Record Labels Aren’t Dying, They’re Thriving


Back in 2006, Jeremy Earl was pretty much an average Brooklyn 20-something. He’d moved here straight for college, and was spending his time sharing a house with four other people, working at records stores, cafes, and sometimes places that were both (like Cake Shop on Ludlow Street). He was in a band, too, and his house was packed with music-related junk: boxes of records, boxes of cassettes, stuff to silkscreen T-shirts, pretty much anything you could imagine.

He’d been half-heartedly running a record label for a few years, releasing albums for his own band, Woods, and those of his friends. “I’d be doing every element of it: dubbing the tapes, everything,” he told me recently over the phone, using the tone of voice you use when remembering something crazy, but kind of admirable you used to do, like studying really hard for the SATs, or learning to ride a unicycle.

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Then, something changed. “It was really great going to Brooklyn Phono,” he remembers, his voice getting at once more dreamy and more animated. “Watching the whole process [of manufacturing records], then picking the boxes up, taking them back to the apartment, listing them on the internet, and selling them. And then you start packing orders. It was a pretty cool experience. I got bit by that bug, and it just kept on going.”

He began to focus more and more on the label, Woodsist, until it became his full-time job (along with his band, Woods). He’s moved upstate, and releases records from bands like Real Estate, Kurt Vile, and Vivian Girls, while also organizing an annual festival in California’s Big Sur. He’s been able to transform his life into basically exactly what he wanted it to be, and he owes it all to one thing: starting a record label.

Labels are supposed to be an outdated business model. Their death was roundly declared right around the time Woodsist was exploding. Bands like Radiohead and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (if anyone remembers them) were supposed to have proved that record labels were obsolete, that a band could do everything they could do better, faster, and cheaper by itself. It was just a matter of time, the argument went, before labels went extinct.

And yet, labels are still here, and actually growing. In 2012, revenue grew for the major and indie labels for the first time since 1999. The percentage growth, according to figures released by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, may have been paltry–around 0.3–but the sheer dollar amount of $16.5 billion in revenue for 2012 is anything but. Adele’s song “Rolling In the Deep,” is estimated to have made her label XL Recordings around $67 million all by itself, helping XL post at 400% increase in profit for 2012, according to The New York Times.

Closer to home, Brooklyn-bred label Captured Tracks recently celebrated their fifth anniversary with a two-day music festival. Once most known for bands like The Beets, who don’t go on before 2 a.m. if they go on at all, the label has added many talented and highly successful acts in recent years: Beach Fossils, DIIV, Mac Demarco, Blouse, and more. They’ve grown up, and evidence of their success was everywhere a the festival. The performances at their anniversary showcase started at 4 in the afternoon and ended promptly at 10 p.m. They drew hundreds of fans to The Well, a pseudo-venue in Bushwick, for the event, which featured the security (bag checks and light pat-downs), strict no-re-entry policy, and strange high-roller focused retail models (nominal discounts for anyone spending over $200 on records) you might not expect from a show by a bunch of Bushwick upstarts. That’s because they’re not upstarts anymore. As the Voice outlined in a feature in advance of that concert, the label has recently opened a physical record store and moved to a new home “within a four-block radius of a mind-boggling number of other labels, including Mexican Summer, Ghostly, Sacred Bones, and Secretly Canadian.”

See also: Brooklyn Record Label Captured Tracks Takes Risks, Avoids Soundscan, and Sees Results

What is fueling this label renaissance? The primary reason seems to be relatively simple: they still mean something, both to bands and to consumers.

“The main thing is that there are other bands you want to be like, right?” says Peggy Wang, former member of late ’00s indiepop phenoms The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. She’s recently quit the band to focus on her other life as a writer at Buzzfeed, which gives her both keen insight into the label process and the abandon to say something dangerous. “I’m not in indie anymore, so I can say whatever I want!” she laughs, after calling out FrenchKiss Records as being endlessly and shallowly in search of a hit song.

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Pains spent much of their career on Slumberland Records, a venerable DC indie founded in 1989 and known for bands like Rocketship, Aislers Set, and founder Mike Schulman’s own Velocity Girl Black Tambourine. What drew the band to them?

“They had put out all of these records that I liked when I was in high school,” Wang says. “I grew up listening to indie pop, on the twee side of things. Slumberland was always cooler than that. It was like, a little bit more punk. Mike would never put out Tullycraft, you know? He has standards.”

This isn’t even close to where her feelings on Shulman end. “Everything about him was just so perfect,” she remembers. “I think we just wanted to be friends with him. We were really idealistic at the time. This was 2008. He was nice, he was weird, he was in Velocity Girl, which was like a band that I loved so much growing up. I guess I was like awestruck or whatever.”

Kevin Alvir, a musician and artist whose bands The Hairs and Knight School have been on a grab bag of indie labels, including Magic Marker, Wee Pop, and Old Flame, agrees. An aesthetic association, a desire to fit into a cool club, is basically the entirety of a label’s appeal to bands, in his mind. “I guess people feel like it’s important to get that name association,” he says. “It kind of bums me out. Because, like, I don’t think Patti Smith ever thought about her brand. But, regardless, people want to be on those labels that have an association with what they are like, or what they feel like.”

Woodsist’s Earl, for his part, thinks there’s another part of a label’s appeal which bands don’t even appreciate. He says that labels excel at “the boring stuff”: connecting bands with distributors, PR people, touring bookers, and more. “As far as a band just starting out, just starting to release their own records, yeah, you could do that. You can manufacture your own record and try to get it out there, but unless you’re going to like set up distribution, establish connections . . . it’s not going to go too far.”

Some bands disagree, saying they can do much of what a label does by themselves. Wang even thinks her band–with its coterie of publicists, managers, and lawyers–might have actually had more employees than Slumberland. Still, something about signing to a label was irresistible.

“That was the really fun part of starting a band,” Wang remembers. “Being like, what label could we sign to? Who could we be on? It was a really enticing, exciting thing” to figure out where they might fit as a band, and what label’s aesthetic most closely matched their own.

On the consumer side, the success of a label is equally down to matters of taste.

“Labels at this point are just a way of parsing music,” says Alvir. “There are a billion bands, but it’s like, ‘I’m going to pay attention to the ones on Captured Tracks because I like Beach Fossils.’ If you didn’t have that, you’d just kind of be swimming in the ether.”

Alvir remembers being a consumer, cut off from culture as a teen in suburbia. “It felt like going to the mall with certain record labels. You could just pick out anything from their catalog and be like, ‘oh, I think I’ll like this.’ If someone new was signed, I’d be like, ‘Oohhhh. All right.’ I remember when Spoon and Cat Power were first signed to Matador, I thought, ‘Hrm. Bet they’re good.'”

Faced with an infinite number of bands, putting out an infinite number of albums, for an infinite amount of days, it just makes sense to segregate them into some kind of channels, under some kind of heading, which you might as well call “a record label,” even if it’s one guy working out of his house in the woods. That little stamp on an album’s cover gives people some idea what’s inside. It also gives bands some idea of where they could go as artists, and who might want to listen to the record they made. In the end, it seems, it all comes down to brand recognition. How you feel about that may vary.

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