February 04, 2019
I.R.S. Records was perhaps the single most important record label of the post-punk/new wave era. It was founded in 1979 by Miles Copeland and Jay Boberg. Copeland was already an important figure in the U.K.’s punk and new wave scene, dabbling in artist management, show promotion, as well as a bit of music and magazine production.
At the time, Mile’s was managing his brother Stewart’s band, a new trio called The Police. A year earlier they had released their debut album which contained the hit single “Roxanne” (U.K. #12, U.S. #32).
Though based primarily in London, Miles approached A&M Records in Los Angeles about forming a subsidiary label of sorts that would become the International Record Syndicate or I.R.S. Records. A&M, who had The Police on their roster, had been founded in 1962 by jazz musician and bandleader Herb Alpert and record executive Jerry Moss. No strangers to promoting music outside of the pop mainstream, they agreed to distribute the new label with Copeland and Boberg maintaining ownership.
The first release on I.R.S. was a collection of singles by punk band The Buzzcocks. The label’s other early signings included The Beat (known as the English Beat in the U.S. and Canada), The Cramps, The Stranglers, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, and the Fleshtones. Though the latter were from New York, many of the labels acts would come mostly out of the L.A. and London music scenes.
The label had some early chart success, particularly in the U.K., where several of its artists posted top-40 singles. However, it was an all-girl group from Los Angeles that would land the label near the top of the charts in the U.S.
In 1981, the Go-Gos released Beauty and the Beat on I.R.S. The album featured the hits “Our Lips Are Sealed (U.S. #20) and “We Got the Beat” (U.S. #2). Coincidentally, it was another female artist, Joan Jett, who kept the Go-Gos out of the number one spot on the Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart. The entire LP, though, managed to top the Billboard Album Chart.
The label would later sign, among others, Lords of the New Church, Magazine, Concrete Blonde, Timbuk 3, The Alarm, and Dada. General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, each featuring former members of The English Beat, were also on I.R.S. as was a little quartet from Athens, GA called R.E.M. Along the way, I.R.S. created a series of subsidiary labels such as I.R.S. Metal, I.R.S. No Speak, Faulty Products, and more.
In 1983, the label moved into TV production with a program on MTV called I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge, later called I.R.S.’s The Cutting Edge. The show, airing on Sunday nights, featured not only I.R.S. artists but many other new and as-yet-unheard acts like Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Madness. The show was hosted by a series of performers before The Fleshtones' lead singer Peter Zaremba became the show’s permanent presenter. The show featured videos, of course, as well as interviews and live performances. The show eventually paved the way for MTV’s own 120 Minutes music video program. The label also released a compilation of music videos called The Beast of I.R.S. Video Volume 1 (and only as it turned out).
In 1985, I.R.S. left A&M and signed a distribution deal with MCA Records. Shortly after that, in 1987, the I.R.S. suffered a minor setback when one its top acts, R.E.M., declined to renew its contract with the label. The band was reportedly dissatisfied with their overseas distribution and opted to sign with the much larger Warner Brothers Records.
I.R.S. Records soldiered on, though, moving into a deal with EMI Records in 1990. Boberg and Copeland sold the label to EMI in 1994 who kept it going until the spring of 1996. At that time, Miles Copeland tried to buy back control of I.R.S. but was too late. Instead, he formed a new label with brother Stewart called Ark 21 Records.
Several attempts have been made to relaunch the label, but today it remains dormant, a memory of an important time in the history of pop music.
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