"I am in general a label fan and have read most books available on labels like Elektra, Impulse, Creation, Rough Trade, Factory, and so on. I love labels, and sometimes am more interested in a label than an artist."
While Hoagland makes a case for the label identity that is forged as a labor of love for new music, Shipley of Numero Group feels that reissue labels have a "brand identity" that most labels devoted to contemporary music currently lack. Indeed, this might be the case, thanks to the manner in which iTunes seems to have swallowed the experience of listening to recorded music. "Although millions of labels sell their music through iTunes, the only brand name that is really involved and talked about through the process is iTunes, which isn't even a label," notes Jonny Trunk of the U.K. reissue treasure trove Trunk. "You cannot search on iTunes by label. Which is rubbish, really."
Matt Sullivan of the Seattle-based label Light in the Attic fuses Hoagland's appreciation of past labels with Shipley's and Trunk's devotion to discovering old "lost" music. "There was something so beautiful about labels like Stax, early Sub Pop, Creation, or even Reprise/Elektra/Warner when Stan Cornyn was at the helm in that golden age of the late 1960s and early 1970s," he observes. "No one's done it better since."
For Sullivan and Light in the Attic, a label functions as a way to right past industry wrongs, and find or create new audiences for abused and neglected artists. "Most managers, labels, publicists, booking agents, etc. are crooks and cheats, better suited for a position at Enron or Madoff Investment Securities," he notes. "After all, though, this is the entertainment business and it feeds on low-lifes." He contrasts this bleakly funny outlook with the dedication required in reissuing a choice recording from long ago: "Folks have no idea the amount of time that goes into a reissue. On the other hand, I have no idea the time that's invested in making a tube of toothpaste." This dedication results in a recorded object with artwork in the case of Light in the Attic, or Trunk, whose namesake is an expert on music library treasures, and the author of a deluxe book of artwork (with a CD) related to the subject, The Music Library (Fuel Publishing).
As CDs pile up in landfills, vinyl is returning from the dead with ever-increasing commercial vitality, even if on a smaller scale. "From a personal level, I wish the CD would die," says Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf of Stones Throw Records. "I don't have an effective way of storing mine without losing them all the time. I wish everybody who liked music would buy a damn turntable or two, like me." Richards of Thrill Jockey sees growing vinyl activity, if not that level of popularity. "A great example of the trickle-up effect is the surge in LP sales," she says. "It is a great adventure to be a part of, and be on the hunt for new sounds without limitation to form."
But what does it all mean for the musician? "There may be some brave new world wherein the artists can do all the work themselves, but I think that notion, at least from the current perspective, is a pipe dream," says Joel Leoshke of Kranky, home of groups such as Deerhunter. "Can you name three artists that work without a label at the moment? I think not."
"Labels needs bands, not vice-versa," counters the acerbic Shipley. "The sooner every band in the world realizes that, the better off they're going to be. Labels are for the lazy, the incompetent, and the cash-poor. Sadly, this represents 99 percent of all musicians. Good luck." Asked about the future role of labels within the industry, he makes a comparison.