music multi nationals, releasing music of a consistently high quality despite working on laughable budgets. Names like FFG, Sticky Music and Chapel Lane spring to mind. But surely one of the longest standing Christian Indies is London-based Plankton Records.
I travelled up to the nerve centre of their world operations, a house in Forest Gate, to meet with partners Simon Law and Keith Dixon and began to fish for the story (the first of many fish jokes!). I began by asking Plankton's founder, Simon Law, how the company originated.
"I was in a band and some previous recordings I'd done were too Christian for the secular record companies and too secular for the Christian record companies, so we decided to do our own thing," responded Simon. "So the band made an album and we put it out ourselves and we needed a name for the record company. Sea Stone was the name of the band and I called the publishing company Sea Dream Music. I was at a camp and was telling one of the lads and he said, 'Oh, what are you going to call the record company then, Plankton?' And I thought, 'Yeah, that's a really good name,' because plankton's microscopic. We're hoping that if we ever get big we could change it to Whale Records! So it was really formed just to do this album. We sold it and we made a profit so we decided to plough the profit back in to carry on making more stuff. We did another couple of records with Sea Stone and then we started making records for other Christian bands as well."
Sea Stone, after a long and wonderful career, went the way of all fish...er...flesh and a new band called Intransit was formed which Simon described as "Level 42 meets Jimi Hendrix". After a relatively short life span Intransit fell apart with the bass player and drummer chasing fame and fortune and it was then that Simon formed Fresh Claim, named after a legendary trip to the dole office with the new drummer. More about Fresh Claim later. Incidentally, the original Sea Stone album 'Mirrored Dreams' is now an extremely collectible rarity, changing hands at record fares for three-figure sums! Simon had a copy in the office which he showed me, but he wouldn't give it to me as a souvenir.
Meanwhile Plankton Records was busily expanding its catalogue with releases from artists like Pete Ward, Really Free Band and Solid Air, whilst the major labels in Britain were concentrating on American imports, praise and worship and "safe" artists who would be guaranteed sellers. Plankton was then and always has been a very different kettle of fish (sorry!). I asked Simon why they had always been risk-takers.
"I think it's because we took the chance with our own album," replied Simon. "We didn't fit into the nice neat Christian category. As I went along I began to realise that there were other bands who were trying to communicate something and of course the easy option was to go down the praise and worship road and get signed up by Word or Kingsway or whatever. But there were those who were never likely to do a lot of business, they didn't really have a market but they wanted to sell something at gigs in schools or pubs or wherever they played. So what attracted us to other Christian bands was their level of commitment to actually communicating something. The musical style became irrelevant, it could be folk or rock or rock 'n' roll or reggae, it was the communication aspect that was the most important."
One particular pond that Plankton has swum in for many years is that of the Greenbelt Fringe, both in organising acts and in running the Musicians Advice Tent (a Godsend for heavy handed guitarists who have just broken their last top E string), so how did this relationship start?
"The Fringe at Greenbelt started almost by mistake in 1981, which was the last year at Odell in Bedfordshire. They set up some odd little stages and just put some PAs on them and suddenly people came out of the woodwork and started playing on them. Sea Stone played. In fact, we hold the distinction of playing on the Fringe stage at the same time that U2 appeared on the main stage but all the people watching Sea Stone stayed there until we'd finished and then legged it over to see U2. During that year the ad hoc Fringe thing became a committee and I got on to that committee and talked to Steve Shaw, who was the chairman, about doing a marquee to disseminate information about the music business and the musicians' union and he suggested selling Plankton product in the tent as well. Prior to that I'd had to take my box of records to the Word tent or somewhere like that. In that first year loads of people came in for information and we sold loads of records and people started asking questions and getting really interested in our operation and as a result of that it started to expand. I'd see bands play there and go and ask them if they had a deal and try and work things out with them, really a first step on the ladder. The financing of the deal would always be wherever we were at with money. Sometimes Plankton would finance the whole thing, recording and production, sometimes a band would come with a master already recorded and we'd just finance the production and sometimes a band will use us as a vehicle for getting their recording out but will put up the money themselves. Any deal we do will reflect the financing put in by both us and them."
"Plankton is not a glamorous label," chipped in Keith Dixon. "Because we are very small financial things waver a bit, so people will sometimes put up the whole of the money themselves. We're not in a position to give somebody a budget of, say, £10,000 for recording. It would be nice if we were."
This seemed like an opportune moment to ask Keith when he got caught in the Plankton net. "I first met Simon at the Newham People's Festival. It was to be the first gig for the band I was with as soundman, Against The Tide. They were meant to be playing but it was pouring with rain. I was also supposed to be doing the PA for a band called Lifeline and for Fresh Claim. I then found out that Simon was involved with the Fringe at Greenbelt and Against The Tide played that year, '88, then they split and a band called Medals came about which was a lot of the people from Against The Tide but with a new singer and guitarist, and we played. Simon got to know me a bit better; I did some PA for him at a festival in Essex called Red Braces (Green Belt - pun!) where a lot of the Plankton bands were playing. Medals then played on the Fringe in '89, which led to a cassette release on Plankton called 'Blue Blood', and from there I got to work with Simon. I ended up decorating his house and eventually began to work for the charity that Plankton is linked with and then became a partner in 1991."
Plankton has always operated as a partnership, although partners have come and gone. Currently the partners are Simon, Keith and Eric Petrie whom Simon describes as a bit of a sleeping partner although his input on the book publishing side is invaluable. Sea Dream has been Plankton's publishing arm since day one and as well as publishing sheet music and poetry books has also published Keep Music Legal, a book written by Simon and Eric, designed to be the idiot's guide to copyright, with particular relevance to Christian musicians.
"That book is recommended by the PRS," Keith enthused. "Simon is very good at advising bands at where they stand on copyright, because it's like a minefield, even in the Christian world. People are often quite ignorant about the legal side of things and they get themselves trapped in some horrendous situations."
A further facet of Plankton's work comes in the shape of The Wavelength Trust, a registered charity. I asked Simon to explain the connection. "I was at college when all this happened, doing two years studying theology. I had worked with Youth For Christ for a year before I went to college with a band called Really Free and I quite liked the idea of trucking round schools, doing gigs and RE classes and so on, so went to college to get a bit more education and training. Then I wanted to do schools work full time but Youth For Christ, God bless them, were a bit squeaky clean for me at that point. If I worked for them they wanted me to wear a collar and tie and be called Mr Law, which is kinda weird because Mr Law's my dad! The only other option was Scripture Union, but they tended to work with established Christian groups, so the bloke who had recommended I go to Oakhill College said, 'Why not set up your own charity?' So I got hold of a Christian solicitor and we devised a charity the aim of which was to promote and encourage the Christian faith, which covered a whole wide range of things like visiting schools, doing youth events, rock concerts, everything. It took about 18 months to get set up and it was registered as a charity in 1980. A friend of mine came up with the Wavelength Trust, keeping the Sea connection, but also wavelength as in communication and that has been the organisation to funnel financial support for our work in evangelism in schools. Now at one point we thought of combining the Wavelength with the record company, but charities are not allowed to trade, they have to have trading companies. We thought the easiest thing to do would be to keep Plankton Records as an ordinary trading company and keep the charity as a charity, but if Plankton makes a profit then we tithe the profit to the charity each year. Currently the charity supports Keith and me."
Self-distribution has always been Plankton's game, mail order and gig sales being paramount. Distribution deals have been as slippery as eels over the years, at least as far as the UK is concerned. Overseas is a different matter.