Record Labels as a Branded Niche - Genre Week


Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings of Daptone Records. Photo by Jason McELweenie.

Back when the music industry began, before the major labels merged to become minions of corporate umbrellas, most record companies were premised around a niche style of music. Def Jam was quintessentially hip hop; Atlantic was rock n’ roll; Motown centered around rhythm and blues. For all intents and purposes, these particularities no longer exist. Now there’s Island Def Jam Music Group, which puts Rihanna on the same label as Young Jeezy and Bon Jovi, and Universal Motown Republic Group, whose roster includes everyone from James Blake and Colbie Caillat to Lil Wayne and the Birdman crew. Atlantic has gone as much punk and emo as rock, and furthermore, one of its biggest artists is T.I. While there are certainly perks for hosting such diversity and range, alternately, it seems the business focus has shifted from curated artistry to cost-cutting consolidation with minimal deference to style.

On the flipside, there are a handful of independent labels that continue to devote their time and attention around specific brands of music, preferring quality to quantity, and signing a catalog of artists from a niche-variety of music. These labels are then able to devise strategic marketing and publicity campaigns surrounding their brand, using the defined attributes of their artists as the centerfold.

Daptone Records, based in Brooklyn and self-described as the “little indie label that could,” was established as a harvester of soul, funk, gospel and Afrobeat. Driven by inherent nostalgia, and run by a panel of musicians who still vehemently support vinyl over other formats, Daptone keeps its roster short and sweet. Their superstar act is Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, made famous for their work with the late Amy Winehouse, yet equally impressive on their own accord. Other artists include Pax Nicholas, Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, and The Mighty Imperials. The record label is a throwback to the ‘70s with a contemporary twist, and exudes a deep appreciation for cultures surrounding genres of music.

Also, Brooklyn-based, Duck Down Records is possibly the mini-Def Jam or Tommy Boy of its day (Tommy Boy, incidentally, is now a dance label). The independent hip hop company signs artists from the underground, conscious world, and also boasts a few old pioneers of the industry. Among the many talented acts on its roster, Duck Down counts Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, KRS-One, B-Real (of Cypress Hill), 9th Wonder and Kidz in the Hall as some of the more well-known. The label drives publicity through events, capitalizing mostly on musicians who have an established and dedicated fan base. Additionally, as most acts on Duck Down are highly respected in the rap business, they often collaborate with their more popular counterparts. Kanye and Jay-Z commonly work with Kweli, for instance, and many of the others have celebrity guest features on their tracks.

Warp Records began as a British electronic label, but has since expanded into the States. Along with dance, the label’s catalog now includes electronic acts with a broader scope. Their artist, Grizzly Bear, for instance, could be described as electronic tinged with pop and rock; or another act, Flying Lotus, incorporates elements of hip hop into his work. The label has also showcases films and events surrounding its artists, making them a multi-dimensional brand with the power to filtrate audiences from different platforms.

Josh Berman, label manager for Warp Records in New York, shares his thoughts on the conception of a genre-based label, and the business potential behind it.

BreakThru Radio: How would you describe Warp Records as a brand?

Josh Berman: There was a time a few decades ago where many record labels had a brand that music fans were aware of and could rely on for consistently signing great artists and putting out quality releases, with iconic design & packaging. Even majors like Warner Bros., Columbia and Atlantic had strong followings.  Those days seem to be long gone, but there are a handful of independent labels still thriving today that have a fan base who follows much of the artist roster and is aware of almost every release. The great thing about these labels, such as Sub Pop, Merge, Domino, Ghostly International, and even newer ones like Numero Group, Tri Angle or Hyperdub, is that none of the founders set out to ‘create a brand’, but simply have a deep love and passion for things that eventually help create such a brand, things like music, design, art…etc. and they seem to want to work only with (and help develop) great artists, and hire a staff that has similar interests.  Many consider Warp a part of that select group, and even though we have been labeled ‘electronic music’ because of the early success in various forms of the genre in the 90’s and early 00’s, we continue the same mindset of only wanting to create and release something well designed and of high quality, as well as working with unique and progressive artists in all genres, from Grizzly Bear to Broadcast, Born Ruffians to Battles etc.  This thought process goes into all facets of the company, including Warp Films and Warp Music Publishing.

BTR: What are the benefits of structuring a label primarily around a certain type of music?

Berman: When the label began in 1989 out of the back of a record shop in Sheffield, England, Warp co-founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell were huge fans of, and very passionate about this new wave of progressive electronic music that not many labels were releasing. From the house music coming out of Chicago and Detroit to what LFO and Richard H. Kirk were creating in Steve & Rob’s own back yards, the label started in that direction simply as a reflection of their love for that scene and their drive to build a larger audience for it. Because they made such a great team and had such a unique vision and design aesthetic for the releases, Warp just became synonymous with electronic music, as these early releases found a strong following. This in turn attracted other artists and allowed Warp to release more cutting edge music. That lead to the Artificial Intelligence releases, as well as the early works of Richard D. James/Aphex Twin, Black Dog Productions/Plaid, Autechre and Boards of Canada, so the IDM label was attached to Warp (again, this was not an internal decision, it was just about working with unique and idiosyncratic artists).

The interesting thing is that Warp branched beyond purely electronic music pretty early on, signing groups like Broadcast and Seefeel in the early-mid 90’s. These artists, while very different from the rest of the roster musically, had similar unique qualities and were making music unlike anyone else at the time. So it’s more about the quality and vision of an artist than a specific genre, and even though we’ve continued to work with many of these artists, as well as sign new ones who are bringing electronic music into the future (Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, Africa Hitech….etc.) we don’t consider ourselves an electronic music label.

BTR: What do you look for in an artist you are interested in signing?

Berman: Along the lines of what I said in the previous questions, we want to work with artists who are unlike anyone else in the world … Who have a vision for what they’re doing and someone we hope to work with, grow with and help develop their audience with over a long period of time.

BTR: How do you market your music? What is your demographic like and what’s the best way to reach them?

Berman: This is a nearly impossible question to answer simply because every release is so different. With how music is discovered and consumed today – you can directly reach so many types of music fans and various audiences in so many ways that knowing each individual artist’s fan base (and how to potentially grow that base) is so important to how to market and promote each release.  Depending on the release, the demographics range pretty wide, from skewing older or younger, more male or more female, more UK-centric or US-based….etc.  Obviously with our history of design aesthetic our website and our artists websites are very important, as is social media, touring, direct to consumer marketing when-applicable and generally not trying to be all things to all people is very important. As an independent label, Warp does not have the ability to market our releases from ‘the top down’ (meaning spending tons of money to reach as many people as possible) so we try to do things more organically, from the bottom up, building awareness about a release through word of mouth, small viral campaigns and live events if possible. But of course the best asset to have is an incredible album, which is where it all starts.

For a few other examples of genre-based labels, check out Ultra Records (dance/electronic), Hidden Beach Recordings (soul), and one of the rarities still on a major, Blue Note Records (jazz).