On Topic

8 November 2009

topic70boxset3dvisualI’m a bit late to mention the 70th anniversary of Topic Records, almost certainly the oldest independent record label in the world. Its catalogue of folk music, particularly English folk music, is unrivalled. I was lucky enough to catch Martin Simpson playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London as part of the birthday celebrations – with luminaries such as Danny Thompson, Andy Cutting, Jon Boden and B J Cole joining him on stage.

Topic Records was a creature of the 1930s, evolving out of the Workers Music Association, which was founded in 1936, becoming Topic Records in 1939. The secret of its longevity seems to be that it has never set out with the intention of making money, instead recording music it thought worthwhile and keeping it in print.

MD Tony Engle put it like this in an interview:

“The idea is to make records that are, if not instant classics, then records that will be here for as long as we have the medium to make them available. The music industry, by and large, wants to make money. It’s a business, and thinks relatively short term. I always think long term.”

Its statement of aims and objectives – what might, unfortunately, be called a ‘mission statement’ these days – which were formulated soon after Topic was formed, is perhaps the best clue to its longevity:

  • to present to the people their rich music heritage
  • to utilise fully the stimulating power of music to inspire people
  • to stimulate the composition of music appropriate to our time
  • to foster and further the art of music on the principle that true art can move people to work for the betterment of society.

The picture is of Three Score and Ten, a 7-CD box set (an utterly fabulous collection of music which includes Topic’s very first release, “The Man Who Watered The Workers’ Beer”, by Paddy Ryan, as well as more recent material by Martins Carthy and Simpson, Richard Thompson, assorted Watersons, June Tabor, Ewan MacColl, and a whole body of Scottish and Irish and international (mostly American) music, including Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson – track list and review at Musical Traditions), and a book about the label issued to mark its anniversary. On my Xmas list.

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