What Makes A Great Label?
With more new record labels being launched than ever before, standing out from the crowd is crucial to success. But if great music doesn’t necessarily make a great label, what other factors determine the success or failure of an imprint? We spoke to some of the most successful dance labels – and some of the young pretenders trying to knock them off their thrones.
Running a label is easy. The day-to-day process, at least. Anyone can do that bit. Running a good label? That’s a whole different ball game. Think for a moment about your own favourite imprints and what characterises them. Whether they’re genre-defining legends like Trax, Warp, Strictly Rhythm, Transmat and Metalheadz or more recent names like Hyperdub, Ostgut Ton, Ed Banger and LIES, chances are it will be far more than just the music, because there are many labels that release great music, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great labels. The true standouts are those that make your heart flutter when you see their logo popping out at you from a record rack – those buy-on-sight guarantees of quality and a clearly defined aesthetic; those whose way of doing things you admire; labels whose entire ethos you subscribe to.
“The best record labels are cultural icons that can reflect the times we live in.”
The best record labels are cultural icons that can reflect the era we live in as well as any social study. They are historical journals, forever setting in stone musical trends, format fetishes and other signs of the times. They aren’t just about delivering music to people – if all you care about is letting people hear your music, get a SoundCloud account. They’re about identities and stories, communities and, in some cases, whole lifestyles. The labels to which we submit and subscribe are those we consciously or sub-consciously allow to define our own identities; they’re extensions of our personalities, signifiers of our self.
Easier than ever
Starting a label in 2013 is easier than it’s ever been. Digital music can be released in your sleep and even pressing a small vinyl run is a fairly straightforward process. That said, 2013 is also the toughest time to start a label thanks to the ever-rising tide of homogenised averageness which gets released each and every day. No longer are 300 hand stamped, ‘limited’ white labels enough to get you noticed (except, most likely, for the wrong reason). Barely a day goes by without a new label being announced, and when pressed about their motivation for adding to a saturated market, all too many label owners resort to that trite platitude: “We just want to release good music that we like.” So where do you start? Is a desire to take control of the release process sufficient justification for launching a label?
For Midland, currently enjoying the success of release 001 on his newly minted Graded, it was “just a desire to present my music in the way I want to, with an emphasis on distinctive artwork and a collectable vinyl product. I want the label to feel hand made,” he continues, “from the artwork to the music; something that has the digital edges rounded off.” And with that he has an MO, the basis of a clearly defined aesthetic, a loose template on which to build in the future.
“I’ve always been a student of occult, quantum physics, new age philosophies and the esoteric, so we’re playing with these ideas very subtly through the label.”
Detroit sex-punk Jimmy Edgar had grander designs from the off. His new Ultramajic label – run with Machinedrum – has been birthed to “develop artists, develop a new sound for myself and take this visual journey more seriously. I’ve always been a student of occult, quantum physics, new age philosophies and the esoteric, so we’re playing with these ideas very subtly through the label.” Of course, it will take the passage of time and arrival of a few releases for these concepts to be implanted on the brains of those who buy Ultramajic releases, but if you don’t start right, you ain’t gonna end right.
And then there’s the format itself. Midland admits to having had sleepless nights deciding on whether to be vinyl-only before coming to the conclusion that “it’s not my place to dictate what format someone buys and plays my music on”. Jimmy Edgar also stresses its importance: “It can make or break a label,” he explains. “For us it’s an advantage to have a really slick physical product because we want to create monumental statements.”
Dixon Avenue Basement Jams concur on the importance of image: “Originally we had planned to just do white labels with no stamp and no info at all, but we thought after a while that would get boring for us and also, from my own personal experience working in Rubadub, white label records with no art tend to end up stuffed behind other releases on the wall, so we wanted something that would stand out on a record store wall and would be instantly recognisable.”
Not every label is conceived with such forethought, though. Since 2005, Yossi Amoyal has run the Sushitech label, home to luminaries such as Delano Smith and Steve O’Sullivan. “I always wanted to let the music be the driving force behind the label,” he explains, “rather than a release schedule or brand. The music dictates our schedule rather than the other way round, so we might have two releases a year or 10, it all depends on the music and if the artists and I feel right releasing it.”
At this point it’s important to consider the bravery – and by the same token, restraint – required to run a decent label. It would be easy to get sucked into a regular release schedule for a number of reasons – it keeps you in the public eye, you increase your chances of having a big hit, of becoming flavour of the month and so on, but once you set out your stall, you’d better hope you have badass beats on tap or you will inevitably have to lower your quality levels just to keep up with your own self-imposed schedule.
While avoiding the temptation to release more frequently and run the risk of reducing quality control, many of the label bosses we spoke to stressed the importance of sticking to a cohesive musical style rather than getting tempted to branch out into too many sounds at once. “You can find almost anything in my collection, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll release all these sounds and genres on Sushitech,” reckons Yossi. “If I did, it would be difficult to present the concise vision and message of our art as well as I hope to.” Critical boss Kasra puts it a different way: “It’s not a lack of ambition; you have to stick to what you know. Every scene needs labels that do their own, different stuff.”