[ed. note: the views expressed in this editorial are my own and do reflect the views of the entire staff of Absolutepunk.net]
A little over a year ago, the staff got together and ran a feature on our favorite labels. It was the end of 2010, and for some of us, it was like it was 2000 again. In the past ten years, labels have changed. It's not uncommon that they do. Dim Mak used to be a premiere post-hardcore label, releasing some of the best around before slowly evolving into a more electronic based outlet. While Vagrant still contains a varied roster, we've since seen the change in masthead and its star performers shift from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to more of an indie-vibe. As a whole, Vagrant still releases top notch music - just to a different demographic, or really, a demographic that has since evolved with them. Then there are two big ones: Victory and Drive-Thru. We all know the former has seen better days from most of us, but the latter has sort of lived in seclusion for the past couple of years. Following a string of what I deem to be not so savvy choices, Drive-Thru just sort of disappeared for the most part for many of us. No longer was I scanning their e-store or stoked to see who they signed next. In fact, I just sort of grew out of it really. Besides the horror stories I hear from the label's alumni - the ones we cherished when the label was at its peak and crowding our CD collections (remember those?). I think the downward spiral to Drive-Thru's eventual curtain was its lack of community and substance towards its end - something they held strong for many of us so many years prior.
2010 became a very exciting time for music again. I think a lot of us that were excited ten years ago about our scene, which we slowly watched evolve into seven circles of hell and mounds of sub-standard product, were finally getting that feeling back. Music aside, I think we were getting excited about labels again. We were getting excited because many of us felt a sense of community growing. I saw that all too well at last year's South By Southwest. I think, for the most part, we began to put our trust back into certain labels to lead us to another promised land, instead of roaming the desert for 5+ years blind and bitter to a lot of what surrounded us. More importantly, labels were now working closer together. They were and are now becoming independent subdivisions of a bigger community - a true independent state. Community is very important. If a label welcomes a band into their home, I - especially as a music fan - want to know that the said label in turn is genuine in their actions of bringing a band on as an equal among the rest of their friends. You can continue to have a strong community of different sounding bands as well. The best labels have done it for years - Epitaph being the biggest one off the top of my head.
This brings me to something that has bothered me this past year. I've talked quite often about the cycle of music and trends. I think the worst thing a label can do is follow any sort of trend or band as a cash cow, whether to fund another band or adjust to the demands of others. I'm not saying that a label doesn't have a right to reinvent themselves and grow-up and still release quality music they believe in. That's one of the main reasons I brought up Vagrant as an example earlier. I just think that any label pumping money into a band for the wrong reasons is not only doing a disservice to music fans, but also to the band as well. What happens when the public's trends shift? Who do you back then? I understand labels need to stay afloat - but at what cost? Integrity may not be the right word, but it's the first word that continues to come to mind.
Still, a community of anything is only as strong as the people that make it up. A label can give you all the support in the world: money for recording, money for touring, distribution on a large enough scale that your music can get out to millions and have a chance of survival like a 1,000+ other bands that "want to make it," and the twenty-five that generally do. A label can only do so much, and on a bastardized scale, it's just a brand, a sticker, a fucking "label" that sits on the back of a CD booklet or vinyl jacket. It's what is in the grooves, what I download or even stream that I even care about in the end. There was a long discussion via e-mail with the staff the other day about how we felt about Kickstarter. Not to get off topic, but my final verdict was that I simply didn't care where the product came from (albeit money laundry and drug trafficking I will not endorse), I just cared that the final project was worth my time.
One of my newer favorite bands signed with a label I've been less than stoked on for the past couple of years. Ironically, a label that probably makes ad money off me every time I show a warehouse shot music video for a cheap laugh to one of my friends. That band asked me how I felt about them signing with said label. I simply told them that I didn't care in the end. I only had a high expectation that they would make another fantastic record; that they shouldn't focus on "who" they're signed with, but more of putting out a quality product to their fans and the general public alike. Majors aside, my industry knowledge tells me that most labels give quite the creative freedom for their artists and generally won't shelve, but will back their investments' product. There I go bastardizing terms again. For see, a label's primary job should be backing their friends, their family, their community for all the right reasons. Labels should believe in their bands not as an investment, but as a fan wanting to show the world this awesome thing they can't stop listening to. Most labels were created by fans wanting to share something special. I'm not saying the majors don't have fans within their walls, but some of us see the difference between a marketing tool and a genuine music connoisseur.
My advice to any band out there is to strive for that signature and be a part of whatever community you always dreamed to be a part of since you decided to get out the garage and into your mom's minivan to show the world you're the next notch in punk rock's growing timeline. As long as you contribute something meaningful within that community, it'll only provoke others around you to one-up you and do better. Ideas will feed off other ideas, and you'll begin to see this creative, unspoken challenge amongst your peers. That's when the most exciting times in music have happened. That's when Brian Wilson went insane. That's when Refused wrote a defining record. That's what is happening presently. If both bands and labels work with the aforementioned ethics, we won't see two to three years of substance and integrity and then a seven year drop off, just to cycle again. We may, just maybe, could see a solid decade of music. Something that hasn't been done for some time.