THIS ARTICLE IS FROM 2006 –
READ AN UPDATED ONE FROM 2010 HERE
There was a time when Def Jam Recordings was an NYU dorm room label, and there was a time when Moon Ska had a storefront in the East Village. Some local labels grow to massive proportions and others fade away as new bands and new trends take their place, but no doubt local independent labels do a great deal to define the NYC scene. So what were the labels making waves in NYC in 2006, who are the people behind them, and what do they consider when signing new bands?
Matador Records & Beggars Group
In 2002, The Beggars Group, a UK-based label group with branches worldwide, bought a 50% share in Matador Records, the NYC label that launched careers for artists like Liz Phair, Pavement and Guided By Voices. The two companies joined forces and have since then not only scored a major success with locals Interpol but have taken a chance on NYC acts like The Double and Calla. With a family of labels including XL and the newly launched PlayLouder (of website fame) imprint, there’s lots of room under the Beggars umbrella for new bands, and recent additions to the rosters include internet buzz-worthy bands Serena-Maneesh, Tapes N Tapes and Voxtrot. While Matador and the other Beggars labels may have a large combined roster, the label group’s prestige puts them in a position to sign the very best of the best, and they do!
Like Robert “Bucket” Hingley starting Moon Ska to get his band The Toasters’ music out there, Les Savy Fav bassist Syd Butler started Frenchkiss in 1999 to release the band’s own music. (And really, that’s where the ska associations end). Over time Frenchkiss has expanded their roster to include bands both quirky and edgy including The Hold Steady, The Apes, Thunderbirds Are Now! and Rahim. The label soon became a full time operation with a small staff, and earlier this year Frenchkiss celebrated their 25th release!
Like many of the most successful indie labels, Frenchkiss strives to build a collaborative relationship with their artists. “Every band that signs to Frenchkiss is full of people we feel comfortable representing us all over the world,” says label guy Steve Hahnel. “This is a collaborative effort, with all the hard work going toward one collective goal. We are not just here to handle the physical manufacturing of compact discs. Every band on the label needs to know that it is a partnership they are entering, not a vehicle they are entering to take their band from one spot in their career to another.”
When it comes to signing bands, Butler says, “We listen to all demos and suggestions, but we prefer to see the band live. Recordings can give you a false impression of how the band acts live, deals with themselves live and deals with the unknown (mistakes, hecklers etc.).”
Hahnel adds, “Frenchkiss signs someone when we collectively agree that a particular band or project is worth putting up money for and worth working hard for. We come to the conclusion through a complicated, long, talked-to-death, sometimes beer-fueled, and intense set of circumstances.”
And what happens when a band submits their demo? Hahnel tells us, “When a band sends us a demo it gets opened and put into the demo box. Usually the contents of the package are heavily scrutinized, though not necessarily on musical merit. Instinctively, we look at the accompanying glossy photo (if we are lucky enough to receive one) immediately for any/all opportunity to make fun of it and sharpie the hell out of. If the photo is good enough and if our caption writing skills are on point that day, we might decide to put it up on the wall of shame where it will be the subject of ridicule and jest for months to come.”
In the ‘90s Astralwerks took-off with the sudden success of electronica in the US, in particular their Chemical Brothers releases. What started as a backroom label run by Brian Long soon blossomed into a popular indie label with the assistance of Keith Wood (formerly head of Caroline, and later head of Rough Trade America) who helped Astralwerks bring accessible electronica music to the masses. Artists like The Beta Band and Air proved to be enormous successes for the label, and over time musicians like Beth Orton, Badly Drawn Boy and The Concretes diversified the roster.
Nowadays, Astralwerks boasts a hefty release schedule and is part of the EMI label collective. While keeping up with the trends, Astralwerks is still signing electronic and danceable musicians. For instance, NY-ers Radio 4 recently joined the label. Astralwerks is also now home to DFA, the disco punk label that has dropped jams from the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip.
Best known for underground hip hop acts like El-P, Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock as well as hip-hop electronica artist RJD2, Definitive Jux has carved out a unique niche for themselves in the NYC indie music world. Local hip-hop artists Cannibal Ox and El-P (who is also president of the label) have found a strong following through Def Jux having outlets like college radio and venues that typically host indie rock bands welcome them with open arms.
The artists on Def Jux have a truly unique and crossover appeal, so what does it take to become a part of that community? Def Jux Director of Marketing Jay Drake says, “Basically we’ve only signed artists that have been close to the label for years. It’s more of a family instead of us soliciting demos and seeking out artists. We try to listen to as many demos as we can, but the amount that come in outnumber the hours we have to listen to them.”
This may sound discouraging to an aspiring underground hip-hop star, but Drake offers some advice: “For those who are looking to get signed we strongly urge them to get out there and make a name for themselves, build a fan base, do tons of shows and try putting out records themselves. By putting yourself out there you have a better opportunity to meet other artists and build a strong name, and that’s how you get signed. It’s easy to make a good demo. It’s hard to show you have the work ethic to actually make it in this business.”
LABELS MAKING ABUZZ IN 2006
Ba Da Bing
Suddenly with the success of the much blogged-about Beirut, a 19-year old, inspired folk multi-instrumentalist, Ba Da Bing has been on people’s radar. The local label (which is based right across the river in Jersey) has actually been around for several years, however, putting out records as diverse as Canadian singer/songwriter Hawksley Workman to psychedelic noise band Comets on Fire. “I’ve put out lots of different types of stuff, so there’s no musical aesthetic that brings every release I’ve done together,” explains label owner Ben Goldberg. “Really, it’s all just if I love the music that is being made. Since I’ve been around awhile, I’ve become aware that it’s better to have a group that can play live shows, is willing to tour, are easy to deal with as people, and those are all good things to have, but none of them (except the easy to deal thing) is essential.”
Goldberg says he listens to all the demos that come his way, because he still holds on to the hope that the next thing he puts on might be the one that amazes him. “I’ll sign a band if I like them. It really has less to do with how well they can potentially sell and more about if I can answer the question, ‘Would I buy this record?’ in the affirmative. If I would buy it, then I presume at least a few hundred people in the world would like it, and if I sell at least a few hundred copies, I’ll probably break even.”
This Manhattan label has been making a name for themselves releasing some awesome albums that appeal to the hipster stoner set. The sounds range from the super-heavy riffage of Austin’s instrumental metal band The Sword, to the jazz flute Swedish jams of Dungen, but what they all seem to have in common is a tendency for out of the ordinary, mind-warping tactics. Be it locals Landing-Dreiden’s retro-tinged art rock, Diamond Nights’ glammy retro tunes or Tarantula A.D.’s cinematic noise, Kemado’s roster is decidedly psychedelic.
Kemado has further solidified their reputation by throwing hip, NYC-style, all night parties down at Austin’s annual SXSW, which this spring showcased bands from their Invaders compilation. With a tracklist that includes noisemakers like Pelican, Black Mountain, Wolfmother and several of Kemado’s own, Invaders not only highlights many of today’s not-your-usual “metal” bands, but also helps define the niche this label is finding for themselves in the scene.
Kemado also boasts an ample Westside office that includes an in-house recording studio where many of the bands have recorded their albums. Sure, one might assume Kemado’s personnel to be a gang of stoner slackers based on the music, but in actuality they are a great crew of die hard music fans building a real family for their bands from recording all the way through to the kick-ass after parties.
What’s Your Rupture?
Pretty new to the scene and still a small operation, What’s Your Rupture’s first full-length release, Love is All Nine Times That Same Song, has gotten enormous praise for the Swedish band’s lo-fi pop. With a roster that also includes vinyl releases for lo-fi imports The Long Blondes and Brooklyn’s caUSE co-MOTION, the What’s Your Rupture? bands are often found banging it out at The Cake Shop, and are turning heads with the likes of Pitchforkmedia.com and local hipsters.
When asked what makes him decide to sign certain bands, What’s Your Rupture? man Kevin Pedersen says it’s simply when, “You’re sure that a song is the best thing you ever heard. Your mind runs wild and you don’t have to think about it.” And should we send in our demos? “I could use some demos… no one sends me anything.”
One of the newest labels on the NYC scene, Downtown has come out of the gates sprinting with their first three releases: Eagles of Death Metal Death By Sexy, Art Brut’s US release of the much loved import Bang, Bang, Rock and Roll, and Gnarls Barkley (the genre-bending collaboration between Dangermouse and Cee-Lo) St. Elsewhere. Certainly the label’s quick success is helped by the fact that their infrastructure includes major label exec and record producer Josh Deutsch. Clearly someone who knows the ins and outs of the music business (having done A&R for big artists like Courtney Love for example), Deutsch decided to branch out on his own and started Downtown in 2006. The label has its own small staff and an office downtown (where else?), but a distribution deal through ADA and a joint venture with Atlantic Records in North America has really helped make these three big releases as big as they outta be.
What’s next for Downtown? Chicago band Wax on Radio’s full length titled Exposition comes out this fall.
LABELS THAT DO IT DIFFERENTLY
Before there was a VICE Records, there was the edgy Montreal magazine VICE that celebrated all things hedonistic. Pretty much your standard sex, drugs and rock n roll winning equation. And since rock n roll is a key part of that triumvirate, it was only natural that VICE would launch a record label. By that time, VICE also had a thriving NYC magazine, and Brooklyn ended up being home to VICE Records. The label has released albums from The Streets, Bloc Party and Death From Above 1979 amongst others. Besides these artists being pretty successful on their own, VICE has added to their appeal by making them a part of the VICE brand. Since VICE is so much more than just a label (presently there is also VICE Film, VICE TV, clothing, stores and even VICE Books, and their empire spans twelve nations making VICE an all-inclusive media empire!) their reputation for cheeky debauchery and good times leaves its mark on all of their products. Additionally, being so much more than just a record label, VICE Records knows better than to adapt any old indie label model and applies out of the box thinking when it comes to the way they operate and market their bands. This reputation for cutting edge thinking and music has led to VICE’S roll this summer as curator of the second annual Intonation Music Festival in Chicago!
As far as deciding which bands to work with, Jamie Farkas of VICE Records says, “It’s always been important to us that we get along with our bands, that we like them as people. We want to work with artists who we want to hang out with, go to dinner with, etc. VICE is a family.” She adds, “The one thing we are always looking for in bands that we sign is that they are career artists. We’re not about a first album being an end all or be all, it’s a starting point for a long life, and we want bands who see themselves having long careers and know they we as a label support that and will nurture that.”
She also assures us they listen to all the demos that come in, and there are a lot of them! “The array of the types of demos we get is something I find very flattering. The fact that anyone from an MC to a singer/songwriter to a noise band can see themselves having a home on VICE to me says we have proven ourselves as a label with the ability to break artists across the board, not just from a certain sound or scene.”
What is Nublu? Is it a venue? A group of musicians? A record label? Really, it’s all of the above, which makes this NYC label truly unique. Three years ago a group of musician friends, who had come from all over the world to find themselves in the East Village, got together and starting making music. Their varied backgrounds lent sounds like dub, soul, Brazilian rhythm and global beats to the mix. Out of that magical mélange came bands including Kudu, Wax Poetic and the much loved Brazilian Girls.
Not wanting the international jam session to end, saxophonist and composer Ilhan Ersahin launched Nublu the venue and the label to give these musicians a place to play and a home for their recorded music. Ersahin plays in several of the Nublu groups whose music ranges from jazz to world to electronic. The venue itself is tucked away, a small space on Ave. C, providing a cozy respite for these likeminded musicians and a showcase for some truly unique NYC melting-pot music.
This diverse list of local labels barely scratches the surface of NYC’s thriving indie record label community. And certainly the labels creating a buzz this year might fade away just as likely as they might launch a musical dynasty that will impress us for years to come. You never know. The encouraging thing is that there is no shortage of dedicated music fans ready to take the time and energy (and personal financial investments!) to independently release new music in this town. From the old pros to the young upstarts, NYC has countless, sundry homes for indie music. – by Liz Shcroeter
Other noteworthy NYC labels
KANINE / / Releases strictly NYC-based bands and promotes them heavily through local events: Grizzly Bear, Mixel Pixel, Mommy and Daddy, Professor Murder.
NARNACK / / They put out records that induce seizure dancing.
SOCIAL REGISTRY / / Purveyors of modern music and antiquated ideals. Blood on the Wall, Psychic Ills, Gang Gang Dance, Telepathe, Samara Lubelski, TK Webb.
I AND EAR / / They make records happen, in particular for folky or free-form indie bands and artists with a lo-fi appeal. Mike Wexler, Miguel Mendez, Robbie Lee.
AUDIKA / / Music from a NYC dance legend, and new music from NYC that will make you dance. Arthur Russell, Tralala.
SAY HEY / / Hey! With so many groovy local bands, that’s cause for applause! Shy Child, The Occasion, Cause for Applause, Inouk, White Rabbits, The Boggs.
ROIR / / One of the grandaddies of the local scene, ROIR started off 25+ years ago releasing live recordings from punk and dub bands. Badawi, Dr. Israel, Dub Trio, Dufus, Mike Ladd, Bill Laswell.
HOWLER / / Gritty garage rock all the way. Alice Donut, Bad Wizard, The Witnesses.
PRETTY ACTIVITY / / Their bands all posses a thrilling urgency to their thoughtful and well-crafted music. Aloke, Vague Angels, The End of the World.
BRASSLAND / / Specializes in music that blurs genre boundaries. Baby Dayliner, The National, Clogs, Pela.
GIGANTIC / / Very active in 2006, this small label with big plans has recently signed some extremely interesting NYC artists with a common interest in experimentation. Dragons of Zynth, Aa, The Boggs.