"Independent Study" is a new column that will profile a different independent label every other week. Its focus is on companies less than a decade old that are defining the DIY era.
The 21-year-old rising British pop star Charli XCX has it all. Best known for co-writing Icona Pop’s unsinkable Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 smash “I Love It,” as well as for her own collection of darkwave pop gems, the well-received 2013 debut “True Romance,” XCX has had a global major label recording deal through Warner Music Group since before she could drive. But the pop singer, born Charlotte Aitchison, is also an indie darling. In 2011 and 2012, she was the subject of breathless blog buzz, glowing Pitchfork reviews and a zeitgeist-capturing V magazine cover with Grimes and Sky Ferreira. The grass-roots momentum was in part due to the fact that in America, Aitchison’s music almost always flies under the banner of IAMSOUND, the independent label owned and operated by Niki Roberton and Paul Tao out of West Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Though IAMSOUND didn’t actually release “True Romance” -- it was quietly handled by Warner subsidiary Atlantic Records in the States with naming rights given to the indie -- it was Roberton and Tao who first broke Aitchison for American audiences. It was their label that licensed her debut EP “You’re the One” in June of 2012, before the artist had any formal representation here. And when Atlantic came into the picture later that same year, Roberton and Tao stayed on-board as co-managers of the artist and marketing consultants on the album, ensuring the project kept its indie credibility intact.
“We actually get hit up all the time now by major labels who want us to do a sort of window dressing EP for their own artist,” says Roberton. “It’s flattering, but we only pick up stuff that we really love and can really get involved in.”
Founded by Roberton in 2006, IAMSOUND has made a name for itself in the ever-narrowing gap between indie and pop music. The label was the first home to the platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated artist Florence and the Machine and counts among its current roster bubbling under the radar acts like Kate Boy, IO Echo, Lord Huron and Ezekiel. Later this year, IAMSOUND will handle the American release of “Nirvana,” the four-song debut EP from the Disclosure collaborator and emergent Universal Music Group artist Sam Smith.
The Family Business
Roberton, a London native and the daughter of music industry vet and artist manager Sandy Roberton, got her start in the early 2000s as a twenty-something visual artist and A&R scout for the labels Parlophone, East West and Warner UK. She moved to L.A. in 2003 to work in film and direct music videos, but she had a new idea after realizing that many of the artists she liked didn’t have record deals.
“I had been around the music industry my whole life, but I didn’t have any real label experience, per se,” says Roberton. “So I just approached these bands, opened an iTunes Connect account and started putting stuff out digitally.”
Tao, a USC political science grad and former AbsolutePunk.net contributor, joined Roberton a few months after the label was off the ground, helping her with cold-call marketing and PR efforts. The label’s first releases were singles from Sunny Day Sets Fire, the now defunct project of Porcelain Raft’s Mauro Remiddi, and The Black Ghosts, the dance punk duo composed of Simian’s Simon William Lord and The Wiseguys’ Theo Keating.
In 2008, IAMSOUND had a pair of breakthroughs that helped transition the label from a two-person DIY outfit into a real business with real income. The first was a juicy sync of The Black Ghosts song “Full Moon” in the first scene of the first “Twilight” movie. The label and artist had agreed to the deal unaware of the vampire mania that would soon grip the country.
“We just thought it was a good sync in a vampire movie,” says Tao. “But after the soundtrack came out, the band emailed us saying ‘Hey, do you know why we suddenly have thousands of Myspace requests from emo girls?’”
After the tween tidal wave came another breakthrough, when Roberton signed Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine to a singles deal after discovering her on Myspace. The first release, “Kiss with a Fist,” caught fire on the Internet and drew the attention of RED distribution, which eventually agreed to pick up the label and help expand its reach beyond iTunes and promo CDs. Though Welch went on to sign a major label agreement with Island Records, in April of 2009 IAMSOUND released her debut EP “A Lot of Love. A Lot of Blood” featuring “Kiss with a Fist” and other future hit singles “Dog Days are Over” and “You’ve Got the Love.”
IAMSOUND is now five employees, with full-time staffers handling licensing and business affairs. In 2011, the company added a partner, Anh Do, and with her a creative agency, which has brought in work doing marketing consulting, music supervision and event programming for brands including Vans, Warby Parker and All Saints.
Though the company has grown, the label has kept its focus narrow, releasing only four full-length albums per year on average. A typical release on the label will get an initial run of 3,000 - 4,000 CDs and 1,000 LPs.
Roberton and Tao aim to sign artists to two album deals, with masters owned by the label and profits split 50/50 with the artist. Painless contracts and a low ratio of artists to owners make IAMSOUND an attractive proposition for young bands seeking both support and creative freedom.
“Most contracts we see now are for life,” says Kate Ackhurst of Swedish experimental electro-pop group Kate Boy. “But Niki and Paul were cool about not pressuring us, which was important because it was so early in our career and we were still figuring everything out. They don’t just want to lock you into something to try to make money off you.”
In addition to the creative agency, now responsible for roughly 40 percent of IAMSOUND’s revenue, the company has begun planning for its own festival in LA., tentatively scheduled to launch next year. IAMSOUND also recently did music supervision for its first feature film “Teenage,” a documentary directed by Matt Wolf about the history of teen culture. The film, which features original music by Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, premiered at Tribeca International Film Festival this spring and was recently picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
In each new venture, be it a festival or a soundtrack or a brand campaign, Roberton sees an opportunity to improve on the value that IAMSOUND brings to its artists.
“We try to do as much as we can to go above and beyond being a normal record label,” she says. “Sometimes we might be too overbearing, too involved, but we really love our bands and we think that’s the best way to help them succeed.”
Previously on Independent Study: Decon Records