David Suff on the future of Topic Records and answering the eternal question: what exactly IS folk music?

Pitching up at Normafest a few weeks ago, David Suff was one of the first faces we spotted in main hall. With his exceptional beard (hipsters, take note), the current Mr Topic Records (and acclaimed artist) is not easily missed, and I made a beeline for his stall, as much to try and engage him in conversation as to check out his wares. 

As anyone with a working knowledge of traditional English folk music will know, Topic Records is a huge part of the story – a backbone that arches from its launch in 1939 as part of the Communist Party, right through the revival years, through the relatively fallow 1980s and on into what appears to have been a resurgence of interest since the turn of the millennium. Ever since the retirement of previous supremo, Tony Engle, David Suff has been at helm, overseeing the digitization of huge swathes of the company’s catalogue. However, his own retirement looms and he is currently finalising the handover of the world’s oldest independent label to Proper Records.

It seemed like the ideal time to grab half an hour of his time and ask how he is taking stock – how he sees the folk scene in 2017, his hopes for the future of Topic Records, and whether or not he’s found an answer to that question yet…

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Topic Records is undergoing significant changes. Can you explain where things are at the moment? 

Topic, as you probably know, began in 1939. The Workers Music Association, part of the British Communist Party, had formed a few years earlier as a way to publish and share sheet music for socialist choirs to sing. By 1939 they’d decided that they also want to release records, and it was sort of a relatively small record club. People would sign up and they’d get the next record – the next 78. During WWII, with the shortage of shellac, there weren’t many releases, but by the ’50s this record club idea was much more active, and in 1959 it was formed as a separate company. It was then run by a man called Gerry Sharp until 1972, when on his death, Tony Engle took over. He ran it for about 40 years until he semi-retired in 2011/12, when I took over. I’m now going to semi-retire, but Tony and I will both be in the background managing the overall philosophy and the way that Topic continues, but Proper Records will do all the day-to-day – the selling, deciding what to re-press and how – generally running the record label. So the ownership is not changing, but the management of the office is.

When is all of that going to take place? 

It’s sort of already been happening, but the actual changeover is taking quite a long time. I’m hoping by early February I will be largely semi-retired.

Is there much of a team behind the label at the moment?

There have been four and a half of us until recently, and now we’re down to two. Topic, as a label has probably never really employed more than four or five people. Tony was a jack of all trades who did and awful lot of different things. He ran a studio, making recordings, going out and doing field recordings, designing artwork – generally running the business with various office helpers. It also had a distribution company through the 80s and into the 90s – something quite large called Direct Distribution – and its height it employed about 30 people, but I don’t think the label has ever employed more than a handful of people.

All of which is an odd thing to hear, I have to say. I suppose you assume, given the influence that Topic Records has had, that it’s something much more robust.

People are very kind and say all kinds of nice things about us, but it can never be much more than a few people. There isn’t a lot of money to be made with recorded music unless you’re in the pop world and having big, huge successes. Any genre-based music label is going to be fairly hand-to-mouth – fairly modest in its turnover and profitability, so it’s just another small business really.

How do you feel about these changes?

I think it’s good for me, but I think it’ll actually be very good for Topic as it could do with a slightly larger team, with more specialists doing particular things. In the last five years we’ve done an awful lot. We’ve overseen about 300 releases, including all the booklets, sleeve notes, original artwork that goes with that. We’ve reissued some of our back catalogue, some vinyl – we’ve done a lot of things, but it could do with slightly more people, and Proper Records can offer that.

And I wonder, have you ever come any closer to being able to answer the age-old question: what exactly is folk music?

Yeah, I’ve still no idea what the answer to that is! Folk music is the music of working people. Folk music is music that exists largely to tell stories. In North America right now, acoustic guitars plus songs that are sort of lifted from your diary… people think that’s folk music. I think that’s definitely not folk music.

Is that Joni Mitchell’s fault?

I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault! I think it’s just some clever marketing man who thought, “Folk? That’s good, innit? That’s a nice, clear, short word – that’s what we’ve got here. Singer-songwriter is a bit long-winded…” I have no idea! But in the digital distribution world – iTunes, Spotify and all that – they have to box everything, and that has really compounded this idea of “folk music”.

So it has, perhaps, something more to do with the traditional?

I think the traditional songs that we know now in the 21st century have persisted and been handed on from generation to generation, from locale to locale, because the songs were powerful and because they resonated. They’re about conversation and inter-generational life, and you can learn something from the song. I think that’s what folk music is, but I struggle to find a succinct phrase that I can rattle off. I think I know too much and too little at the same time, so no definition feels comfortable.

You’ve spent many years on the folk scene. Do you see it gaining interest again?

I think the folk scene always exists and occasionally gets the attention of the public. The big explosion was in the 60s – the second folk song revival – but by the 80s it was much smaller, fewer folk clubs, fewer people going regularly, less performers able to make a living. Then the Eliza Carthy generation came along and it picked up again, and right now it feels like it’s having one of those little resurgences, but I’m not sure that anything fundamental ever changes. It’s usually that The Guardian writes something about folk music, or somebody does something and everything goes a bit bonkers and everyone thinks folk music is the next big thing. But I don’t think anything has changed over the last 30 years, as far as I can see. It’s harder now to sell a record than it was. There’s more competition. There are more demands on your pocket money.

Does Topic Records still actively seek out new singers?

I’m not sure that I can say, hand on my heart, that we actively look. Partly because of the constraints on resources, and there’s a feeling that I think that Tony Engle and I have, that the role of the traditional performer is to not let themselves get in the way of the song. They’re kind of a conduit. And, of course, an awful lot of people want to be performers, which sort of makes it less interesting because we’re much less interested in the performer than we are in the song. Then again, it’s the same problem that I have with defining folk. As soon as I’ve said it, I have to say that the performer still needs to be individual, to bring something special to the delivery.

What do you suppose that ‘something special’ might be?

It’s usually quite nuanced – a tiny thing to do with timing, and something that just feels like it’s right. They have an expression in Irish music circles where they talk about the ‘pure drop’. Topic is looking for the pure drop. It’s a great phrase, but it means nothing at the same time because it now needs a definition, and I can’t find one! I know it when I hear it, but I don’t hear it as often as I would like.

Can you think of anyone around at the moment who has it?

At Normafest, for example, I thought that Lynched absolutely epitomised it. Young people with tattoos and body piercings and all of that, but with a passionate love for traditional music – music that traveller communities looked after and passed on. They found a way to be Lynched – very special and individual performers – and yet somehow they never took the focus off the songs and the tunes and how they’d learnt them. That’s it. In a nutshell, that’s what it is at its best. I think the Furrow Collective had it too – more so live than on record, I think. But Normafest chose its performers very carefully. I’m sure the Watersons share some of this ethos of looking for the pure drop.

As semi-retirement approaches, what about your time at Topic Records will you look back on with the most pride?

I think that running Topic Records is a massive responsibility. It feels like a bit of a privilege to have been offered the opportunity to do that. What am I most proud of? Adding 10 more volumes to The Voice of the People. That’s the most important thing – to carry on building that repository and access to traditional field recordings so that younger performers or interested people in other parts of the world can at least hear this stuff and go off and do something with it, or not.

And what do you think the future of Topic Records and traditional music holds?

Well, there are two different questions there. The relationship between Topic and Proper is very positive. It gives us the opportunity to draw on a bigger team, which should mean more releases. There’s lots of work to be one in presenting the music on Spotify playlists, and lots of opportunities to put the music in places where people will hear it. That will mean that Topic will be stronger, so I can’t see much of a downside. Where does traditional music go? Well traditional music is very tough, very robust – it has existed for hundreds of years. And who knows? You can see from the O Brother Where Art Thou model that traditional music can suddenly become enormous in the most unexpected kind of way. Nobody would have thought that prison work songs could suddenly end up in the hit parade. And then someone like Moby comes along and samples and uses it, and it’s suddenly in front of a much larger audience. But, as I say – who knows? I await any development like that with some interest.

Photo credits: Main image, David Suff by Jay Goldmark. “The role of the traditional performer”: Louis Killen, via Topic Records. 

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