CARCASS, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Extreme Noise Terror, Lawnmower Deth, Terror Unseen... not the kinds of bands you’ll find snuggling up to Take That, JLS or Olly Murs in the UK Top 40. But that was never an ambition for Digby Pearson, founder of Earache Records, the extreme metal label that started life in a flat in Mansfield Road.
The 52-year-old, who grew up in Clifton, just loved that kind of music when he was going to gigs in and around the city.
“I was a big fan of punk and hardcore, then thrash metal that was coming in at that time,” he says at the label’s offices, a stone’s throw from the front door of the Theatre Royal.
“I used to go all the gigs and I started to put a few on locally because my friends were in bands.
“I was never really in a band. I was more one for being behind the scenes, putting on shows, helping them out... I’d send their demos to John Peel.”
The legendary Radio 1 DJ would become a key to the early success of Earache, which Digby started in a back bedroom and is now celebrating 25 years.
As well as the Nottingham HQ in Theatre Square - the entrance to which is between the Peckish cob shop and a Starbucks - there are offices in London and New York.
And yet the success of the label has had little to do with chasing record sales or trying to get in to the mainstream charts.
“It was always about the music,” says Digby.
“I started it as a fan. As a hobby really. I never thought it would be a business.”
He’s dressed in jeans and a hooded top and sat a scruffy office overflowing with CDs, records, boxes and posters.
Next door there are four lads, all in black, working diligently at keyboards. They’re processing orders for CDs, records and merchandise, designing sleeves, writing copy, talking to pluggers, distributors, bands...
The walls are covered with posters. Alongside the more familiar AC/DC and Iron Maiden are Bolt Thrower, Iced Earth, Savage Messiah, Municipal Waste and Morbid Angel.
There are nine staff in total (with an additional two in London and two in New York). The office is silent, the only noise being an occasional bell from a passing tram.
Upstairs are more offices full of Earache stock.
Digby moved in three years after starting the label and has gradually taken over more and more of Westminster Buildings as the label has grown.
“I was putting on bands in community centres and the Union Rowing Club next to Forest’s ground. The normal venues didn’t want this kind of music. It was so underground.
“Rock City is like my second home but I never had any ambitions for the bands to play there back then. But over the years we’ve had sell-out gigs there. In November our new band, Rival Sons, from LA, sold it out.”
There have been around 450 records released by Earache over the past 25 years.
“Nearly all have been aggressive, pushing the envelope, rock/metal.”
Digby acknowledges that with John Peel’s support, they wouldn’t have last a couple of years.
“He was our biggest supporter when I started the label. Out of the first ten records I did, he had most of the bands in for a session. God rest his soul.”
Although it was technically their third release, the album Scum by Birmingham band Napalm Death, was the one that kick-started Earache.
“John Peel took to it straight away,” says Digby.
“It’s a really aggressive thrash record and is now considered to be genre defining. John Peel loved it. He brought them into the studio for a session. And within a couple of weeks the band were on the cover of the NME.”
A framed gold disc of the album sits on a window sill, with a dedication to Digby for his 50th birthday.
“At that time I was operating out of my flat in Mansfield Road.”
Other early Earache releases included Carcass, Lawnmower Deth, Godflesh, Unseen Terror and Intense Degree from Mansfield.
He laughs: “You listen to them now and they’re unlistenable noise. They’re really extreme. Perhaps my tastes have mellowed a bit.”
He adds: “The bands called it grindcore and it was expected to be just a fad because it was so out there. It wasn’t really considered to be really listenable music. But if you pick up a copy of Kerrang! today, half of the bands sound like that.”
Some of them are Earache’s own. The aforementioned Rival Sons, Bring Me The Horizon who are signed to the label in the US.
It’s not to everyone’s taste. He admits their lock-up was broken into and no stock was taken.
“They didn’t nick anything,” he laughs.
“They just have thought they were Lady Gaga CDs. ‘Napalm what?’ They just chucked it on the road.”
Earache records are distributed to record shops and online shops such as Play.com by Warner in the UK and EMI in Europe. But they also package and post stock directly in-house from sales through their own website, eBay and Amazon.
It wasn’t always the case. The music industry has changed significantly over the past 25 years with free downloads puncturing the lifelines of many labels.
“The whole game has changed,” says label manager Dan Tobin, who joined Earache in 1994.
“Years ago it was about getting as many records as you could into the high street. There is no high street now. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s better for the customer. There’s much more choice.
“You can buy Earache artists in Fopp and HMV but we sell more online.
“Actually what we sell more than anything else is merchandise. Most kids aren’t so interested in owning the CD now. I think many actually own CDs because they’ve downloaded it free off the internet.
“Years ago the school of thought it was the beginning of the end of the music business. But for independent labels it’s been a useful promotional tool.
“We were never worried about that. As long as people come along to gigs or buy T-shirts...
“From getting the delivery of an album to putting it in a record store takes three months. You have the pressing, the packaging, the distribution... Putting it on iTunes takes one afternoon.”
He adds: “And with our new bands we put their music online for free. The idea is that you generate fans. They have no fans so there is nothing to lose. And that’s worked for us.”
While the industry has changed over the past 25 years, the Earache Records philosophy remains the same.
“We’d love to have Adele’s record sales but that’s not our game plan. It’s still about the music. Do we like it? It’s that simple.”
Adds Digby: “We talk about metal bands in the pub after work.”
Then laughs: “We’re such nerds.”
For more about Earache Records and for free downloads visit www.earache.com.