Beer and Pavement

Ten Signs of an Indie Rock Label

Posted in Intersections by SM on November 12, 2011

One feature of this blog has been to use beer/ indie rock to inspire posts about the other. Today’s post does that. This time, I read this post at Boak & Bailey’s Beer Blog detailing ten signs of a craft brewery. They explain their reasoning for such a list:

We were pondering the hard-to-define, much-loathed term “craft beer” again this morning and decided that, rather than a firm definition, it makes much more sense to think about indicators or signs.

The following list, off the top of our head, is not exhaustive and, clearly, we’re not suggesting that any brewery needs to be able to tick all ten to be considered to be making craft beer. Equally, some of these apply to breweries that, instinctively, we wouldn’t consider craft brewers.

Since I have often made the connection between the craft breweries and indie labels (beers are the equivalent of bands on a roster; vintages the equivalent of albums), it seemed to me that a post detailing the ten signs of an indie label might also have some merit.

Like, B&B’s list, mine is off the top of my head and will only be enriched by your comments.

1. Vinyl is among the formats offered and is often their best-seller. Vinyl is saving the record industry, IMHO. It’s not doing anything for major labels, but it benefits high quality music for niche markets. Plus, with the addition of a “free” digital download, record collectors like myself can have their cake and eat it too. Extra bonus points for labels who also sell cassette tapes.

2. Their releases are found in real, mom-and-pop record stores. Sometimes, depending on distribution deals, one can find an indie release at Target or Best Buy, but this is the exception, not the rule. I know that I can pretty much find a label’s entire roster in small, independent record stores. In fact, record stores depend on indie releases to keep their inventory unique and attractive to the discerning indie music fan just as much as the labels depend on the stores to sell their product.

3. There is a unifying aesthetic to their releases’ artwork and/or music. Whether it’s the fact that labels have limited resources for graphic design or they got into music because of one particular genre, indie labels tend to be more focused aesthetically than their corporate brethren. There’s no better example than early Sub Pop. Before it was known as grunge, the music from Sub Pop just sounded like Sub Pop. And the graphic design, featuring blurry, black-and-white images of flailing guitarists with simple, block lettering denoting the band’s name, was as identifiable as the music.

4. Indie labels are connected to the underground scenes of the 80’s or 90’s in some way. The former underground rockers of our youth eventually turned the business side of the scene, opening avenues for other artists or simply giving them their own outlet for distribution. These legends eventually grew weary of the road and recording studios, often choosing to sit at a desk while younger bands carried the torch. The indie label has a clear lineage that begins in the 80’s hardcore scene. Those same characters play a large role in today’s scene as well.

5. There are actual t-shirts and other memorabilia featuring the label. No one wears an “Epic” or “Warner Bros.” t-shirt. I have yet to see a punk with a pin reading “Sony” or “Atlantic” next to his SST pin. In some arenas, it’s cool to promote your corporate overlords/sponsors, but not with music. Sure, kids wear t-shirts for their bands regardless of label, but only those who follow indie bands will wear a K Records or Merge t-shirt.

6. They are active on social media. Maybe this is just because I only follow indie labels, but a quick search of labels on Facebook and Twitter reveals that indies are way more active and engaging than major labels. I have had actual conversations on Twitter with various indie labels. I also depend on regular updates via Facebook for a label’s release schedules and/or roster tour dates. Because they are small companies with a personal touch, indies thrive at social marketing.

7. There is often one major money-making band on an indie label’s roster that keeps them afloat. Merge has Arcade Fire. Pavement is still listed on Matador’s roster. Sub Pop had Nirvana, then Iron & Wine, then Band of Horses, then Fleet Foxes…etc. Jagjaguar features Bon Iver. There are even better examples out there, but the fact remains that depend on bands who pull in major label-like dollars keep indies afloat. The good part about these bands is that they make enough money to resist overtures made by major labels and they insure that their indie labels will continue to put out great music by lesser-known artists because the profits keep their books in the black…or close to it.

8. There is at least one artist on the roster that is mostly there for street cred or simply out of loyalty. The best indie label rosters resemble the major label rosters of the ’70’s. In those days, someone like Bruce Springsteen could struggle for three albums before finally breaking big. On the other end of the spectrum, older artists find their final resting place on labels that love and adore them to the point that they’ll continue releasing their work despite diminishing sales. Dinosaur Jr still has a label because Jagjaguar gives them their due. A guy like Eric Bachman has time to hone his craft because of the credibility he built during his years with Archers of Loaf. Indie labels are loyal and they make sure good music gets heard, even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone.

9. Bands on their labels may define or establish their own genres and sub-genres with each release. I’ve mentioned Sub Pop before, but they are yet again another great example. There was grunge, then they seemed to single-handedly bring back folk music in more recent years. Other labels that may feature specific genres might include Fat Possum, De Stijl, Astralwerks, Jade Tree, etc.

10. Artists are seen as…well…artists or people as opposed to commodities or assets at a corporate label. Often, people at an indie label see each other and their artists as co-workers or clients at least. The focus is not on the profit they can make from a band. Rather, it’s about getting the music to fans. And the deals artists often sign with indies are so much more fair than what major labels will provide. Bands get a bigger piece of the pie, better representing the part they play in the final product. Sometimes, this can be for a loss or minimal profit, but it seems to pay off in the end as most indie labels are doing well at the moment despite the industry’s struggles.

What did I miss? What would you add to this list? Do you have examples that disprove my assertions or examples that add further proof? Contribute below.

One Response

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  1. Pop Culture and Beer | Boak and Bailey said, on December 13, 2011 at 5:03 am

    […] beer”* in a form as definite as the CAMRA conception of “real ale” is impossible. Defining “indie” is pretty tough, too, but you know it when you see […]

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