COMMENT: The rise and rise of the independent record label
WORDS BY HANNAH TINKER
Originally run by mavericks with little or no business sense, independent record labels turned the music industry on its head in the 80s. Their sound and aesthetic remains a huge influence on the scene today, presenting the latest acts to the mainstream.
As part of this piece we spoke to independent maestros of the scene Heist Or Hit. The label began back in 2008 with the mind of Mick Heist. With a backstory that’s seen him manage a number of bands, being part of David Bowie‘s tour crew and being an A&R team member in America, he’s got the career any music fan dreams of. “I was at a bar once and realised that Iggy Pop was on one side of me and Bowie on the other – it was so surreal.”
Factory Records, Rough Trade and Mute are celebrated age-old independent labels that have transcended their prime period. Factory was born in a first-floor flat in a crumbly Victorian semi on Manchester’s outskirts. Then for most of the company’s life, Factory was run from a flat in Didsbury, with threadbare sofas that served as a meeting room yet the company still received six-figure cheques from the label’s distributors.
Back then, independent record labels were run by an individual or individuals with a singular vision and passion, an untutored approach to business and a devil-may-care attitude to the conventions of the record industry. Of course with the update of technology and the introduction of social media, record labels have needed to take hold of their claim to music and a structural update was needed.
Take one look at the labels of today and you’ll see that image and aesthetic is a key step for success. Heavenly and Burger are branching out and staking claim to no particular genre that captures the eye (and ear) of the modern music lover but rather to musicians that are set for bigger things. Heist Or Hit have Honey Moon, Her’s and Pizzagirl on their roster – a selection of acts that are quickly making waves.
“We really don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into working with one style. We look up to labels like Heavenly and 4AD, labels that don’t have one set genre. If you put two of their bands next to each other they wouldn’t sound the same but there’s something that ties them together.”
The team see their position as not strictly a management role but more like guidance coaches, leading the artists forward. “The vinyl issue is a weird one. It’s always the elephant in the room. When you actually break it down to an artist and ask why it’s needed at such an early stage of their career – it’s more just a vanity piece for them.” Of course vinyl sales have boosted in recent years; anyone with a finger on the music pulse has a record player. But the costs for a young artist to produce say 300 copies of an EP on vinyl and then maybe only move a third of that – isn’t going to do them any favours. Away from the money-grabbers and game-setters of the industry, independents are affectively managing the finances of the fledgling acts too – ensuring that they make it as far as possible.
For the independent record label it’s a constant hunt to “open backdoors in the industry” especially with not having the luxury of a whole suite of staff as their right-hand tool. Organically, their craft is as independent as their process is. “We like to receive submissions on a postcard, something that’s got some kind of personalisation to it – not just a BCC email.”
It is worth noting that Adele‘s ’21’, now one of the country’s bestselling albums of all time, was released by an independent record company: XL. In an industry that is struggling to hold on, with streaming services taking over, it is the indie label that is reaping the benefits of adaption and experimenting with new technologies, thinking on its feet and being open to new ideas.