LABELS Look for the label: that shopper's instruction has carried a wealth of meanings over the years in the music industry. Stax and Motown have soul. Jazz has Verve. Kudu has that bluesy voodoo. If you want a symbol of vindictive business dealings, look up Savoy. If you're obsessed with the history of post-punk and indie rock, see Factory, Rough Trade, and Creation. Yet what does a label mean in 2009? Do labels still matter in an ever more ephemeral music industry? In fact, does matter itself matter anymore in a world where the C in CD might as well stand for coffin-bound? God save EMI?
I put the first question to a number of label owners and representatives recently, hoping their answers might provide an entry into a discussion of the role of labels and the potential of music today. Their answers did not disappoint. "Anyone saying [labels] are dead and gone is not factoring in the talented, but brainless, American Idol contestant," quipped Ken Shipley, founder of the vaunted reissue and archival label Numero Group. "They're backed by liquor companies and weapons manufacturers, and as long as the Army needs music for commercials at movie theaters, they'll be in business. The labels that are about to be useless are the large indies crippled by an infrastructure and overhead built for the '90s CD bonanza and the micro-indies, [that are] doing what any band's manager can already do."
Such a perspective suggests that reissue labels have the truest vital stake in the future of commercially produced music, and this passionate music lover has to admit that it sometimes feels this way: over the last few years, archival entities such as Numero Group, Omni Recording, Trunk, Light in the Attic, and the local Water label have played as major a role in my listening experience as any indie dedicated to new groups and artists.
Yet even as iTunes demands that everyone stand under its umbrella, the meaning and importance of a small label can persist in very simple and profound ways. "I pay attention to records coming out on good labels that I know I can trust," says Filippo Salvadori of Runt Distribution, the Oakland home to reissue labels including Water and 4 Men with Beards. "A record label is an important hub for art and idea exchanges between music lovers and musicians," Bettina Richards of Thrill Jockey likewise declares, her directness and use of the word record born of past and recent experience.
"I think labels are as important as ever," maintains Mike Schulman of the Bay Area indie pop shrine Slumberland, which is currently experiencing a new burst of recognition thanks to bands such as Crystal Stilts and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. "With the increasing fragmentation and atomization of genres and scenes and markets, customers rely on labels as a curatorial enterprise, a shorthand signifier for what they're into, and a useful tool to help sort through the mountain of new music."
The curatorial corollary, or an editorial variant, comes up more than once among small label owners. "In an sense, we serve as editors, but to do more than edit," says Andres Santo Domingo of Kemado Records. "We actively promote the artists on our roster and help make their life easier so they can dedicate themselves to being musicians [at a time when making] music is less financially viable than it was in the past."
Joakim Hoagland of the Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound has a more idealistic view of the label owner's enterprise. "In my opinion, running a label is an artform," he writes, still passionate in the wake of a recent public debate with Peter Sunde of the Pirate Bay, a staunch opponent of music labels and other aspects of copyright culture.