Indie Music Labels Gain Clout

Small record labels have had a big influence on the recording industry. The independents often develop tomorrow's major music stars.

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`TEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some of the biggest record labels rely on the smallest companies in the music industry. Independent labels are the companies that often discover and develop talented artists, only to see them leave and earn millions for somebody else. A new CD set called, "Pure Genius," lets you hear the transformation of one famous musician.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RAY CHARLES: (Singing) The midnight hour have found me lonely.

INSKEEP: In the early 1950s, an upstart company called Atlantic Records signed a smooth, but unknown, blues singer named Ray Charles. It then helped him develop his unforgettable gospel style.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman way over town that's good to me.

INSKEEP: Music journalist Ashley Kahn reports now on the role that independent labels continue to play in shaping the recording industry.

(Soundbite of music)

ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

Decade after decade, independent record companies have been the talent scouts of the music industry. In the early '90s, the group Nirvana launched their career and the grudge revolution on Seattle's Sub Pop label.

(Soundbite of unidentified Nirvana song)

NIRVANA: (Singing) I was upset. I was upset.

KAHN: In the '80s, first generation rap stars like L.L. Cool J tied their fortunes to New York's tiny Def Jam label.

(Soundbite from unidentified L.L. Cool J song)

L.L. COOL J: (Rapping) My name is Cool J, I devastate the show. But I couldn't survive without my radio. Terrorizing my neighbors...

KAHN: And back in the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley started on the small Sun label in Memphis forging his own groundbreaking style.

Mr. AHMET ERTEGUN (President, Atlantic Records): In the old days, we had independent labels, like Atlantic, who nurtured or had them for several years and developed them into big stars.

KAHN: Ahmet Ertegun is the president of Atlantic Records, a label that he helped start in 1947. Back then it was a small upstart company, but he was willing to take a chance on a blind pianist who showed some promise.

Mr. ERTEGUN: When I first heard Ray Charles, he was a flop artist on a small label in California. He hadn't sold any records. And I bought his contract for $2,500.

(Soundbite from unidentified song)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Baby, let me hold your hand until I make you understand...

KAHN: Charles' first recordings for Atlantic fit in well with the popular rhythm and blues of the day; a little too well, in fact. He had not discovered his own sound yet. But with the support of his label, he began to develop.

(Soundbite of piano music)

KAHN: Here's a rare recording of Ertegun and Charles in the studio. You'll hear Ertegun singing the words to a song he wrote and what Charles eventually did with it.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. ERTEGUN: Oh, is that--can you sing in that key?

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. ERTEGUN: (Singing) Hold your baby tight as you can. Spread yourself out like a fan, and mess around.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) They're doing the mess around. They doing the mess around. Everybody's doing the mess around.

KAHN: By 1959, Charles had topped the charts with "What I Say" and the major label, ABC-Paramount, came calling with a deal he could not refuse.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: There's a scene in the movie, "Ray," that captures the exact moment when his association with Atlantic came to an end. In it, the actor, Curtis Anderson, who plays Ahmet Ertegun, speaks with Ray, played by Jamie Foxx.

(Soundbite from "Ray")

Mr. JAMIE FOXX: (As Ray Charles) You were the ones that taught me that making a record is business, and find the best business deal that you can. Now 75 cents of every dollar and owning my own masters is a pretty damn good deal. Can you match it?

Mr. CURTIS ANDERSON: (As Ahmet Ertegun) Ray, we would love to match it, but we just can't. But I'm very proud of you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ERTEGUN: Well, I did say that to him, actually. It wasn't exactly the way it was in the film, but nevertheless, whatever happened, it was important to me that he went on and did well. And we remained friends and we had further good times together.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Not all artists left their independent roots behind on good terms.

(Soundbite of song "Bad Moon Rising")

Mr. JOHN FOGERTY: (Singing) I see a bad moon a-rising...

KAHN: John Fogerty, the songwriter and creative force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, spent decades in litigation with his small label that gave the band its start in the mid-60s.

Mr. FOGERTY: Fantasy Records, as of 1964, was this jazz label in San Francisco. The folks at Fantasy had no more clue about Top 40 radio, pop radio or rock 'n' roll music than perhaps the pope.

KAHN: But Fogerty does give Fantasy credit for allowing him and his band to experiment and mature into a best-selling rock group.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FOGERTY: My brother, Tom, and I would get to come over and record on this very makeshift equipment that was set up in the, you know, back room. And just by that experience, you know, there's a learning going on.

(Soundbite of song "Proud Mary")

Mr. FOGERTY: (singing) Left a good job in the city. Working for the man every night and day.

KAHN: There's no doubt that many independent labels profited as much as the musicians they discovered, if not more. At the age of 82, Ahmet Ertegun's still runs Atlantic and looking back, he admits that Ray Charles was not the only one who benefitted from their relationship.

Mr. ERTEGUN: You know, the company grew because of many artists. And, of course, Ray was one of the most important ones. We're now one of the major labels. So in a sense, we get a lot of artists who start off on a small label.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: (Singing) I want to live where soul meets body...

KAHN: Today, the spirit of the independent survives. Atlantic recently signed the Seattle indy rock band, Death Cab for Cutie, and has initiated its own in-house incubation program to develop young music acts. But with today's digital technology, it's much easier for musicians to be their own record company and simply grow by themselves. Then it's their choice when to sell out to a major label.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: (Singing) ...feel what it's like to be new.

INSKEEP: Ashley Kahn is the author of the book, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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