Record Labels Aren't Dying, They're Thriving
Back in 2006, Jeremy Earl was pretty much an average Brooklyn 20-something. He'd moved here straight for college, and was spending his time sharing a house with four other people, working at records stores, cafes, and sometimes places that were both (like Cake Shop on Ludlow Street). He was in a band, too, and his house was packed with music-related junk: boxes of records, boxes of cassettes, stuff to silkscreen T-shirts, pretty much anything you could imagine.
Photo: Mehrad Talaie and Captured Tracks Zachary Cole Smith, Sky Ferreira, and Katie Garcia at Captured Tracks' fifth anniversary show
He'd been half-heartedly running a record label for a few years, releasing albums for his own band, Woods, and those of his friends. "I'd be doing every element of it: dubbing the tapes, everything," he told me recently over the phone, using the tone of voice you use when remembering something crazy, but kind of admirable you used to do, like studying really hard for the SATs, or learning to ride a unicycle.
Then, something changed. "It was really great going to Brooklyn Phono," he remembers, his voice getting at once more dreamy and more animated. "Watching the whole process [of manufacturing records], then picking the boxes up, taking them back to the apartment, listing them on the internet, and selling them. And then you start packing orders. It was a pretty cool experience. I got bit by that bug, and it just kept on going."
He began to focus more and more on the label, Woodsist, until it became his full-time job (along with his band, Woods). He's moved upstate, and releases records from bands like Real Estate, Kurt Vile, and Vivian Girls, while also organizing an annual festival in California's Big Sur. He's been able to transform his life into basically exactly what he wanted it to be, and he owes it all to one thing: starting a record label.
Labels are supposed to be an outdated business model. Their death was roundly declared right around the time Woodsist was exploding. Bands like Radiohead and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (if anyone remembers them) were supposed to have proved that record labels were obsolete, that a band could do everything they could do better, faster, and cheaper by itself. It was just a matter of time, the argument went, before labels went extinct.
And yet, labels are still here, and actually growing. In 2012, revenue grew for the major and indie labels for the first time since 1999. The percentage growth, according to figures released by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, may have been paltry--around 0.3--but the sheer dollar amount of $16.5 billion in revenue for 2012 is anything but. Adele's song "Rolling In the Deep," is estimated to have made her label XL Recordings around $67 million all by itself, helping XL post at 400% increase in profit for 2012, according to The New York Times.
Closer to home, Brooklyn-bred label Captured Tracks recently celebrated their fifth anniversary with a two-day music festival. Once most known for bands like The Beets, who don't go on before 2 a.m. if they go on at all, the label has added many talented and highly successful acts in recent years: Beach Fossils, DIIV, Mac Demarco, Blouse, and more. They've grown up, and evidence of their success was everywhere a the festival. The performances at their anniversary showcase started at 4 in the afternoon and ended promptly at 10 p.m. They drew hundreds of fans to The Well, a pseudo-venue in Bushwick, for the event, which featured the security (bag checks and light pat-downs), strict no-re-entry policy, and strange high-roller focused retail models (nominal discounts for anyone spending over $200 on records) you might not expect from a show by a bunch of Bushwick upstarts. That's because they're not upstarts anymore. As the Voice outlined in a feature in advance of that concert, the label has recently opened a physical record store and moved to a new home "within a four-block radius of a mind-boggling number of other labels, including Mexican Summer, Ghostly, Sacred Bones, and Secretly Canadian."
What is fueling this label renaissance? The primary reason seems to be relatively simple: they still mean something, both to bands and to consumers.