In the last ten years or so, there seems to have been a mushrooming growth in the number of artist-owned record labels. As far as the smaller labels go, there are probably a few reasons for this: greater artistic freedom is an obvious one, with many artists preferring to release their tunes without the interference of an A&R. The faster turnaround between production and release is also a factor, with many record labels leaving tracks and EPs on the shelf for a considerable length of time due to a packed release schedule — with the result that once the record does come out, the musician is artistically in a different place altogether. Of course, there are also financial benefits to being the owner of the label you release on, and for many artists, the prospect of being in control of all aspects of a release, from the visual aesthetic to the manufacture and distribution to licensing and publishing, must hold considerable appeal.
Naturally, the growth in digital distribution has also contributed to the increase in artist-run labels. As you’d expect, there’s huge variation in their size and scope. Some are intended to only release records by their founders — as in the case of Snowfall, the semi-eponymous imprint Throwing Snow released his stellar Clamor EP on earlier this year. At the opposite end of the spectrum are labels founded by true heavyweights, which release records by already well-established artists, such as Hotflush (founded by Scuba in 2003) and Hyperdub (founded by Kode9 in 2004). More recent runaway successes have included Brainfeeder, the brainchild of Flying Lotus a mere four years ago in 2008, and Swamp81, created by Loefah in 2010.
A handful of our favourites are below, from small digital labels to big players.
Hemlock Recordings (founded by Untold)
Hemlock Recordings is home to an absolutely faultless roster that includes Cosmin TRG, Fantastic Mr Fox, Ramadanman, Pangaea, James Blake and LV, and has been releasing both digital and vinyl singles and EPs since 2008. With its in-the-family style of split releases, and innovative talent pool, Hemlock is a label that really helped define the concept of “UK bass music” — insofar as something so ambiguous can be defined. The forthcoming ‘Chapter One’ release, announced last week, will include both label classics and unreleased tunes over 3 12″s. James Blake‘s Air & Lack Thereof is below.
50 WEAPONS (founded by Modeselektor)
Audio Doughnuts perennial favourite, Berliner duo Modeselektor also run the incomparable 50 WEAPONS label. Its artists have to date included techno geniuses Marcel Dettmann and Shed, bass pioneers Falty DL, Phon.O and Dark Sky, as well as of course records by Modeselektor and Moderat, their collaborative project with Apparat. Despite the range of sound, there’s a clear overriding aesthetic, and such an impeccably curated label is a true pleasure to follow. Modeselektor aren’t content with one label though, and also founded Monkeytown, which has a more playful, electro vibe that’s no less brilliant. Check the 50 WEAPONS sampler below.
Cut Records (founded by DFRNT)
Between creating his own polished productions, Edinburgh musician DFRNT releases music by other innovators on his Cut Records netlabel. If you’re after something leftfield and under the radar, complete with fully free downloads (though if you’re of a giving nature you can choose to pay), Cut Records is the one, covering deep dub-techno, dubstep, drum and bass, future garage and IDM, with releases from Essáy, Thefft and of course DFRNT himself. You can preview Thefft’s Primer EP below.
Keysound Recordings (founded by Dusk and Blackdown)
Established in 2005 by Rinse FM DJs Dusk and Blackdown, Keysound Recordings has a slew of delicious releases under its relatively young belt, from artists like LV, Sully, Kowton and Damu, that manage to maintain a directional bass, dubstep and garage aesthetic without compromising on originality or interest.
Vase (founded by Jacques Greene)
We’ve been effusive in our praise for Jacques Greene’s label Vase, despite its only having released four singles/EPs so far. There’s a simple reason: the quality of those few releases has blown the competition out of the water. As Greene himself notes, it has loftier aspirations than mere record label — his eventual aim is for a multimedia creative house — but so far, the music speaks for itself. With music from Greene himself, Zodiac and Koreless, even greater things are sure to come from Vase.
The increase in artist-run labels by no means indicates that artists are ‘taking control’ or ending the conventional label model. But whether it’s the lack of creative restraint on a small label for the artist’s own releases, or a larger project of unerring curation and vision, the increasing prevalence over the last decade or so of artist-founded labels contributes to the rich variety in electronic music — surely a development in the music industry that’s to be welcomed.
By Maya Kalev