INDEPENDENT RECORD LABELS
You don’t have to be a music historian to remember the first record that changed how you see the world.
Gang of Four left some of us in a serious relationship with Entertainment! We felt engaged in an education, one with introspection and scrutiny.
For a generation coming of age among traditional roles and values, Cut by The Slits showed up in shredded, gender-defying costume.
And to many, The Cure’s Disintegration was the first time they could put concrete words to the things they were feeling.
Together, they formed a picture of rebellion, one enabled by signing with independent record labels.
In a wave of bullish independence, anti-capitalism, and passion, bands such as these flocked to indie record labels for unconventional guidance and representation. What came of this decision would push the post-punk movement into a flurry of DIY experimentation and risk-taking. What came of this decision would become the calling card of the genre.
Keep reading to learn about the history of independent record labels, and their impact on music today.
THE CASE FOR INDIE
The three major record labels (now known as the “Big Three”) include:
- Universal Music Group (purchased EMI in 2011)
- Warner Music Group
These labels control approximately 70% of the music business. Even when signing to a subsidiary (i.e. Columbia Records), a band is contractually obligated to answer to the “parent” company. Within this arrangement, ownership of music can come into question, as the label may require rights to master recordings, album art, or publishing.
Major labels are often considered to be “gatekeepers” of social messaging, and have an uncomfortable hold on what executives consider to be “popular.”
In contrast, independent record labels are regularly considered to be progressive and “pro-artist,” as they operate on a more intimate basis with the artists they sign.
Independent record labels are most commonly associated with:
- Smaller artist rosters
- Favorable contract terms
- Creative control and ownership rights
- Integrity over profits
Historically, indie labels have been responsible for discovering and promoting talent that would have otherwise been overlooked by the major labels. Their pulse on local talent has launched the careers of bands like Fugazi and James — bands that otherwise may have never been signed. The cultural influence of the independent record label cannot be overstated.
THE HISTORY OF EARLY INDEPENDENT RECORD LABELS
Most often, indie labels were the stuff that underdogs dream of as pups. With grit, tenacity, and a striking middle finger, it is the legacy of the indie label that gave birth to what we know as the music scene today.
Though punk brought its own colors to the indie scene, labels like Chess Records and Sun Records were the first of their kind.
Chess Records was born in Chicago as an independent blues and rhythm and blues label. Though major labels in the 1950s stayed away from signing Black artists, independent labels leaned into the sound and capitalized on its obvious popularity with the younger demographic.
Leonard and Phil Chess maintained a direct relationship with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Acts launched from Chess Records included:
- Muddy Waters
- Etta James
- Little Walter
- Willie Dixon
Sun Records rightfully earned its place in the history books with everything Sam Phillips did to help establish rock and roll. Established in the 1950s in Memphis, Tennessee, Sun Records signed artists considered to be out of the mainstream. It’s funny– to think of country and rock music as “unconventional” styles. They were, however, and were able to get their footing because of the indie philosophy. For the indie scene, a niche was the gateway to success.
Labels like Chess and Sun were highly in favor of local talent. They created safe spaces for artists like Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Howlin’ Wolf to take risks. Rather than catering to mainstream demand, Sun Records brought in a wide variety of acts to fill their studio space.
Both labels were dominant players in the radio and jukebox economy, as the sale of music became increasingly tangible.
THE 45 AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE JUKEBOX
Post-World War II, expendable income and the desire for escapism boosted the languishing music industry.
The creation of the 45RPM single would change how music was packaged and distributed. It would also inform how young labels would approach their own production.
While technically smaller in size and able to hold less music than its predecessor (the LP), the 45 was easy to get out to radio stations, and less expensive to produce. Teenagers (a core demographic with some pocket change), snapped up this format like it was going out of style.
The jukebox created distributive possibilities for an otherwise segregated dance floor. Black artists like Chuck Berry became wildly popular with young audiences and helped establish vinyl as a reasonable source of revenue.
With vinyl as a marketable, collectible product, the music sector suddenly had something to sell.
PUNK AND THE INDIE LABEL
Two decades later, something new was brewing across the pond. It was punk music, and it was its own movement of art made on the fringe of what society expected.
With core elements of authenticity, accessibility, and rebellion, it made sense for the independent label to thrive under the banner of punk. Without it, it’s possible that the indie label may have remained irrelevant.
These indie labels were often started on loans from friends, family, or bandmates. They were honest, homemade inventions of the craft.
With considerable changes in recording technology, DIY units were able to get their hands on equipment that would have otherwise been inaccessible to those with shallow pockets. The sale of old equipment and studios helped these artists make a lasting impression on the history of record labels.
For those not yet signed with a label, the DIY element was still possible. The Buzzcocks are credited with releasing the first homemade record. The Spinal Scratch EP release occurred in 1977, with all original copies selling out immediately. This was proof that any average Joe could make their own record.
Not that The Buzzcocks were anything close to average.
Distribution was forever changed when self-releasing bands worked together with small labels to provide mail orders. Record store stock was supported by the relationship many of these labels built within a close-knit network of distribution. Despite the looming presence of the major labels, “The Cartel” (the name of this independent distribution network) became the face of artistic autonomy.
Sadly, the competition that was born from the commercialization of punk would result in the downfall of many independent record labels, as companies like EMI, CBS, and Polydor locked in bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols in the late seventies.
With that philosophy, anything too popular was no longer punk.
In the attempt to make really strange-tasting lemonade out of spoiling lemons, the scene pivoted. The creation of “new wave” (post-punk) resulted in additional success for the labels that chose to hang on. More DIY micro-labels popped up to house the punk rebellion that was occurring in the midst of punk popularization
While the UK scene went underground post-1978, the 1980s produced a secondary explosion of punk and indie creations in the United States. Without the independent record labels to shape the scene, it was England all over again. This time, however, angst was singing under a different flag.
THE MANY FACES OF THE INDIE LABEL
Though each label has its own winding story, the collective makes up nearly four decades’ worth of music history.
Factory Records was born in Manchester in 1978.
The label was a major influencer in the sound and image of new wave. Home to bands like Joy Division/New Order and James, the Factory Records roster was inarguably stacked.
Other notable bands include:
- Happy Mondays
- Durutti Column
- A Certain Ratio
Due to the changing landscape, excessive recording expenses, and deals gone bad, Factory declared bankruptcy in 1992.
Fiction Records was founded in 1978 by The Cure manager Chris Parry. Naturally, it is best known for signing The Cure for over two decades. Because of this, the label remained dormant after The Cure left Fiction in 2001.
Though the label’s momentum was gained by The Cure’s popularity in the eighties, other bands released during that time include:
- Purple Hearts
Fiction Records is now owned by Universal Music Group.
Rough Trade was formed by Geoff Travis in 1978. Originally a thriving London co-op record store, Travis was interested in becoming more involved with the post-punk movement and nurturing bands he believed in.
Known as the label that discovered The Smiths, Rough Trade Records is synonymous with breaking ground for its contemporaries. As the first independent label to sell over 100,000 copies of an album in the UK (Inflammable Materials by Stiff Little Fingers).
Because of its co-op structure, decisions were never solely made by Geoff Travis. Any new bands that were signed need to be agreed on by the collective.
Along with championing bands that changed the scene forever, Rough Trade revolutionized the distribution methods of small labels by organizing an independent network for distribution. Known as “The Cartel,” this distribution network allowed independent labels to finally compete with major labels. Suddenly, these records could actually be distributed nationally. The resultant influence on the spread of the post-punk movement was massive.
In 1982, the label allowed the staff to buy them out. This win was short-lived, as the business filed for bankruptcy in 1991. After a 21st-century relaunch and a brief partnership with a major label, Rough Trade retained independent status in 2007. It is now nested under the Beggars Banquet label collective.
Founder Daniel Miller created Mute Records as an outlet for personal projects. Little did he know that Mute Records would become the home for groups like:
- Depeche Mode
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
With German experimental music on the brain, Miller started creating synthesizer music from his bedroom. Releasing a single under the name The Normal, he actually worked with Rough Trade Records to press his own records. Thousands of copies of Warm Leatherette/T.V.O.D were sold.
From that momentum, Miller began to sign and produce other bands like Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Robert Rental, and NON. He was extremely present in the career of a young Depeche Mode, and stood by as their live sound engineer and producer. Mute was somehow able to survive the downturn of the nineties with solid hits by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as well as Moby. This allowed Mute to survive well into the ’00s.
Mute was bought by EMI (Universal) in 2003.
Beggars Banquet follows the kind of underdog story music enthusiasts love to hear. Started in 1977 as a string of West London record shops, Beggars was serious about signing punk bands. Rather than just selling records, Martin Mills and Nick Austin were interested in a greater contribution.
Though originally a punk band, Gary Newman and Tubeway Army made history under the Beggars Banquet flag, with the first synthesizer-based UK number one hit.
The label stopped signing artists in 2008, though they are now involved with what is known as “The Beggars Group.” The Beggars Group now nests labels like 4AD, Matador Records, Rough Trade, XL Recordings, and Young Turks.
4AD started as “Axis” Records in 1980 out of the organization that was Beggars Banquet Records. The label was originally intended as an environment to test out new bands before signing them with Beggars Banquet, who had their hands full with groups like Tubeway Army. After a short time, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent purchased the label to run independently.
4AD is considered one of the four pillars of Britain’s post-punk scene. Famous bands on the label include:
- The Breeders
- Modern English
- Cocteau Twins
- Dead Can Dance
- This Mortal Coil
Ivo Watts Russell treated 4AD more like a passion project than a business. While the label is still running as a successful branch of Beggar’s Group, he was comfortable letting bands like Modern English and Bauhaus sign with other labels once he was no longer interested in their work.
Dischord Records is truly the stuff of punk legend. Straight from the DC hardcore scene of 1980, Dischord is the definition of DIY.
Bandmates Ian MacKaye, Jeff Nelson, Geordie Grindle, and Nathan Strejcek would build Dischord (from MacKaye’s parent’s house) in the attempt to release their own record. The Minor Disturbance E.P would become the first of many self-produced underground records released under the Dischord name. Other projects by Dischord include:
- Minor Threat
- Government Issue
- Youth Brigade
Dischord still operates independently in Washington, D.C, as all bands signed by the label are limited to the D.C. area. Just like the very first independent labels, local music is still the priority.
In a very “un-punk” twist, Warp Records was founded with help from a government grant in 1989.
Weird, right? We can explain.
Starting in 1982, the UK government launched the “Enterprise Allowance” initiative to encourage the creation of small businesses. Unemployment had reached record-high numbers in Britain, and Margaret Thatcher was looking to stimulate the economy.
The ’90s were a promising decade for Warp Records, as the techno scene and intelligent dance genre were gaining popularity. Notable bands include:
- Aphex Twin
- Boards of Canada
Warp continues to release music and now specializes in music videos.
The Sex Pistols should really make some room for “the world’s most flexible record label.”
Created in the midst of the London punk and new wave scene in 1976, Stiff Records is known for releasing the UK’s first official punk single on vinyl. “New Rose” by The Damned is two minutes-and-forty-two seconds of young energy, fueled by the heavy beat of a floor tom.
Founders Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera are credited to turning a young Declan McManus into Elvis Costello. This partnership would be short-lived, as the bespectacled Brit would later join Riviera in a swiftly executed mutiny. “New opportunities” had quickly turned into a deal with Columbia Records. Stiff was never a stranger to bad luck.
Notable bands once represented by Stiff include:
- The Damned
- Elvis Costello
- Nick Lowe
- The Pogues
In late 1983, Stiff would come together with Island Records. A tumultuous era would end in a sale to a major label in 1989. For years after the sale, Stiff Records would lie dormant.
Interestingly, the label was reactivated in 2007, until they were acquired by Universal.
Island Records was born on the shores of Jamaica in 1959. Originally an incubator for reggae and ska, the indie label expanded to the singer-songwriter and post-punk genre after making its quiet move to London in 1962.
Island’s indie portfolio has included:
- Roxy Music
- Bob Marley and the Wailers
- Fairport Convention
- Nick Drake
- Tom Waits
- The Slits
Its influence was quite expansive, hailing as the world’s leading progressive music label in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They built relationships with other record labels and successfully ruled over a small empire for decades.
In 1969, Island Records would merge with competitor B&C, thus creating the Trojan Records division. It would continue in the Jamaican tradition, signing ska and reggae bands until the imprint was sold off to music enthusiast Colin Newman.
In 1989, Polygram (Universal) would purchase Island Records, thereby ending its indie run.
With labels like Mute Records, Stiff Records, and Island Records folding under the pressure of the major labels, it seemed as if the independent label was a thing of the past. Luckily, a new wave of music enthusiasts with post-punk sensibilities have elected to keep the indie scene alive. The majors are losing major shares of the market. The industry is changing.
KILL ROCK STARS
In its own category of punk, Kill Rock Stars and its riot grrrl label helped establish the Pacific Northwest as their musical headquarters for gender and race equality and anti-bro culture. The label has signed artists like:
- Bikini Kill
- Heavens to Betsy
Kill Rock Stars most recently signed Portland-based MAITA.
Sub Pop is most often affiliated with Nirvana and the rise of the 80s and 90s grunge scene. They are credited with releasing Nirvana’s Bleach (1989) before they left the indie scene permanently.
Despite such a breakup, Sub Pop has seen a great deal of success as a contemporary indie label.
PLAY ALONE RECORDS
Pittsburgh-based Play Alone Records was born in 2017 as an independent post-punk label. They are passionate about inclusivity and the DIY movement.
Play Alone has signed post-punk artists like:
- Silent Age
- Empty Beings
- Death Instinct
Play Alone Records are interested in representing unique post-punk and darkwave artists that “move more people to dance.”
MISFITS AMONG MISFITS
The objective of the independent record label was never to commandeer the power of the major conglomerates. Rather than replacing one power with another, the indie movement pledged to pursue self-expression without limitation.
In a way, establishing a safehouse for radical art was the ultimate form of protest.
The original independent record labels were never destined to eliminate the “Big Three” or even survive each advancement in music technology. In truth, they would never be a match for the internet age. Instead, the indie label became the poster child for constant change and a hackable roadmap. Remembering their legacy meant remembering the music– not the formula for success.
Joy Division nailed it, you know, when they suggested that the past is now part of the future. It’s time for the independent label to follow in the footsteps of its wilier predecessors, and allow musical activism to inform the business. In the face of such social and political chaos, the present is well out of hand. It’s best to press that chaos into vinyl form and spin at 33 1/3 RPM.