Kitchenware record label founder launches new business

THE founder of the North East's best-known record label is closing one door to open another, as he looks to develop some of the country's hottest up-and-coming musicians in his latest venture.

Keith Armstrong founder of Kitchenware
Keith Armstrong founder of Kitchenware

KEITH Armstrong started the Kitchenware record label in 1982 when he was only 21 and working as manager of HMV in Newcastle.

A quarter of a century on and the Tyneside label had grown from a back-room hobby to a highly-successful company, but recent years have not been kind to record companies both big and small.

The invention of the CD changed the industry beyond recognition, with companies getting rich from incredible mark-ups on a commodity that actually cost less to manufacture than a vinyl record.

But while busy counting their money, few labels could have predicted the sting in the tail ... the internet.

Not only has the worldwide web provided a universal window for new artists, it has also provided a means for stealing music digitally.

Armstrong realised that his days would be numbered if his business plan didn’t radically change.

“I decided to close down the label, Kitchenware, in May but promptly started a more modern version of the company in June,” he says

“We are still continuing to develop new acts, which has been our forte over the years. With the way the market was going, we weren’t in a position to make new records and promote them in the way they used to be made.

“This new venture, Soul Kitchen Music & Management, allows us to develop artists by working as their managers and publishers.”

Soul Kitchen’s first signing was Nottingham-based Jake Bugg, who is currently touring with indie-pop sensation Noel Gallagher in Europe.

Bugg’s debut album is the most critically acclaimed album of the year and is top 10 in the UK chart.

Armstrong says: “Jake comes from the largest council estate in Europe and he’s taught himself how to play the guitar and sing. He’s the classic ‘get out of the ghetto’ inspiration story and I’m sure he’s destined for massive things.

“For a while it hasn’t been as easy for musicians to make it because there’s so much focus on these talent shows like X Factor.

“There’s a lot of really talented people out there looking for a break and I want to empower those people and help them do well.

“We could also bring local managers under our umbrella, still working for their percentage, but making their brand stronger by joining forces with us.

“It’s important that people don’t think that what I was doing at Kitchenware has disappeared from  Newcastle.

“I still want the company to be a focus for the city that can turn a musician international.”

Kitchenware has been part of the region’s music scene for more than 30 years and has helped put Newcastle firmly on the map of pop music landmarks.

It has persuaded a number of the UK’s best-known artists to set up a base in the North East, and nurtured homegrown talent.

The first single Kitchenware released was The Sun Shines Here by Hurrah! in June 1982. The band, who all came from the North East, went on to have success in the mid-80s, supported U2 and become the first Western band to play in Iraq.

It was the label’s only release that year and Armstrong was still running the record company from HMV but soon realised that he could make Kitchenware a full-time job.

Kitchenware became aware of Prefab Sprout, the band from Witton Gilbert in County Durham, who rose to fame in the 80s.

They had made their own record and bassist Martin McAloon had popped into HMV to ask if they would stock the single.

Armstrong loved their tracks and in 1983 Kitchenware had its first major success with Swoon by Prefab Sprout which entered the top 20; they signed a distribution deal with Sony.

Armstrong began running the label full-time just before the track was released and then the following year another of their bands, The Kane Gang, had a hit with Closest Thing to Heaven, which entered the top 10.

Kitchenware’s first album to go platinum was Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout.

Subsequent signings by the label – The Kane Gang, Martin Stephenson and The Daintees and Fatima mansions – have given them over three million record sales and more than 40 entries in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles.

In 1996 they took over the management of The Lighthouse Family, who over the next seven years sold in excess of 10 million records and had top 10 hits with Lifted, Raincloud and High.

But it is Birmingham indie-rockers Editors that are by far the label’s most famous and lucrative act, with their two albums, Mercury Music Prize nominated debut The Back Room and 2009’s An End Has a Start, selling over 1.5 million copies between them.

Acting as a publishing company means Armstrong has still retained his four full-time Kitchenware staff – two of who are based in Newcastle with the others down in Nottingham.

“We still work with Editors, Sirens and Karima Francis,” he says. “But the only act we manage since the launch of our new business is Jake.

“Staff are working as freelances and we’re building a virtual management company which we’re confident is moving in the right direction. I’m actually enjoying the industry now more than I ever have done.”

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