here are a number of reasons: a major label turned you down; your major label deal turned sour; you were already doing it anyway; you needed a place to release your non-commercial side project. But the artist-run label has, in nearly all cases, two things in common: independence from the major-label machine and a singular voice guiding its output. Below Stylus highlights a few of our favorites, attempting to explain the hows and whys these labels came to be and where they are now, while per the Non-Definitive Guide rules, leaving out a whole host of obvious and not-so obvious examples for that “next time” we keep promising.
How It Started: “Warm. Leatherette.” If you're a Stylus reader, you've heard that one. You've probably got it on a comp somewhere, sandwiched in between “Mind Your Own Business” and maybe something by Dinosaur. In 1978, a Londoner by the name of Daniel Miller, under the nom de guerre ennui The Normal, started a label to release just that one single, but then just sort of happened to start the One True Post-Punk Label. He signed, in quick succession, Einstürzende Neubatuen, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire (because someone had to and no else wanted them), then hitting the New Wave/Techno Powerball with Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Moby, then buying the rights to the ever-reissuable Can back catalog. That's at least two references from “Losing My Edge,” and, true to form, Mute has found itself on the cutting edge of more than its share of trends, like industrial and New Wave in the '80s, and techno in the '90s. Of course, you can't forget their experimental imprint Blast First!, which has vomited forth scree and terror from the likes of Pan(a)Sonic, Merzbow, Glenn Branca, and the very earliest records by The Sonic Youth. Why, that's just enough to rest your laurels on...
Where They Are Now: ... Which is basically what's happened. Besides the constant spew of reissues and back catalog pimpology—they hit the mega-jackpot during the Post-Punk Revival—there are always new records from long-time Muters like Erasure and Nick Cave, but the only major signings in recent years have been Liars and Goldfrapp.
How It Started: Durtro Records was divined in 1999 by the David Tibet, the foaming prophet at the head of the gangly, mediaeval “apocalyptic folk” project Current 93. The bulk of the label’s output is dedicated to C93’s assload of releases and reissues—nearly 50 since inception—often with Tibet-designed album art and digestible, marketable titles like How I Devoured Apocalypse Balloon, In Menstrual Light, or the The Starres Are Marching Sadly Home (Theinmostlight Thirdandfinal) (the thrilling 20-minute conclusion of Theinmostlight Trilogy!). Quintessentially artist-run, the label also offers Tibet’s colorful, abstract paintings and spiffy C93 tees with Coptic text, a very necessary accessory for any self-respecting 21st century Gnostic.
Tibet has also used Durtro and its babylabel Jnana as a curatorial exercise, releasing albums from some of his favorite likeminded artists, including Antony and the Johnsons, William Basinski, Nurse With Wound, and Simon Finn—an all-star roster of the meditative out-world. For those that find a home in Durtro’s rather specific aesthetic—the earthy, frightening side of mysticism and the occult, whether explicitly or implicitly acknowledged—you’re likely to be pretty game to trust the label; the Ghost Story Press branch of Durtro tests the imprint-as-lifestyle theory, pressing very short-run editions of strange, marginal fiction.
Where They Are Now: As long as the audience stays hot on a near-endless torrent of Tibet’s nervy jeremiads, Durtro doesn’t show any sign of stopping anytime soon. In fact, 2006 unveiled one of Jnana’s most ambitious and commendable projects yet: a five-disc set of mostly unreleased material from 75 artists raising money for Médecins Sans Frontierès to support their work on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. It might seem strange that a box set of end-times music would get your save-the-world juices going, but if there’s anything you can learn from Durtro’s success thus far, it’s that it just might take all kinds.
Started: Mid 1990s
How It Started: Making up band names and banging out crude artwork for nonexistent albums was a cherished pastime of the first few generations of kids to grow up enthralled by the idea of punk and underground music, but not able to readily access the tunes. Hanson founder Aaron Dilloway was one of those kids. When he started making music he continued crafting DIY artwork, spraypainting cases and silkscreening sleeves for both his collaborations with Nate Young as Wolf Eyes as well as various friends in and around Michigan. Aside from the deluge of cassettes and CDRs, Dilloway and company made eccentric (mis)use of a lathe, cutting their own records and even carving grooves into the bottom of CDs.
The transformation of Wolf Eyes into a trio with the arrival of John Olson—himself a prolific vendor of magnificently warped pieces through his American Tapes label—sent the band, their respective labels, and the broader noise scene into an ecstatic frenzy of output. It’s hard to write about the rise of Wolf Eyes to (relatively) widespread notoriety without mentioning the network of like-minded/sick-minded/out-of-their-minded noise freaks roaring away out in the postindustrial American wasteland (it’s no coincidence that Michigan is such a hotbed of noise activity). Hanson is just the shiniest tooth in a gaping mouth full of fangs, so to speak.
Fortunately for those of us late to the noise party—and for all it’s dismal imagery, it is a party, if a rather strange one—Dilloway has begun pressing real CDs, in quantities breaking double digits. A pair of reissues highlight early Hanson output: Dilloway’s Boggs Vol. 2, which collects two older CDrs, and Labyrinths and Jokes, a sampler circa 1998 featuring Young’s previous group Nautical Almanac and Dilloway’s cheap toy circuit-bending project The Mini-Systems, alongside others including Andrew Wilkes-Krier (yes, that Andrew WK—he’s a friend). Other major releases include the rotting synth pulse of Hive Mind’s Death Tone, the massive interstellar blasts of Kevin Drumm’s Land of Lurches, and the dark mindfuckery of Hair Police’s Drawn Dead.
Where They Are Now: Dilloway has been on leave from Wolf Eyes for about a year now, having traveled to Nepal and gotten married in the interim, but Hanson is still bringing the tweaked-out sonic mayhem. Small runs remain the norm, with recent releases including recordings Dilloway made in Nepal, a bevy of deranged cassettes including two installments of the Hanson Underground Series compilation, a 3” featuring his wife screaming, and Pedestrian Deposit’s Fatale CD (co-released with Prurient’s Hospital Productions). Hanson also distributes a variety of similar noise imprints, making the task of obtaining obscure tapes crammed with clatter, screech, rumble and hiss that much easier for us all.
How It Started: Having started his career as a studio musician (he played with Parliament/Funkadelic, among others), “Mad Mike” Banks started producing house and techno records in the mid to late 80s with varying degrees of success. When he formed Underground Resistance with the like-minded Jeff Mills and Robert Hood in 1990 (they departed a few years later), however, his career finally took off. Banks built up UR from a fledgling imprint (Banks owns a street race car called “The Punisher,” and the car’s winnings actually kept the label afloat in the cash-strapped early days) pressed on thin wax and recorded cheaply and quickly on four-track to one of the longest-running and successful Techno labels in the world. Initially, the buzz out of Detroit carried UR to the forefront; but staying on top since the bubble burst is all down to determination, hard work, and an iron-clad set of ideals.
The label’s sci-fi/military/mutant stance, Banks refusal to be photographed with an uncovered face, and the harshly worded propaganda found on many UR records is often misunderstood, however, as exclusionary or clique-ish. The fact is, UR has done a lot over the years to garner relations with the Berlin scene (the six-track X-101 LP was in fact the first release on the Tresor label), and has even made nice with the Windsor scene, including Richie Hawtin and Daniel Bell. While some may view his techniques as racist or overly harsh, they are really directed more at maintaining independent thought and operation on a musical label than anything else. If anyone is painted as a villain by UR, it is the major record companies who would seek to exploit Techno for their own greedy ends. UR actually tangled with Sony a few years back in a copyright dispute over the worldwide smash “Jaguar”; a lawsuit that UR eventually won.
Where They Are Now: UR’s back catalog is far richer and more sonically diverse than many give it credit for. The name “Underground Resistance” is actually a collective, consisting at first of Banks, Mills, and Hood, then later of other producers as the personnel at the label fluctuated. Over the years, UR has been on the pioneering end of minimalism, hardcore/rave style tracks that incorporated 808-derived acid sounds with stomping hard techno, frenetic electro, smoothed-out house-like electronic grooves, so-called “hi-tech jazz” which fuses electronic instruments onto jazz fusion structures with emotional, spiritual results, and more. Banks also co-owns Submerge, a very successful independent distributor of Detroit Techno records, as well as like-minded sides from around the world, and a healthy set of UR spin-off labels, including Red Planet, Los Hermanos, and Motech.
How It Started: Sunn O))) guitar gunslinger Greg Anderson relocated from Seattle to Hollywood, wrangled some office space and conjured a moniker out of Louisville’s “spiritual” lore, bridging Dark Lord domicile with Dirty South tipple. Southern Lord grew out of Anderson’s and brother-in-arms Stephen O’Malley’s desire to make available recordings of shared ensembles, Thorr’s Hammer and the legendary Burning Witch, both of which offered reductionist takes on Slintian silence-to-bombast, merging sonic water torture with Doom Metal drone, offering startling takes on a genre then just gathering slow speed. O’Malley took control of the aesthetics, covering product sleeves with artwork that comfortably blended Black Metal iconography with an horniness for complicated design, vector war, Missile Command linear style devastation. Anderson worked the business angle, drawing from inspiration culled from early Earache and Moonfog labels, using Southern Lord not only as a vehicle to deliver his and O’Malley’s work, but to also explore more marginalized forms of the genre, releasing extreme cases tired of taxonomical association: Grief, Boris, Oren Ambarchi, and Xasthur to name just a few. Eventually, distribution grew able arms, taking more and more Black Metal into the fold with bands like Katharsis, Deathspell Omega, Craft, Leviathan, and Nachtmystium larding the pantry.
Perhaps due to Anderson’s association and activity within ensembles deigned “Doom Metal,” Southern Lord has regularly been thought of as a label dealing exclusively in the aforementioned. Yet, both Anderson and O’Malley are hardly close-minded listeners: Both regularly trumpet their affection for mid-��70s jazz, especially the lysergic electric ensembles of Miles Davis, as well as more classically oriented folk, such as the Father of Fathoms Deep Drone, LaMonte Young. The release of Oren Ambarchi’s minimalist menagerie, Triste, is a case in point, revealing the “crossover potential” of Ambarchi’s noir tonal damage.
Where They Are Now: Southern Lord continues to grow, although its fascination with Black Metal alone appears to be growing, as Doom Metal releases notably dwindle. SL’s definitive feather-in-cap, the release of Earth’s Hex—Carlson’s first studio record in nine years—shows Anderson and Southern Lord at its best, bestowing a document of consummate quality, aided with provocative and scene setting artwork courtesy of O’Malley’s impeccable eye. Where SL goes next is hardly a guess, as Anderson is wont to loudly reiterate the dicta of Scott “Wino” Weinrich: “If it ain’t heavy, it ain’t shit!”
How It Started: Prior to the inception of PseudoArcana, Antony Milton—the man behind a gaggle of solo and group projects, ranging from the hillbilly pop of Swagger Jack to the guttural psych rumbles of Claypipe, a duo with Clayton Noon of CJA—ran Wire Bride, a cassette label based on the Southern island of New Zealand. Born of a surplus of home recording and a love of DIY production, Wire Bridge operated from 1995 to 1997, the year in which Milton began a three-year odyssey through Asia.
During these travels, not only did Milton’s music change and diversify—as his interest in drone and noise abstractions matured into distinct projects meriting different names—but his perspective on life evolved as well. He had spent his formative years in relative isolation, inspired by, but distant from, the New Zealand scene popularized by Bruce Russell and Dead C, and his music reflected his own introspection and devotion to rural New Zealand. His years abroad demystified New Zealand somewhat while mystifying the rest of the world. Eyes open to an amazing range of geography and culture, Milton became fascinated by humanity’s relationship to place, and by the unique sonic interactions that occur between man and its environment.
With these thoughts in mind, Milton began PseudoArcana to document site-specific improvisations and musico-spatial events. The first release was a series of eavesdropped recordings of street conversation in Wellington, dubbed to cassette then anonymously taped to the locations they were recorded in. Given the esoteric nature of the project and Milton’s newfound openness to and communication with the wider psychedelic music community, PseudoArcana soon evolved into a more traditional label. Now 75 releases strong, the catalog features every fixture of post-Dead C New Zealand, as well as a smattering of like-minded artists from England, Finland, and the United States. The label acts as an antidote to the boutique, collector-focused small label market. Milton strives to keep his titles in print and available for as long as possible, for the benefit of both musician and listener.
Where They Are Now: From obscure beginnings, PseudoArcana has become the premier purveyor of contemporary New Zealand experimental music and a major player in the worldwide psychedelic community. Last year, the label received widespread critical acclaim for the two-disc Tone of the Universe compilation, a collection of “covers” based upon the discovery of the B-flat drone emanating from the Perseus galaxy cluster. This year, Milton is building on that success with a CD release from Birchville Cat Motel and The Lost Domain, as well as a slew of CDR releases from acts known and new.
How It Started: Sleeping Bag began life in 1981 as a cooperative effort between Will Socolov and avant-garde / dance musician Arthur Russell. The latter had amassed a great deal of material, some of which was released by disco kingpin West End Records under the moniker Loose Joints, and some of which would see the light of day as the album 24-24 Music by Dinosaur L, which would be Sleeping Bag's inaugural LP release. Since Arthur Russell's own work has recently reissued, it seems only natural that some fresh reappraisal of Sleeping Bag Records should occur.
Initially, the label gravitated quite naturally towards material which reflected the same wobbly, twisted disco as Arthur Russell's own music - Konk, the Jamaica Girls' overlooked "Need Somebody New," and "Tiger Stripes" by Nicky Siano (as Felix). The first twelve-inch released by Sleeping Bag was not, as reported elsewhere, the much-celebrated "Go Bang!" by Russell's Dinosaur L, but the outstanding Larry Levan-remixed "Weekend," by Class Action, a track featuring the combined talents of Leroy Burgess and Bob Blank. Other important dance recordings for the label included an early production effort by Todd Terry, mixed by none other than "Little" Louie Vega, as well as the first mixing credit for a young Danny Krivit.
Gradually, the label began to widen its scope to incorporate hip-hop and early house sounds, moving gradually away from the anything-goes mentality of post-disco to a more overtly R&B; framework, keeping in tune with the changing times. 1985 brought Sleeping Bag's first big hip-hop crossover smash with Mantronix' "Needle to the Groove," as well as the sub-label Fresh, which would eventually break EPMD, while the following year's "Summertime, Summertime" by Nocera is still considered a house classic.
Where They Are Now: Arthur Russell's slow decline in health led to his death from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Sleeping Bag effectively closed shop in 1990, after Mantronix and EPMD had both jumped ship (for Capitol/EMI and Def Jam, respectively). There is some dispute about whether Arthur left Sleeping Bag or was dismissed by his partner Socolov, but the label itself quickly came to a halt without him aboard. Arthur Russell spent his last years constantly working on new material, leaving behind him a partner (Tom Lee) and hundreds of hours of music in varying stages of completeness. Audika Records has concerned itself with sifting through this legacy, while Warlock Records owns the rights to the Sleeping Bag catalog.
How It Started: Sonic Youth is an almost an indie cottage industry unto itself, with its various side projects and noise improv one-offs spreading out over countless homegrown labels. Meanwhile, drummer Steve Shelley has quietly gone about building a catalog of of rootsy, down-tempo lo-fi that owes a greater debt to Neil Young than the band's post-punk influences with his Smells Like Records label, over the course of 15 years and a few dozen releases.
Smells Like's first release was a 7-inch by Lou Barlow's Sentridoh, and true to those origins, the label's become something of a haven for side projects, including Dump (Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew), Mosquito (Half Japanese frontman Jad Fair), and Scarnella (a stunning and experimental 1998 collaboration between Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline of the Geraldine Fibbers). But Smells Like is more than just a vanity label for sidelines by estalished indie lifers, having signed a number of young unknowns including The Clears, Nod, and New York crooner Chris Lee, whose 2001 sophomore album stands out as one of Smells Like's finest moments.
Smells Like has also fought to keep cult heroes in print, including a 1994 EP by the reunited Raincoats. But perhaps the label's most ambitious project has been a 1999 campaign of reissues of solo albums by iconoclastic 70's pop songwriter Lee Hazelwood, including his first new album in decades. But Smells Like might still be best known as the home of the SYR imprint, which has issued Sonic Youth's series of experimental EPs, beginning with 1997's SYR1.
Where They Are Now: Smells Like still occasionally takes on new artists, most recently issuing debut albums by Ursa Minor and Tony Scherr. And they continue to foster long-term relationships with new albums by Christina Rosenvinge, Nod, and Fuck frontman Timothy Prudhomme, while Tim Foljahn has been hinting at a new Two Dollar Guitar album for years. The SYR series is still going strong with this year's SYR6, and Smells Like has handled the vinyl releases of Sonic Youth's more recent major label albums and its latest spate of reissues, including the long-awaited repressing of their 1981 debut EP.
How It Started: Hip-hop has virtually redefined the business model for artist-run labels, with nearly every up-and-coming MC now aiming for the ownership of their own company. And although Master P's No Limit Records set the standard for the independent grind in the South, no label has been more influential in popularizing the artist-run major label imprint than Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records.
Founded with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke after they had no luck getting him signed to a major label, Roc-A-Fella issued Jay's earlier singles, including "In My Lifetime," before getting distribution from Priority Records for his debut album, the 1996 classic Reasonable Doubt. It wasn't until 1998 when Roc-A-Fella partnered with Def Jam that Jay-Z was propelled to multi-platinum status, however.
It's to the credit of Jay-Z's marketing skills that he made Roc-A-Fella a recognized brand name despite being one of its only successful artists for several years. Aside from DJ Clue's two platinum mixtape albums, no non-Jay-Z release sold a million copies until Cam'ron's Come Home With Me in 2002. By that point, Roc-A-Fella had only modest sales to show for Philly hardcore rapper Beanie Sigel, Jay's Brooklyn crony Memphis Bleek, and the flop debut by female rapper Amil. But together, they presented a unified front as one of the most feared crews in the rap game.
The 2000 album Dynasty: Roc La Familia, stuffed with posse cuts, went a long way toward establishing the brand. But what really solidified Roc-A-Fella as a sound all its own was Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint, which made in-house producers Just Blaze and Kanye West the hottest beatmakers in the game overnight, and brought soul sampling back in vogue in hip-hop. And in 2004, just months after Jay-Z announced his retirement from hip hop with The Black Album, West became the label's second multi-platinum franchise with his debut as a rapper, The College Dropout.
In recent years, Roc-A-Fella haphazardly expanded its roster, signing countless artists who never ended up releasing an album, including questionable choices like ex-Spice Girl Victoria Beckham and several underutilized veteran rappers. M.O.P. was on the label for years before moving onto a new deal with G-Unit, and Ol' Dirty Bastard passed away while working on an album for the label. Meanwhile, rumors swirled of a growing rift between Jay-Z and Dame Dash, which they denied adamantly right up until their partnership was dismantled.
Where They Are Now: Def Jam were so impressed with Jay-Z's business acumen in running one of the company's most successful labels that in 2004, he was offered the job of President of Def Jam. But the terms of the deal included Jay-Z, Dash, and Burke selling their remaining 50% share of Roc-A-Fella to Def Jam, effectively ending the partnership that the label had started. Dash has moved on with the unsuccessful Damon Dash Music Group, and one of the artists he brought to Roc-A-Fella, Cam'ron, left Def Jam and dissed Jay-Z on record. Aside from Kanye West's sophomore album, the continued success of Roc-A-Fella has yet to be seen, with meager sales of recent albums by Memphis Bleek, the Young Gunz, and Teairra Mari.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-03-20