Way back in 2006, The Deli surveyed the NYC label landscape to spotlight the different kinds of organizations involved in the production and distribution of music. Traditional record labels finance the production of a sound recording and then coordinate the delivery of that recorded product to retail channels.
Although the music business is still in the throes of a dramatic structural transformation that sometimes emphasizes music placements and branding partnerships above quality records and memorable live shows, the record label still tends to be the sun in the artist’s solar system.
Moreover, the record label still leaves the most indelible impression in the mind of the music buying public. All indie music fans knows that Interpol was launched by Matador, the same place that Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Jay Reatard have all called home, but very few outside of the music industry know or care who books their shows or who was responsible for getting “Untitled” to soundtrack a dramatic romantic moment between Joey and Rachel in the season nine, episode 24 of “Friends.”
Though their eventual irrelevance has been falsely prophesized in scores of editorials, the fact is labels still matter. They still matter to fans, they still matter to bands, and they still matter to other businesses both inside and outside the music industry. Although many of the game’s fundamentals remain in tact in that regard, a lot of the players have changed. Let’s reexamine the scene and see who’s working with whom, how they’re doing it, and what makes some of their methods particular noteworthy.
THE LABEL GROUPS
Name your four favorite labels and you might just name the four imprints comprising the Beggars Group, a consortium of affiliated labels that operate with artistic independence through a collective operational infrastructure. Although Matador Records, XL Recordings, 4AD and Rough Trade each have a distinct roster that represents different sounds and scenes, they do have one thing in common: an eye-catching number of New York City based artists. Whether it’s The National, Beirut, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, The Fiery Furnaces, The Moldy Peaches, Holly Miranda, Ratatat or Yo La Tengo, you’ll probably find at least one Beggars Group release in your music collection.
These labels have all been household names for some time (at least within indie circles) but 2010 has been a watershed year for the Beggars Group. XL and 4AD have each released records by NYC bands that reached #1 positions on the Billboard Chart with Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” and The National’s “High Violet”, respectively, in addition to several other commercially successful records. The Beggar’s Group is no mainstream outfit, but they’re hardly the hardscrabble, run-from-a-dorm-room type of operation that we warmly associate with indie labels. Whether it’s due to sharp business acumen or cultural shifts trending in their favor, The Beggars Group has become the premier purveyor of independent music in 2010.
This Greenpoint Gemini has also had a banner year in 2010. Between Best Coast, Real Estate, Ariel Pink, The Tallest Man on Earth and more, this label group has found itself with a disproportionate share of Pitchfork “Best New Music” tagged artists on its rosters. In many instances, these labels have only put out a single 7-inch for an artist, but that’s part of their model. Kemado was originally a conventional record label that released full-length albums by heavier-sounding artists. Mexican Summer was launched as a sister label in 2008 to release limited edition Vinyl products by artists that are better categorized in less-heavy “indie” subgenres like garage, psych or chillwave.
Most Mexican Summer releases are limited to a one-time Vinyl pressing of 1000, and are generally not made available on CD. The model has been so successful that Kemado has started to adopt the same strategy. Of course, these are logical, strategic decisions based on the artists with whom the label is working with and the potential audiences of those artists, but they are not dogmatic policies.
The rapid success of Best Coast has made for a quick exception; their debut album is a full length with a full CD pressing. Additionally, Kemado also runs Co-Op 87, a vinyl-only, limited edition record store located in Greenpoint next to Kemado’s in-house recording studio, where many of the store’s exclusive offerings will be produced. The Co-Op sells vinyl from all labels in the group in addition to a host of small, niche labels like Sacred Bones and Minimal Wave. These multiple operations help bring exclusive, high quality products to the corners of the marketplace that are more interested in good songs that can be played or turntables than in slick videos hosted on a 3rd party network.
FRENCH KISS RECORDS
The once devoutly post-punk label started by Syd Butler of the devoutly post-punk band Les Savvy Fav is not the same modest, niche-carving French Kiss Records we profiled in 2006. The former was putting out records by aggressive, guitar-centered bands like Rahim, Thunderbirds are Now!, The Detachment Kit and The Big Sleep; e.g. the kinds of bands you might see hanging out in small rock clubs in Brooklyn, or playing in small rock clubs across the country while on tour with Les Savy Fav.
The French Kiss of today is seizing chart real estate with high profile releases by bands like Passion Pit, Local Natives, The Antlers, Suckers, The Dodos and Freelance Whales. While many of these bands still hail from NYC and definitely play guitar, recent French Kiss releases sparkle with rich vocal harmonies, electronic beats and psychedelic soundscapes. Is this the sound a grizzled rock veteran mellowing out and changing strategies? Hardly. French Kiss continues to exemplify the core ethos of independent music culture: finding great acts first, helping them produce quality records, and nurturing them towards sustainable careers.
Les Savy Fav defined a sound and inspired a platoon of admirers and acolytes, some of whom found a happy home in French Kiss Records. But bands today are digging different sounds and making music with different techniques than they were in 1999 when the label started, and French Kiss has managed to keep pace without changing the way it does business.
Kanine is the record label equivalent of a Finishing School for Young Ladies, turning young, talented acts into fully developed artists of grace and beauty. From Grizzly Bear to Chairlift to Surfer Blood, who recently signed to Warner Brothers, Kanine top dog Lio Cerezo and his wife/business partner Kay Quartararo have a knack for finding promising bands and quickly developing them into artists with mass appeal. Of course, it’s not only the bands that have gone on to sign with major labels that are worth noticing. Kanine is also responsible for helping several NYC artists break out of the pack to reach larger audiences, including Depreciation Guild, Dinowalrus, Grizzly Bear, Professor Murder and Zaza, the last three of whom have graced the cover of The Deli.
When asked about the geographical dispositions of Kanine Records, Lio notes two interesting facts about the label that first appear contradictory, but reveal themselves as complementary upon further consideration. The first is that Kanine “is based out of Williamsburg and doesn’t really have much to do with NYC”, and the second is that “we are not just a local label – we sign bands from all over the world.”
Kanine can act globally while also thinking super-specifically locally because the Williamsburg aesthetic has resonated with such a multitude of geographically diverse audiences that its exemplars are no longer confined to the lands near the bank of the East River. So, although Kanine has prospered by in large part by exporting Brooklyn sounds all over the world, don’t be surprised if the label’s next acts don’t ride the L. The next Kanine artist could be from Berlin or the Bronx so long as they’re putting out a vibe that two ‘Burg dwellers in particular can get into.
The Social Registry
The Social Registry has put out a lot of records. At the time of this writing, they are preparing to unleash the debut record of NYC spiritual-psych-gurus NYMPH, which will be their 80th release.
The Social Registry isn’t quite as widely known as some of the other labels discussed in this article, but they are clearly not aspiring to crash the charts with any of their artists. It’s a dyed-in-the-wool experimental label. And that’s not experimental in the way that every rock quarter assigns themselves an experimental tag on their various web platforms – TSR’s catalog is really, truly experimental. It’s also very NYC focused. From the aforementioned NYMPH to Gang Gang Dance, Psychic Ills, and Zs, The Social Registry is plucking the best of NYC’s radical sound manipulators and bringing them together in a close-knit, loyal community of performers and listeners.
The original Social Registry compiled the names of prominent American families; the registrars behind this artist roster are truly assembling a who’s who of distinguished sonic experimenters.
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