For a while, Factory Records was one of the leading lights of the independent music scene in Thatcherite Britain. Formed in Manchester in 1978 by the illustrious Tony Wilson, alongside names such as Alan Erasmus, eccentric-but-brilliant producer Martin Hannett and brilliant-but-brilliant graphic designer Peter Saville, Factory evolved from a Friday night club event into a proud and rather unique record label, always attempting to cut its own path through the music trade without ever paying attention to how anybody else went about it.
Its roster of artists consisted of long-term collaborator Vini Reilly (trading as The Durutti Column), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (for a single), Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, and of course Joy Division - who folded with Ian Curtis' death, only to spring back as New Order. Many other bands came and went, with a rather loose signing policy and a deliberate attempt to empower the artists more than the label. Famously, during the label's financial difficulties of the early 1990s, London Records refused to buy the struggling label because they didn't hold the rights to New Order's material - having given them to the band instead.
Peter Saville, initially the label's resident designer, helped establish a distinctive look and feel for much of Factory's future. When Tony Wilson announced his intention to give the label's first release, A Factory Sample (an EP containing tracks by the likes of Joy Division and The Durutti column), the catalogue number FAC 1, Saville replied that he'd already assigned it - to a poster. This established Factory's famous tradition of assigning catalogue numbers to just about everything - from a bucket (FAC 148), a badge (FAC 120), a lawsuit (FAC 61), to (occasionally) records.
Factory became an established part of the Manchester music scene, no doubt helped by Tony Wilson's position at Granada Television offering key early publicity. Factory soon branched out yet further with the establishment (with New Order) of the legendary, dearly missed Haçienda (FAC 51). Partially funded by New Order, and responsible for devouring money, FAC 51 became the first of the 'superclubs', struggling on past Factory's death until its closure in 1997. Factory also opened a bar, Dry (FAC 201), which lives on.
Factory died in 1992 after considerable financial difficulties - both New Order and Happy Mondays, its main attractions, were recording albums that swallowed significant amounts of money. New Order hadn't had a release since 1990's World Cup anthem World In Motion, rather surprising for a band so prolific. (New Order finally finished and released the LP, Republic, in 1993.) The spirit of Factory continued for a while: Tony Wilson formed Factory Too, which died a few years later, then F4 Records, which appears to have done the same. The famous catalogue continues, however: the film of Factory, 24 Hour Party People (named after a track by Happy Mondays) was given FAC 401. Factory will be missed, but Wilson no doubt has yet another plan to bring it back. We hope he does.
Update: Tony Wilson passed away on August 10, 2007. His funeral was assigned FAC 501.