Successful Independent Record Labels

successful independent record labels

There’s a lot to like about being in the fold of a major record label. They have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on their talent, have their own distribution and marketing resources, and can often be found under even larger media corporations. This means easy access or tie-ins to movies or television shows.

For many up-and-coming artists, landing a record deal with these 500-pound gorillas of the music industry is the goal, the pot of gold at the end of their music career rainbow. However, the music business has changed considerably over the past decade or two, and major labels are hesitant to sign anyone unless they are polished, marketable, and can guarantee a solid ROI.

Enter the Independent Record Labels

Although they have been around for more than 60 years, independent labels began a resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s. As hip hop, electronic dance music, grunge, and other alternative genres of music blossomed, only a handful of acts gained notice from the bigger labels.

Independent labels picked up the slack. And although many indie labels came and went, there were mainstays that are still active today. They operate on much smaller budgets, which interestingly enough makes them more agile. A failed album isn’t nearly as costly as it is for the big boys.

As such, independent record labels are a growth industry. Collectively, they account for one-third of the music sales in the United States. The internet certainly plays a role in that as there’s no longer a need to make millions of records, tapes, or CDs.

With streaming services, social media, and other means of online promotion or distribution, the “old” way of doing things is just that: old. The agility we mentioned earlier means indie labels are able to pivot with the times (and technology) much quicker and don’t rely on the old ways anyways.

The Most Successful Independent Record Labels

XL Recordings
Founded in 1989, their stable of artists includes Radiohead, Adele, and M.I.A. They started as a rave and dance music label but have obviously branched out from there. They actively seek out new artists.

R&S, a Belgian label
Formed in 1984, it’s one of the oldest indie labels around. They’re steeped in groundbreaking experimental music in dance and electronic music genres. Their catalog includes Aphex Twin, Ken Ishii, James Blake, Vondelpark, Paul White, and Nicolas Jaar among others.

Ghostly International
This successful indie label was founded in 1998 to capitalize on the booming Detroit techno music scene. They’re heavily into North American electronic music and list Matthew Dear, Tycho, Tobacco, and Psymun on their roster of artists.

Starting in 2007, this Los Angeles-based indie record label is known for its eccentric soundscapes and bizarre visuals. Artists on Brainfeeder include Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and George Clinton. Yes, that George Clinton.

Mind of a Genius
Another Los Angeles label, Mind of a Genius was founded in 2013. They’re uber selective when they sign artists and look for long-term development over quick hits. They currently have ZHU, Gallant, THEY., Klangstof, and Kwaye under contract.

4AD was founded in 1980 and is known for underground rock in both the UK and North America. They have been the label of choice for Pixies, Bon Iver, Bauhaus, Twin Shadow, TV on the Radio, Grimes, Future Islands, The National, St. Vincent, and SOHN.

Carpark Records
Founded in 1999 in Washington D.C., Carpark is one of the more varied independent record labels with a massive roster of artists including Toro y Moi, Skylar Spence, Cloud Nothings, and Dan Deacon.

Domino Records
Founded in South London in 1993, Domino is one of the more influential labels for indie rock music. They’ve progressed from being primarily a UK-based label to a major player in the U.S. and among international indie-rock labels. Their roster includes Blood Orange, Arctic Monkeys, Animal Collective, Neutral Milk Hotel, Dirty Projectors, and Hot Chip.

Stones Throw
Founded in 1996, this independent label offers a wide variety of music genres when compared to other labels. Artists on their roster include J Dilla, Dam-Funk, Madvillain, NxWorries, and Madlib. They are credited with having a lasting impact on mainstream hip hop in the 2014 documentary, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton.

Sub Pop
Sub Pop is a Seattle-based independent record label started in 1986. Formed to create and market a “Seattle sound,” they’re credited with putting the grunge genre on the map with releases from Soundgarden and Nirvana. They continue to focus on underground music from the likes of Fleet Foxes, Shabazz Palaces, clipping., and Beach House.

No discussion of independent labels would be complete without a look at Chance the Rapper’s success. His 2013 breakout mixtape Acid Rap was downloaded over a million times and led to appearances on Saturday Night Live and a role on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. It also led to a bidding war between the major labels to sign him.

Chance declined to participate and remained independent. He still hasn’t signed with any record label, although his last two releases Coloring Book and Surf debuted in an exclusive arrangement with Apple. This has allowed him to maintain his independence while monetizing his music.

Other independent record labels include Rough Trade Records, which started in 1976 in London, making it the oldest independent record company on our list; Island Records started even earlier (1959) but is now owned by Universal Music Group; and Asthmatic Kitty, which was started by Sufjan Stevens in 1999 to give his discography a home.

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