London Riots: Labels Learning to Cope With Stock Loss

Firefighters battle a massive blaze at the Sony distribution center in Waltham Abbey, north of London. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

While the riots in London spread to other English cities, with Manchester, Bristol and Liverpool suffering under looting and violence, the British music industry is trying to pick up the pieces from a massive 200,000-square foot warehouse fire at Sony/PIAS’s main distribution center in London. Hundreds of labels relied on the facility for UK album deliveries and are coping with devastating losses and emergency contingency plans.

The fire affected nearly 200 independent labels, including Domino, Sub Pop, Secretly Canadian, Warp and Ninja Tune, with larger labels like Beggars Group, which operates 4AD, Rough Trade, Matador and XL Recordings, losing up to 750,000 albums. According to Beggars Group Chairman Martin Mills, bigger labels should only be affected in the short-term, while the loss could put some smaller labels, who held their entire stock in the warehouse, out of business. “For us, the stock is insured, we have stock in other locations and we can re-manufacture,” Mills told Hive. “But it’s much worse for smaller labels that don’t have those resources. PIAS [UK and Ireland's largest distributor of independent labels] and AIM [Association of Independent Music, an UK non-profit that works with independent labels] are working on building support for them.”

Among the labels Hive contacted, many lost most or all of their physical stock, though all were confident that PIAS would run normally in the next few weeks. (Contrary to earlier reports, Mute Records did not store any inventory in the warehouse and only a fraction of Kompakt’s total inventory was housed there.)

Because all were using the warehouse for different means, there isn’t a sweeping solution for independent labels. Domino, which distributes Arctic Monkeys, said that the fire has affected the European release of the band’s new single “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala,” with very limited quantities of the 7″ version available via the band’s website. In a statement, Warp Records said they lost a substantial amount of stock, whereas Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans have locations in Europe that can bolster their distribution needs. “We have lots of stock in mainland Europe as well as in North America to help meet demand in the short-term, if and when new systems are implemented,” Darius Van Arman, co-owner of Secretly Canadian, told Hive.

For electronic/hip-hop label Ninja Tune, the fire was much more devastating. “We lost approximately 100,000 units of stock, across all titles, formats and a 21-yr back catalogue,” said Jamie Collinson, Head of International for Ninja Tune/Big Dada. “It strikes me as emblematic of the riots’ futility that a warehouse storing millions of units of the unusual, interesting and less commercially minded albums on indie labels was torched. That said, all of the damage in London and the UK was thoughtless. We wish all the other affected labels, our distributor and the people of London the best of luck.”

While the fire has reshuffled numerous labels’ distribution plans, the damange won’t be felt for another week or two as usual shipments to record stores are either drastically diminished or nonexistent. “Music fans can show their support for the independent label community and help them survive this disaster by buying a digital download of an album from any one of the digital retailers in the UK, as well as going to their local record store whilst stocks last,” said the Association of Independent Music in a statement. “This way, the labels will be able to remanufacture their CDs and vinyl more quickly to resupply the record shops who are also affected by the riots.”

Silver linings do exist, though. August is historically a quiet period for labels as they prepare for fall releases, so losses would have been greater had the fire occurred later in the year. PIAS said yesterday that they and Sony are already operating from a new control room in the area and that the company has “… identified a temporary distribution partner and it is envisaged that they will be in a position to pick, pack and ship orders in the course of next week.” Also in the mix is a campaign called LabelLove, where the Guardian reports, fans can donate money to help keep some of the smaller labels afloat.