Cork-based indie label FIFA Records has had a long and strange journey since its inception in the early Noughties. Emerging as the old music-business model was on its last legs, and functioning throughout the long feeling-out process that led to streaming, the rise of Bandcamp and the return of vinyl, the label now finds itself in something of a purple patch, with a fresh crop of new releases.
It all started, says label A&R and artist manager Eddie Kiely, with a conversation held by the label’s co-founders, among them Ashley Keating of the Frank and Walters, at the time in search for an outlet for the band’s new music.
“It was Ashley and two friends in a pub, watching a football match, and they’d a few bob to spare, so they said, why don’t we start a label?” relates Kiely. “It was as simple as that. They were football fans, so they came up with the name FIFA Records, which stands for Forever in Financial Arrears, which we still are, by the way.”
While not necessarily rooted to one location initially, the label’s remit has always been a reflection of its roots in Cork city. Kiely discusses the importance of mounting a distinctly Corkonian presence on the national stage, to counterbalance the Dublin-centrism of the majors and bigger Irish indies.
“Everything has always been Dublin. I know you’ve got Strange Brew in Galway and Out on a Limb in Limerick, but it’s largely Dublin-centric. That’s what the label has been trying to do: why can’t we have a label out of Cork, build relationships, have a network to find exciting young bands and give them a platform?
“The thing as well was - if a band do well, leave them move on, but let them give something in return to the label so it can find its next band.
“We don’t do contracts. Each deal or verbal contract might be with the individuals of a band. We want to press vinyl, use the label as a platform and utilise those contacts, or else we might find a young band, and the idea would be that when costs are recouped, profits might go to the band, or split between the band and the label for the next band, the next release.”
The late 2000s represented a sea-change for music in Ireland for many reasons - the indie incursion into the mainstream of the previous decade had long been drowned out by singer-songwriters and increasingly handsome pop bands, while the traditional myth-making mechanisms of the music press was on track to lose ground to blogs and social media. Kiely recalls a period of transition, and of maintaining support and advocacy for Leeside artists.
“As the label developed, we kept an eye more in Cork. Being from here, that’s where we’re seeing live music, you’re going to have contacts and connections, and as the label evolved, you can see in the back catalogue the majority of the bands came from Cork. We started to believe that there was a wealth of talent in the city, and we just needed to tap into it.
“The likelihood of a Rubyworks or an A&R coming down to Cork and giving a band a platform was relatively small, if non-existent. Since I’ve been with FIFA, that I’ve been aware of, there’s been one or two A&R people coming to our city.
The early 2010s saw the label try something that would become something of a speciality to it - giving veteran Irish indie acts a home, starting with the signing for a single of ‘90s icons Whipping Boy, and continuing with the likes of The Would Be’s, and August Wells, the new project of ex-Rollerskate Skinny man Ken Sweeney. While the label never set out for this niche specifically, it has provided positive experiences and road stories alike.
“When I was playing and touring, managing Emperor of Ice Cream, we would have toured with Whipping Boy, ‘Heartworm’ is one of the best albums ever written. I was down at Indiependence, in 2011, when they were back together, got talking with Ferghal McKee, and said, 'ye’re back together, why not release new music?'. It was a chance conversation.
“In terms of the Would Be’s - personal connection, they wanted to put out new music, we were happy to do it, they were an Irish band back in the day, that you would hear on John Peel! Which wasn’t all that common. When we put out their single ‘Bittersweet’, the band reached out to the BBC and got their Peel sessions back. For us to be able to put out a Peel session on vinyl was a huge trip.”
As streaming came to the fore in the mid-late 2010s, the label maintained a presence in physical pressings and digital downloads primarily. The impact of the streaming model on the business, the second supposedly once-in-a-lifetime change in a decade, and how independent artists and labels have been marginalised as a result, has been a driver in changes to how FIFA navigated the digital space.
“Putting out a release costs money. Doing it properly - pressing vinyl, CDs, putting a PR campaign behind it for radio and press, you really do need it - costs from 3 to 8 grand. But then bands feel, ‘we have to put it on Spotify, or on iTunes, or no-one will hear it.’ For me, that thought process has to be broken.
"One physical sale is worth as much as ten-thousand streams. In the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter. You’re not going to make a living from Spotify.”
The label is busy nowadays - new releases are still impacting in various media, and Irish vinyl and merchandise production company Dublin Vinyl has taken on a large role in online order fulfilment. Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis, and the upending of the normal order of business, it’s a strange time to be so active in Irish music.
“We’ve built relationships, a close family - with people like Blue Monkey, our booking agents - you’re loyal to each other, and passionate about each other. We’re developing that relationship now with [record pressing facility] Dublin Vinyl. What they’re doing is giving you what a big label would have done, but championing the little guy.
“Their suppliers are local, it’s not cheap stuff, it’s environmentally-friendly, and they’re nice guys to deal with. They have big clients, like Warners, but because of that, they can afford to be fair with the small guys.”
Kiely is a product of the Cork scene, much like the label itself, Kiely sees a future for music in Cork after the crisis abates and a role in that ever-changing sonic landscape for the label.
“Unfortunately, everybody is being crucified. Live entertainment, they’re the first to shut down, the last to come back. They need live music, to generate cash, to get into studio, to pay for a demo. At the label, we’re busier than we’ve ever been, with these releases: from a recording perspective, as artists are doing writing and recording from home, we’re looking to get busier in the current climate.
“We don’t want to just be a legacy label - we’re dying to find a young band that we can do justice to, and give a platform to, and that’s what you’re missing out on. Walking into a venue and seeing a band live. (In lieu of that) we’re going to keep digging for music, and keep encouraging people to send us music.”
Released after a long period of mixed fortunes for the Cork indie-pop survivors, A Renewed Interest in Happiness does what it says on the tin - themes of renewal, resilience and resurgence permeate a substantial album that saw the Franks retrench themselves for a new era of the band’s ongoing body of work..
The debut release from the raucous Dublin synth-poppers, How Am I… was a concise document of the band’s early madness, hung largely on live fan favourite 'Jake Summers', but taking in an alarmingly busy picture of a band that had begun to amass the cult following that would help define its legacy to Irish music.
One of the great bands in Cork city’s broad alternative canon, Ballincollig four-piece Hope is Noise have been together for nearly 25 years, tipping the hat in equal measure to the likes of Hüsker Dü and Hot Water Music as to their Leeside compatriots. 'This Used to Be a Laugh' is a concise summary of the band’s M.O.: 'Official Party Line' is three minutes of socio-political stridence, while 'Spinnst Du?' is a showcase of the band’s way with dynamics.
The sole physical relic of Cork outfit Saint Yorda, this double A-side single from 2012 is a document of a band that burned briefly but brightly in the city’s nascent psychedelic scene. It’s an effective example of the band’s barebones, lo-fi pop, from stripped-back production to wistful lyrical recollections of a series of growing pains.
Having recently landed in postboxes around the country on white 12” vinyl, the debut album of Cork dream-pop foursome Emperor of Ice Cream represents the righting of a longstanding wrong for the band’s dedicated following - the release of a long-player 25 years after the band were dropped by Sony. It helps, of course, that the songs hold up tremendously, ten slices of sunny, optimistic shoegazing.