Not Surviving, Thriving: Five Inspiring Indie Labels

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the rapidly changing face of music in the digital age, which has some people terrifically excited and others morbidly pessimistic, and most of us a little unsure, somewhere in between. Amid all the tumult, an interesting trend has emerged: in many ways, independent labels seem to be doing better than their major label counterparts.  

Why are indies doing better? Many say it's because of the smaller, more boutique nature of their operations, which allow them to adapt more quickly to a constantly changing market. Others say it's the indie's traditional focus on the artist and the fan that has them in good stead, both being particularly suited to the internet era.

What's more, all agree that indie labels can cultivate the kind of clear-cut, tastemaker reputations that majors, after years of mergers, can only dream of.

Of course, the line between indies and majors is no longer particularly clear, if it ever was––many indie labels receive backing from majors, and all kinds of partnerships and relationships have developed as the industry tries to find ways to stay afloat. And not all indies fit the mould of benign, music loving servants, as many have pointed out.

What is clear, though, is that there are a bunch of independent labels currently not just surviving, but thriving, finding smart, creative ways to put out music they love and turn a profit in a seriously difficult market. Here are five we like very much.

DFA

'We were a hipster party that became about music,' is how LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy describes the genesis of DFA, the label he formed with Jonathan Galkin and Tim Goldsworthy (who's also responsible for Mo' Wax records) in 2001.

DFA helped reinvigorate indie rock with a golden run of innovative, attention-grabbing dance-punk releases in the early naughties, while also functioning as a formidable production team, working on music for M.I.A, Le Tigre, Soulwax and N.E.R.D.

Now a decade young, the New York label has put out releases by the likes of The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, The Juan Mclean and Yacht, and in more recent years, Planningtorock, Benoit and Sergio and NDF. With Murphy reportedly wanting to focus more on the label now that LCD are finished, we can look forward to much more goodness from DFA in the years to come.

Stones Throw

LA indie Stones Throw started way back in 96', the brainchild of producer and DJ Peanut Butter Wolf. Stones Throw made its name putting out adventurous hip-hop by the likes of J-Dilla, MF Doom and the ridiculously prolific Madlib, who puts out enough releases each year to keep three labels busy.

In recent years, Stones Throw has broadened its scope, putting out albums by electronic artist Koushik, reigning prince of soul Aloe Blacc, third dimension pop eccentric Gary Wilson and James Pants, whom Tyler, The Creator calls 'one of the most creative fucking people to walk this earth.' Later this year, Stones Throw will put out Twirligig, the debut album by home grown multi-instrumentalist and producer Jonti.  

'I put out what I personally like and save the rest for the other labels out there,' Peanut Butter Wolf says of his A&R approach. 'I don't put out what I think the people will like, I put out what I like. This has worked for me so far, and if it stops working for me, it will be the end of Stones Throw as a label.'

4AD

One of the most revered independents going around, British institution 4AD was founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979 4AD as a sub label of Beggers Banquet.

In the 80s and 90s, 4AD put out records by some of the best and brightest bands in existence––Cocteau Twins, The Pixies, Dead Can Dance, Throwing Muses, Modern English and our all-time favourite Australian band, Underground Lovers.

'We did what we did with a lot of love,' Watts-Russell says of the label's early days. 'I don't mean to suggest that we all walked around with smiles on our faces feeling righteous, but it did, at least to me, feel important.'

Great taste and a love of music still drive 4AD, who today boast an amazing, diverse roster that includes Bon Iver, Scott Walker, Gang Gang Dance, Ariel Pink, Zomby, Twin Shadow, Deerhunter and The National.

Mistletone

Like most thriving indie labels, Mistletone began from humble beginnings, in this case a couple, Ash Miles and Sophie Best, putting out releases and organising tours from the second bedroom of their Melbourne home. Since its inception in 2006, Mistletone has become one the country's most successful and respected independent labels, having put out over fifty releases from the likes of Panda Bear, Toro Y Moi, Dan Deacon, High Places, Beach House and Ariel Pink, along with a whole host of Oz's best and brightest.

'Mistletone is a Ma & Pa label,' Ash and Sophie told us recently, adding that their guiding philosophy is 'simply to work with good people and music that we love.'

Ash and Sophie say they never take their survival for granted, and make things work by keeping things as 'simple and old-school as possible', running a tight ship and doing as much as possible themselves, trusting their artists 'to make all the artistic and musical decisions'. Unlike many in the industry, Ash and Sophie are excited by what lies ahead.

'This is a strange, uncharted, exciting time for recorded music. There's such a proliferation of new music, so many amazing records being made, and people's ears are more open than ever before. We're more excited by that than we are worried by doomsday forecasts for the industry. So we are continuing on with blind faith, and if we manage to survive and thrive, that would be rad.'

This year's festival played host to a bunch of amazing acts from the Mistletone stable, and you can rest assured that they'll be strongly represented again come the 2012 festivities.  

Young Turks

Like DFA, British indie upstart Young Turks began as a series of often raucous club nights, organised by then 20-year-old Cauis Pawson and a few of his mates in various legal and not-so-legal London venues. At one of these nights, which ended up being broken up by the cops, Richard Russell of XL Recordings dropped by. 'He was like, "Well, I suppose you need a job now,"' Pawson told The Guardian. 'That's kind of how the record label started.'

A free roaming subsidiary of XL, Young Turks has put out a wonderfully diverse collection of releases over the last five years, including albums by Holy Fuck, El Guincho, Glasser , SBTRTK, and their biggest signing, the xx.

Pawson maintains that 'there's no specific' Young Turks sound. 'It's not confined by genre, but hopefully there's a link of innovation and just trying to do something in a certain way, which I can't really put my finger on, he says. 'I mean, I never had any set mission statement, except just to do things that I liked and thought was good.'

We can expect to see a lot more of Pawson this summer: he's working with our own Danny Rogers on a mind-melting new Laneway stage. Stay tuned!

Win things!

We've got a lovely vinyl copy of SBTRTK's thoroughly excellent debut lp to give away. Just write to win@lanewayfestival.com.au and tell us what your favourite indie label is, and why you love them so much. Easy!

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