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. "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. "The label's role is a business version of child support: Wednesdays and every other weekend until your artists hit their teens and hate you."
Other label owners imagine even more dystopian scenarios. "As J.G. Ballard predicted, you will soon see musicians taking cruise ships and airliners hostage to hold private and compulsory listening parties," half-jokes David Thrussell of Omni Recording, which has uncovered vanguard audio explorers such as Bruce Haack. "Naturally, record labels will support artists to the maximum of their ability in these brave new marketing ventures." Slightly more seriously only slightly he lists his and Omni's future goals as at attempt to "pry as many strange or under appreciated records out of musty vaults and attics as we can until the Earth explodes in a cloud of tepid dust (not that far off)."
Some label reps see labels taking on an even more encompassing role in relation to musicians. "I think some of the larger labels will be demanding much more from their artists these 360-type deals where the labels want to own the artist, their recordings, their publishing, their gig rights, the merchandise, the outfits, all online activity, everything, everywhere," says Trunk. Hoagland of Smalltown Suerosund envisions a similar scenario in kinder, gentler, smaller terms. "My opinion is that labels should do more booking and publishing as well as releasing music. I think it is better for artists if you have one team or label work for you rather than three or four working against each other. I am not sure if 360-type deals work well with the majors, but the indie could make them into something cool."
"I know I'm a bit of a music geek about labels," admits Schulman, who once was more cynical about the industry machinations he's moved through. "But I think that as the group of people who actually buy music continues to shrink down to a core of those who really care about it, they'll continue to coalesce around the labels whose taste they trust."