Do Record Labels Still Matter?

The other week, Bob Boilen, Stephen Thompson, Robin Hilton and I recorded a show about record labels. The idea was to come up with a few labels that held personal significance for each of us. None of us found the task difficult. From Harvest to Sub Pop to ECM, we played songs from the labels' rosters and discussed the process of discovering not just the bands, but also the worlds they inhabited. In other words, the labels acted as a gateway: into a scene, genre, aesthetic and even worldview.

Yet one thing we noted quite early on in the show is that there exists a huge generation gap between those who care about and know what label a band is on (or was on), and those who don't know and don't see that distinction as important. Personally, I'm in the former category, but I still have to ask: Do record labels matter?

I'll admit that there are a lot of current bands whose label affiliation for me is murky. Maybe my knowledge is lacking due to the sheer number of bands that exist today, and thus I can't keep track; maybe it's because bands release songs on their own or solely in the digital realm. But I also think that the concept of loyalty to labels seems to be dwindling. Whether that's the fault of the labels or the artists or even the audience, I could not say. That being said, if the label itself is established — Matador, Merge, Jagjaguwar, Anti, Kill Rock Stars — or has a strong and unique identity, like Ecstatic Peace, I feel fairly confident that I know at least some of the artists therein.

But I'm a whiz at band/label marriages from earlier eras. I mean, who doesn't know that Fugazi was on Dischord or that early Sonic Youth records and Husker Du came out on SST? The Pixies and Breeders were on 4AD, Felt and Marine Girls were on Cherry Red, and all of those amazing New Zealand bands came out on Flying Nun (The Bats, Tall Dwarfs and The Verlaines, to name but a few). Even outside of their sleeves, you can always recognize a Led Zeppelin or Neil Young record because of their labels' insignia on the vinyl.

At least for myself, it was the label that helped reveal an entire music scene, especially before I could just look things up on the Internet. Dischord showed me Washington, D.C.; Lookout unearthed San Francisco and the East Bay. And where I grew up, in a suburb of Seattle, it wasn't just Sub Pop, but also C/Z, PopLlama and Up, plus Estrus to the north in Bellingham and K to the south in Olympia. The entire landscape could be mapped in labels; they helped determine where you were and where everyone you wanted to meet was, as well.

So, are record labels still important to you? Do you know what labels your favorite bands are on or were on? Do you look to certain labels for good music? What labels defined a city, scene or sound for you? Finally, if you have any memories of following a label's output — or growing up in a town without a label, with one label or full of labels — please share.

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