Before the DIY movement of the '80s musical underground, the record label was king. Emerging artists from small towns to musical Meccas — from New York City to Los Angeles — had little to no means of recording, pressing, promoting, and distributing their music beyond the established channels. That all changed with the embellishment of punk and hardcore pride — a sense of grassroots self-reliance that spawned independent labels like Dischord, Touch and Go, and SST. In the '90s, that movement inspired generations of can-do musicians to get their material heard on their own terms, and without interference from any third parties.
In the post-millennial world, avenues for recording albums in home studios with open source software or programs bundled with operating systems (Apple's GarageBand and Audacity) and releasing the finished product on a digital platform, allows artists to charge as much or as little as they'd like. Coffeehouse Wi-Fi also enables anyone with a laptop a means to distribute their music to the press as well.
However, independent labels continue to crop up, each one cultivating its own roster of acts and aesthetic identity while leaving a mark on the ever-expanding sonic landscape. Still, the question remains: Why do you need a record label when you can literally do it all yourself?
The most prevalent answer lies in a label's cultivation of a community of musicians and artists by inserting their ideas into the mix.
Johnny Psycharmy, co-owner of Psych Army Intergalactic (home to such experimental rockers as deadCAT and psychedelic hip-hop journeymen the Difference Machine) with Brannon Boyle, puts a more artistic flare in the modern indie label paradigm. "Running a label is another kind of artistic form," Pyscharmy says. "It's a kind of canvas painted with colors that come in the form of artists on the label, logos, shows that represent the label, fliers and other propaganda spreading the message. It creates a piece of art that's formed by all these elements."
Stewart Harding, owner of Atlanta punk and post-hardcore labels No Breaks and Muckman — the latter of which launched in 2013 with releases by El Fossil, Stevie Dinner, and MTN ISL — offers his own explanation as to why many indie labels launch. "A label serves as a great way to promote up-and-coming local artists as well as giving them great-looking merchandise to sell what may not have existed physically otherwise," Harding says. "Simply put, labels attempt to peak interest in an act or scene they deem undeservedly unknown or underappreciated outside of the home base."
SMKA co-organizer Mike Walbert, who specializes in hip-hop production and events, admits the sense of fulfillment by pointing out the creative people that surround him. "The term 'label' is outdated to me," Walbert says. "It's more of a team of people. We're here to reach more people and connect people together. You find other producers, designers, and artists all working with each other to create more dope shit."
Ryan Parks, who runs the experimental electro tape label Harsh Riddims, agrees with Walbert's appreciation of artistic connections. "A good label should help to organize the community," Parks says. "It encourages, it critiques, and it connects like-minded people. If one artist is having a problem, there's another to help solve it. That's when things really start to pop off, when the collective energy is focused in one direction."
Taking it a step further, Matt Weiner, sole owner/operator of CGI Records (Featureless Ghost and Jerome) and co-curator of DKA Records (Women's Work and Fit of Body), views indie labels as a necessary part of cultivating a musical community, whether local or abroad. Going at it alone is a detriment to both artist and scene. "While I am not opposed to self-publishing one's own music without a label, I'm really not a big fan of it beyond a certain point in a artist's development," Weiner says. "It feels like an isolating and fairly anti-social way to put your music out there. I find this especially true for new/emerging/unknown artists who do need to be involved in building or contributing to a community around their work."
Once the community is established, labels function like a time capsule taking sounds prevalent in a local scene, a particular set of years, and stamping them in time.
Amanda Mills, owner of Big Blonde, a noise-rock tape label that has released cassettes by the Sunglasses, Outer Gods, and God's Balls, offers her take on the phenomenon. "Big Blonde provides an archive of a particular scene at a particular time, which might otherwise be lost," Mill says. "Big Blonde's catalog is in tandem a catalog of really rad Atlanta bands over the past two years. I deeply respect each band and am really proud of everyone's work when we finish."
Still, others view the ease of musical distribution as a detriment to the quality of the music scene, as it has diluted the stream of new releases with half-baked sets of songs rather than substantive albums, EPs, and singles. Michael Rathbun (aka Distal), who co-owns Embassy Recordings, an electronic label that has issued sounds from Acre and Broodlings, speaks to the backlash of an overly obsessive curatorial spirit. "It's easier to distribute digital music nowadays and some of these [labels] are just abusing it," Rathbun says. "There's a new release every two weeks — it's oversaturating the market with mediocre music."
For reasons generic or deeply personal, labels continue to exist and crop up with specific aesthetics, mission statements, and ideals. Atlanta has seen larger institutions of the early aughts, such as Rob's House, Die Slaughterhaus, and Douchemaster fade into the background. Newer labels, such as Persistentmidnight, Harsh Riddims, Mission Trips, Scavenger of Death, Primitive Patterns, and Boris, follow the currents of the ever-changing musical landscape, with the old school having all but dissolved, taking with it the charm of the era in which it flourished. Newcomers embrace fresh musical allure within the local scene as they see it. Navigating wholly new avenues and philosophies comes with the territory.
This does not take about The Chirch at all.
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