The story of Hassle Records, an indie label surviving a pandemic

It's been a rough old year, that's for sure, and independent music is in jeopardy as the industry reckons with coronavirus. James McMahon tells the tale of an imprint remaining above water

2020 was supposed to be a year-long victory lap for the London-based Hassle Records, a celebration of 15 years of punk rock fury and hardcore skill; a 12-month birthday party for one of Britain’s most consistent and cool independent labels. It hasn’t been a year anything like what label co-boss Ian ‘Wez’ Westley envisioned that it might be.

We’re sure you’ll know the reason why.

“It’s been a very tough year,” says Wez, who founded the label with Nigel Adams in 2005. “Hassle still sells a lot of physical records. Retailers were shut for three months. Most of our acts are very active on the live side of things. There’s been nowhere for them to play. Some of our bands are really struggling. Their world has stopped. No touring. Fewer merch sales. It’s been tough to record as well with different restrictions in place across the world…”

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If you’re a fan of contemporary alternative rock, Hassles iconic skull logo – designed by the supremely talented London artist Supermundane – will feature predominantly throughout your record collection. Alkaline Trio, Alexisonfire, The Get Up Kids, Cancer Bats, Rolo Tomassi, Trash Talk, Juliette Lewis, the solo output of My Chemical Romance guitarist Frank Iero; all have called the London based label home at some point or another. Their present roster is equally thrilling. Seek out mathy Belgian noizinks Brutus or feminist London punks Petrol Girls for confirmation of this.

“To us, Hassle Records are people, not a label,” says Stefanie Mannaerts, singing drummer with Brutus who released their debut album ‘BURST’ through Hassle in 2017. “They never look to us as a product, but as people. We don’t have ‘label and band meetings’ – we have WhatsApp conversations, almost daily. We all feel how much they care about us, about what we feel and the story we want to tell with our band. That’s the best feeling a band can have with a label…”

Surviving this year has meant being nimble and ready to change the label’s plans “significantly”, says Wez. “We went ahead with the release schedule we had up until July, but after that it’s been hard to release the records by all the new bands that we intended to. A lot of bands simply haven’t been able to finish their records because of everything that’s been happening. Hassle only signs bands and artists whose music we love. Bands and artists that we like as people. Life is too short to work on things you don’t like, with people you don’t like. We’re going to have to find different ways to promote their music… easier said than done, eh?”

Has there been any point during this interminable year during which they’ve thought about shutting down the label?

“Never” insists Wez. “Before Hassle started I worked at [Australian alternative label] Mushroom Records with good bands like Muse and Ash, but I didn’t take a job helping run East West [an offshoot of major label Warner Records] because I didn’t want to work with bands and artists I didn’t like and respect. Hassle started at the precise moment that Napster was at its height and legitimate sales of records were nosediving. It’s never been easy…”

Petrol Girls. Credit: Martyna Wisniewska

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Being an independent label means fighting for every inch of ground available to you. There is, for example, an alternative universe somewhere in the cosmos where Hassle Records is the home of My Chemical Romance. “Gerard and Mikey came to our office for a meeting just as they were about to put [2002 debut album ‘I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love’] out,” says Wez. “We took them out for egg and chips. We loved what we heard and so reached out to their US indie label [New Jersey based Eyeball Records] to try and get the European license. A few weeks later the US label owner called and said they were going with a Universal Records funded imprint and that they’d spent more money on their internal flights to meet the band than we had on our offer.

“That’s what it’s like being an indie with no major money or brand money to help you. You have the money you have – and you end up losing a lot of great bands as a result…”

Wez is keen to point out that the label have received some help in the form of a local Government grant and a bounce back loan. “Both are very much appreciated and needed” he says. Some smart thinking has also seen Hassle launch a reissue label called Hindsight, repopulating ‘Replenish’ by 90’s rock warblers Reef, and well as the first two albums by criminally underrated Irish alt. metallers Kerbdog [1994’s self-titled debut and 1997’s ‘On The Turn’].

Hassle’s distinctive logo

“Those releases have helped make up some of the sales lost to Covid,” says Wez. “Our mail-order business has actually done very well since COVID and increased a lot. This is where we sell direct to fans. We’re trying to maintain this, but also trying to make sure we look after our friends in the retail sector…”

But independent labels work on small margins. Nobody does this to get rich. Many variables – the closure of a vinyl pressing plant, or a distributor going to the wall – can be the difference between a good year and a bad year. A global pandemic is a totally new kind of storm out at sea.

“To secure a future for Hassle and for the independent music scene generally,” says Ren Aldridge, singer with Petrol Girls, who signed to Hassle in 2018, “we need funding for independent venues and for musicians and music industry workers. I truly believe that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on just how financially precarious the scene is. We need a broader cultural shift that values what creative people bring to society. What is life without art?”

“I’m really proud,” says Wez, “of Hassle still being here after 15 years. And – despite everything that’s happened – I’m actually looking to grow, going forward. We’ve seen a lot of our contemporaries disappear or sell out to bigger companies over the years. Here we are, still looking ahead, with the principles and mindset we’ve always had.”

This forward-thinking mindset means never looking back, and never giving in. Says Wez: “A banker friend who deals with acquisitions once asked me, ‘What’s your exit strategy from the music business?” My reply? “Our exit strategy is there is no exit strategy…”

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