Fierce Panda: How to succeed as an indie label

Simon Williams from Fierce Panda Records tells us what it takes for your indie imprint to survive and thrive...


The music business can be a tricky world to win over so any independent record label that makes it for the best part of 25 years is doing pretty well. 

Hats off then to indie imprint Fierce Panda and the label's head honcho Simon Williams. Launched by Simon and two other NME journalists in a Soho boozer back in the mid-nineties, the label has gone on to be an essential stepping stone for many big British indie acts - Coldplay, Placebo, Idlewild and Embrace are just some of the big bands to release via the imprint. 

We caught up with Simon to find out more about Fierce Panda, their releases and the skills needed to for success in the world of indie labels... 

How did you get into the world of record labels? Was it something you'd always wanted to do? 

Never! I’d always loved indie labels as a kid but the whole idea of actually running one hadn’t crossed my mind.

In fact Fierce Panda was invented by three NME journalists in The Blue Posts pub (which is now a Boots chemist) on Tottenham Court Road in 1994 purely and simply to pay tribute to a neo-indie-punk scene we’d invented called The New Wave of New Wave. So we had every intention of releasing just the one compilation EP, called ‘Shagging In The Streets’, and calling it a day, which is why Fierce Panda has such a dumb name. If I thought we’d still be here 23 years later we might have put a bit more thought into it.

What skills do record label managers need to succeed? 

The esteem of Alan McGee at Creation, the chutzpah of Tony Wilson at Factory, the nous of Lawrence Bell at Domino, the ears of Mark Bowen from Wichita, the credibility of Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, the buoyancy of James Endeacott at 1965 and the patience of a saint.

What does a typical day look like? Is there even such a thing? If not, what are your main tasks? 

A typically un-typical day is a mini-holocaust of A&R rompings, legal bafflings, financial conundrums, synch mailouts, band meetings and fretting over never having enough time left over for listening to enough new music." 

It is haphazard, dynamic, relentless and involves several bad puns and a river of Yorkshire Gold tea. One trusts it will feature a lunchtime trip to the pub on a radio plugging mission and a live show or three in the evening.

As an indie record label boss, what's the most ridiculous situation you've been in / asked to solve? 

The whole job is so fearsomely ridiculous it’s hard to pick out specifics, but I guess the time when one of our bands signed to another label without telling us was pretty priceless.

It wasn’t so much their new deal which bothered me - after all, over the years over 72 acts have moved on from Fierce Panda to bigger and better labels – it was more the fact that I came in from Suffolk on a Saturday night to see this band support White Lies at Wembley Arena. It was a great show and I was having an excellent time until I went backstage and the band happily introduced me to a man from their new record company, at which point I’m afraid to say my tiny indie world imploded - I’ll certainly never forget trudging home all alone on Wembley Way in the pouring rain. Bands eh?

What’s keeping you busy at the moment? And what does the future have in store?

Right now we are bubbling along with our usual blend of bravado and bewilderment: there are super ace albums from 485C, VLMV and S.G. Wolfgang (try saying that really fast seventeen times) as well as new releases from indie rocksters Jekyll, pop kid Tom Shawcroft, soul boy Albert Gold, electro experts Ghost Suns and South London bromantics The Caress.

Variety really is the spice of life, it seems.

Plus we have excellent new alt.rocking signings a’plenty in the shape of Sad Boys Club, Peeping Drexels and Scrounge to tide us over for the rest of the year.

If we do actually manage to survive until 2019 we will then be celebrating our 25th birthday with a plethora of slightly unnerving and quite possibly underwhelming panda-related promotional concepts.

On a more definitively sensational note we have Desperate Journalist’s third album heading our way in February - keep an eye on for more future furry funbags…

Listen to 'Souls Out', the latest single from S.G. Wolfgang: 

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by Jim Ottewill
August 20, 2018
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