How We Listen

What Do Record Labels Matter?

Quick: without checking, what was the last album you bought, and which record label put it out?

I'm wondering after reading a piece by critic Sasha Frere-Jones in this week's New Yorker magazine on the how The Suburbs, the new release by Arcade Fire, coupled with the band's two-night stint at Madison Square Garden, might signal a new era in the music industry, one in which indie bands succeed by cultivating fans via social networking, or a reputation for great live performances, or a reliable sound. That leaves labels — especially indies — to concern themselves with the production and distribution of recordings. (For more on the same topic, check out this All Songs Considered show from last year.)

Frere-Jones calls it a "scaling back, a return to a business model that involves fewer people, and concentrates on the product." But he also notes that independent labels have an easier time forging an identity connected to that product. In addition to Merge Records, the Arcade Fire's label, Frere-Jones mentions XL Recordings, which has released albums by buzz bands like Vampire Weekend and the XX, and Matador Records, which will celebrate its 21st anniversary in October with a party in Las Vegas featuring marquee acts from the label's past and present.

Francophonic
Sterns Music

The last album I bought solely based on the label that released it was Francophonic, a collection of songs by the Congolese guitarist and singer Franco, released by the British label Sterns Music. I picked it up after loving a collection — also from Sterns — by the other Congolese soukous master, Tabu Ley Rochereau. That collection was so well selected and sequenced, with great liner notes and photos, that when I saw the Franco disc on the shelf, I picked it up immediately, before I listened to a note of the music, before I read any reviews.

It doesn't always work out that way. A month ago, I put down cash for a reissue of the self-titled album by the Brazilian singer Lo Borges, based pretty much entirely on its completely awesome cover. It's great. I've listened half a dozen times since then, but without looking, I can't tell you the name of the label that put it out.

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