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Stiff and ZTT sale to Universal underlines that music is a business. But does it have to be corporate?

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: One of the acts released by ZTT that has been sold to Universal Music
Frankie Goes to Hollywood: One of the acts released by ZTT that has been sold to Universal Music

If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a… well you can guess the next word.

The maverick record label wasn’t at all shy about using it. Under its new ownership, music industry titan Universal Music, uttering those four letters will probably get you a trip to HR rather than a laugh.

Stiff, parts of its back catalogue, fellow label ZTT, its entire back catalogue, and publisher Perfect Songs are being bought by Universal from SPZ, the independent outfit co-founded by record producer Trevor Horn and his late wife Jill Sinclair.

Stiff was set up in 1976 and issued what some regard as the first British punk rock single, New Rose by the Damned. It was also called home by artists such as Elvis Costello, Kirsty MacColl, the Pogues and Ian Dury and was revived by Mr Horn after having hit hard times.

ZTT, meanwhile, came into being in 1983 and launched Frankie Goes to Hollywood onto an unsuspecting world. The band’s first number one single ‘Relax’ was infamously banned on air by Radio One DJ Mike Read after he took note of its rather explicit lyrics.

He did later play it, while the BBC has sought to deny that it bans anything. But by creating a massive (and delightful) fuss, Read’s move was a gift to both artist and label.

While Frankie’s star soon faded, ZTT spent rather longer in the spotlight, moving on into dance with acts such as 808 State, Seal, and Adamski.

“UMG is committed to building upon the legacy of these revolutionary labels, in keeping with the spirit of their founders,” said Universal chairman and CEO Sir Lucian Grainge.

For his part, Mr Horn opined that he was pleased with the new owner, having taken note of the friendship of Ms Sinclair with the latter.

But it’s hard to see Universal’s commitment being kept in such a corporate environment. Revolutionary is one thing it is not.

Of course, punks, indie kids, and anarchists nearly all grow up, and go to work, and inevitably lose some of their fervour because of the necessity of making a living.

Some of them even end up paying the revolutionary artists they loved for their music so it can be featured in ads touting product to their peers. Those artists have livings to make too, so you can’t blame them for signing up.

It’s not as if recorded music pays like it once did. Not in the era of streaming.

The ZTT/Stiff deal isn’t as sad as the one Universal was involved in that saw EMI broken up and gobbled up. The heyday of both is firmly in the rearview mirror.

It should also be noted that ZTT wasn’t always beloved by its artists, notably Frankie’s lead singer Holly Johnson, who fought a lengthy battle over the contract the band was signed to.

Popular music could nonetheless use some of the spirit of the label, and that of Stiff. It could some use of the excitement they generated.

The music business is a business, a money making endeavour, however much it sometimes like to pretend otherwise. But it doesn’t have to be corporate, and it is at its best when it isn’t.