Labels With a Vision

 Posted by
Mar 142012

He sees everything this time of year

I had occasion to listen to In the Charts: I.R.S. Records 1979-1994 in full the other day and got to thinking about boutique record labels. Labels started by one or two music industry guys who have a vision or a sensibility about music that they present to the public. Miles Copeland (brother of Policeman Stewart) brought together a lot of New Wave acts on I.R.S. with an emphasis on the commercial. They seemed to draw evenly between the L.A. and the English strains of the New Wave. The label had a good set of hits from the Go-Gos to to Fine Young Cannibals plus some great ’80s nostalgia one-shots like “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” Beyond the hits, I.R.S. had some seriously credible artists on the roster like the Cramps and the Buzzcocks.

Some other labels I might consider having a vision would be the Cali-scene Elektra/Asylum run by David Geffin (Eagles, Jackson Browne, Zevon) and Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, which was there to document the ’70s NYC Punk scene.

I’m excluding the major labels and vanity labels meant to release one artists’ work. Apple Corp, for instance, kind of straddles the line between what I’m after and a vanity label. Any labels you could look to for a certain sound or style, that served as a guide to the music as well as the medium of distribution?


  49 Responses to “Labels With a Vision”

  1. tonyola

    A few well-known prog-oriented labels…

    Virgin Records was begun by Richard Branson in 1972 with a very heavy emphasis on prog and krautrock. Their first release was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells which was a worldwide smash hit. Virgin was also big with the punk, post-punk, and new-wave scenes beginning in the late ’70s.

    Harvest Records was another major prog-specialist label that begun in 1969. They had Pink Floyd, The Move, Soft Machine, Deep Purple, Can, Focus, and dozens of other prog and near-prog acts.

    Charisma Records (aka The Famous Charisma Label) featured a well-known illustration of the Mad Hatter and had on their roster Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, The Nice, Brand X, Peter Gabriel, Hawkwind, Alan Parsons Project, and Monty Python among others.

  2. cliff sovinsanity

    When ever I saw an album from Slash records I was rarely disappointed. I’m not sure about their vision, but they were obviously counter commercialism. There was a strand of Americana/Underground on the label which I loved with Rank and File, Los Lobos, Bodeans, Violent Femmes, X and The Blasters. Though not completely independent (Warner Bros distribution) they sure made the 80’s and early 90’s suck less.

  3. ladymisskirroyale

    Back when I was a dj, I often chose a new record to play by the cover or label; there were so many choices that I couldn’t read up and listen to everything. The Royale Household nominates the following labels for their consistency and vision:

    4AD (and you knew what the covers would look like.

    Too Pure (thank you for the gifts of Stereolab and PJ Harvey)

    Grand Royale (chez Beastie Boys)

    Sub Pop had a lot of integrity at first although less now. Although I really like St. Etienne, it seemed a little odd when they started to release records on Sub Pop.

  4. Hank Fan

    Motown: a label and a genre.

  5. I have to mention my hometown Twin Cities label Twin/Tone. It grew out of a record store and launched a lot of bands to national fame or infamy — and they never completely sold out to a major label.

    The first Twin/Tone album I had was a 1979 compilation called Big Hits of Mid America Volume III, which is a mishmash of bands from the Twin Cities and Chicago but it really works. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth checking out.

    The local success of that album was a huge influence on the Minneapolis scene in the 1980s — local clubs booked Twin/Tone artist shows and it just fed a great rock scene. With the notable exception of Husker Du who signed with SST — nearly all the hip Minneapolis bands seemed to end up there — The Suburbs, The Replacements, early Suicide Commandos, Babes in Toyland, Soul Asylum, and finally The Jayhawks — their last big success.

    Here’s a song from Big Hits by a band called The Jets — a moment of late 70s glory!

  6. tonyola

    Blue Note Records – jazz records since 1939.

  7. machinery

    SST had a pretty steady line-up and went from the West Coast (Black Flag, Minutemen) to the midwest (Husker Du) to NYC (early Sonic Youth.)

    Also Dischord in DC was always a good hardcore local label with a heart and soul you could depend on.

  8. tonyola

    Deutsche Grammophon was one of those “Cadillac” labels who specialized in classical music.

  9. I kind of like what Yep Roc is up to these days — a place for the old timers like Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, John Doe as well as other major label refugees like John Wesley Harding to put out new music. Not all of it is great, but at least it helps them delay becoming complete nostalgia acts when they tour.

  10. Great characterization of that label. They’re like rock ‘n roll’s version of Grecian Formula for Men, not actually covering the gray hair of its artists but allowing them to stay in the game.

  11. Sarah Records. I could tell a Sarah release the second I saw it (much like 4AD a decade before), and I always bought it on sight.

    After a fallow period, both Merge and Matador are as good right now as they’ve ever been.

  12. bostonhistorian

    Estrus out of Washington State in the 90s could almost always be counted on for Sonics inspired garagey rock stomp. And I second the great 48 on Sarah, which was a fantastic label.

  13. cliff sovinsanity

    A couple of Canadian independents that have grown from humble beginnings to success are Nettwerk (Skinny Puppy,Sarah McLachlan, Ron Sexsmith…) and Arts and Craft who are making a lot noise with Broken Social Scene, Feist, Stars and The Stills.
    And while I’m at it, a tip of the hat to Stony Plain, Sonic Unyon, and MapleMusic.

  14. ladymisskirroyale


  15. Happiness Stan

    UK punk and new wave wouldn’t have happened without this sort of label, all of whose lesser signings sold more records and are better remembered than they would have been if EMI had got hold of them first.

    Stiff – (The Damned/Elvis Costello/Ian Dury) – wacky left-field pub rock posing as real punk, with great graphics and self-promotion,

    Rough Trade (The Fall/Young Marble Giants/Scritti Politti/Raincoats, later the Smiths) – home-made look coming out of a shop in a rough bit of London, most of the records sounded as if they’d been made by tone-deaf adolescents with a cassette player hidden inside a metal dustbin, but without whom post-punk and “indie” would have struggled to happen.

    Factory (Joy Division/New Order/Durutti Column/A Certain Ratio) – Stiff’s more serious younger brother, oozing with serious arty gloominess with a very dry British sense of humour operating .

    Cherry Red (Monochrome Set/Felt/Everything But the Girl) – often overlooked, the missing link between Rough Trade and Sarah Records, released a couple of great samplers for virtually no money which sold in huge quantities and practically invented Twee.

    Beggars Banquet (The Fall (again) /The Lurkers/ Associates/ Icicle Works) – again, modelled on Stiff/Rough Trade, lots of dark gloomy graphics, Goth before its time.

    Back in the days when rock was young and me and Susie had so much fun, Motown and Island.

  16. Stiff was the first label of this sort that came to mind for me. As Happiness Stan points out, their strong graphics identity was a major selling point. I like that in these types of labels, such as the graphics across Ralph Records releases, although that label was so Residents heavy that I don’t know it counts.

    In my college years I bought a lot of Editions E.G. releases. They put out so many Fripp and Eno-associated records that I used to think those two owned the label. Turns out, as I just read, the label was owned by two of King Crimson’s early managers.

    I’ve told this story before, but during a high school trip to NYC I got a big kick out of walking into tiny 99 Records with my friends and bandmates Sethro, andyr, and our original faux bassist (ie, he often played with his volume turned off) and walking out with Sethro clutching a new EP by ESG. This was part of a day spent walking – unannounced – into as many tiny and mid-sized labels as we could locate and dropping off our first demo tape. We would never display such balls again.

  17. Sugarhill was one of the most successful of these types of labels!

  18. I remember seeing the Famous Charisma Label and being kind of bummed all my Gabriel-era Genesis records were on some bland U.S. major label (Atco, Atlantic?)

  19. bostonhistorian

    You might enjoy Alex Ogg’s book “Independence Days: The Story of UK Independent Record Labels” which covers the history of each of those labels, and throws in some even smaller ones like Postcard, Good Vibrations, and New Hormones….

  20. bostonhistorian

    I think there is a real need for “The Complete Sarah Records”. Someone needs to get on that.

  21. As expected, you guys have hit on the all of the labels I considered while brain-storming this topic (Stiff, 4AD and Factory) and added some great ones I forget or never knew in the first place.

    One that hit me this morning was the 1st wave ska label, Two Tone. The This Are Two Tone comp is a great listen straight through.

  22. bostonhistorian

    This blog covers the work of Barney Bubbles, the graphic designer behind much of Stiff’s packaging:

  23. Atlantic was an indie at one point and their (read “Ahmet Ertegun’s”) vision was fantastic. The talent they had on both the artistic side (the Coasters, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, the Drifters, Professor Longhair, Aretha Franklin) and the production side (Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler, the Ertegun brothers) is unparalleled.

    Stax is another favorite. I’ve always preferred this song factory/label to its slicker Detroit counterpart.

    Also, when Rhino first came on my radar, I would buy their reissued discs just based on the fact that they were Rhino products. They did a great job acting as a gate way to artists from the past who I had heard of but never actually heard.

  24. Good call on Stax. The only cassette tape still rotation at my house is a Stax compilation that is just smokin’.

  25. machinery

    Anyone mention Touch and Go? They’re having a renaissance of sorts I believe.

  26. Re: Motown/Stax. Those two never came to mind for me even those the label names are enough to describe the sound. Isn’t it easier to control these things if everyone records with the same songwriters and backing musicians?

  27. Thanks! That will be some time well spent.

  28. Oops! sorry about that unnecessary coma in “its”

  29. Happiness Stan

    I found one someone had put together on a blog some years ago, but admit to giving up about halfway through, a legitimate box set would be good.

    “Feral Pop Frenzy” by Even As We Speak is quite possibly my favourite feel-good album of all time and I saw them playing in Oxford at the time, there were about twenty people in the audience and I understand that other dates they played on their single tour of the UK were similarly attended. I wrote to them to tell them they were wonderful and they wrote a lovely letter back. Happy days…

  30. Happiness Stan

    I very probably would – I’m still reading the book I started reading on holiday in August 2010, although I’ve also been reading John French’s book on Beefheart since March 2011 as well. I used to get time to read, and then we had kids! I’ll see if I can track a copy down and it can be the third book piled up on my bedside table, it sounds just up my alley, thanks for the recommendation!

  31. Happiness Stan

    Two Tone is a great example, and very typical of the time over here, set up in somebody’s bedroom for no money to promote the music rather than make money for the Man.

    It amazes me how few of the Indie labels over here sold out, or even if they were bought out by majors it was through necessity rather than choice, and those that did still managed to maintain a creative vision despite being owned by someone with the creativity of an insect.

  32. BigSteve

    Yes, Merge was the first label that came to mind for me.

  33. 2000 Man

    These days I can count on Alive Naturalsound Records. They have a ton o bands that I really like, and I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed in a release on that label. I like all their Peter Case related releases like The Nerves and Plimsouls, and I’m a big fan of Radio Moscow and The Bloody Hollies for newer stuff. If you like guitars, Alive has records that will kick your ass.

    In the Red has lots and lots of great Detroit music. I don’t come across them all the time, but I have some Dirtbombs and Reigning Sound records. In the Red is usually cheap, too.

  34. ladymisskirroyale

    We have “Air Balloon Road, A Sarah Compilation.” It features The Orchids, Another Sunny Day, The Sea Urchins, The Field Mice (!), St. Christopher (!!), Gentle Despite, The Golden Dawn, The Wake, Brighter, 14 Iced Bears (!!!), The Springfields, Action Painting!, and The Poppyheads.

  35. ladymisskirroyale

    Mmmm, Postcard Records.

  36. ladymisskirroyale

    I’m making a compilation for a friend’s 50th b-day and I got a lot off of This Are Two Tone, one of my favorite compilations. And it had great graphics.

    We need to have further discussion about the periodic ska revivals. When I lived in RI in the late 80’s through early 00’s, ska was pretty popular. I used to love going to clubs to see all the natty dressers and their versions of the 2-Tone dancers. Could we just add an image to the RTH image bank of Madness doing their “One Step Beyond” dance? (Even if they are, in the words of Mr. Royale, the Sha Na Na of Ska.)

  37. Happiness Stan

    Coming up to fifty myself, I was a bit old to get totally immersed in Two Tone, although Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster did a lot to spark my initial love of pop before I grew up a bit and insisted on calling it rock instead. Met and spoke briefly to Neville Staple at a tiny festival a couple of years ago, what a lovely bloke! Put on a great show as well. Pauline Black/The Selecter are astonishing live, and the Bodysnatchers are great live too, despite the records being fairly low down in the Two Tone pecking order over here.

    I get the sense that the (English as you call them) Beat get a lot more kudos in the States than over here, where they were viewed as a bit second rate and bordering on irritating, a view to which I have always subscribed and am not likely to be dissuaded from easily.

    Madness are practically light entertainment royalty over here, the Sha Na Na of Ska is a new one on me, and superficially apt, it’s easy to pass over their dark side. The Specials are taken incredibly seriously, even more seriously than they took themselves at the height of their success.

  38. Happiness Stan

    Sorry HF, I missed your comment when nominating Motown below, not only their own unassailable genre, but wrote the rulebook for every label aspiring to its own vision for ever after.

  39. diskojoe

    I was going to mention Stax Records, but I got beaten to it, so I’ll add Norton Records to the mix,

  40. Get Hip comes to mind.

  41. ladymisskirroyale

    I continue to be a fan of Terri “Mum, I want to go home” Hall and 99% of the things he’s done.

    I first heard all the 2 Tone bands when my sister came back to the states after a year at the University of Sussex. The leftist leanings of that school translated into altering her AZ am radio pop sentiments through one amazing cassette that a friend from there had made her. It was entitled “Synth and Ska.” The Ska side was most of the 2 Tone oeuvre, and it was the first time that I had also heard that The Beat were second rate and therefore not worthy of including on the compilation. Interestingly (at least for me) I have no recollection of what was on the Synth side of that amazing compilation.

    I’d also heard The Selector when the toured the states around ’90 or so and even have (somewhere) a poster from that show. She has a great voice, and like you said, was very friendly.

  42. ladymisskirroyale

    Oops. I love Terry so much that I misspelled his name!

  43. I’ve been meaning to check in on this. I think the first 2 Specials albums were excellent. The first one is kind of perfect and should have been the beginning and end of the straight-up ska revival. It had the qualities of the original stuff with a punk energy. Ska revivals since the original Two Tone bands usually bum me out, frequently becoming their own version of one too many eras of New Orleans, rockabilly, or garage rock revivalism. Most of any of that stuff makes me think we could be sending people to the moon instead.

    The second Specials album and I think the English Beat albums, as we do know them, have more value as ska-informed pop music than anything actually “traditional.” Probably Madness too, although I can never warm up to them thanks, in large part, to their production. I think of the English Beat, especially, as being more in line with Costello, Squeeze, XTC, et al than the Two Tone bands. I think they used ska the way the more pub rock-based musicians, like Costello, Squeeze, and XTC, used punk rock. The initial ska-based gimmick of the English Beat was catchy, but after all these years I prefer to hear one of their more “wussy” pop songs, like “Sooner or Later.” I think that stuff is what they were really about.

  44. tonyola

    I too like the two Specials albums, but I also like Madness, who never took themselves too seriously and occasionally came up with brilliant stuff like “House of Fun” and “Night Boat to Cairo”.

  45. bostonhistorian

    Calling Madness the Sha Na Na of ska is pretty harsh. I’ve never thought of them as a ska band, rather a pop band that happens to play some ska.

  46. ladymisskirroyale

    I’m particularly fond of “Twist and Crawl” and “March of the Swivelheads.”

    I didn’t care for ska when it got mixed with some steroids, see Mighty Mighty Bosstones. But in general if it has a ska beat, I enjoy it.

  47. Ska on steroids is a perfect description of what went wrong with that music the more times it was revived!

  48. hrrundivbakshi

    Surprised nobody’s mentioned the twin giants of indie blues labels, Rounder and Alligator. Those two labels were run with integrity, in a field where there’s a LOT of bluesman wannabe crap to sort through.

  49. I’m glad to see you’re coming around on Thorogood’s early works.

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