Tuesday, 18 August 2009

It's an American thing

Remember the first time you heard .............. and then checked out their tour support, ..............? And how did you feel when you realised that they're both signed to .............. and that ALL of their bands made your jaw drop and your head spin with giddy excitement? We've all been there, I'm sure.

For as many years as I can remember, certainly pre-dating this little music industry adventure of mine, I've been fascinated by American punk labels. I don't know where it started, but can certainly remember a fondness for Drive-Thru (Finch, New Found Glory and Midtown, especially) right at the beginning of BSM, shortly before moving on to Deep Elm (The Appleseed Cast, Brandston and the Emo Diary compilations), Vagrant (pretty much everyone on their roster circa 2000) and many others. No matter what size - and to a degree, what sort of music they dabble in - there's a certain appeal to these American 'corporations'. And I use the c-word in the lightest possible sense. It's hard to know where the line can be drawn between marketing genius and my obsession with American culture (thanks, Hollywood!) but it's safe to say that tonight, the former has never felt so apparent.

Over the past few years I've been lucky enough to be interviewed by a number of magazines and a few have posed the same question: Which other record labels do you cite as an influence? Fierce Panda always get an honourable mention, as do friends labels who I feel are also working hard pushing the boundaries of creativity in the struggling music industry, but apart from that the answer firmly resides across the Atlantic. I may very well be wrong, perhaps looking at this through emo-tinted specs, but to my mind, the number of European record labels who have managed to build a brand identity as strong as Victory Records, Dischord, Sub Pop or any of the aforementioned others could be counted on the fingers of an armless man. Chances are that their crop of bands (especially the latter day roster fodder, in a lot of cases) won't all be to your taste, but to the people who've ever found themselves enjoying more than a couple of their artists and have subsequently delved headfirst into a back catalogue of enjoyment could not ask for a better stamp of approval, placing their musical trust in the hands of the respective label owners and setting themselves a musical bookmark which will last a lifetime.

Equal Vision

To kill a few minutes before getting an early night, I (for some reason I can't even remember now) decided to Google one of my personal favourite US labels, Equal Vision, although not to see what they're doing right now, but to read more about their roots. Disappointed by the results, I delved a little deeper until I eventually stumbled across this giant interview from 2005. It talks in depth about how the label began, its religious background and so much more. Having finally finished reading that I dug out some other, thankfully shorter, features and right now, at just approaching 2am and well past the 'early night' status I so desperately desired, I once again find myself excited, enthralled and somewhat jealous of an American record label.

Imagine starting your label with a member of a number of vital hardcore bands? And what if you ended up signing Saves The Day before they even formed, simply because you liked the bassist's old band and felt bad for him when he was kicked out? And how about running a record store from your own New York apartment which, without the benefit of a phone, people took a risk on, visiting (from countries far away, in some cases) just to see if you're open, often finding the door unlocked and a sign saying "if you buy any records, please leave the money here"? Of course, all of this comes after seeing Cro-Mags beating some kids up at a gig because they weren't Hare Krishna, re-evaluating your own faith, spending four years living and working on a farm, and touring the country when the Warped Tour was still something worth boasting about. This stuff doesn't even touch on the subject of the label as a brand, it's simply cool as fuck and the kind of stories I think a lot of us wished we could tell first hand.


Professional jealousy aside (well, kinda) I'm turning my attention back to my first attraction to these labels: their brand images. It feels almost dirty to use such wording when talking about people like you or I who began their ventures in tiny, remote locations, scrapping for every cent before clawing their way towards the light and finding themselves on a completely unexpected career path. These are companies with strong ethics, a whole heap of character, and an image bigger than many of their artists.

Sub Pop
used to feature their name bigger than anything else on their advertising, working hard to make themselves synonymous with the Seattle scene, something which many fans still to this day wrongly assume is the homebase for many of their subsequent signings. Revelation spawned out of the New York hardcore scene, playing a huge role in the development of the 'youth crew' scene, something which to this day they're still renowned for. And I'm sure I don't need to tell too many of you about Dischord and their hard work with the DIY lifestyle in an almost rags to riches story where values and integrity have won out over any possible obstacles.

What is it that makes these companies so vital, so exciting and so addictive? Why have thousands of people the world over spent so much of their time and money collecting their releases and proudly displaying their logos on the backs of t-shirts? How come the UK seemingly have so few comparative tastemakers? Is this just me being accidently racist against our British labels? Maybe these are questions for Louis Theroux to ask? Whatever, here's one of Equal Vision's greatest hits...


Anonymous said...

You're doing ok. You just need a band that breaks. For that, you need a band that people like.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree... Ah, Jade Tree... so many fond memories.

paul said...

i always remember deep elm doing ridiculous offers on cds like 10 for $5 or something

Kev said...

Deep Elm still do a lot of that. They're another label I read a little bit about last night and was intrigued to find out how independent they still are, keeping everything from graphic design through to press and marketing in-house.

These days they do tend to overload their sales a little, constantly running and pushing them in their mailouts, but I guess with a back catalogue the size and importance of theirs, there'll always be new fans with a hunger to find more of their stuff

Avangelist said...

I can easily answer your last question. There's nothing like that in the UK because back in '97 everyone with an independent label flogged it to the highest bidder. Infectious, One Hut, One Little Indian, gave up the breadline life for the sake of music for a small debt consolidating cheque. You can't blame them for it either.

I totally agree, here we don't seem to have that Sub-Pop (although it's safe to say we have all taken Fierce Panda for granted as the UK Sub-Pop for many many years) style label, and the small labels that did seem to have that ethos of pushing what they were have all folded - except yourself, and unLabel, but they're both catering to at times quite a snobbish and elite market.

Copro, had some incredible signings in the metal industry. Earthone9, Dead Life Portrait, Kill II This, Hundred Reasons. But it didn't evolve with what was happening at the time.

I guess the other thing is that everyone is paying for their own recordings so why bother with a label?

Perhaps distro is where things are more apt? Plastic Head was a stroke of genius when it started, now it's just a warehouse pumping whatever it's told. Engineer, Fat Cat, and to an extent Silver Rocket are all just glorified distributors.

Kev said...

Thanks for the comment, some very interesting points there.

When Funeral For A Friend started to blow up I thought Mighty Atom could go on to become a really powerful, important UK indie, but I think they made a mistake in trying to sign so many sound-alike bands. Firce Panda was an incredible label in the 90's and early 2000's, although they seemed to drop off the radar a little over recent years (despite releasing some fairly big things), but that might be more down to my change in musical taste than anything else? Plus that label was only ever a sideline for Simon's full-time job, so I guess he had no need to really work on expanding it. Transgressive is probably the most recent UK label I expected to blow up. They're young, passionate guys who were signing some good bands and seemed to be putting a lot of effort into the brand as a whole, although I haven't seen so much of them this year and as they're funded by a major, I don't know where they stand right now. Maybe they'll be back in a big way with the new Foals album though?

Funny you should mention the distro thing, as that actually ties in nicely with an idea I've been working on for a while now and hope to launch in the next 6 - 8 weeks, if all goes to plan.

Kev said...

Following on from this, there's been some very interesting conversation over on the Punktastic forums - http://www.punktastic.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=73158&start=0

And Paul from PT also wrote a follow-up blog. Check it out - http://punktastic.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/label-branding/

Blood and Biscuits said...

i think fierce panda lost it because people started to just see them as a singles label. they never developed any bands. it's not to hard to get in early and release a 7", the hard work is developing a band and helping them grow.

Chase said...

nice work sir. good post. this coming from an american label nerd.

Avangelist said...

I like blood and biscuits point there, very good, it is hard to evolve someone over what is essential 5 minutes of fame on a split.

Transgressive are indeed a good label, and I've got a lot of time for HolyRoar at the moment too.

After being at Offset yesterday and realising I didn't actually need to leave the house, you should spend some more time down in Brighton because we just filled an entire festival with our acts!

DeepElm said...

we've never offered 10 cds for $5. we started with 30 cds for $39, then 20 cds for $29 and so on...down to or current offer of 8 cds for $9. and those are recent releases not 12 year old back catalog titles. we've been embracing digital for the last 5 years and think it's been a win-win for the label and fans. we don't try to push these deals, just make new fans aware of them. keep in mind we have many new fans signing up to our elist every week, so this is all brand new to them. we would like to be CD-free when we relocate the label.

indie til death...and we mean it.