Look on the spine of a CD or record sleeve and you’ll see a combination of letters and numbers. The letters refer to the record label: some labels get creative, like indie stalwart Matador, whose code reads “OLE”; others simply drop vowels: Merge becomes MRG. The numbers are straightforward as well: Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out bears the code KRS279, marking it as Kill Rock Stars’s 279th release. (A caveat here that not all records use this cataloguing system, and things get especially complicated with larger labels: I have a Handel record from Nonesuch marked H-71127, where the initial 7 indicates that it’s a stereo recording; meanwhile the spines of my LaFace Records OutKast LPs bear only their eleven-digit serial codes.)
Viewed against a streaming service’s complex algorithm, the simple arithmetic on display in a small label’s catalogue might seem outdated, or even quaint. But new trends tend to mischaracterize the behavior that preceded them. The day-to-day job of a record label isn’t nostalgia, it’s logistics: getting records printed, packaged, and shipped out to the people who buy them. And people are buying them, despite digital media’s acolytes’ claims of the inevitable dominance of their new technology.
It’s not that the ecosystem of small labels exists outside the mainstream; rather it’s that the narrative surrounding technology ignores the fact that large players like Pandora and Spotify seek to create a mainstream that excludes smaller players by excluding other means of distributing music than their own algorithm-based models. Proponents of new technology tend to speak as though their novel advance had rendered old technology not just obsolete, but inoperable—as though, with the introduction of the DVD player, every VCR suddenly stopped working. What this discourse forgets is that convenience goes both ways; that for every guy who was sick of rewinding his VHS cassettes there was another who didn’t want to drop hundreds of dollars on a new media player right away and was fine with what he had. I’ll bet you that most people who buy records on vinyl don’t think they’re committing a radical act of retromania or luddism; they simply want to hear the music, and for them, this is a perfectly normal way to do so.
This isn’t to say that the labels highlighted below are focused exclusively on physical media; indeed, every one offers music in digital form. Despite claims otherwise, these labels are not clinging to an outdated model but continuing one that remains valid; the introduction of digital formats need not undermine it. What these labels offer to listeners above all is an implicit trust, a sense that the people who put the albums out are discerning about the music they choose to support. The number on the sleeve, ticking slowly upward with every new release, is a mark of that conscientiousness.
Paradise of Bachelors
The North Carolina-based label puts out a rich mix of reissues and new releases. In the former category, this year marked the release of Terry Allen’s Juarez and Lubbock (on Everything), each record magnificently packaged with extensive supplementary material and liner notes. For Juarez, these included an insightful essay by PoB co-founder Brendan Greaves; for Lubbock, an essay by Allen’s one-time collaborator David Byrne. These records not only make Allen’s music available to a broader audience, they also provide illuminating context that articulates why the music is so essential.
On the contemporary side, there’s clawhammer banjo player Nathan Bowles’s third solo album. Whole & Cloven ranges from plangent melody to rustic minimalism, mostly instrumental save for the goofy profundity of the record’s centerpiece, “Moonshine Is the Sunshine.” The mission statement on Paradise of Bachelors’ website describes “an emphasis on the South—broadly defined—and its global sound diaspora.” Bowles’s music seems to encapsulate that notion perfectly: rooted in the South, reaching beyond. (paradiseofbachelors.com)
If there’s a common aesthetic linking the Austin, Texas label’s eclectic roster, it’s the level of craftsmanship with which each artist goes about his or her particular brand of idiosyncrasy. The label is home to Brooklyn’s Ava Luna, whose indefinable brand of spastic angular funk pop contains peak levels of joy and exuberance that belie the meticulous complexity of the songs. No less intricate are the layered orchestral arrangements of upright bassist Nat Baldwin. And before breaking out with the deconstructed Joe Walsh act of his Father John Misty persona, J. Tillman had, in Western Vinyl, a champion for his early, subdued songwriting. (westernvinyl.com)
Matthew Friedberger, late of the Fiery Furnaces, put an oddity of a record out in 2012 called Matricidal Sons of Bitches. It sounds like a mix between field recording and lounge act—music you’d expect to hear in the elevator of a sunken cruise ship. This year, Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux followed up 2015’s In Plain Speech by adopting a stage persona called Jackie Lynn, appearing in a rhinestone studded white suit, red cowboy hat, and surgical mask. The self-titled record can be roughly described as MIDI country. JR Robinson has released a steady string of records as Wrekmeister Harmonies, leading ensembles large and small in performing extended compositions of orchestral metal that are at once beautiful and harrowing. All of these artists are supported in these uncommon endeavors by Chicago’s Thrill Jockey. (thrilljockey.com)
Simply for re-releasing records by German luminaries Neu! and Harmonia—as well as putting out later work by Klaus Dinger—Grönland has established its importance. The label does a continued service by unearthing obscure recordings by Conny Plank, producer for bands like Kraftwerk and a central figure in the krautrock universe. Among those newly discovered recordings is, astoundingly, a session by Duke Ellington recorded in Cologne in 1970.
The label has a small but impressive roster of current working musicians as well. This month sees the release of I Have a Tribe’s Beneath a Yellow Moon, a project of Dublin songwriter Patrick O’Laoghaire. O’Laoghaire brings a baroque sensibility that calls to mind Kevin Coyne, Destroyer, and Sondre Lerche—the latter of whom, early in his career, released a record on Grönland. (groenland.com)
The 1980s were the heyday of the scrappy-indie-label-as-heroic-enterprise concept. SST and Homestead Records were the early icons; now defunct, their legacy endures in labels like Matador and Sub Pop. These labels weren’t without problems—SST, for one, was notorious for failing to pay royalties—but in their very existence they represented a much-needed alternative to the corporate monolith of Reagan’s America.
Where once there was hope that the alternative would win out, now the enterprise seems more an existentialist struggle against the insurmountable. Either way, small labels are still putting out music that wouldn’t get heard otherwise. Austin’s Sundae Records is a vinyl-only label with a small but impressive list, including Jared Leibowich’s records with the Zoltars and as a solo artist—monuments of sparse melody and barbed romanticism. The label’s slogan is “Music. Vinyl. Fun.” That’s underselling it. (sundaerecords.com)
Earlier this year, Mexican Summer released Plaza, the third record by Quilt. Like that band’s music, the label’s aesthetic is retro only at first glance. The longer you linger, the more vibrancy you discover—a psychedelic pulse behind the sepia tones. The Brooklyn label boasts a diverse catalogue of contemporary artists, and pairs with partner Anthology Recordings on archival releases like re-issues of French disco pioneer Bernard Fèvre. This month, Mexican Summer releases the latest album from Weyes Blood, Front Row Seat to Earth. Pull up a chair. (mexicansummer.com)
Run by John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, together with Brian Lee Hughes and Matt Jones, Castleface has put out records by psych-rock luminaries Ty Segall and White Fence. The California label began an initiative in 2014 that it calls Castle Face for the Incarcerated, promising to send CDs from its catalogue, free of charge, to inmates imprisoned in the U.S. Brooklyn’s Sunwatchers, whose brilliant self-titled record of frenzied psych and jazz came out on the label this year, matches that commitment, donating a portion of the record’s proceeds to prisoners’ rights. (castlefacerecords.com)
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.