Seymour Stein: 1942-2023

seymour stein rough trade UK
Stein in his native environment; the UK Rough Trade store

I was all set up today to write about Ryuichi Sakamoto when last night fate threw us a curve ball with news of the death the Seymour Stein. There aren’t too many label heads who were more important to the whole New Wave/Post-Punk movement than Stein, whose Sire Records formed an important beach head for the growth and acceptance of these strange new sounds on the conservative US airways.

Stein wasn’t like most label heads of the last 50 years. He wasn’t a lawyer or accountant who got kicked upstairs to increase profits. He was a “lifer.” A music fan who knew in childhood that he wanted to be involved in this industry as early as possible. to the extent that he was a teenager writing for Billboard as his jumping-off point to a long and mighty career.

He and the great Richard Gottherer formed Sire Records in the mid-60s with an eye towards underground sounds crossing the pond from the UK and Europe. Possibly the first song on Sire Records I ever heard was “Hocus Pocus” by the left-field Dutch Prog band Focus. What I wasn’t aware of yet, by 1976-1977 was that Stein and mainly his ex-wife, Linda, had their noses to the ground in NYC and were putting the foundations in place to get the nascent Punk Rock of the time, which had initially festered in the zeitgeist of the Rust Belt in Cleveland’s case, and a NYC on the razor’s edge of fiscal default on the other hand.

When life is tough, the music should reflect that, and thus was Punk Rock born of the bitter struggles of urban Cleveland and New York City. Sire had signed bands like The Dead Boys, Ramones, Richard Hell + the Voidoids, without whom Punk Rock would have never been anything other than a glimmer in Malcolm McLaren’s eye. But McLaren was managing The New York Dolls in their death throes so he was hip to what was happening in America by 1974-1975. Without Stein, there would have been only the Cleveland axis of Punk Rock, and it was buried in the Midwest, far from the media’s eye. The New York bands served as high-profile prototypes. In the case of Richard hell, almost literally.

As much as he laid the foundations of Punk Rock, Stein was never comfortable with the term itself; finding if demeaning, Which in the classic sense of the word, it was. So then the term “New Wave” began appearing in Sire’s marketing materials. Whoever came up with the notion of using a descriptor for French directors of the early 60s, it was a valid enough simile to the ideas shaking up American [and UK] Rock music in the aftermath of Punk’s zero point.

Stein wanted his bands to succeed in the marketplace and little by little, they did. The Art pop of TVLKING HEVDS had little to famously compare to the metphoric blunt axe of Ramones as their oil-meets-water mutual tour of Europe proved conclusively. But both bands were hugely influential, with the former eventually going on to gold and platinum success. Ramones never hit commercially in America, but their costs [apart from hiring Phil Spector, which was not their idea] were famously so low that Stein stuck with them until the end of their contract. Knowing that their return on investment would keep them on the right side of profitable.

The blue Sire logo came to represent to me by 1978-1979, a beacon of quality in the bins. A label that was well curated with tastes aligned with my own. They were the quintessential New Wave US label, and were no slouches in the UK either, as the huge collection of Rezillos vinyl in my Record Cell can attest to. When The Pretenders signed to Sire in 1979, they quickly broke out with “Brass In Pocket” and a precious metal debut album that quickly joined The Police on A+M as being New Wave bands that managed to get a foothold on the notoriously conservative US airwaves. Sire was a label I paid attention to, because if they signed it, it was generally quality goods.

I loved their series of cheap sampler CDs that retailed for $7.98 [half price] and were packed with rarities and exclusive cuts by bands they were trying to break bigger. Depeche Mode. Erasure. The Smiths. Echo + the Bunnymen. Bands like Depeche Mode eventually did become huge. Going on to conquer US stadiums over the last 35 years. A fact that still boggles my mind.

Sire has continued to exist either as a WEA subsidiary or as an independent with Stein on the board, until he finally left the company in 2018, after 51 years of primary involvement. It’s quite a legacy that undoubtedly touches the collections of anyone reading this. I didn’t know of Stein’s having cancer until his death was announced, but he was an effective mover and shaker in getting the kind of music we wanted to hear out of the clubs and into the record stores of the world over. With decades of hustling in the game that saw him feted numerously for his acumen and good ears. We’ll not see the likes of his kind guiding the fates of large record companies much going forward. A toast to Seymour Stein and condolences to his friends and family. This mosaic is going to be large.


About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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15 Responses to Seymour Stein: 1942-2023

  1. One of the most influential non-musicians in my personal musical journey. Probably THE most influential. How many of those albums do I have? Half?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Tim says:

    Depeche Mode filling stadiums…..was talking with someone on social media last night who saw them in Texas (also last night).
    Paid $700 each for two tickets.

    The grabbing hands…..

    Liked by 3 people

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – I’m so glad that I spent [checks] …$20.00…American! To see them on the effin’ World Violation tour. And I can only say thank goodness Nitzer Ebb opened up! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Depeche Mode just didn’t do all that much for me, even though I dutifully bought everything I could from 1981-1991. I blame mass hypnosis. Put ‘em next to Heaven 17 and it’s no contest. Try Ultravox or Simple Minds at fighting peak and it’s a massacre!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I still like DM. Always have (well, ever since I got my head out of my ass towards “alternative” music back in 198X) and finally got to see them in 2013 as part of a massive festival in Belgium. They played a FULL set and did not disappoint. and because of the nature of the festival it wasn’t too expensive and I got right up front. Yes, their quality dipped for a while but (and I say this without hearing the new album) their latest stuff is damn good and holds up well to some of their “peak” stuff from back in the day.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Tim says:

          Yesterday I listened to a chunk of the new album as ripped and posted to YT by someone and….it wasn’t bad.
          Thing is that sonically, content, etc., it’s just not what I am consuming these days. The country and the world the way it is now I just find myself wanting to consume things in my entertainment and leisure activities that offer more contrast to all this.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Mel Creighton says:

    Oh Lord, I bought so many of the bands he promoted. Does anyone remember that cassette sampler that came in a cylinder? I think it was called a Survivor Sampler.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Todd Lewis says:

    We need more people running record companies like him. He’ll be missed. Sire has been a golden, quality label, supporting the kind of artists and music that I love that otherwise may never have been heard, let alone supported.

    Your collage of Sire albums and artists perfectly illustrates that and just how big a chunk they take up in most people’s music collections. Especially mine.

    Thanks for letting us know and the thoughtful article.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Heavens to murgatroid! The head of a music label who is actually into music?

    As you say … we’ll not see his like in a mainstream label ever again. Sigh.

    That collage is itself a work of art and I hope it will be featured in some future exhibit to his life and work. Directly or indirectly, he had a huge impact on anyone who listened to the golden age of college radio in the US.


  6. Taffy says:

    Sire was THE record label to fill my budding record collection, starting with presumably the Ramones and Talking Heads. At some point I realized that there was an excellent chance I was gonna love an artist if they were on Sire, and maybe beginning with M’s Pop Muzik I’d buy singles unheard if I saw that Sire logo. Rest well, Seymour, knowing you had impeccable taste.

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – I will say that the Sire logo was why I bought the debut album by Madonna, as it languished in the 50¢ bin at Crunchy Armadillo Records immediately upon its release. Sure, it looked dodgy, but …Sire Records!!


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