Ultimate Guide to Independent Record Labels &
This book is a treasure map. It will take you to independent record labels. It will take you to haunting rhythms, cherished melodies, warm harmonies and exotic blends.
You'll find familiar artists. Some have older recordings that indies rescued from exile. Others keep their juices hot while between major contracts. Still, others prefer life in the independent lane. You'll find performers that you never heard of; but I guarantee you'll wish you had.
What is an independent label? The easiest definition is that it is not a major label -- one of the six international megacorps that control approximately 85% of the record market.
The majors are: BMG, MCA, Polygram, Sony, ThornEMI and WEA
Nearly 9 out of every 10 dollars spent on records goes for product recorded, manufactured and distributed by one of those six corporations. The well-financed majors dominate broadcast time and print space, as well as rack space in most record stores.
People at the majors are not bad human beings. They love their dogs, families and shrinks. They certainly love music or they wouldn't be in the record business.
Still, the sheer size and wealth of these global corporate giants creates two monstrous dynamics. Their massive overheads discourage release of records that will not "sell well." (i.e. They will not reach sales of hundreds of thousands in a relatively short time.) This condemns countless worthy projects to silence.
Secondly, the majors use powerful promotion machines to advance a flood of product performed by artists with mass market name recognition. The virtual control of airwaves and print enforces a kind of Gresham's Law where bad music drives out the good. Or, if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to hear it, the chances are that the tree was not on a major label.
Why do independent label people even bother to compete with the majors? They can't help it.
Unlike the majors, each independent label stands for something. So many record companies listed in this book jumped into being because an individual believed a band should be recorded; a musical genre should be shared; a heritage should be preserved; or a region should be honored.
Pause for a moment and say a prayer for independent record companies. They are to music what Ben & Jerry are to rain forests; what Tom & Jerry are to violence; and what Dean & Jerry were to comedy. They respect it. They enrich it.
So much happens first on independent labels. For example, indies have been releasing marvelous recordings of Louisiana music (Cajun, New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, Zydeco) for years. These efforts helped nudge the music into the mainstream consciousness.
So much happens last on independent labels. That too is important. The labels rescue historically significant, musically potent recordings from limbo. These range from piano rolls to last year's cut-out albums.
While writing this book, I spoke with so many of the impromptu entrepreneurs whose vision, hope, despair, and outright bad attitude has helped nourish quality music.
It was an education, particularly in the arena of categories.
I long had distinguished between the "music fan" and the "music lover." The fan always applies tests. Who's better than whom? Who's the original? Who's the copycat? What type of music embodies the only path to a better life? Which music is by its nature unclean? The fan loves and hates; embraces as true, and condemns as impure.
The lover listens. I learned this distinction by talking with musicians during my years as a journalist. I found that the better musicians enjoyed exposure to more kinds of music and had greater appreciation for musicians working in different genres. (By "better" I mean those with superior skills and a more substantial approach to interpretation and/or improvisation.) The phrase "music is music" repeatedly floated to the surface.
Both fan and lover are styles of passion; but I liked to think of myself as a music lover. It seems I was a fan. Categories were more important to me than I had realized. I had ruled out sprawling land masses of music because I did not listen. Meeting the heart and soul in so many different kinds of music depleted my supply of myopia. Polka? Fine! Mantovani? Cool! Opera? Not so fast!
Dealing with genres was one of the trickiest portions of this project. I need categories to direct you to music you love; but my cookie cutters were stalled. Are all singer-songwriters folk artists? Should the one with an Arkansas drawl be put in the country and Western camp? When the music has a beat is it folk-rock, country-rock or rock or country or folk? Then there's the music that has no respect for the provinciality of borders. Rock and rollers jam with African tribal drummers. Irish fiddlers play counterpoint to Yiddish clarinetists. An Indian sitarist adds a drum machine.
No wonder I was singing "I can't get no nomenclature."
You'd think people running these labels could settle matters. For many of them "what types of music do you do "was a thoughtless if not downright painful question. After all, if they had wanted to be enslaved by conventional categories, they could just as well have gone to work for the majors.
I felt as if I were a waiter at the United Nations dining room. Each table spoke a different language. And then there were the dialects. It was my job to serve and respect each of them. The categories you'll find here reflect, as much as possible, what people told me. They are included more for convenience than scholarship. Use them to be a music fan. Jump to the listings that are in tune with your passions. Use the categories to be a music lover. Grab your passport, leap across all borders, and explore. Music is music.
Research proved that music with meaning doesn't just come from a few square blocks in New York and Los Angeles. It also comes from places like Shallowater (TX), Sedro Wooley (WA), Galax (VA) and Hackensasck (NJ). Just as people from all over the country love to listen to music, so do people from every imaginable zip code make and share music.
And I lost a sweet illusion. It is fun to think of the people who run the labels as monkish keepers of the sacred word, dedicated shunners of fashion. And there is some evidence of that. Still, in their own starry ways, they are quite an astute lot. Many have a better grasp of successful marketing techniques than the mighty major labels. They have fashioned highly individual strategies for doing business. Some even have dollar signs where eyeballs ought to be. And yes some are, as Leonard Cohen would put it, "beautiful losers." All keep music alive because they're earthly enough to act.
Don't tell them about Don Quixote. They're like Cyrano when he was advised to consider Quixote's example.
"Tilting against windmills," Cyrano was told, "will knock you down into the mud."
"Or," Cyrano replied, "fling me up into the stars."