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4AD, the record label that gave birth to UK indie cool, celebrates 30th anniversary

For a music brand that is all about innovative sounds, British record label 4AD’s 30th anniversary is one of the quietest celebrations the industry has known. But this has not stopped loyal fans of the indie bands 4AD has championed recognising that its survival is an unlikely cultural triumph.

“What I loved was their brilliant sense of art and they are still here because of the combination of judicious husbandry of the business and a very canny A&R operation,” said Mike Smith, managing director of Columbia Records.

Next month sees the release of a new 4AD album, Halcyon Digest, by American band Deerhunter, yet the only sign of such a feat of endurance for a small company working in the most ruthless of creative industries will be the little “3X” that appears at the end of all 4AD album catalogue numbers this year. Minimalism has always been 4AD’s style.

Founded as the last sparks of punk dwindled, the label was home to revered indie bands such as the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and the Pixies and it quickly became a beacon for adventurous musicians. 4AD was also hailed for its strong visual sense, with album covers regarded as design classics. “You could always spot a 4AD sleeve and there was a real quality not just to the music but to the artefact itself,” recalled Smith.

The label began in 1980, the year after founders Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent set out to produce the work of unknown bands with the financial help of Beggars Banquet Records. Watts-Russell, the creative force behind the label, wanted to find atmospheric new music that could be more than just a party soundtrack.

In a rare interview in 1999, he explained his motivation: “I remember being young and hearing music and thinking, ‘I didn’t know music could do that.’ That can be a feeling of a release, of pent-up tension or aggression, or just being transported through a beautiful moment or an emotional setting. It’s just something that connects. I don’t know why it does it, but it’s there, and I’m bloody glad it is.”

Watts-Russell and Kent worked behind the counter of the Beggars Banquet record store in London and picked up demo tapes from new bands. The boss of the store’s own label, Martin Mills, lent them £2,000 to set up an imprint and their new label, initially called Axis Records, released four singles under that title in the first week of 1980, but had to switch to 4AD when it was discovered an American company already had the name. Playing around with new titles, Watts-Russell and Kent amalgamated the date, AD1980, with Orwell’s book 1984 to come up with the cryptic 4AD.

Of the first four singles, Dark Entries, by Northampton band Bauhaus, won good reviews. It was the follow-up to their indie hit Bela Lugosi’s Dead and later in 1980 4AD released the Bauhaus album In the Flat Field, which topped the indie charts.

By 1982, 4AD had discovered the haunting sound of the Scottish Cocteau Twins and then signed up Dead Can Dance. However, many fans regard Watts-Russell’s chief achievement as his decision to set up a collaboration between the Cocteaus’ Liz Fraser and other stars in the 4AD stable to create This Mortal Coil, a group still seen as indie gods.

But the label’s biggest commercial hit came from a different direction, with the heavy beat of M/A/R/R/S’s Pump Up The Volume, which reached number one. It was Boston band the Pixies, signed by Watts-Russell at his girlfriend’s insistence, which became 4AD’s biggest overall sellers.

The label’s current roster features Broken Records, the Big Pink, the Nation and Scott Walker, as well as Deerhunter, the band behind next month’s release. Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox is issuing a flyer in the cut-and-paste style of his new-wave heroes from the 1970s.

Fans are being asked to photocopy it, and photos of the flyers stuck up in unusual places will be rewarded with a chance to hear the first single on the album and the gift of an exclusive track.