THE (ROUND) TOWER OF SONG
by Norman Warwick
At one point towards the end of the 20th century I had a copy of every album then available on The Round Tower label on my shelves. Writing that sentence reminds me of what a wonderful assortment of singer writers the label gave home to. It’s a well told shaggy dog story of how all my albums and books finished up on the sea bed. My move abroad and change of life style in 2015 has seen me further lose touch with the label, so when I found an interview about them on line recently I was delighted.
Katy Moffatt (left) was and is one my all time favoutire artists, and for a while back in the nineties she was housed on my favourite record label.
Clive Hudson, the MD of Round Tower Music, outlined the label’s philosophy and ambitions to Hot Press in March 2001 and suddenly it was on my screen in June 2021, having surfaced in response to a question of a different nature.
According to the company’s founder and Managing Director Clive Hudson, the Round Tower philosophy was, quite simply: ´To release good records by artists we respect and whom we feel merit a place in markets both at home and abroad. Obviously we hope that our efforts in turn lead to commercial success and reasonable profits´.
But unlike other Irish-based record labels, Round Tower was not intended exclusively for Irish artists; as Hudson explained. ´We would ideally like to have a situation where between one-third and a half of our roster would be Irish´.
This meant that in reality Round Tower was that rather unusual animal, an Irish label with a balanced catalogue of Irish and non-Irish artists, competing on the international market from a base in Ireland.
Later Hudson frequently noticed a shift, with more international than Irish acts beating a path to his door, particularly from America, with many such artists now having quality product in the Round Tower catalogue alongside Tom Pacheco, the Irish domiciled American singer-songwriter, and Irish performers like Kieran Halpin (right). This, Hudson stresses, is accidental, and merely a reflection of the way things have developed.
I was introduced to Tom Pacheco (near left)by Stampede Promotions at one of their gigs at The Winning Post, I think, in York and was fortunate enough to go on to interview him several times, in which sessions he always spoke well of the care and the nurturing Hudson´s label provided for its artists.
His website reminds me that Tom´s songs have been covered by Jefferson Starship, The Band (right), Rick Danco, Richie Havesn, Scott Peito, Leslier Ritter, John Hall and dozens of European artists, many becoming number one hits in England and Norway. His own albums have sole well in Europe, with one becoming platinum in the mid nineties. He played folk-rock in Greenwich Village in the sixties and was part of the alt.country scene of Austin Texas in the eighties, that eventually grew up into Americana. He quit the nashvaille song-writing sweat shops and then spent ten years in Dublin and spent ten years on the Round Tower label, and toured Europe extensively. Pacheco now lives in Woodstock, New York and tours both America and Europe. He is admired by critics, fellow performers and perceptive music lovers who still buy up imported copies of his albums. Andy Hardin, one of the world´s great guitarists and long time of accompanist of Tom Russell (both were also signed to Round Tower) called Pacheco ´the best solo performer I´ve ever seen.´
My own son, Andrew, who lives in South Korea. is forty two now, and has been a huge fan of Tom´s (so much so that he named our first family cat Pacheco) ever since seeing him live at York thirty five years ago. When I introduced him to Tom after the show, Tom gave him a broken guitar string that my lad treasures to this day.
I, myself, was so impressed with Tom Pacheco that I took his lyrics out into schools in my roles as a peripatetic creative writing facilitator, and would work with adult and junior classes on pieces like Just A Little Bullet and The Last Blue Whale In The Ocean.
Most of the artists in the Round Tower catalogue could be filed under ‘singer/songwriter’ but once again that’s just by the way, as Hudson sees no reason to limit the spectrum of music, so long as it’s good music, well played and performed. “The generic term ‘roots’ probably best describes where we’re coming from at the moment, but I am wary of being pigeon-holed and want Round Tower to be free to release any good material by any artist in any genre”, Hudson emphasises.
The fact that Round Tower inevitably started out as a very small company with scant resources meant that the initial thrust of releases was focused heavily on solo acts. Clive Hudson´s reasoning was that ´You have great flexibility with solo acts. You don’t have a band committee delaying decisions, you don’t need rehearsal facilities and touring abroad can be done at a minimum cost. Equally, solo artists rarely break up!´ (laughs).
The label also had a preference for dealing with relatively unknown acts and building their careers from a ‘clean-sheet’ start, but ultimately each project needed to be assessed on its own merits as a commercially viable proposition. Many artists take several years to develop and reach commercial maturity and that can only be achieved if the label has the confidence and stamina for the long haul and is willing to build a mutually-satisfying relationship with the artist.
Tom Pacheco, for example, with albums in the Round Tower catalogue, took a while to build up sizeable sales figures in various territories, thus proving the wisdom of persistence and allowing the artist’s fan-base to grow organically, rather than being force-fed, as seems to be the instant profit philosophy of many major labels.
Hudson would also admit that his international artists gave the label an added boost in its efforts to break into other markets and, that, in turn benefits Round Tower’s Irish artists. He is also acutely aware of the differences in dealing with Irish and international acts.
´Americans in particular seem to feel much more comfortable about the record company-artist relationship and they have very specific expectations of that relationship and those expectations are usually less than an Irish artist would have´, he observed. ´That is probably the most crucial single skill that American artists have over their competitors, in the way that they work with their record companies. But I have to deal with people as they are and adjust to the personal requirements and characteristics of each of the acts in our roster. Fortunately there has never been a simple formula for handling all this – and I hope there never will be.´
Despite the obvious difference in scale between Ireland and the USA, the Irish-based company or artist had the advantage that all areas of the business are within easy reach. Conversely, the sheer size of the USA means that artists learn at an early stage to think in more practical terms, and those factors may explain the difference in attitudes. Clive Hudson argued that, for its size, Ireland achieves as much, if not more, internationally, than any other country, and suggested it had been the efforts of labels such as Round Tower over the previous couple of decades which have moved Ireland from its traditional backwater base to the forefront of the international music scene, where it is now regarded as a significant talent source.
The comparatively small size of the Irish market means that you can rarely sell enough of a record in Ireland alone to cover the investment, so expansion into overseas markets is crucial in economic terms, but also more challenging artistically.
Deals with overseas companies can therefore be essential for the funding of a long term development plan, particularly when Irish corporate investors seem incapable of properly assessing the commercial potential of any music-related project. Ironically, 90% of Round Tower income isat the time of Clive´s interview was being earned outside the state, and, apart from the invaluable support of Coras Trachtala, being achieved with little or no government assistance. Yet countries with healthy indigenous markets, and which are arguably lesser talent pools than Ireland, have governments that support their music industries with substantial sums of money.
The rise of labels like Round Tower in Ireland, had, curiously, occurred at a time when the major multi-national companies based in Ireland were collectively showing less interest than ever in developing Irish talent and had become, in most cases, mere sub-offices of their head-offices in Britain, Germany and the USA. Hudson pointed out, however, that this is not merely an Irish problem, and that the same situation probably applies in virtually every European country.
But if that’s the case, then the existence of labels such as Round Tower became even more critical for the nurturing of new Irish talent and must be viewed in the light of a statement at the time by the Irish Minister For The Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D Higgins’ well-publicised interest in “devising strategies for impeding cultural domination.” If the majors are not prepared to put something of value back into the society from which they earn their profits, then the smaller independent labels are even more deserving of our support. Indeed, if there is any justice the next major artist to come out of Ireland will do so on a small independent label.
But a label like Round Tower had to operate at that time in the full awareness that their successfully nurtured talents were almost certain to move to bigger labels in due course and only the most foolhardy indie boss is likely to be unprepared for or resentful of it happening. Meanwhile they still have to proceed with every release with their full reserve of optimistic enthusiasm.
This was all at a time in which the music world had seen the majors sign and drop artists with more ruthlessness than at any other period in recent history to the extent that being dropped is now regarded by some (e.g. The Pale, Something Happens, A House) almost as a cause for celebration, even more exalted than their actual signing. It seemed that artists were finally beginning to appreciate the value of signing to labels where the staff are not in a permanent 9-5 mode.
There was also what Clive Hudson described as ‘The Fire Factor’, meaning the tendency for new appointees to senior posts in major record labels to adopt a “new-broom” approach to their existing roster and send a torrent of P45’s hurtling through the post. That tendency is less prevalent in smaller outfits where there is often nobody to fire anyway and the company survives on a combination of will power, sweat and 80 hour weeks.
Of course, Round Tower was not just a record label, for it also had a sister publishing company, Beann Eadair Music, and it was Hudson’s firm belief that the publishing arm of the company was very important.
´The publishing area is substantially different because a song by its nature has a long life. Even successful megastars can fade into obscurity but a song can be sung, re-recorded and re-interpreted forever. A great song will always be a great song. At Round Tower we like to inter-link the two whenever we get involved with an artist who is also a creative songwriter´.
On the world-wide distribution front, Round Tower preferred to establish links with one reliable distributor in each country. Naturally such arrangements achieved varying degrees of success, particularly since the preference was for establishing a long-term working relationship with companies who showed some real commitment to working the label’s catalogue on a consistent basis. In that regard, Hudson would rather deal with companies buying regular quantities, and smaller if necessary, than with someone taking a pile of stock and then virtually abandoning the catalogue to look after itself.
Hudson´s policy paid off particularly well in Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the Benelux territories, and there was considerable optimism that the UK will score heavily as well.
Hal Ketchum Despite being in existence for only years, the Round Tower organisation had already notched up several notable achievements. Pressed to specify the most significant, Hudson names the Mick Hanly song ‘Past The Point Of Rescue’ recorded by Hal Ketchum and hitting the No. 2 spot in the US country charts whilst racking up combined single and album sales of nigh on one million.
Beann Eadair also had the publishing on the recent No. 1 album in Scandinavia by Steinar Albrigtsen and, although Hudson lamented the loss of A Woman’s Heart star Dolores Keane (right) , he pointed proudly to the two albums she released on Round Tower ahead of that success, and which continue to sell healthily.
At the time of his interview with Hot Press the best selling album in Hudson´s the Round Tower Catalogue was Big Storm Comin’ by Steinar Albrigtsen and Tom Pacheco which hit the number one spot in the Norwegian charts and has notched up over 100,000 sales there. The album was re-appraised on these pages on 19th July 2021 under the title of Big Storm Coming.
As many an Irish artist would readily testify, Hudson believed that finding the right management is a major difficulty.
´But´, he argued, ´unfortunately there’s no simple answer to that problem. You just have to forge ahead and do the best you can in whatever circumstances you find yourself in. The situation is worsened by the fact that almost every manager works with the possibility that when the artist reaches a certain stage the first thing they do is fire the manager who worked so hard to help them reach that point in the first place, unless you’re Paul McGuinness, of course, and I’ve admired the work Nicky Ryan has done with Enya, and Mattie Fox with Christy Moore´.
In fact, with a comparatively small label like Round Tower the label itself performed several managerial functions to the extent that it operated on a family basis, enjoying a constant day-to-day relationship with each artist.
One of the perks (or chores) associated with running a record company is the number of demo tapes one receives. Part of the excitement of the job can be that the next tape you listen to could, literally, charge your life and the life of those around you. But wanting to join the illustrious roster of artists on the Round Tower label, is it was more than just a simple matter of sticking an old demo in the post, according to Clive Hudson.
´I am totally turned off artists who send in shoddy-looking tapes. They give me the impression that they themselves have no respect for their own artistic endeavours, and if they don’t why should I bother? This business is so competitive that only artists with real drive and a real commitment to what they are doing are likely to survive´.
So maybe that explained the success of Round Tower’s artists – that passion for music which drove them to make it a full-time, lifelong commitment, a passion which caused them to see music as an art-form and a means of exploring the world and communicating their deeply-felt responses, and not simply as the easy road to fame and fortune
The Round Tower label remains in many ways the kernel of the music collection on my computer. We have posted many items of news, previews, interviews and reviews, still available in our extensive archives, on the likes of America artists Katy Moffatt and Tom Pacheco, and English singer writers like Gary Hall and Tom Pacheco.
Finding this Hot Press interview with Clive Hudson reminds me that there are many more Round Tower artists still to bring to these pages and so we look forward to creating updates on the careers of Dolores Keane, Procul Harem, Barrowside, Reg Mueross, Peter Sarstedt, Andrew Hardin, Joe Brown, Tom Russell, Josie Kuhn (left), Albert Lee, Hogan´s Heroes, Sylvia Tyson, Steve Young, Susan Chawner and The Nelson Brothers.
Watch this space.