Many factors are to consider when qualifying what makes a good label. One wouldn’t really trust a label that only promotes their friends’ bands since there would be a heavy amount of bias opinions and promoting. Yes, while this is a great start in building a community, once a label creates trust it’s only right to branch out further for artists who deserve a chance, while staying true to the label’s values.
With that said here’s a good list of record labels worth checking out while discovering music. Chances are if you enjoy one artist, you may very well enjoy others on the same label. For musicians, it’s a good idea to know what sounds are within a label’s catalog and choose a label who will represent your sound as much as you do when you perform.
- Stones Throw Records, Los Angeles – Of course Stones Throw would start this list. Based in Los Angeles and founded in 1996 by Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw’s story and collection is a perfect example of a reputation being built which continues to grow within the music scene in Los Angeles. Primarily dabbling in hip-hop, Stones Throw’s unique and diverse sounds can appeal to any genre, as well as influence just the same. Vex Ruffin, hailing from Inland Empire, justifies this statement being the first and the only artist signed to the label by a demo sent in, and as PBW recalls, a “fluke” that he listened. Vex Ruffin incorporates stripped down pieces of simple rock elements to hip-hop production. Each artist on the roster is completely memorable and explores sounds that are addictive. For indie lovers, there’s that too such as the dream-pop duo, Boardwalk. For DJs and any music lover, Stones Throw Records is one of the best labels that have redefined a label’s notion, as well as hip-hop. New Artist Releases: Mild High Club and Homeboy Sandman.
- Cold Busted Records, Los Angeles – Launched in 2008 by DJ Vitamin D, Cold Busted Records has a definitive “Stones Throw” influence, which is understandable. Yet, Cold Busted focuses more on beats and influences of funk and soul from the 60s and 70s. I’ve found great instrumental albums with solid beats, such as Japanese artist PigeonDust from this label, being the first reason why I dove further into this label. What Cold Busted leaves in the mind are compilation albums and backing beats, which producers and DJs may enjoy crate digging through this selection. A new artist release that just came out the end of last month is from Belgium producer and DJ Poldoore. The two-track release, available on vinyl, takes a lot of the past into his mixes, such as Bill Withers, jazz, and hip-hop. Overall a clean mix that lets you know that Cold Busted Records pay attention to the smallest details within their roster.
- FatCat Records, Brighton, UK / Brooklyn, NY – Starting in 1997, this UK label holds a torch for its approach and respect to musicians. Based on their philosophy that they listen to every demo sent their way, FatCat Records not only listens but gives feedback that so many artists appreciate. Not only is respect obtained from the artist, but as well from a listener, music lover, and blogger. In addition, they have two sites, one being the demo site, that truly appeals to their audience and their own personal “featured artist” selection. Some great artists have been picked-up through FatCat Records, such as Frightened Rabbit, found as a demo. Other artists that may appeal to new comers to this label, are Animal Collective, Panda Bear (obviously), Crescent, Paws, and even locals such as Wax Children, still featured on their demo site for 2015. Recent release from their demos: Jennifer, “Stay Awake,” smooth psych from London.
- Milk!Records, Melbourne, Australia – Founded in 2012, Milk! Records began as any independent label would by releasing their friends’ music. By 2015 this label grew and obtained the attention primarily of young college students for their expressive outlet. Not only for the musicians on their list but by shining the spotlight on Australia when discovering new music. Courtney Barnett, The Finks, and recently, Fraiser A. Gorman, represent the label for their indie and expressive attitude. In an interview during her UK tour, Barnett expressed that she began writing better songs in Melbourne and was inspired by surrounding artists in the area, going back to the saying “you are a product of your environment.” In this case Milk! Records does a great job by being a recognized voice for Melbourne.
- Sub Pop, Seattle, Washington – Founded in 1988, Sub Pop holds some association with the “grunge movement” with early releases from Nirvana and Soundgarden, but explored outwards as time passed. Another label that is heavily found at any college or non-commercial radio station, Sub Pop possess a soft heart for simply finding great music by artists they want to fully represent their taste. Lots of familiar artists circulating from Sub Pop are Avi Buffalo, Beach House, Dum Dum Girls, Flight of The Conchords, and King Tuff. Sub Pop seems to find artists that could be underground as well as commercial friendly. The appeal would be more so of the label’s “welcoming personality.” Holding to this statement, “We mean to represent these artists as faithfully and diligently as possible and hold out hope that this is enough for us to remain solvent in the face of the well-documented collapse of the music industry at large. We also enjoy laughter, good times and the company of friends,” Sub Pop is driven by feel-good music and its audience’s taste more heavily than other labels. New Artist Release: LVL UP, releases September 23, 2016.
- JAGJAGUWAR, Bloomington, Indiana – Pairing perfectly with Sub Pop, JAGJAGUWAR has a pretty tasty music collection under their belt. Founded in 1996, JAG is the Indie version of Stones Throw, suggestively speaking in terms of having artists that are memorable; when you hear the artist and the label that follows, there’s no doubt of its’ inclusion. With recent releases from artists such as Foxygen, Angel Olsen, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, JAG’s ear for great music could only have been developed from 20 years of experience. They understand what it is to be an independent artist, label, and above all, a music lover, growing with their artists and sounds from trend to trend.
- Secretly Canadian / Secretly Distribution, Bloomington, Indiana- This broadens the partnership with JAG and also the clever marketing approach to their long story. Knowing the back story of JAG, the guys behind it knew that you couldn’t do these things by yourself, hence the creation of partnerships. Secretly Canadian branches off into more melodic artists, and is an extension from JAG, by gathering more artists into a cleaner collection where they will be heard. Secretly Distribution, est 1997 (obviously the distributors) focuses on growing labels, and takes a step further with the ultimate goal of sharing gems of undiscovered artists with the world. They stand out not only for their artists but the contribution to the music community. Don’t get me started on Secretly Group– these guys are true music entrepreneurs. You’ll find Los Angeles locals Bleached under the Dead Oceans label, as well as FatCat Records part of their growing family. Recent release: Whitney “Golden Days.”
- Fat Possum Records, Mississippi – Similar artists to those on JAG’s list, such as UMO, these labels go hand in hand when discovering new music within the same vibe, like Melody’s Echo Chamber. Founded in 1991, Fat Possum appeals heavily to non-commercial and independent radio stations and publications. Creating quite a reputation for themselves, Fat Possum’s approach are focusing on artists that are just “good,” and hold a diverse collection. A recent gem on their roster will be four-piece Louisiana Natives, Seratones. Just listen and fall in love.
- Quite Scientific, Michigan – Mentioning this label for two reasons: 1) Took a poll and majority of people want more “indie” artists. 2) The design aspect of the hand drawn turntables on their Facebook page can hurt your eyes, but is genuinely enjoyable to stare at. If these two reasons don’t in itself testify how “indie” this label is, then let’s imagine you went to an Indie Deli, if such a thing existed, and ordered a sandwich with everything Indie on it…this would be that sandwich. This statement could either make sense or go horribly wrong, but either or doesn’t weigh against their diverse selection they are aiming for among the Indie genre. Founded in 2006, Quite Scientific has a good grasp of defining their own sound as a label of who they want to represent. Artists to test the waters with are Hollow & Akimbo, FAWNN (who just released their album June 17th), and Tunde Olaniran, who could be their unique find on the list.
Before I go on to the last labels, I need to relay a back story before the explanation gets a little messy, considering the ongoing battle between UK Hip-Hop and Grime. For those of you unfamiliar with UK music, specifically, hip-hop, what gets airplay are US Hip-Hop artists or Grime. To many, Grime is a subgenre of Hip-Hop, where others will argue that it isn’t at all, so classifying music, especially with these two genres, must be used with care to not mislead anyone.
Since its arrival in East London in the early 2000’s, Grime has a couple of distinctions from traditional hip-hop. It is a little gritty, hence grime, and has a “concrete/ jungle” vibe. It’s usually seeded with reggae, dancehall, and has a double-time rhythm. Personally, I don’t consider them the same at all, not even a sub-genre, but do think it has “extensive roots,” in terms of influence, as hip-hop is too many genres, but I wouldn’t use them interchangeably.
- Tru Thoughts, Brighton, UK – Founded in 1999, Tru Thoughts supports hip-hop, world, and electronic artists, and began with Robert Luis and Paul Jonas. Lewis was a resident DJ and ran this label “under his stairs,” which started as a place to introduce great artists for regulars at Brighton’s night clubs. This label carries a distinction for having artists with quality production styles. I’ve only seen a couple of Grime artists under their roster, but it’s still a mellow version of grime, still holding on to their distinct recruitment of “production.” Suggested Artist: J-Felix, The Runaway EP, 2016. Great if you love funk and soul production.
- High Focus Records, UK – Began in 2010 with the motto to “resurrect the legacy of hip-hop,” this motive falls into place with what is going in the hip-hop world in the UK. There are seriously some amazing artists on HF, and it’s a true reflection of trends (R&B and soul within pop in the UK), alongside genuine hip-hop. I truly believe that High Focus Records is doing something amazing, and not only are they sticking to the main goal, they are doing so where each artist on the label doesn’t all sound the same. The best description would be if Minneapolis label, Rhymesayers, had an English child with Stones Throw, taking the best traits into a refreshing movement. Suggested Artists: Ocean Wisdom (amazing flow), and Rag N Bone Man (serious soul and Brother Ali vibes).
If you read this far, congrats. Part two takes a deeper look into smaller labels.