In Conversation With : Emily Waller
First opened in 1976 by Geoff Travis in Ladbroke Grove, Rough Trade were one of the original pioneers for independent record shopping and counter culture in the UK. In the near half century since then Rough Trade has become an internationally recognised brand with mainstream appeal. Balancing the modern commercial demands with its indie roots is one of the main jobs for Head Of Brand & Content, Emily Waller.
We had a chat with Emily to learn more about her day to day role curating Rough Trade’s public facing content, the new shop in Liverpool and her hopes for the next generation of music industry workers.
Did you go to University and if so, what did you study?
I went to Loughborough University and did a BA Drama with English Lit. I didn't have any specific career in mind when I applied for the course, I just knew I wanted to work in the arts in some capacity. But I also loved playing hockey and the facilities and campus lifestyle of Loughborough were too good to turn down. University is not cheap and I'll probably be paying off my student loan until I die, but it was worth every penny for me. I grew up in a small village and countryside community and leaving home and moving in with 20k students from all over the UK (and the world) involved a lot of personal growth and life lessons, in the best possible way.
What was your first job in music and how did that come about?
I got a job at Academy Music Group as a Content Assistant in the marketing team based at Brixton Academy. I just saw it advertised and went for it. It was my second job after working as a Marketing Assistant at See Tickets in the theatre team. Working for a venue in the live sector sounded exciting and after 18 months working in the West End, music appealed to me so much more than theatre. It felt like a younger and more dynamic opportunity I guess.
What are some of the big challenges you faced when getting your foot in the door?
Possibly symptomatic of the fact I graduated fresh off the back of a global financial crisis, but getting an interview let alone a job, was super tough. I wrote so many cover letters and filled out so many applications and sent them into an increasingly huge, unresponsive void. It was demoralising. I loved university, but I think I spent the three years believing a false narrative that completing my degree was my ticket to, not only a job, but a job in the sector of my choosing and without much fuss. After 4 months of applying for roles to no avail, I realised I needed relevant work experience on my CV to stand out. But how do you get work experience if you can't even get an interview? You needed to intern, unpaid. I did 3 months each as a marketing intern at a theatre in Dalston and at a music startup in Baker Street. It worked and I secured my first full time job under a year after I graduated. So I didn't do too badly, it was just way, way harder than I had imagined. But I was also very lucky that my family lived within 2 hours of London so I could commute, and that I could afford the travel and expenses due to part-time waitressing and the help of my mum and dad. Many don't have these options and I can't imagine how much harder it would have been had I not been privileged enough, both financially and emotionally, to get my foot in the door the way I did.
Can you tell us about your current role and what that entails day to day?
Primarily I look after our brand and how it's communicated and presented across our output - from our social channels and content, through to our partner collaborations and PR requests. It's really varied and quite hands-on in that, day to day I will oversee my team, plan and coordinate campaigns and content, but also curate the @roughtrade Instagram page at the same time, or write a blog post.
What are some of the main considerations you have to think about when working for such an iconic brand?
One of the biggest challenges is retaining our core values as we grow in size. Rough Trade has been around for a long time (we'll be 50 in 2026) and has a legacy rooted in the DIY punk scene. We're going to be 6 UK stores strong come April and while we need to be sympathetic to where we have come from, we also need to evolve and be relevant to as broad a spectrum of fans as possible. I actually wrote in our internal 'brand bible' that we are "commercial but not at the cost of our brand DNA" and that is a continual push-pull, both in terms of educating the wider company and ensuring we make considered decisions on anything from the brands we partner with, to the products we sell, to the music we champion. Rough Trade has had to work hard to shrug off the "intimidating record store" label over the years, but I think we've created some really accessible and trusted spaces, backed by great music curation and in-store shows and, most importantly, amazing staff. They are the backbone of this company after all. Rough Trade is an iconic brand, but there are real faces and voices behind it and they are the reason it remains the community-driven success it is today.
Shoplifting with Future Islands. Photo Credit James George Potter
Have you had any official mentors or guidance or have you just had to make your own way?
I've had a few former colleagues (all women) that I've definitely looked up to and whose friendship and advice I really appreciated when I was younger, but other than that I've found my own path. My experience in small companies and/or the indie sector has absolutely been that you have to forge and fight for the role or career you want, no one is going to just give it to you and often, the opportunity isn't even there until you create it for yourself.
What are some of the things you’d tell your younger self to do differently on your career journey?
To not beat yourself up about your progression, to try not to compare yourself too much to other people and to understand that it's really not a race and that your personal skill set and passion will evolve and become more defined as you grow. I think it took me over 10 years before I actually felt 100% confident in what I could achieve and what I had to offer an employer and I don't think that's uncommon. You need a lot of self-belief and good people around you, at home and at work.
What have been some of your proudest moments to date?
Launching the Rough Trade blog in 2019 and growing it to where it is now. Obviously I had no foresight of what was to come, but having that platform available throughout the pandemic made such a huge difference and really evolved the way we communicated and collaborated on editorial as a record store. With the ever-looming threat to music journalism (although we don't sit in the same field), I'm so pleased to have created a space where we can share opinions, reviews and features that enrich our brand and the labels, artists and partners we work with.
The On The Rise curation that I started in 2021 to give better promotional space for new emerging artists is a level of editorial I think is really important for a brand like Rough Trade and such a massive part of the brand's DNA. I hope it's a welcomed space in a climate where cutting through is so incredibly tough.
Hiring a small team of people who are passionate, have a shared vision and bring their best to the table every day. I always wanted to do something for a living that I genuinely loved doing. Working with people who enjoy their work and are allowed to express themselves - be it through writing, videography or photography - is really cool and fosters such a great collaborative environment that enriches everything we do.
What exciting Rough Trade projects should we be excited for this year?
Did you hear we're opening a new store in Liverpool? Probably the biggest moment and project for most of us at Rough Trade in 2024. For me and my team, we need to work to sympathetically introduce Rough Trade to a new city and a new customer base. The response to us opening there has been overwhelmingly positive, but I also appreciate we are a fairly big brand operating in new surroundings and we need to listen to and work with the local community so that we can offer a space and a store that really contributes to the city and people around it.
If you could change one thing about the music industry for the next generation, what would it be?
To be able to hold everyone accountable for their actions, regardless of position or status. To be able to challenge workplace bullying, abuse of power and the use of scare tactics to undermine and intimidate others. Recently, it was so disappointing (though perhaps unsurprising) that a parliamentary report found misogyny remains endemic in our industry, so top of the list for me would have to be stamping that right out. I love to believe that young women and non-binary people growing up today aren't experiencing their musical heroes through the misogynistic and prejudicial lens many were continually exposed to 10/20/30+ years ago. A lot has changed for the better, but there is clearly still a hell of a lot to tackle to truly achieve a more unified, fair and kind creative sector. Life is hard enough as it is and we spend a huge part of it in the workplace - we all deserve opportunity and a safe and supportive environment to thrive in.