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Label Launch: A Guide to Independent Record Recording, Promotion, and Distribution

Label Launch: A Guide to Independent Record Recording, Promotion, and Distribution

by Veronika Kalmar

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Whether you're in a band, a business entrepreneur or just interested in the music business, Label Launch will let you take your fantasies of holding the reigns at your own record label into reality. In fun, easy-to-understand language Veronika Kalmar takes you step-by-step through the intricate process of running a label from the moment you think about


Whether you're in a band, a business entrepreneur or just interested in the music business, Label Launch will let you take your fantasies of holding the reigns at your own record label into reality. In fun, easy-to-understand language Veronika Kalmar takes you step-by-step through the intricate process of running a label from the moment you think about entering the biz until your first CD, vinyl single, or demo tape rolls off the press. Topics covered include:

Funding your label
Maneuvering through the legal maze
Selling your product online and off
Picking and signing bands
Promotion and touring
Avoiding the most common pitfalls of a new label

And even tells you when it's time to sell out to "the man."

Kalmer has culled information from the best in the independent record business interviewing heads of labels who have made a great success and those that almost didn't make it.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Although it reads like the textbook from a high school sociology class, this work from Seattle-based music journalist Kalmar is essential reading for any aspiring indie-rocker or fan-boy who isn't musically inclined but longs to be a vital part of "the scene." Centered on the vaunted Pacific Northwest indie-rock ethic, the book is designed as a primer for those interested in starting an independent record label and, just as important, getting the music noticed. With insight from a cast of respected indie music heads e.g., former Sub Pop Records producer Jack Endino and CMJ editor Scott Frampton Kalmar discusses every apparent aspect of starting an independent label, from acquiring tax I.D. numbers to distributing product. The business suggestions and ample appendixes of industry contacts will prove valuable for bands looking to book their own tour or get signed to a record label. Unfortunately, the scarcity of anecdotes from the experts leaves the text rather dry, and one has to wonder whether Label Launch defeats the do-it-yourself ethic championed by the indie-rock scene. Still, there are eager musicians everywhere, which recommends this book for all libraries. Robert Morast, "Argus Leader," Sioux Falls, SD Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Label Launch

A Guide to Independent Record Recording, Promotion, and Distribution

By Veronika Kalmar

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Veronika Kalmar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7608-4


A Brief History of Indies

Many music purists think of indie labels as a late 1970s phenomenon, but the history of renegade music mavens committing their most beloved bands to vinyl began far before London street punks started sporting Mohawks and dyeing their hair colors normally only found on the feathers of peacocks. Indie labels have been a viable part of the music industry for more than fifty years. Punks merely rediscovered a DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic and a system long used by other isenfranchised but wily entrepreneurs who launched indie labels so a limited number of fans had access to obscure or emerging music.

The cycle works like this: indies keep their ear to the street and discover new talent while major labels empty the veins of the last set of trends built by indies. Some trends hit it big, others exist just above the radar. In either case, majors generally dilute a new sound so it appeals to the broadest market possible. They're big businesses, that's their job. Eventually, the mainstream industry falls into a slump and the general public, hungry for a new sound or cultural vibe, catches on to something that has been rumbling underground and the next megatrend is born. Indie bands sign to majors and become stars, small labels develop distribution deals with, or are bought out by, big record companies and in five to ten years, the cycle begins again — usually with new indies and often with new genres. Certain genres, namely folk, jazz and, to a certain extent, rock, always boast a healthy "underground" scene. Though the major-buys-out-indie cycle repeats itself at least once every decade, most indie labels fail to make their owners rich in anything other than the ability to share their obsession of a specific genre with like- minded souls. In other words, running an indie label is not a career, it is a calling.

1947-1957: R&B Meets Hillbilly Music

The first major wave of indies occurred in the 1950s and served artists of color and what was then known as hillbilly music. "Hillbilly" referred to Appalachian-tinged country derived from the folk music brought to the U.S. by Irish immigrants. As hillbilly music took root, black artists continued to develop different strains of jazz, blues, and R&B. Eventually, they reclaimed swing and morphed the sound into a high-energy genre christened jump-blues (which reemerged in the 1990s as the postmodern swing of bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy).

In the early 1950s, hillbilly and jump-blues collided to form a sound that caught the fancy of the world's first generation of teenagers. For the first time in history, young adults had extended their childhood into puberty. Rock'n' roll proved not only a perfect aphrodisiac for late-night necking but also an excellent way to trip out all-American parents who freaked as their teenage daughters screamed in ecstasy every time they heard the sultry voice of a white, southern country boy named Elvis Presley.

Elvis and Sun Records brought rock'n' roll to the mainstream. Owned by producer Sam Phillips, Sun Records grew out of a Memphis recording studio. The indie first gained attention by releasing rhythm and blues greats such as Rufus Thomas. After hitting the charts with five singles by Elvis Presley in 1954 and 1955, Phillips sold his star's contract to RCA and used the cash to develop future greats including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

While Elvis and Sun inevitably get most of the glory associated with the emergence of rock 'n' roll, numerous labels — the most notable of which were Atlantic, Atco, and Chess — contributed to the rise of the genre. Atlantic Records cut a path for rock 'n' roll indies by offering jazz and R&B artists a kind and welcome outlet. Formed in 1947 by Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertgun, the label expanded its format in the 1950s and released records by Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, the Clovers, and the Drifters. In 1955, Abramson formed a subsidiary, Atco, which developed a licensing agreement with the production and song-writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The duo produced a string of hits for the Coasters including "Youngblood," Atco's first single to sell a million copies.

Another major contributor to the 1950s rock'n' roll boom was Chess, a label formed in the first year of the decade by two brothers, Leonard and Phillip Chess. Using the Atlantic/Atco model to achieve crossover success, the Chicago-based label focused on urban blues with down-home grit by releasing the work of Muddy Waters and Howlin'Wolf. Although the brothers developed their most successful rock 'n' roll act, Chuck Berry, on Chess, they launched Checker, a label dedicated to country blues, in 1952. Checker carved out a unique niche built around the blues harmonica: first with Little Walter, harmonica player for Muddy Waters's backup band, and later with Sonny Boy Williamson. The label also released albums by Lowell Fulson, the Flamingos, and Bo Diddley, who eventually moved to Chess.

1958-1975; The Golden Era Of Indies

As the 1950s drew to a close, new indies emerged as a major force in the music industry; this despite the slow demise of Chess/Checker (purchased by GRT in 1972) and Sun, which ironically began to fail after Phillips upgraded his studio and consequently lost the unique acoustic sound that made his label famous. Between 1962 and 1966, independent record labels, as a group, scored more Top 10 hits than major labels. At the top of the heap stood Barry Gordy, who founded Motown in 1959.

Born in the Motor City, Motown holds the honor of providing the model for indie success: get an image, get a sound, and promote the hell out of both. While most indies of the 1950s had the first two, Gordy was the first to successfully market a label as not only a musical movement but as a lifestyle. Smooth, soulful, and stylish, Motown made savvy black chic safe for the masses. During the same time period, Vee Jay discovered the Beatles; Atlantic and Atco sugarcoated pop; Del-Fi hit the beach and Rounder infiltrated the U.S. via the post office.

Motown first achieved success in 1960 with the Miracles' "You Better Shop Around." A short year later, the Marvelettes hit number one with "Please Mr. Postman." Gordy, who kept a firm grip on his acts and vision, coached his performers on public appearances. With the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Edward Holland, he scored a string of hits by the Temptations, the Miracles, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Isley Brothers. The label's reign lasted through the sixties, but seemed to falter after Holland/Dozier/Holland left in 1967 and Gordy moved the company to Los Angles in 1973. Barry sold the label to MCA in 1988.

If Motown provided a blueprint for indie success, Vee Jay demonstrated Murphy's Law in action. Despite the label's early accomplishment as an outlet for black music (John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed), the Chicago-based indie — launched in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James Bracken — ran into an array of troubles during the 1960s. Vee Jay first crossed over to the mainstream market in 1962 and 1963 when the Four Seasons scored three number-one hits. Carter and Bracken also obtained the rights to the early recordings of a then- unknown band called the Beatles from Capitol. Unfortunately, legal disputes would sour the label's relationship with both their crossover band and Capitol. Vee Jay ended up in court when they were charged with failure to pay royalties to the Four Seasons, and after the Beatles hit in 1964, Capitol rescinded the indie's licensing agreement.

Of all the early indies, Atlantic and Atco weathered the musical storms of the 1960s most successfully. Atlantic broke the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and expanded their roster to include rock and pop in the midsixties. In addition to the cheery sound of Sonny & Cher and the Rascals, the label signed numerous album-oriented rock bands including Led Zeppelin, Yes, AC/DC, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in the 1970s. Atco continued to promote the evolution of rock by signing such acts as Cream, the Troggs, Buffalo Springfield, the Allman Brothers Band, Derek and the Dominos, and Iron Butterfly. Both labels continued to flourish well past their purchase by Warner Bro. in 1969.

Del-Fi, Rounder, and Island all emerged as labels that filled a specific niche during the sixties. After Del-Fi lost Mexican-American rocker Ritchie Valens in a 1959 plane crash, it proceeded to release hot-rod and surf music until owner Bob Keane put the label in low gear in 1964 to devote all of his time to Mustang Records and the Bobby Fuller Four.

Founded in 1970 by Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin, and Marian Leighton Levy, Rounder Records started as a mail-order company that sold folk, blues, and bluegrass records. It continued to thrive though the 1980s, 1990s, and into the twenty-first century with acts like Iris Dement, Alison Kraus, and Nanci Griffith. A string of hits by George Thorogood in the late 1970s made the ratty rocker the label's most successful artist. After gaining a foothold through mail order, Rounder started selling records at festivals, and continued to expand with genre-based subsidiaries.

Another of the era's most notable labels was founded on the isle of Jamaica by Chris Blackwell in 1961. At first, Island Records specialized in Jamaican genres including jump R&B, ska, and rock steady, but after opening a United Kingdom office in 1962, Blackwell quickly expanded his roster to include British folk and eventually rock. Although most of the label's West Indian catalog was eventually assigned to a subsidiary, Trojan, Island kept their reggae mainstay, Bob Marley and the Wailers. In addition, the label released records by the British folk-rock greats Fairport Convention and, after the group split, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. By the late 1960s, Island added Traffic and Jethro Tull to their roster.

Blackwell continued to expand his stable by negotiating deals with production and management companies that netted Roxy Music and King Crimson. A&M licensed the label in the U.S., and Island continued to prosper well into the 1980s with acts like Steve Winwood, Tom Waits, Grace Jones, and U2. Blackwell sold the label to A&M in 1989. He retained creative control, but resigned when Polygram purchased A&M in 1997.

1976 and Beyond: Back to the Future

The explosion of labels that began in the late 1970s gave birth to an array of indies and movements. Not only do small bands now market their own records via the Internet, independent distribution systems make alternative genres accessible to almost anyone with the desire to seek them out. Suffice it to say that whatever the genre, there are at least a half dozen indies serving it. Some labels simply distribute homemade tapes available via the U.S. Postal Service while others are well-staffed organizations run with loads of business savvy and street smarts. Many of the labels — Matador, Tommy Boy, Sub Pop — garnered such success that their histories could fill a book on their own. Still, punk, hip-hop, and indie rock had its innovators, and we must give a nod to Stiff, Factory, Rough Trade, Alternative Tentacles, Epitaph and 4AD.

Many would argue that punk rock sprung from the loins of American bands like the the Stooges and the Ramones, but it took three British labels — Stiff, Factory, and Rough Trade — to make the genre readily available in record stores. Stiff introduced the world to pub rock in 1976 with a stable that included Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Madness. Label founders Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman promoted their bands through packaged tours and the cheeky slogan, "If it ain't stiff, it ain't worth a fuck." In 1984, Stiff merged with Island and saw further success with the Irish folk punks the Pogues. After the Island merger dissolved, the label suffered cash flow problems and now prints only reissues.

Formed in Manchester, England, in 1978 by Tony Wilson, Factory Records focused on dark, danceable punk. The label boasted a well-crafted image built around producer Martin Hannant and designer Peter Saville who created visuals for Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, A Certain Ratio, Joy Division/New Order, Duritti Column, and Happy Mondays.

Probably the most influential label of the 1980s began life as a London record shop in 1976. Owner GeoffTravis specialized in punk records and set up a distribution network that eventually led to a label. Rough Trade released a wide variety of genres — agitpop, reggae, punk — and boasted artists from both sides of the Atlantic including the Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera, the Smiths, Stiff Little Fingers, the Fall, the Raincoats, the Dream Syndicate, CamperVan Beethoven, Everything But the Girl, and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The label flourished until it suffered defections and the Rough Trade distribution network faltered. However, the trimmed-down label still exists and continues to release new material.

Eventually, two California musicians, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys and Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, launched U.S.-based labels that carried their own and other bands. Formed in June 1979 in San Francisco to release the Dead Kennedys' debut single "California Uber Alles," Alternative Tentacles, the U.S.'s first punk indie, quickly relocated to Europe but returned after Americans bought imports of the compilation album Let Them Eat Jellybeans in significant quantities. Biafra followed the compilation with singles from D.O.A., Flipper, and TSOL, plus albums by the Butthole Surfers, D.O.A., Nomeansno, and the Dicks, to name a few. The label also releases spoken word recordings and remains artist-driven, limiting releases to one-offs (no multiple-album deals) and giving bands full creative control.

Although it sprang from the same root, Epitaph tread a different path in terms of growth and philosophy. Formed in the early 1980s to release records by Bad Religion, the label signed other punk bands including Rancid and NOFX. Epitaph experienced such success that Gurewitz left Bad Religion in 1993 to dedicate himself fully to the label. One year later, the Offspring released Smash, which sold eight million copies. Both the Offspring and Bad Religion signed to majors and Epitaph expanded their roster to include an array of swing and ska-punk hybrids.

Punk was not the only genre to tap into the strength of indies. Both rap and art-rock took advantage of independent production, marketing, and distribution to introduce crews and artists either a bit too intellectual or a bit too avant-garde for the mainstream. Tommy Boy, a New York-based rap indie, and 4AD, a British-based label, sat at the top of their respective heaps.

While the majors flooded the market with rappers boasting of their endowment, Tommy Boy primarily released material focused on social, cultural, and political issues. Tom Silverman launched the label that pioneered the fusion of rap with European electronic music. In addition to introducing innovative acts such as Afrika Bambaataa, Tommy Boy broke through to the mainstream with Queen Latifah, Digital Underground, and De La Soul. The label took a decidedly more commercial bent in the 1990s with acts like Naughty by Nature and Irish-American rappers House of Pain. Their continued success led the label to sign a deal with Warner Bros. in 1994.

4AD has remained independent since its inception in 1980. Formed by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, Watts-Russell continued to spearhead the label after Kent left to set up Situation 2. She did a phenomenal job by quickly developing a top-notch roster that included the talents of The The, the Birthday Party, Tones on Tail, and the Cocteau Twins. The Cocteau Twins set the tone and vision for the label. Their ethereal art-rock, and the distinctive sleeve designs by Vaughn Oliver's 23 Envelope studio, came to symbolize the label. Other major acts from this period include Colourbox and This Mortal Coil, Watts-Russell's own studio project. In the late 1980s, the label expanded their roster with Dead Can Dance, Wolfgang Press, Throwing Muses, and the Pixies, a band with a decidedly unique, but un-4AD sound. The Pixies gained not only critical acclaim, but also mass acceptance. As the label began its second decade, it continued to expand the genres it offered by releasing records by Lush, the Breeders, and Belly.

The most successful indie of the 1990s was Matador. Founded in 1991 by Chris Lombardi, the label rapidly expanded its roster when Lombardi joined forces with former Homestead owner Gerard Cosley, who had developed acts including Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Together the team signed numerous breaking artists, the most notable of which were Liz Phair, Bettie Serveert, Yo La Tengo, and Pavement. Their endeavors proved so successful Cosley left the States to open a European branch of the label in England and Matador linked itself first with Atlantic and later with Capitol Records. In 1999 they dissolved their major label ties and retained the rights to all their artists with the exception of Phair.


Excerpted from Label Launch by Veronika Kalmar. Copyright © 2002 Veronika Kalmar. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Veronika Kalmar has been at the forefront of the Seattle music scene as a journalist for the past ten years. She has written for The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, The Rocket, and recently the Experience Music Project Museum. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

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