5 Unlikely Stories Behind Indie Labels
By: Kevin McElvaney
Good news for aspiring musicians: it’s never been easier to record music and make it available to the masses. Thanks to the cost-effectiveness of digital distribution – not to mention more affordable recording equipment – thousands of small, independent record labels have popped up to support an exponentially growing number of artists from dozens of different genres.
This is also good news for music fans, as it gives listeners more options than ever before. And while the big dogs are still very much in charge – releases from Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment accounted for more than 84% of 2016 album sales – there’s no denying the growing influence of independent record labels. In recent years, indie releases from the likes of Adele, Bon Iver, and Chance the Rapper have ridden waves of critical acclaim to commercial success – proving that there’s more than one way to reach a massive audience.
From giving a platform to innovative artists to leading the resurgence of vinyl records, independent labels consistently find new ways to keep a stagnating music industry fresh. Here are five labels that started out small, but changed the game with some very big ideas.
5. Sub Pop
Seattle-based Sub Pop Records is probably best known for releasing Nirvana‘s first album, 1989’s Bleach. More recently, it’s put out platinum records by both The Postal Service (2003’s Give Up) and comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (2008’s Flight of the Conchords). And while it’s officially been a subsidiary of Warner Music Group since 1995, the label’s reputation as a curator of the coolest “indie” acts hasn’t faded.
Sub Pop began life in the early 1980s as a fan zine, created by aspiring journalist Bruce Pavitt for a student project. Originally called Subterranean Pop, the publication focused solely on independently released rock music. Then, in an interesting turn of events, Pavitt began sending out compilation tapes in lieu of issues of the magazine. For example, Sub Pop #5 was a cassette featuring 22 tracks from a wide array of independent rock acts.
1986 saw the release of Sub Pop 100, a vinyl compilation featuring the likes of Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun, and Shonen Knife. Despite a limited pressing of 5,000 copies, the LP instantly established Sub Pop as major player in underground music. By 1988, Pavitt and his business partner Jonathan Poneman began to focus on the label exclusively. Sub Pop made it mission number one to promote and preserve the “Seattle sound” — which the world would later come to know as grunge — putting out records by the likes of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and eventually Nirvana.
But Pavitt and Poneman didn’t just sign great bands – they also created a cult of personality around their label. The Sub Pop Singles Club was a subscription service that sent out a new single to fans every month. To sweeten the pot, the limited edition singles were given multiple color variants (example: 1000 copies on classic black vinyl, 1000 on clear vinyl), piquing the interest of collectors. Thanks to a combination of great music and brilliant marketing, thousands of people were soon willing to buy just about any release sporting the Sub Pop logo.
Thirty years later, Sub Pop continues to thrive. While the once-vibrant “Seattle sound” has since gone out of style, the label still puts out records by indie rock’s most popular artists, including Beach House and Fleet Foxes. Perhaps more importantly, small record labels the world over have been borrowing from the Sub Pop playbook for the past three decades –inspiring devotion with colorful collectibles, and documenting dozens of underground music scenes that might have otherwise been lost to time.
4. ECM Records
ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is one of Europe’s most enduring independent record labels. Founded by German record producer Manfred Eicher in 1969, the label is known for its staunch refusal to be limited to a single musical genre. Although ECM has put out music by some of the world’s most acclaimed jazz artists (including Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, and Chick Corea), it has also been home to dozens of releases by contemporary composers, chamber orchestras, and world musicians – sometimes spanning several of those categories on the same album. Even as other record labels catered increasingly to fans of rock, pop, and soul, ECM works hard to represent what had effectively become “niche” music.
While many of its contemporaries were content to record and release albums in a hurry, and with minimal preparation, ECM developed a reputation for its distinctly German attention to detail. Although primarily a jazz producer, Manfred Eicher modeled his studio techniques after those used to capture chamber orchestras – lending ECM’s releases a pristine sound not heard on albums from other labels. And while pressing plants were content to churn out thin, flimsy records (that many believed didn’t retain the integrity of the original sound recordings,) ECM insisted on using heavy-duty vinyl – long before today’s more durable 180-gram vinyl was common.
In a 2001 interview, Eicher told Jazz Times magazine that ECM’s philosophy was largely a reaction to labels that were only in it for the money. While many of these record companies have since been absorbed by larger corporations, ECM is still going strong after nearly half a century in operation – sporting an impressive catalogue of more than 1,500 albums. Though the music industry is littered with stories of small labels that tried and failed, ECM’s story is proof that success with integrity is still possible.
3. Dischord Records
When friends Ian Mackaye and Jeff Nelson founded Washington D.C.’s Dischord Records in the summer of 1980, they had no sense that it would become one of America’s most influential (and longest running) independent labels.
Their band, the Teen Idles, had just broken up, but the former members decided to pool their tour money to buy studio time. They meant to record an EP to provide a final document of their band’s music – little could they have imagined that they were planting the seeds for a sustainable business that would still be around nearly forty years later.
As the Teen Idles entered the studio, a number of Mackaye and Nelson’s peers were playing around town in various popular punk bands. The two friends agreed to devote any potential profits from the Teen Idles EP to recording and releasing records by those other acts. The record did make money, and soon enough, Dischord Records was in full swing.
From the beginning, Dischord proudly espoused the “do-it-yourself” philosophy. While larger labels had dozens of workers, at Dischord, a handful of employees handled everything from publicity to distribution. In fact, Mackaye and Nelson even found themselves folding and hand-gluing the packaging on the label’s earliest releases. But while Dischord initially resembled a classic “mom and pop” outfit (for years, it actually used Mackaye’s parents’ home as a mailing address), by the following fall, its operations were big enough to necessitate opening an “office.” Dischord House, where the label’s owners lived and worked, remains the company headquarters to this day.
Through the ’80s and ’90s, Dischord went on to immortalize some of punk rock’s most iconic acts – such as Government Issue, as well as the Ian Mackaye-fronted bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, and Scream (which featured a young, pre-Nirvana Dave Grohl on drums). Though recently the label has offered little in the way of new releases, Dischord continues to sell its popular back catalogue for a fraction of the cost of more mainstream albums. Perhaps more importantly, it’s provided a truly D.I.Y. model for how the music industry might move forward.
2. Third Man Records
When Jack White began hatching plans for his label Third Man Records in the early 2000s, he was already a proven commodity thanks to the success of his band, the White Stripes. Still, the dawn of the Internet age was a risky time to take on such a project. Throughout the coming decade, even the most successful record companies would struggle to make money amidst mass piracy. As such, when White finally launched Third Man in 2009, he took a new approach – appealing to music connoisseurs and collectors, rather than the casual consumer.
Though the label has experimented with other formats, Third Man Records has always dealt primarily with vinyl. Like Sub Pop before it, Third Man makes limited variations of many of its records (in all sorts of different colors), and offers a subscription service for the most die-hard collectors. But Third Man’s most interesting asset is its catalogue.
At first, the label’s releases were fairly predictable, beginning with a number of Jack White’s own projects (including vinyl reissues of the White Stripes‘ discography). But as time went on, it became clear that White and company didn’t intend to stay in one lane. In addition to a wide variety of records from established rock, folk, and country artists, Third Man pressed the first album by comedian Conan O’Brien, as well as a single by controversial rap group, the Insane Clown Posse – one based on a Mozart composition, of all things.
While many consider vinyl a “throwback” format, Third Man has attempted to move the LP into the future. Jack White’s 2014 solo album Lazaretto experimented with “dual groove” technology, which allowed for either acoustic or electric intros to the song “Just One Drink” depending where on the record listeners placed their turntable’s needle. The album also featured two hidden tracks, playable under the LP’s center label – a trick that would leave many old record collectors speechless.
In addition to releasing albums, Third Man has also opened brick and mortar stores in both Nashville and Detroit – a bold choice in a time when online shopping has made it difficult for even the country’s most iconic record stores to survive. Then again, the odds were against Third Man from the beginning, and it’s already come this far. Who’s to say it won’t lead the charge for a new wave of independent record shops?
1. Def Jam Records
Arguably the most influential record company in hip-hop history, Def Jam is a longtime fixture of the major label system. But its beginnings were quite humble.
Those who know Def Jam for practically defining hip-hop in the 1980s might be surprised to learn that its first release was actually a 1983 recording by producer Rick Rubin’s punk band, Hose. But while Rubin’s roots were in punk, he soon found himself at the center of New York City’s growing hip-hop scene.
Working out of his NYU dorm room – and with the help of his school’s four-track recorder – he produced rapper T La Rock’s 1984 single, “It’s Yours.” Word of Rubin’s talents quickly spread. When promoter and businessman Russell Simmons heard “It’s Yours” at a party, he immediately sought out a collaboration with Rubin. With Simmons focused on promotional work and Rubin serving as the company’s sole producer, Def Jam was ready for the next step.
Def Jam issued two more singles in 1984 – the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard,” and L.L. Cool J’s debut, “I Need a Beat.” By late 1985, Def Jam had put out five more singles, and turned quite a few heads. Soon enough, Columbia Records came calling, with an offer to act as Def Jam’s distributor. In the following years, Def Jam released albums by iconic artists including Public Enemy, Slick Rick, and even the thrash metal band Slayer.
Today, Def Jam (now under the umbrella of Universal Music Group) is one of the defining forces in hip-hop, home to the likes of Kanye West, 2 Chainz, and Frank Ocean. But even as it’s become so entrenched in the mainstream as to define it, the label’s origin story – an inspiring journey from dorm room to board room – has lent it a sense of credibility and cool that may never fully wear off.