Ideas for Starting a Record Label

Lately I’ve been thinking about record labels. Not the majors but the small and relatively successful indie labels. There are still a set of popular indies that despite the downturn in the music industry have seemed to thrive. I’m talking about labels like Matador, Merge, Subpop, KRS, etc. By thrive, I mean they manage to be financially viable selling music. Of course, this is an assumption on my part. For all I know they might be simply living on the revenue of past releases. No matter what their books look like, it is clear that they are successful by some measure. I think if someone were to start a label there are definite things to take from the experience of these labels.

A label needs to represent a brand. KRS is a good example here. They started and represented female musicians and embraced accepting a person’s sexual identity. While I don’t know that it has the same vision now, it definitely still maintains its brand. Previously labels that had a good brand had the opportunity to garner a captive audience. Fans were not only fans of certain bands, but they were fans of labels. The label acted as a filter and there were not very many resources for finding music at the time. While this isn’t the case anymore, a label that creates a real brand creates a story. The name of the game is selling music and the way to do that is to let people hear it. The best way to get music heard is through the web and the influence of hundreds of bloggers alongside music websites. The label’s brand then allows this influence to percolate to the bloggers instead of to the people directly. Those that publish need a story and a brand helps to provide that story.

In the indie world, the brand should represent a mission. Again, using KRS as an example, when they started, they had a mission of getting experimental and punk inspired music based partly on gender to those interested. It was definitely a niche, but they in turn helped define a genre through bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney. They succeeded in their mission. Starting a label means having a mission. It is important to see the mission as something that is not financial.

Dischord is another example of a label with a mission. They aimed to raise awareness of the DC music scene. A mission is something fans respect and want to be a part of. It lets a fan know that instead of supporting some money grabbing record label, they are providing great bands a means to put out music.

Lastly, if I were to start a record label, it would be regionally focused. This is partly because I live in Austin, but it also helps to reveal a mission as not only an idea, but a place. It doesn’t have to be a label that resides in a huge city either. Polyvinyl helped represent mid-west indie and (non-eyeliner) emo. They did this from the small college down of Champagne, IL. The idea though is to create a scene. The scene is really nothing more than a community. It doesn’t have to represent a single sound, but it does need to have some sense of originality that identifies it. This identity is critical for everyone involved, the band and the label.

The music industry now requires bands create a brand. It is no longer enough to simply be in a band, just as it is no long enough to put out CDs. You need to have the band and the people surrounding the band representing something larger. This is obviously good for a band, but it is also good for a label because it allows success beyond one artist. I think Josh Homme or Jack White is a good example of this concept. You have some sense of success that helps to further other projects. The first successes don’t need to be that large as long as they tell a story. A band might have only played a few shows but have been ingrained as someone important within some scene. If that person starts another band or project, the story is clear that amidst the short turbulent yet influential series of events that was the previous band, arose a new and innovative project. It is a really common thread you see today where members quickly work on side projects in between albums. One might consider it a overflow of music, but I’d argue that these musicians realize that they need to constantly produce content and understand that one way to do so is to expand the brand of a single band to that of its members. Animal Collective is a good example of this as well as Neon Indian.

This last aspect of creating the brand is the key aspect for a new label. If a label can help bands establish this brand then I think a label can be successful by associating their own brand with that of the band. The label can be a huge supporter or a bank. If I were to start a label I would do everything I could to help partner with a band to create their personal brand. That means tons of small releases, cheap videos and help with lots of web content. It means making things happen and telling the story. In the past labels were in the position where they would throw things on the wall to see what sticks. That can’t happen anymore. There are too many bands. What should happen is that the label should be similar to a manager in that they make every effort to forward the career of the band. This needs to be the core mission of anyone starting a label. Money is not going to happen by chance, you have to make every band profitable to make money. This also means the bands cannot sit idly by and wait for the big recording budget and tour support. It needs to be a partnership where everyone establishes their brand in order to tell their story and spread the music.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to run a label. But if I did, the above would be my priority. I’d have a label of local Austin bands that tell the state of the Austin music scene and establish the Austin sound. It would all encompassing in sound and would make every effort to get the music outside of Austin. You never know, maybe I’ll win the lottery and see what happens!