On Music Think Tank the other day, some guy named Bruce Warila contributed a piece that caught my interest for some reason. The piece itself, overall, seems a bit unfocused; it starts out as if intended to be a response to Rhodri Mardsen’s popular post which I just recently blogged my own response to, but then embarks on a sort of stream-of-consciousness wander through the general topic, before finally arriving at a pretty interesting point that wasn’t really suggested by the title or opening paragraphs. And that point basically boils down to: small independent bands could do well to band together in like-minded clumps or “brands” of bands that work well together, so as to share connections and resources, and also to increase their overall profile by providing music fans with a clump of artists within which, if they like one, they are likely to find others they also enjoy.
I think that Bruce is a little off though, in claiming that this is a new model that’s totally divorced from the old idea of a record label. Not at all. This sounds to me like what good indie record labels have always been built around.
Music fans commonly identify with certain independent labels. Back when I started getting into non-radio music, if you liked a band on, say, SST Records, you probably liked several bands on SST records. SST was known for music that came out of the experimental, arty side of guitar-based punk rock, with some jazz influences. Touch & Go was known for a similar aesthetic, but with a bit more abrasiveness, heavy basslines, a bit of a dance feel at times. Sub Pop was synonymous with the nascent “grunge” rock style, and Matador was known for a kind of cozy indie-pop sensibility. Lookout! gave us brash, punk rock that combined snotty attitudes with four-chord simplicity and catchy melodies. There was Dischord, Kill Rock Stars, Alternative Tentacles, Amphetamine Reptile, Fat Wreck, and so on.
This never went away, really, if you look at the catalogs of current small labels and niche distributors. Indie labels that are doing well these days have a certain focus, even when there’s a lot of variety in that focus. For example, Relapse does well catering to the extreme metal crowd, but within that banner is a wide range of styles from slow, sludgy doom stuff to blast-beat grindcore to dark ambient stuff, each representing a different edgy or extreme approach to dark, heavy music from a metal lineage. With all this variety, there’s something that gives their overall catalog an aesthetic focus.
For a while, the 90s alt-rock boom caused a few labels to forget that this was what made them work. Indie labels would have a couple of their bands break big, bringing some money and distribution deals their way, and they would try to branch out stylistically, or maybe it was just that they grew their staff and suddenly there were more people with input into what the label was going to release. But for whatever reason, things started to happen like Sub Pop putting out this. For many of these labels, this ended up working out, they definitely changed into something different in the process. I’m pretty sure, however, that you can’t start a small record label thinking you’re going to put out any and every music style, or even any and every kind of, say, rock music; you can’t build a critical mass of loyal customers out of people who like just one of your acts.
So Bruce’s idea isn’t so much some new breakthrough; given a sufficiently broad idea of what constitutes a “label”, it sounds more like things coming full-circle, a recognition of what worked well in the first place.