Written by Sarah Williams.
The role of the record label has changed in recent years. Small, independent DIY labels are popping up all the time, but they don’t have the capital to fund recordings or the clout to market bands to a mainstream audience, as a label would have done traditionally.
Instead, many of the record labels we love are started at kitchen tables by keen music lovers,often to help their friends or to release their own band’s music. Nowadays, record labels are a helping hand, a word of advice, financial support and a labour of love.
Outside of Shout Louder, I’m part of a team that keep the cogs turning at Lockjaw Records. Although we’re relatively well established, we’re not doing anything for profit. The reward for our hard work is seeing our bands reach new listeners and play bigger stages. Many label proprietors are passionate punk rockers, who simply want to keep the scene alive.
I spoke to some of the small labels I respect the most, to understand how best to support them.
Word of mouth remains the most valuable form of promotion. I trust my friends recommendations more than anything I see online.
As Andy Davies, of TNSrecords says, “If you want to support a DIY label, just spread the word about the ethos and the music as much as you possibly can. No small labels have big budgets to work with, so word of mouth is vital.”
“The best thing people can do to support independent labels is to buy music and merch, come to shows and support bands,” says Derrick Johnston, of Scottish label Make-That-A-Take Records. “Why? Because art cannot sustain itself financially by art alone under neoliberal capitalism and, while social capital is an excellent tool for the spreading of information and propaganda, it doesn’t pay. Sadly, under capitalism, by which we’re all oppressed, everything requires money.”
“I guarantee that all DIY labels sell far less than you think.” Andy adds. He acknowledges that it’s not always possible, but he implores us to buy things when we can afford to.
Working for Lockjaw Records, I’ve often encountered impressed friends who assume we’re making a living from it. Our team of five dedicates enough time to the label to constitute several full time jobs, however we do it solely for the love of punk rock.
Labels financially invest in bands to enable them to release albums, by splitting the cost of a physical release and helping with promotion and advertising, among other things. The aim of a release is rarely to make a profit, but purely to cover those costs. Some albums do well, others sit on shelves in someone’s garage for years to come.
By buying a record or some merchandise, you’re actively enabling labels to release more records, because any profit is ploughed straight back into the next release. “All labels need to be able to sell music to keep operating,” says Scott Bradley of Horn & Hoof Records. “[It helps to] buy releases when they come out.”
Bjorn Blomme of Belgian label Bearded Punk Records, gives a clear picture of how they operate financially. “Bearded Punk pay 100% of the pressing costs [for vinyl], then when people buy records from our distro we earn 50% of that. The other 50% goes to the band.” When Bearded Punk’s bands sell records directly, they keep all the profits, so Bearded Punk only earn what they sell direct from their distro. With a vinyl run costing 2,000 Euro on average, it’s easy to see how a label could struggle to recoup their costs.
“You can have 15,000 followers on Facebook / Instagram / Bebo / whatever,” says Derrick from Make-That-A-Take, “But if you only sell three copies of an LP you’ve pumped over a grand into because everyone is streaming on Spotify, you ain’t gonna be putting out records for long.”
Ultimately, though, it’s all about furthering new bands.
“It’s good to check out new releases, even if you don’t buy them,” says Lesley-Anne O’Brien, from Lockjaw Records. “Small labels put in a lot of work to bring you new bands, bands they think you should be listening to.”
Independent labels hear new releases long before you do, and they listen with a critical ear. At Lockjaw Records, all five of us have to enjoy and agree on a release before we decide to put it out. In a climate where there’s an awful lot of new music to choose from, you can utilise labels as curators and taste-makers, helping to signpost you in the direction of the best new music.
“Most labels are labels born out of love,” says Mr T, of Back From The Dead Records, although he’s better known for creating Lights Go Out Zine. “[Labels are borne] from a want to help build the scene, to promote bands, to help give bands a platform. Usually self-funded, if releases sell well and turn a profit, this allows the labels to invest in more artists, which is a hugely positive thing. Not all labels can be another Fat Wreck.”
“Any contribution big or small can really help a small label,” says Holly Searle from Hell Hath No Fury Records. “From word of mouth, follows, likes and shares on social media to buying merch and distro online or at stalls.”
“If you can’t afford to buy it’s no bother,” says Mark Bell, from Umlaut Records. “A nice share or comment always helps.”
“It may sound silly but even just sharing a news post on social media helps promote the label and their artists,” says Mr T. With Shout Louder’s articles, I see a spike in my stats every single time someone shares an article on Facebook. It makes a tangible difference.
“People who are spreading our news are super important for us cause they reach people we don’t reach,” says Bjorn from Bearded Punk Records. “We have a full [press] mailing list, but only a solid 10% posts our news, so it’s hard to reach new people.” Bearded Punk also host BPR Fest and a pasta night in an effort to reach new faces.
“We all know Facebook is very much against Pages,” says Dean Edwardson, of recently established Side Mission Records. Facebook have attempted to improve people’s feeds by limiting what users see from businesses, instead prioritising posts from friends and family. This can mean that a post from a label or band will only be seen by a minuscule proportion of their followers. As Dean references, “Just a few days ago Asian Man Records posted ‘35k followers and our last post has 42 views’.”
Although social media is generally free to use, this de-prioritisation of Page posts means that small labels have to resort to paid advertising like ‘boosted’ or ‘sponsored’ posts in order to be seen.
“Likes, comments and shares don’t equal cash,” says Dean, “But it most definitely helps with making posts more visible, which could lead to a sale.” He emphasises that this is especially important when a record label hosts a sale. “Generally it means something is in planning, and we could use help with the next step.”
Everyone also agreed that getting out to shows and watching bands is one of the best ways to support labels and well as bands. Next time you’re at a gig, have a look at what labels have to offer and have a chat with the proprietor. We all love meeting new music lovers, and you might discover some cool new bands.
“We try to help the labels and zines we [stock in our distro] by putting free stickers, badges, literature in with every order and providing a ‘freebies’ box on our new pop-up store,” says Dean from Side Mission. Although they’re gearing up to release their own records, Side Mission started as a distro for other small labels, donating 10% of their profits to Music Minds Matter.
There’s a wealth of small, independently run labels out there to discover, catering to every niche of music possible. They’re an essential component of the DIY music community, and a fantastic method of discovering and supporting new bands.
Want to help? Get out to shows, buy records or merchandise when you can, and help spread the word to your friends.
Written by Sarah Williams.