There are people who’ll tell you that the record label is an antiquated idea, that pop and alternative culture’s near-wholesale migration into the digital realm has rendered it irrelevant, that any right-thinking artist should simply sell their music direct to consumers. These people are missing the point.
The role of a good record label isn’t just to deliver music to the public, though many bad ones do indeed believe that to be the extent of their duty (and many worse ones can’t even manage that). No, a good record label’s role is more important: it helps coax the best possible work out of an artist, and then endeavours to amplify that work’s appeal, provide a context for it, confer gravitas upon it, and promote it in whatever way it feels wise, respectful and effective. Whether you’re talking about an LP box set or a download-only single, things like cover art, titles and mastering matter today as much as they ever have – perhaps even more so, now that there’s so much music, so much media, vying for your attention. Aura is everything.
2012 in particular has seen several strongly curated labels rise to well-deserved prominence, and which, through the consistent quality of their output, have really earned the trust of record-buyers along the way. We’re talking about the kind of imprints that can put out a techno record, then a noise record, then a pop record, and know that their fans will understand, and be willing to follow, the narrative; labels that have enough respect for their audience to want to challenge them, rather than simply give them what they expect. Several such labels rank highly in FACT’s 10 Best Labels of 2012 list, but they’re not the whole story; also among those featured are a major-label subsidiary striving to change the mainstream’s perception of what pop can be, and a digital-focussed label that values samizdat agility over craft-for-craft’s-sake.
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