Exclusive to MBN Andrew Coleman meets the man behind Big Bear Records
An independent Birmingham record label, formed when EMI Parlophone refused to release a Christmas single, is celebrating its 45th anniversary.
Edgbaston-based Big Bear Records was founded by Jim Simpson in November 1968 when EMI said they didn’t want The Locomotive’s Rudi The Red Nosed Reindeer as the follow-up to the band’s ska hit Rudi’s In Love.
Jim, a former member of The Locomotive, was the band’s manager and he was left with a finished master copy of the festive tune. It seemed a pity to waste it, he thought.
‘‘I didn’t know what to do with it so I set up a record label to release it,’’ he says.
Taking advice from Island Records’ supremo Chris Blackwell, Jim set up Big Bear Records. Blackwell arranged distribution and the song was attributed to The Steam Shovel as EMI still held the rights to the band’s name The Locomotive.
Big Bear had a brush with some big players in its early days, recalls Jim who was also Black Sabbath’s first manager.
‘‘The DJ John Peel came up with the Big Bear name – he joked about the way I walked like a big bear,’’ Jim says. ‘‘I paid £25 for a logo to be designed but I got a letter from Walt Disney’s lawyers saying ‘cease and desist’ because the bear looked very much like Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book. So we had to drop that. My first experience of a record label was being sued by Walt Disney – you’ve got to start at the top!’’
With a new logo in place Big Bear began its journey and 45 years on has clocked up around 250 album and single releases. Big Bear is still relatively small – there are currently four full time employees and three interns – but it has carved out a reputation for quality and innovation.
As far back as 1980 it pioneered the idea of ‘crowd sponsorship’, fans paying for an album to be recorded.
‘‘We made the Brum Beat album, a live recording of 13 Birmingham bands on a double gatefold vinyl album,’’ Jim says. ‘‘It was recorded over 12 days with the money paid by fans to attend the shows funding the recording.’’
Further finance was secured by selling advertisements on the album sleeve.
‘‘The cover looked like a newspaper so we sold advertising space on the sleeve as you would a magazine. The quarter page advert on the front went to Ansells. Inside there were 13 advertisers, including the Odeon Theatre and Musical Exchanges, and there were four adverts on the back.’’
Funding records is no easier today and Big Bear has had to think of new ways to finance its releases.
Jim says teaming up with other local companies is one of the solutions.
‘‘We’re going to businesses and asking them to invest directly in the art of music,’’ he says.
The initiative has already had some success. ‘‘Birmingham city centre’s Colmore Business District sponsored the recording of the latest album by Tipitina, a duo that take their inspiration from the music of New Orleans. They funded around 60 per cent of it and their name and logo were included on the sleeve. For Colmore Business District to be able give their clients a first class CD, properly produced, with their name and logo on it, is quite a classy thing to do.’’
Big Bear has also had to react to the changes in the way music is marketed and sold. This month sees the first in a series of singles to be released digitally. To mark the 45th anniversary Rudi The Red Nosed Reindeer is being reissued, followed by one single from Big Bear’s catalogue per month for the next 12 months. Acts include Zulu, featuring lead singer Mel Gaynor who now drums for Simple Minds, a solo song by Magnum frontman Bob Catley and three re-releases from The Quads.
‘‘In the old days we used distributors to get the records to HMV on the high street,’’ says Jim. ‘‘Nowadays we use ‘aggregators’ who distribute us to all the monetise opportunities on the web. We’re signed to San Francisco-based INgrooves as well as all the iTunes territories.’’
Jim says much of Big Bear’s recent success can be attributed to his attendance at MIDEM, the annual b2b event for the music industry held in Cannes, France. He is amazed that last year, out of 450 companies attending, there was just one other Birmingham business represented.
‘‘You’re there talking with publishers, agents, record companies, TV companies. It’s not just selling records, it’s everything.’’
He says at MIDEM he has signed worldwide distribution deals for Big Bear releases, arranged tours for Big Bear acts – including shows in Africa and Europe – and even secured a TV series in Argentina.
‘‘On November 26 Fans World TV, who are based in Buenos Aries, showed the first of six short films made in Birmingham with Big Bear on Birmingham’s rock history. The first one was about Black Sabbath and the next one’s UB40. How did I come across these folk? I met them at MIDEM.
‘‘Through that deal I now think we can do something in Argentina with our back catalogue.’’
He also has plans to make more use of Big Bear’s vast photograph archive – a Dutch television company has already recorded a half hour show in Birmingham based around a Black Sabbath picture.
Looking back over Big Bear’s 45 years Jim reveals that the heavy metal legends from Aston, who became one of the biggest rock acts in the world, could have followed Rudi The Red Nosed Reindeer onto his record label.
He had recorded Black Sabbath’s first album but it was turned down by 14 record companies.
‘‘I was on the verge of putting it on Big Bear but at the last minute Phonogram found they had a gap in their release schedule and were desperate for some finished product. At the time I was delighted they came in but if it hadn’t been for that Black Sabbath would have been on Big Bear Records.’’