Only 26 when she launched the L.A.-based IAMSOUND label in 2006, Niki Robertson had been an A&R talent scout for U.K. label Parlophone and was directing videos for majors in the U.S., but was already finding herself jaded beyond her years. "I used to hate the tracks I was sent to work on, these cheeseballs signed to Sony who would get dropped the next year," says the lanky London native. "I can do better," she thought, and her approach was simple. "I went online and found bands I liked that weren't signed. Then I contacted them to see if they were interested in putting out a single, and then an EP."
It sounds so basic, and that core essence of the music business hasn't changed in a century: Find good sounds and release them. IAMSOUND Records, run out of a modest yet modish Grove-adjacent office, has done both quite well, has compiled a diverse roster of artists, including L.A.-born Afro-pop purveyors Fool's Gold, electronic-pop duo Telepathe of Brooklyn, indie-dance chanteuse Little Boots, the Black Ghosts — whose slick dance-pop debut featured a guest turn by Damon Albarn of Blur fame — and Florence and the Machine, whose soulful debut album was nominated for England's Mercury Prize. With 24-year-old Paul Tao as her right-hand man, Robertson's label has signed 16 artists in the past four years, and in March will start releasing a series of one-off singles called the L.A. Collection, by notable L.A. musicians.
"Our goal is to redefine pop music as something that envelops a lot of genres," says Tao, a native of Taiwan. "A lot of labels try to stay in the same ballpark, but we don't want to pigeonhole ourselves." Rather than signing artists to multi-album, multiyear deals, IAMSOUND handcrafts its deals, whether that means releasing one or two full-length albums or simply a 7-inch single. This is one of many factors that attracted Telepathe to the label. "We met Niki at [Austin music-industry festival] SXSW in 2008," recalls Busy Gangnes, one half of the Brooklyn duo. "She immediately offered to do a one-off single with us and we were into the idea of that. They never hid the fact that they loved our band and wanted to sign us."
"Indies are kind of dying out," submits bandmate Melissa Livaudais, "but [Robertson] is rising to the top because she and Paul have new ideas and really fresh ways of dealing with things. It's not the male-dominated indie stuff. They want to keep it exciting. They stand behind things they're passionate about. They have their own ideas and they're not subscribing to the histories."
In addition to bucking last century's record-label antics, IAMSOUND frequently pioneers ventures such as the L.A. Collection. Wanting to give a nod to the thriving L.A. music scene, Robertson and Tao decided to feature some of the city's rising acts. The first release will feature a new track by indie roustabouts Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, coupled with a song from low-fi, Smell-affiliated rockers Moonrats. Other artists contributing to the collection include Local Natives, Rainbow Arabia, Imaad Wasif, IO Echo, Pocahaunted and IAMSOUND's own Fool's Gold. Artwork for the series has been created by a host of renowned L.A. artists, including Aaron Rose, Ingrid Allen and Elisa Saether. They're also organizing an art exhibition at the Space 15 Twenty gallery in Hollywood, and a launch party with musical performances to promote the collection.
"As an L.A. label, we wanted to be able to bring together all kinds of music so people would see what L.A. has to offer," explains Tao. He and Robertson reached out to some of their favorite local bands to gauge their interest. "The bands were excited about what we were trying to do, so they started referring their friends and it just grew," Tao adds.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros front man Alex Ebert says he wanted to do his part to help push the city's music scene. "L.A. has something going on that's transcendent of the hipster indie-rock vibe," says Ebert. "It's not one certain kind of music. There are lots of different things going on and L.A. is evolving. It's starting to develop a real culture and community. It's such a triumph for L.A. to have a community because it's a sprawling car city. And we don't want to keep it a secret, indie or under wraps — we want to spread it far and wide."
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Danny Preston, half of the husband-and-wife duo Rainbow Arabia, agrees. "It's a great idea because there are so many good artists to pull from in so many different genres," says Preston. "Brooklyn has gotten a lot more notoriety lately, and London has always been like that, but I think there's just as much going on in L.A. that no one really knows about."
Rainbow Arabia, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Fool's Gold and Local Natives all had a stellar 2009. Two of the four bands (Edward Sharpe and Local Natives) recently nabbed coveted slots at this year's Coachella Music & Arts Festival, and all of the bands have expanded their following in the past year, not only among Angelenos but also nationwide and overseas.
Robertson and Tao have cast their gaze across the pond, partnering with eclectic London-based music shop Pure Groove Records to release the L.A. Collection singles in the U.K. "We want London to know about the L.A. scene as well," says Tao. "People in the U.K. see Los Angeles as a concrete hellhole," adds Robertson.
IAMSOUND is also concentrating its efforts on music licensing for TV and film. "Right now, music licensing is bigger than record sales," says Robertson, citing the Black Ghosts, whose popularity soared after they appeared on the Twilight film soundtrack. More than anything, Robertson says, she and Tao like being able to handpick the artists they feel passionate about. "We don't have to put something out because we feel obligated contractually," she says. "There are no channels we have to go through. It's just us."