Established at the outset of the punk rock boom, Stiff Records signed pub rock acts and marketed them as Punk and New Wave, including Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury. The label's marketing and advertising was often provocative and witty. Stiff billed itself as "The World's Most Flexible Record Label". Other slogans were "We came. We saw. We left.", "If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a Fuck", and "When You Kill Time, You Murder Success" (printed on promotional wall clocks). On the label of Stiff's sampler compilation Heroes & Cowards was printed: "In '78 everyone born in '45 will be 33-1/3". A very early Stiff sampler album, A Bunch of Stiff Records, introduced the slogan, "If they're dead, we'll sign them" and "Undertakers to the Industry".
Stiff also produced eccentric but highly effective promotional campaigns, such as the two package tours in 1977 and 1978, Stiffs Live, featuring most of the label's roster of artists performing at alternating times each night; Elvis Costello's "busking outside CBS Records" arrest and the 12 different wallpaper sleeves printed for Ian Dury's second album, Do It Yourself, with associated unscheduled makeovers of unsuspecting record shops.
Barney Bubbles was responsible for much of the graphic art associated with the early Stiff releases.
Stiff found quick success. While its first release (BUY 1) "So It Goes" c/w "Heart Of The City" by Nick Lowe didn't do so well, the follow up "Between The Lines" by perennially popular hippie outfit the Pink Fairies brought in enough funds to finance the release of what is generally accepted as the UK's first punk single "New Rose" by The Damned in November 1976 which was a veritable hit. Early in 1977 the label picked up speed, signing Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, and Elvis Costello. Bigger sales followed, and a distribution deal with Island Records and EMI was set up. Each release was given individual attention, with inventive artwork, picture sleeves and a range of snappy slogans, often coupled with inventive marketing campaigns that achieved the label a great deal of notoriety, if not always huge profit margins.
Robinson and Riviera were a fiery management combination, and after a series of disagreements, Riviera left Stiff in early 1978 to form the short-lived Radar Records, taking Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Yachts with him as a settlement package. Riviera's departure coincided with the end of the "5 Live Stiffs Tour" which showcased emerging star Ian Dury, whose album New Boots & Panties had raced up the charts and kept the label in business over the following months. In 1979, Robinson signed Madness, whose considerable commercial success, both in Britain and abroad, would keep the label afloat for several years.
The next few years were the halcyon period for Stiff, with many Top 20 single chart placings (including the label's first No. 1 single: "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick" by Ian Dury) and a number of big-selling albums. The label expanded rapidly and moved premises twice. It also continued to release dozens of totally obscure and often uncommercial releases (e.g., The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan--an LP that was completely silent on both sides, which actually had sales of over 30,000 copies - on Magic Records, with its own slogan: "If it sells, it must be Magic").
At the end of 1983, Island Records bought 50% of the label, with Robinson running both labels. Island was very short of money at the time and Robinson had to lend Island £1,000,000 to fund the share purchase and pay the Island payroll. Despite this, Island under Robinson had their best year ever with releases by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Legend by Bob Marley and U2's The Unforgettable Fire, among others. Stiff signed The Pogues, but Madness left Stiff under a cloud, the Island deal wasn't a success, and Dave Robinson regained control of the newly independent label in 1985. Hits by The Pogues and Furniture helped the label to survive another year and eight months but the reasons for the failure of the Island deal finally became too much of a burden on Stiff and the label was sold to ZTT.
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