Indie Labels' Role in Music, Creating a Scene Discussed at The New Colossus Festival Industry Panel

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The pre-South by Southwest celebration of developing American and international artists kicked off its inaugural edition last week in New York City's Lower East Side.

Even in a hyper-digital age, many independent record labels still focus on developing a scene and letting artists grow. That was the focus of conversation during the "The Importance of an Independent Label in Today's Marketplace" panel last week at the inaugural edition of The New Colossus Festival -- the pre-South by Southwest celebration of developing American and international artists in New York City's Lower East Side. 

The panel, held last Thursday, featured independent label and label service execs and artist managers and highlighted how indie labels foster a close-knit, less analytic-driven community of musicians and fans to remain relevant. 

"An independent record label is more like a family. So, if you feel like you want to join a family or that group or that cool crowd. You want to be on them," said panel moderator and The New Colossus co-founder Lio Kanine, co-owner of Brooklyn-based Kanine Records (former home of Grizzly Bear, Surfer Blood, Chairlift). 

"When I was a kid, you know, I looked at the back of records to see what [the label] was ... You had your certain brands -- you're like, 'I wanna buy TeenBeat, 4AD, Rough Trade, Creation.'" 

Curating a scene:

From Sub Pop to Creation Records, indie labels historically have spearheaded the development of genres and scenes. Among many indies, that sentiment continues to ring true. 

"It's instinct, isn't it," said Sarah Wall, senior events and outreach manager at PPL (and former artist manager for major label artists at Turn First Artists). "Indie labels have that instinct... you have to take risks. And it means that a lot of indies can lead the way in terms of genre and scene and things happen a lot quicker." 

Kanine Records and Canada's Arbutus Records (Grimes, Sean Nicholas Savage, Braids) out of Montreal and Flemish Eye (Chad VanGaalen, Preoccupations) out of Calgary -- among many others -- are based around such communities of artists. 

"Being part of the community and being a part of the collective movement of other artists is a good way to get involved in a label," said Colleen Krueger, product manager at Flemish Eye. "[We] tend to stay with the artists in the community of artists. Other artists bring us bands that they like. We'll listen to [them] first."

Breaking new acts:

Lio Kanine first met Grizzly Bear bandleader Ed Droste on a whim. His former assistant gave him a little note on a napkin with an email address, simply telling him that he needs to email this guy tomorrow. "I did. And it was Ed, the singer of Grizzly Bear. He wrote back immediately," said Kanine, whose Kanine Records put out the indie rockers' 2004 debut album, Horn of Plenty

"Knew nothing about this guy yet. Met him for coffee just, like, curious out of my mind. Found out he had been recording this record in the woods in Massachusetts and he had 50 songs archived. And he made the whole record made out of home made tools in the cabin. And I just was blown away by the record so much. And more just blown away by him as a person. His aura. He told me, from the first meeting, that he was gonna be a star... That's the only band I've ever signed without seeing live." 

Greg Vegas, director of international label management at The Orchard and artist manager (The Radio Dept., formerly Peter Bjorn and John), began his own label called Declared Goods to help foster his artists' growth. "When [major label] signing's basically is based on stats and their Shazam numbers, you have to have people who curate and know how to develop [acts]," said Vegas. 

The style of artist development is often different at indies as well, noted Sebastian Cowan, owner of Arbutus Records. Citing a recent tweet from Screaming Females, a rising act signing with a big name booking agent before it's ready can sometimes hinder future success. "It's a hard thing for bands. So a lot of the times, it's about finding someone… a team that's really dedicated and is gonna work with you a whole lot. You can define your own metric of success," he said. 

"Having a more long-term view to your career is super important. That's definitely something that is... I don't want to say it's exclusively done at indie labels, but I think it's more commonly done at indie labels because it's more about the music and more about the people and less about the numbers." 

Finding the right fit:

While independent labels can provide artists with a built-in audience, financial support and industry connections, they're not a one-size-fits-all solution. Artist managers and label execs on the panel agreed that an artist's decision to sign to an independent label -- or any label -- is based on a variety of factors, from the label's track record, staff and taste, to the terms of the deal and the artist's management team. 

"If you have a pretty strong management company, then maybe you don't give up your rights," said Amit Nerurkar, owner of management firm face-less, which has worked with Run the Jewels and Dessa. "And maybe you can actually build something on your own and then sign to a record label at the right time and make use of said record label."

The people who work at the label are crucial to the decision, said Maggie Collins, owner of Australian artist management firm Morning Belle and programmer of music festival/conference BIGSOUND. 

"There's some pretty average indie labels out there that aren't gonna do much for you. You want to make sure you're signing to the right people who really care," she said. "And, I feel like there are a lot of indie label workers and owners who are so passionate about their record label, that they're willing to work their ass off for not much money. That's kind of what could work well with your band." 

An indie label as a brand:

Does an independent record label have the same cache that it used to?

"I think for fans identifying with labels directly, I think people who are super into music for music's sake still are curious," said Cowan. "Where did this music come from? How did it happen? Those people still look to labels because, honestly, the reason why I like any label is probably because I identified with that A&R's choices. I think people still have that."

Nerurkar pointed to the rise of the artist-run labels, like Skepta's Boy Better Know, in an age where artists can communicate directly with their fans through social media. "That's his scene -- everyone comes out for an event. I think the collective is back more than ever. So if you are an artist-driven collective, that's how you can actually grow up in a bigger way than ever before," he said. 

"Rhymesayers is still around. Atmosphere's still out there touring. And anything that comes on Rhymesayers, you just buy into it," Nerurkar continued. "I think that's just it. I think labels have to understand that the power's gone back to the artist. In a lot of ways, people want to buy directly from the artist... If you take out 2003 to 2011, I feel like [fans] pay artists more money than they did in those years. Because now they're buying merch. They're buying tickets to the show. They're buying vinyl. They never bought vinyl. I just think that labels have to understand that the artist is going to do what they do and they have to help them get as far as possible." 

Unlike brick-and-mortar record stores of yore -- which may have had a section dedicated to Sub Pop -- labels don't receive the same brand recognition on streaming services. 

"I don't think really kids know what record labels are," said Vegas. "They know what a brand is... I work with Majestic Casual, who have great channels; they're a curator. They're a label but I don't think people think of them as a label.... It's really about the playlist.

"That's the world we're in now. Just kind of branding playlists and stuff. But I always refer to record labels as scenes: It's important to have the scene all the time ... whether it's a physical scene or a sound, or something. I think that's where it all starts... It's just a little more diluted now; there's so much out there." 

Festivals 2019