From a free mixtape megasite to the world's most exquisite experimental label, we count down the most interesting and inspiring firms of the year.
One lovely thing to observe this year was the declining glumness of people who work in music. With the ballooning of the digital world, last decade was not easy for anyone, but this year has seen a huge groundswell of great businesses focussed on making interesting music available, and a buck at the same time. Here is a short list of the 12 companies that give us all reason to be cheerful going into 2012.
Compiling our list of companies this year was not easy, considering the huge number of interesting and inspiring labels, sites, promotion houses and festivals out there, but despite the breadth of firms we salute, from experimental record labels to UStream parties, there are some common threads. Though this was not a criteria, all use the internet in interesting ways while realising that quality is the best strategy. Most fall under the banner “small business”, employing under ten people full-time. And all prove that musical idealism is not a barrier to good business – it is good business.
4AD do a great job because they prove that a music business can operate as a multi-national, multi-million pound turnover organisation and still release nothing but fascinating, fun and weird records. For this reason, they are thus a shoe-in for the list of businesses that have simply got it right. Now in its 32nd year, the label is hitting a purple patch, releasing more interesting records by more interesting artists than any other label of their size. With a list this year that includes Bon Iver, tUnE-yArDs, Zomby, Joker, Atlas Sound, Gang Gang Dance and Inc, and with a 2012 releases schedule that includes Ariel Pink, Scott Walker and The Big Pink, 4AD remains a vital force for surprising, forward-thinking pop music. [CRJ]
From a small room in Dalston to a globe-spanning brand, in just over a year Boiler Room has emerged as one of the most important broadcasters in underground music. Using UStream’s wonderful technology, it’s simply a live stream of a DJ-led party somewhere in London and increasingly beyond, its list of achievements would have to include a mention their headliners, from Thom Yorke to Carl Craig to DJ Shadow. But the really incredible thing which Blaize, Thristian and the rest behind the project have done is provided a centre for the gaseous London dance scene, and, furthermore, proved that it’s possible to re-imagine radio, partying and make a business run. [CRJ]
Given the growth of the mixtape in hip-hop from cheaply put-together snippets to the well developed and fully realised projects found today, Dat Piff is the key player in digital mixtape world. Self-described as the “authority in free mixtapes” the site is a platform for artists and corporations to upload their work and offer it to stream or download free complete with cover art and track listings. With monthly visitors at 10 million, the beauty of the site is its openness: featuring offerings from lesser known rappers to big releases by the likes of Lil Wayne, whose mid-summer mixtape ‘Sorry 4 The Wait’ has been downloaded from the site over 850,000 times. It is difficult to think back on the year without emerging talent like A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean and Future and all artists have used Dat Piff to release and promote defining mixtapes this year. [AW]
LA label Hippos In Tanks have released some of the best music this year – Hype Williams’ ‘One Nation’ is our favourite album, Laurel Halo’s ‘Hour Logic’ is our favourite EP of the year; both are HIT records. Hippos In Tanks combine a huge distribution network with a slimmed-down operation, which allows them to let the most interesting artists around release fascinating music, and for that, we are very grateful. [CRJ]
An elegant solution for an inelegant problem, The Independent Label Market was devised by a record company to flog records direct to customers from a market stall. There’s no other way to put it; and that’s the beauty of the fair, which opened in Soho, London over the summer and has since popped up in New York. The list of traders include some of the best indies around, from XL to Tri Angle to DFA, and in a year that’s seen the record industry struck by warehouse fires and the sirens-on-the-rocks threats of digital strategising, it was proof that when the music industry is stripped to its most basic elements of pressing music onto vinyl and getting these objects into the hands of customers, everyone has a good day. [CRJ]
Since its launch in April 2009, New York based website/initiative Kickstarter has provided a platform to raise funds for thousands of creative projects. The idea is simple: tell people about your project, set a fund-raising goal and offer project-related rewards for investments. Unsurprisingly, the format struck a chord with musicians keen to sidestep industry frustrations and connect direct with fans. Artists that have taken advantage of Kickstarter over the last year or so include Ducktails for the release of his Killin The Vibe 12”, R Stevie Moore pooling fan dollars for “gas, a van, and a few plane tickets” for his first ever tour, Javelin funding their music video project Canyon Candy and Daniel Johnston making his first full length comic book a reality. While fan-funding has in the past carried a faint whiff of ‘vanity publishing’, Kickstarter has given credibility and structure to what is now a vital tool in the realising of new music projects and genuine alternative to traditional, mainstream means. [RS]
Growing from the seeds of music blog Nuts To Soup, NTS Radio is an online radio station that broadcasts from a cosy, sticker-covered cabin in Dalston. Since flicking the ‘on air’ button on Monday 4th April this year, director Femi Adeyemi and programme director Clair Urbahn have built a thrillingly diverse, ever-expanding schedule on a simple premise: take the best firms on the London underground, and give them radiotime. It’s exactly that open spirit that’s attracted some of our city’s most discerning selectors to the NTS schedule, from producers and DJs (Bullion, Ghostpoet, Cherrystones, Paddy, Jon Rust, Thristian, Dan Beaumont) to forward-thinking promoters (Off Modern, Earnest Endeavors, Feeding Time) and quality publications (The Wire, i-D and a couple of Dummy staffers). Running alongside the music is a wide range of arts and spoken word programmes, ramping up a schedule that’s beginning to nudge at the level of the best of 6Music, Rinse and Resonance rolled into one. While it’s definitely still early days for NTS – there’ve been a few frustrating technical hiccups with streaming along the way, which only goes to show the very home-grown nature of the beast – the promise, and prize, is theirs for the taking. [RS]
Labels that get written about in magazines tend not to do what Planet Mu does. Planet Mu release a huge number of records. Planet Mu release albums from many different genres. Not everything they put out agrees with each other. But these very things that has seen them through the hard times have, in turn, brought them into the lime-light time and again this year, releasing electronic music of startling scope and beauty. From their tireless support of Chicago’s footwork musicians to the releasing of standout albums/EPS from artists as divergent as Kuedo, Machinedrum, Crissy Murdabot, Boxcutter, FaltyDL and Keep Shelly In Athens, Planet Mu have proved that in 2011, a policy this scattergun makes a wild kind of sense. [CRJ]
A label that’s sprung from fascinating project to major player over the last 12 months is Robin Carolan’s Tri Angle records. Like Hippos In Tanks, it’s a label that manages to function in an global digital market, yet stay very much concentrated on the bread-and-butter of finding good music and selling it to people. From Holy Other to Balam Acab to How To Dress Well, their roster of artists is as enviable as their place at the top of the Billboard best indies list. But the secret to their success is not so much choosing of-the-moment artists as some would snipe; it’s down to selecting genuinely new sounds, and providing much-needed guidance and support. And while many signings would be too esoteric for many lesser labels, their real achievement has been exposing their artists to the hyper-pop world where many of them belong, from Clams Casino working with A$AP Rocky to Balam Acab appearing on Beyonce L’Oreal commercial. [CRJ]
Type Records have been diligently putting out beautifully designed records of a wide spectrum of avant garde musics since the middle of the last decade. Their releases schedule has been as impressive as usual in 2011, with 12 full-lengths, all superb, with four of these – Rene Hell’s outsider classical Porcelain opera, Clams Casino’s Instrumentals, Ezekiel Honig’s smudged techno album Folding In On Itself and *AR’s supremely powerful Wolf Notes album – ranking easily in the year’s best. The commitment to the possibilities of the internet is also inspiring, with all albums streaming free through Soundcloud, and their lively and well-informed (though never over-formal) forum is one of the best places to pick up tips. [CRJ]
“Festival as laboratory,” is how VIA Festival organiser Lauren Goshinski described the Pittsburgh new music and media festival back in October. Pairing up music and visual artists, VIA’s idea is to create one-off shows that go beyond the usual festival experience. With visuals being given equal weight as the music, the programming was thrillingly symbiotic. “I came across [visual artists] Abstract Birds last year and immediately thought of Four Tet,” explains Lauren. “Conversely, we booked Light Asylum before I contacted Thunder Horse Video. In my mind, they seemed like the most proper group to give Light Asylum a powerful presence in an entirely different space – all being weirdly pre-apocalyptic in nature.” Aside from the spotless line-up, which included a thunderous A/V show from Detroit techno legends Underground Resistance and Aurora Halal’s video projections for Blondes, a smattering of interactive workshops encouraged exploration of traditional and emerging music and film technologies. In an oversaturated global festival market, what really set VIA apart from its peers is a very apparent hunger to stretch what it means to be a festival in the 21st century – and that’s what makes it a thoroughly exciting prospect for the future. [RS]
The Vinyl Factory – part of the same Soho, London-based group as excellent magazine FACT and excellent record shop Phonica – manufacture high-quality, specially commissioned records made on EMI’s famed Type 1400 presses. The range out this year – from Florence and the Machine’s Karl Lagerfeld collaboration to Burial “vs” Massive Attack – have been as interesting as the backstory, and, with the planned expansion of the gallery space into New York and Berlin, next year looks even better for the group. [CRJ]
Picture taken from Shawn Brackbill’s coverage of VIA Festival, mentioned above.