TARA MUSIC boss John Cook is a man whose passion for music has produced some of the most enduring albums ever to come from Ireland.
From Planxty to Clannad, Stockton’s Wing and Christy Moore, this is a record label boss whose emphasis from day one has always been on quality rather than quantity.
The ‘sling a load out and see if something sticks’ mentality practiced by some big companies with more money than taste held no attraction for the man who was born in Perth, Scotland, to a Welsh dad and Scottish mother.
“My mother had family in Donegal and we moved to Dublin when I was in my teens and have been here ever since,” says Cook, “apart from working abroad in the Bahamas and New Zealand for a short period.
“I was trained as an accountant in the hotel business and in those days the accounting systems in all international hotels was almost identical.
“They used the old NCR computer machines, so apart from different currencies you could easily go from one country to the next – it was a great way to see the world and earn some money”.
Like many, it was through his parents that he first developed a love for music.
“They were classical music lovers,” he recalls, “so I grew up listening to that and went on to take in other types of music. I spent three or four years on the road with a band travelling around in the back of a Ford Transit. I played dobro and electric guitar in the band”.
That band was the Smokey Mountain Ramblers led by ace bluegrass fiddler George Kaye, an innovative outfit that inspired many of the country bands who followed.
Being on the road is not always the glamorous life that some people imagine it is, so when John eventually left the band he opened a successful record shop in Rathfarnham along with a friend. They eventually sold the shop to Tara Records who already had a store in Dublin’s Tara Street and the saga began.
“One of the records that always ran out of stock was Prosperous by Christy Moore,” he remembers.
“Recorded by Bill Leader in the UK it was only available as an import. The people in Tara reached an agreement with Bill Leader and purchased the album but not with the intention of starting a label.”
Tara, a retail outlet, were expanding that side of things and after about six months or so at that particular shop John decided to invest some money and start a record label.
He said: “We already had Prosperous. It sold extremely well. It was pre-Planxty but had Christy, Liam, Andy and Donal.
“The first album we recorded was Planxty’s After the Break when the band re-formed in 1978. It was really jumping off the deep end as we were bidding for advances against the likes of Polydor and EMI at the time. It was large amounts of money but we had to have a good album that we knew would sell even before we recorded it.”
Tara went on to release Planxty’s The Woman I Loved So Well and two Christy Moore solo albums The Iron Behind The Velvet and Live in Dublin as well as two albums by Donegal group Clannad.
Tara also released the first three albums by Stockton’s Wing and a glance at their catalogue shows just how forward thinking they were at the time. Many of those acts feature on a new compilation album of Tara Records artists, entitled Masters of Their Craft.
All four acts went on to become legendary names in Irish music. Some of John’s acts went on to join bigger labels but some returned, including Stockton’s Wing.
In the Clannad case John’s involvement in their leap to the bigger league via RCA helped because he got the Irish rights to several Clannad releases on RCA and kept the rights to continue marketing his label’s own Clannad product around the world.
“We kind of moved direction a bit when Shaun Davey came on the scene,” he says. “The Brendan Voyage would be still one of the best-selling albums in the catalogue. At the time it was a major decision to record that album because we had no idea if we would sell a copy at all. A huge recording bill of paying for an orchestra was daunting but thankfully it worked out all right.”
John acknowledges that they have not done a vast amount of albums over the years. He said: “The ones we have done have been high budget ones so it takes longer to recoup your investment in order to record something else. In recent years we have not recorded anything due to lack of sales in the recession.”
Is the internet was a blessing or a curse? “Both actually,” he says. “On the plus side it’s a great tool to have websites and all the information with the facility to buy CDs in almost any country in the world through the likes of Amazon and such.
“The minus side would be the demise of the high street stores and piracy of product – which has been horrendous. High rents mean that retail stores can’t compete with online stores who don’t have the same rent factor. There are sites out there with our full catalogue and we never receive a cent but then the cost of legal action makes it difficult.
“Downloading is actually decreasing now,” he continues, “and being replaced by streaming where people just listen to a track. It’s cheaper for them but less income for the artists and record labels. We got a report in about a month or two ago with nine pages of a printout. The total on the nine pages was 67 cents, all from a streaming site somewhere – it’s getting ridiculous”.
Music fans do still buy CDs at gigs though. John said: “The gig side of things does not seem to be in the same predicament as the recording side of it and many artists produce their own CDs just for touring.”
He also pointed out the surprising fact that vinyl album sales showed a slight increase in the States and even cassettes are being manufactured again.
So what’s the future for the record industry? John said: “I guess the whole industry is going to have to re-adjust and re-align because the technology and development will keep moving it in a more disparate direction for some time to come. The major record companies were very slow to put any containment on piracy.
“It’s really down to them to sort this out. It’s painfully slow because of the amount of time it takes to go through the courts and so the piracy continues. Until the digital side becomes a critical mass there’s never going to be enough digital sales to compensate for the physical decline of the CD which is declining much faster than digital can compensate or replace it.”
Will there be another compilation as a follow up to excellent Masters Of Their Craft?
“Perhaps, but we will have to see how this one goes first,” he says. “I like to think it’s a strong compilation across the catalogue. If it does particularly well I might think about doing a second one but I have never been one for doing compilations just for the sake of it.”
There is a generation out who are not familiar with the likes of Planxty or Moving Hearts. Albums like Masters Of Their Craft will serve as a great introduction to these legends. John Cook and Tara Music have an important role to play in preserving that legacy.