While it might easily be argued that record companies are a thing of the past in these days of Spotify, YouTube and all, the fact that they still exist at all seems to suggest otherwise. They are a necessary evil. Well, evil if you're one of those bands who are constantly blaming your woes on them, perhaps forgetting that you signed to them in the first place, and presumably had the foresight to read what you were signing.
But there is another way! Start your own damn label! Sign your own bands! And then, if it all goes horribly wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself. How hard can it be? Indeed, while the DIY record label thing really took off in the early days of punk — and if a bunch of punks can do it, then surely anyone can — the concept has been around a lot longer than you might think, with varying degrees of success. Let's have a look at some of them, shall we?
1. The Beatles
Long before the computer giants took a bite of the, er, apple, there was a little band called The Beatles who used the name for their own record label. Founded in 1968, Apple Records initially was intended as an outlet for the band and its individual members, the first release being the classic “Hey Jude,” but Lennon described the label as a place where anyone with a good idea could be financed. Surprisingly, it still exists today, although mostly, it seems, in order to sue its distributors, EMI and Capitol Records. Oh, and the aforementioned computer giants, who were sued for trademark violations.
Paisley Park Records, not to be confused with Paisley Park Studios or the song “Paisley Park,” whence they took their names, was founded in 1985 by diminutive pop genius Prince, who would later change his name to an unpronounceable squiggle after a feud with Warner Bros., who distributed Paisley Park. Which all sounds rather complicated. Basically, Prince had his own label, partly funded by Warner Bros. He fell out with WB and they stopped distributing the records. So the label closed in 1994. Other releases on the label included George Clinton's brilliantly titled Hey, Man, Smell My Finger.
3. Frank Sinatra
OK, we appear to have disappeared down the internet rabbit hole with this one. You know how it is, you're looking up one thing, which leads to another, and before you know it you've just discovered that Reprise Records — the label that currently handles such artists as Green Day, Deftones, Mastodon and Disturbed — was founded by Ol' Blue Eyes himself, way back in 1960. No kidding. What's more, Sinatra insisted that artists should have full creative control and retain their publishing rights, which is why early Reprise signings are often distributed by different labels. It's doubtful that Sinatra would have been “down with the sickness,” but clearly he was no American idiot.
4. The Normal
The Normal were anything but. Indeed, having released just one classic single, “TVOD,” with much-covered B-side “Warm Leatherette” (Grace Jones, Trent Reznor and Duran Duran, to name just three) and a very strange live album (which was blank on one side), you may not even have heard of them. You will, however, be familiar with the record label founded by The Normal's sole member, Daniel Miller, in 1978. Or at least you should be, because Mute Records' back catalog includes such incredible artists as Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode, New Order, Wire, The Residents and Erasure. The label was purchased by EMI in 2002 for an astonishing £23 million (about $33.5 million then). Like we said, far from normal.
5. Napalm Death/Cathedral
Named after the Black Flag song of the same name, Rise Above Records was formed in 1988 by former Napalm Death frontman Lee Dorian, who later went on to form doom-metal legends Cathedral. Started with a small government grant, Rise Above's initial intent was to release hardcore punk records and enable Dorian to afford the rent on his council flat, but thanks to his hands-on approach and a keen ear for great music, the label is still going strong more than 30 years later. Current signings include Angel Witch, Antisect, and the very wonderful Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats. Well done!
6. Jack White
You may be aware that White Stripes vocalist and guitarist Jack White has his own record label, Third Man Records, which is also a record store and live music venue in Nashville and Detroit, but did you also know that there's a subscription service where members receive limited-edition vinyl, posters and books? Cool, huh? Indeed, there is so much coolness going on here that there simply isn't space to cover it all, but suffice to say it's a record collector's dream! Hand-painted test pressings? Glow-in-the-dark vinyl? Records with 30 different sleeves? Where do we sign up?
7. Nine Inch Nails
Formed by Trent Reznor and his former manager John Malm Jr., Nothing Records seems to be a great example of what happens when it all goes horribly wrong. Although, in fairness, many of the problems appear to have arisen from corporate mergers, Nothing being a subsidiary of Interscope, which was merged with Geffen and A&M after Interscope's owner Seagram bought the two labels and … . Well, it's all very dull and overly complicated, the upshot being that a successful company whose roster included NIN (obviously), Marilyn Manson and Pop Will Eat Itself went kaput in 2004, when Reznor sued Malm for fraud. Given that he won the court case, one would imagine that he came away with more than nothing.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Shady Records, as you might surmise from the name, was founded by Marshall Bruce Mathers III, aka Eminem, aka Slim Shady, and his manager Paul Rosenberg as a way of putting out music by Michigan rappers D12 (of which he was a member). Eminem and D12's relationship dated back to the early '90s and they made a deal that whichever of them made it first would come back and sign the other. This done, Eminem went on to sign an unknown rapper from Queens, New York, by the name of Curtis James Jackson III, aka 50 Cent. Which wasn't a bad idea, since Get Rich or Die Tryin' debuted at No. 1 and went on to sell 8 million copies.
As has been mentioned, the whole DIY record label thing really took off during the early years of punk — continuing to this day — and there really are too many to mention them all. Stiff Little Fingers had Rigid Digits, Fugazi had Dischord, then there was Bad Religion's Epitaph, NOFX's Fat Wreck, Black Flag's SST, Dead Kennedys' Alternative Tentacles — all of them putting out fantastic records. But we would be remiss not to mention New Hormones, the label started by the Buzzcocks and their manager Richard Boon in 1977, making it the U.K.'s first independent label. Admittedly, after releasing the Buzzcocks' debut EP, Spiral Scratch, New Hormones didn't put out much you'd have ever heard of, but still, the birth of DIY punk pretty much starts here.
Yes, that Hanson! Those lovable “MMMBop” boys. The story goes that there was some sort of corporate nonsense going on with their record label, Mercury, so the band were moved to the Island Def Jam Music Group, which led to further nonsense about their creative output. Like they didn't know how to write a hit song, or something. Bugger this, they thought (or maybe something a little more wholesome), and they started their own label, 3CG, an acronym for 3-car garage, where they first began rehearsing. Their first release on the label, 2004's Underneath, sold 350,000 copies and the band continue to self-release their albums. They have sold more than 16 million records.