Hear the words ‘independent record label’ and you typically envision either a really gawky, or really cool young person sat in their room, surrounded by demo CDs, and with clenched fists and eyes closed with passion; murmuring ‘I just really fucking love music, man.’
The independent record label is born out of love. Traditionally, there’s no motivation by profit, just a passion to distribute music that speaks to a select few. The best independent labels tell their stories with fond memories; Will Ashon, started hip-hop legendary Big Dada after working as a journalist and realising that British hip-hop had an undeserved bad rep. Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records noticed that his punk record store bought people together so vowed to continue distributing music that did the same. Jagjaguwar, home to Bon Iver and Angel Olsen, was a response from founder Van Arman after he couldn’t find label support for his own music.
The independent label has a certain value for its hearty ethos and burning determination, despite the meaning of ‘indie’ and ‘independent’ being lost in translation. As independent labels originally put their love into jangling guitars and quirky lyrics sang to off beats, the indie genre was created as a result. Yet as the indie music was distributed and found success, the sounds entered the mainstream and the majors wanted a piece of it. Artists who created this kind of music were no longer exclusively independent.
In the deep sea of accessible, endless catalogues with the freedom to ‘skip’ and search for what completely gratifies, there’s still an admiration for the independent label. We love having a secret gem of a band and feeling like their sole supporter. We love rooting for that band and bragging of hearing them months ago. We love an underdog.
So when The 1975 finally signed to Dirty Hit records in 2012 after seven years of rejections, it was a triumph. The label was set up by Jamie Oborne (who managed the band for several years beforehand, and still does at All On Red), Brian Smith, and former England footballer, Ugo Ehiogu back in 2009. It considers itself as an independent, despite The 1975’s releases being licensed and distributed by Polydor (Universal) in the UK and Interscope in the US. The first figures point to a seven figure sum.
Dirty Hit looks effortlessly cool, all dark colours and the flirtatious/dangerous hybrid name. There’s a sense of mystery that glitters, only adding to the essence of their other carefully selected artists; Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Wolf Alice, and The Japanese House. The steering wheel of the major distributor is often chosen to be ignored. There’s a respect and love for the uncategorisable music produced. Though ultimately, could it have been? Had there not been the expert guidance and the giant money pot of Universal that allows more releases?
As the Dirty Hit family grows larger, the artists support each other. The 1975 took both Wolf Alice and The Japanese House over to the States with them, and The Japanese House joined them at the back end of last year for their biggest UK shows to date. Wolf Alice’s debut, My Love Is Cool, was nominated for the Mercury Prize Award back in 2015, and frontwoman Ellie Rowsell made her way onto the judging panel the following year where The 1975’s second record, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It. Part of the conclusion to 2016, their biggest year yet, Matty Healy and co. picked up the first ever Mercury Prize public vote award. It was another nod to the loyalty of Dirty Hit fans. Though on the flip side, sometimes you’ll find them taking to Twitter to denounce Oborne for The 1975’s often unreliable commitments. Passion, ey.
Dirty Hit truly is a label intent on cultivating a roster of the best in forward thinking, and building further relationships between signees and fans. They take the responsibility of distributing the finest in innovation, and recent members King Nun, Pale Waves and Superfood are welcome additions. All three are trailblazers in their own rights; vibrant bursts of youthful energy and exciting ferocity. In true Dirty Hit fashion, the three will be playing a stint across the UK and Ireland, together in unity.
The label is a mixed pot of creativity and business; looking after management, marketing, branding and acting as a safe place for their artists to grow. Perhaps Universal’s first push into The 1975 has allowed the artists to make that impression that brings in the money to allow the major tours and growth. Though, this is a label that can and does now standalone. It’s one that cares more about what the listeners think than the press.
It’s the little pushes that do the most. Big Dada has created a brand in itself as an imprint to another independent but larger label, Ninja Tune. At first a risk, and now adored as a label of love, Big Dada are the pioneers of obscure hip-hop, dub and grime. In the early days the artists toured and made mixes together, and Roots Manuva is an original signing who has stayed dare I say it, to his roots. The cultures of ‘indie’ and ‘hip-hop’ demand this authenticity. Raw lyrics and live recordings with real emotion. It’s that sort of platform and support that means Wiley releases his grime records with Big Dada and his more mainstream club tracks with Warner. Artists are choosing to have the independent values behind them.
Similarly, more artists are creating their own imprints for the added freedom. Clean Cut Kid release through their own label; Babe Magnet Records, via Polydor. Here they have choice to put out unreleased tracks and demos, support other artists, and strengthen the identity of the band – they give themselves a greater voice.
Yes, a label might be the home to releases but often they’re much more than that. The title isn’t important whether it’s independent or major and all the confused meanings than come attached. What matters is the message behind it, and the artists and songs part of it. Perhaps it is important to always read the label, to find out about the movement.
Words by Tanyel Gumushan