As you navigate the warren of walkways and stairwells in Afflecks Palace – the Northern Quarter’s alternative indoor market – you hear Sour Grapes’ sound-system before you see it. The DIY record label and promoter is tucked in a corner on the third floor, amongst a myriad of independent vendors, vintage boutiques and fashion traders. Every inch of space is used, with old-school paraphernalia on permanent display.
Sat at a four-way desk at the far end of the room are the label’s three co-founders: Alex, Giorgio and Borja. Alex is a writer and PR specialist, Giorgio an international musician, and Borja a skilled sound engineer.
Their Afflecks base also serves as a cassette shop that belonged to Borja before Sour Grapes came to fruition. As the label developed over time, the team began using the area for work and meetings. The shop, Mars Tapes, boasts the admirable title of ‘the last cassette shop in the UK’.
“It’s a claim we’ve made for the last few months now, and no one’s challenged it,” laughs Alex, sitting on the right of the desk which is strewn with tapes, notepads and empty mugs of tea and coffee. On the left is Giorgio, composed and relaxed with his laptop adorned with a large ‘Sour Grapes’ sticker on the back.
Borja sits in the middle. He’s cheerfully quiet for most of the conversation, while Alex speaks the most, garnering nods of approval from the others throughout. “There are shops that do cassettes as well, but they also do vinyl. We are exclusively tapes,” Alex says.
In an age of digital streaming – where physical media appeals almost exclusively to a purist market – it’s a bold move to only focus on cassettes. But Sour Grapes remain undeterred; they see their venture as a cost effective option that still has necessary demand.
“A lot of it is to do with the size of the gigs that we also run. We do a lot of local gigs in small-to-medium-sized venues, and I noticed on merchandise stands that if you have t-shirts, vinyls and tapes, people tend to gravitate towards tapes because they can fit in your pocket – and at £6 or £7, it’s not too much money,” Alex explains.
“They’re cheap to produce and the band will make more money than they do on Spotify and other streaming sites too. For smaller bands – young talent who aren’t making a lot – it makes more sense financially.”
Sour Grapes promote their own nights, mostly at Big Hands on Oxford Road. The live shows help the label showcase their artists and discover new psych, punk and garage rock artists coming out of Manchester.
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The pysch scene in the city – showcased most notably by Manchester Psych Fest – is alive and well. “It’s not as big as your R’n’B and pop, I suppose,” Alex says. “But it’s definitely thriving and healthy. There are a lot of people doing it and enjoying it.”
“There are a few other promoters that we do co-promotion with, and we’re looking at working with a magazine called GULP too.”
Their work putting on live shows recently culminated in Meltchester, a festival that gave a platform to 12 psych, punk and garage rock bands in three Northern Quarter venues for a day. The label want the festival to be run annually following its successful first outing and plans are already being made for Meltchester #2.
The team have also pursued work with artists from overseas via cassette publishing contracts and they are eager to bring acts from further afield to perform in Manchester. “We’re trying to promote the local scene, but we’re also trying to expand and bring international touring acts who have a bit more prominence but haven’t arrived in Manchester just yet,” Alex says.
“We did this radio show during the pandemic where I was interviewing a lot of people in different countries and in different bands that we like, and it was a good connection point,” Giorgio adds.
“We’ve released the Italian band Kick,” Alex explains. “Mengers from Mexico too, who are a great psych garage rock band — like Osees but Mexican style. We’ve got a few Mexican bands coming out.” The label has also released artists from South Korea, Denmark and the USA.
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Closer to home, they’re working with a band called The Lotts who are from Warrington. “We’ve put them on a few shows and are now in the process of putting out a tape with them,” Alex says. “We work hard to help young bands get off the ground — not just in Manchester, but the UK scene as a whole. There’s a band from Bristol called Holy Reptile and they’ve not really played outside of Bristol so we’ve worked to bring them to play here.”
The team explain that the label’s ethos is about affordability and putting artists first, with financial reward secondary to helping get artists off the ground and introducing Manchester to new talent.
“We make sure that artists are paid for every gig that we put on which is a huge thing with small promoters,” Alex says. “Artists hardly get paid these days and one of our staple points is that we always pay our artists.”
“What we’ve managed to do at Big Hands is make it affordable for everybody,” Borja adds. “It’s £3 entry and always two bands.”
This ethos is also reflected in their publishing agreements with artists. “We work off a DIY / Indie contract where we send them the staple template that we have and they can pick what they like and don’t like,” Alex says.
“Then we discuss it with them to make sure everybody is happy,” Borja says. “We also pay for the merch for bands and get some t-shirts for a tour too. Everything takes a bit longer to make a profit straight away, but it’s paying back little by little.”
“We are by no means a rich company at all. We’re just trying our best to make sure everybody is happy,” Alex adds.
Matty Dagger is a freelance musician, writer and live assistant based in Manchester.