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Independent Record Labels

Music | By The Top 13 on March 2, 2010

With the recent announcement that independent hip hop label Definitive Jux was shuttering its doors, we at the Top 13 wondered where El-P's famed New York indie fit in the indie label hierarchy. While we certainly acknowledge the influence of original independent labels like Motown and Sun, we limited our list to modern indies or those that came of age with rock music. Accordingly, we present the Top 13 Independent Record Labels of the modern era.

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Sub Pop

1

Sub Pop

This label put the Seattle scene on the map in the late 1980s on its way to becoming one of the most influential indie labels of all time. Founded in 1986 by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, the creator of the Subterranean Pop fanzines and underground mixtapes, Sub Pop soon issued the debut releases from Green River, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and – most significantly – Nirvana. Along the way, Sub Pop became the model for how indie labels do business, innovating through use of singles clubs and intentionally limiting pressings of new songs to create demand. Though less of an indie now (the founders sold a 49 percent stake to Warner Bros. in 1995), the label remains successful with prominent indie bands such as Fleet Foxes, The Postal Service, The Shins, and Wolf Parade.

Dischord

2

Dischord

Founded in 1980 by Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson to release Minor Disturbance by The Teen Idles, Dischord might be the label on this Top 13 that most personifies the term independent. Following a true do-it-yourself ethic, this Washington D.C. based label has self-produced and released albums by some of the most influential indie rock and punk bands of all time, including Fugazi, Hoover, Shudder to Think, Jawbox, and Nation of Ulysses. And unlike many indies, Dischord has never even distributed its releases through major labels.

Factory

3

Factory

As shown in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, Factory was more than just the record label that gave us Joy Division. Founded in 1978 by Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus to chronicle the sound and feel of the music that was putting Manchester, England on the map, Factory went on to shape the way independent music would be viewed forever, using a creative team that gave Factory artists a recognizable sound and image. Artists that called Factory home included the aforementioned Joy Division, as well as OMD, New Order, Happy Mondays, and A Certain Ratio.

Touch and Go

4

Touch and Go

Like Sub Pop, this influential indie started as nothing more than an underground music magazine (though founder Tesco Vee turned the label over to Necros bassist Corey Rusk before it really took off). Based in Chicago, Touch and Go made its name in the 1980s, releasing bold noise rock albums by Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, and Big Black, and has long been well-regarded by artists who appreciated the label's simple approach to the business side of the industry, including splitting profits 50-50 with its artists and no formal contracts. Though the label formalized the process a bit in the wake of a lawsuit brought against it by Butthole Surfers, it remains active today, discovering important recent bands TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Matador

5

Matador

Founded in 1989 by Chris Lombardi out of his New York City apartment, this label has long boasted one of the most impressive indie rock rosters around. Perhaps best known for discovering and releasing all of influential indie band Pavement's albums, Matador also gave us both Interpol and Liz Phair's critically acclaimed first two albums, and all of the releases of Belle & Sebastian and the New Pornographers. Matador has on several occasions partnered with major labels (Atlantic and Capitol), but today it is again an indie, though now co-owned by the British Beggars Group, and continues to release albums from buzzed about artists, including Harlem, Kurt Vile, Times New Viking, and Shearwater.

Megaforce

6

Megaforce

Megaforce could have made this list based on its discovery of metal giants Metallica alone. But this legendary New Jersey-based label, founded in 1982 by Jon and Marsha Zazula - the proprietors of an underground record store - did much more than release Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning, Metallica's classic first two albums. Megaforce discovered or played a significant role in the development of a number of other influential metal and thrash bands, including Anthrax, Overkill, Testament, and King's X. Though the Zazulas have retired from the label, which now has a distribution deal with Sony Music, it continues to be relevant today, recently releasing new albums from Bad Brains, Living Colour, and non-metal bands the Black Crowes and Meat Puppets.

Warp

7

Warp

One of the pioneers in electronic music, Warp was founded in 1989 and, in true independent fashion, produced its first release with borrowed money and distributed it from the back of a borrowed car. This British indie hit the (relative) big time by selling 30,000 copies of its second release, Nightmares on Wax's Dexterous. From that point on, the label could count on multiple pressings of just about every release, and has gone on to release albums and singles from some of the most respected names in electronic and rock music, including Aphex Twin, Richie Hawtin, Autechre, !!!, and Grizzly Bear.

Merge

8

Merge

Founded in 1989 by members of Superchunk to release their band's own music, this North Carolina based indie steadily grew before gaining real prominence with the discovery of its most successful band, Arcade Fire. Indeed, that band's debut full-length - Funeral - was the first Merge album to reach the Billboard "Top 200" and its follow-up - Neon Bible - became the label's highest charting release. Merge also has released albums by influential indie bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, Polvo, Magnetic Fields, and Spoon. The label has remained 100 percent independent through its history, though for years fellow indie Touch and Go manufactured and distributed Merge's records.

Rawkus

9

Rawkus

Unquestionably the premier indie label in hip hop, Rawkus was founded in 1996 with financial support from Rupert Murdoch's son and quickly made a name for itself by releasing the first of its Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge compilations. These compilations featured many of the label's early signees, including influential underground New York rappers like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Company Flow, and Pharoahe Monch. Rawkus went on to release seminal East Coast hip hop albums like Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star and Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus. Though the indie later partnered with major labels like MCA and Interscope/Geffen, those partnerships floundered and Rawkus as we knew it is no longer. That said, the label continues to work with new underground artists, including through its innovative Rawkus 50 project.

SST

10

SST

Founded in 1978 by Greg Ginn, a member of the hardcore punk band Black Flag, SST rose from a no-name, storefront label in Long Beach to one of the most popular early American indie labels. Along with Dischord and Touch and Go, both of which appear a bit higher on this list, SST provided the model for future independent record labels. Early SST releases were mostly in the hardcore punk genre, including by Black Flag and the influential Minutemen. The label quickly expanded, though, releasing significant albums by alternative bands Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. By the mid-1990s, SST was a shell of its former self, as many of its biggest bands jumped to major labels, with several of them suing SST to reclaim their catalogs.

SST
4AD

11

4AD

This label was started in 1979 to serve as a farm system of sorts for the much bigger indie collective Beggars Banquet by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent (who both worked for the Beggars Group at the time). Bands that started on 4AD were supposed to move to Beggars if they sold well, but the only band to do so was Bauhaus, the first artist 4AD signed (though not before Watts-Russell and Kent bought Beggars outright). 4AD has launched an impressive array of artists, including the Pixies, the Breeders, Dead Can Dance, and the Cocteau Twins, and maintains an impressive roster of current indie bands, such as The National and St. Vincent. Though 4AD went into business with Warner Bros. Records for five years in the 1990s, today it is again an indie as part of Beggars.

4AD
Alternative Tentacles

12

Alternative Tentacles

Established in 1979 by members of the Dead Kennedys, including lead singer Jello Biafra, to release that band's self produced single "California Über Alles," this label quickly expanded to sign some of the most influential bands of the punk and alternative scenes. This San Francisco indie, of which Biafra became the sole owner in the mid-1980s, became the face of the punk scene, releasing albums by hardcore bands such as the Butthole Surfers, The Dicks, and Alice Donut. A force in the underground art and music scene, the label more recently has released a series of spoken work records, including by controversial convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal and Biafra himself.

Definitive Jux

13

Definitive Jux

Founded in 1999 by Jaime Meline (better known as one of the label's biggest artists, the rapper El-P), this New York-based label is for all intents and purposes the premier backpack label. Definitive Jux – which was known as Def Jux prior to a lawsuit by Def Jam Records over the name similarity – released classic alternative hip hop albums from, among many others, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Cannibal Ox, and, particularly, from El-P himself, whose Fantastic Damage might be label's best. Earlier this year, El-P announced that the label was going on an extended hiatus so that he could focus on his work as a producer and rapper.

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Comments Leave a comment

oshoney 

ANTI- should be on the list. otherwise i have no big qualms with it.

9:57 AM   Mar 02, 2010

stillathreat ★★

Great list, though I wonder if Domino and/or Stiff should be on here....Not sure what to cut; maybe one of the hip hop labels.

10:08 AM   Mar 02, 2010

KungFuJay ★★

I agree that Stiff is a big omission. I like the inclusion of Megaforce though.

10:52 AM   Mar 02, 2010

PulpAffliction ★★

4AD Made the list cut! :)

11:12 AM   Mar 02, 2010

Wielander 

This is a solid list, I think it's missing Daniel Miller's Mute label. This also reminds me how the best imprints had well-designed logos. Factory is iconic.

12:26 PM   Mar 02, 2010

revblake 

Well, since I got called out on Twitter(ha ha)... I appreciate the fact that only 13 slots could be filled but where would today's (and yesterday's) alternative scene be without the likes of Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Oasis, Shoegaze, and Britpop? If it weren't for Creation Records, today's musical landscape would be VERY different indeed. Sure Alan McGee talks a lot of trash and acts like a monumental douche at times but c'mon guys, this is like making a list of the 13 most influential bands of the 60's and leaving out The Beatles! MBV's "Loveless" alone has been cited as one of the greatest records of all time and a major influence on 90% of todays top indie acts...

3:13 PM   Mar 02, 2010

jitters 

good list would have liked to see ANTI- or elephant 6 but those are more of personal favorites i guess :)

5:00 PM   Mar 02, 2010

newbandday 

Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts Arts & Crafts

6:18 PM   Mar 03, 2010

PopeyeSquirm 

I would have liked to see K Records, Kill Rock Stars, Lookout, and Rough Trade on this list.

10:11 PM   Apr 25, 2011

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