Labels with love: why record companies reboot old reliables
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.” These are the words you always hear at the beginning of a Dylan show and they serve as a weird throwback to the time when artists were proud of their association with their recording label.
This is in contrast to today’s young starlets, who practically threaten to bring their label to the European Court of Human Rights if they look at them the wrong way – or haven’t arranged the fruit and flowers properly.
With all the talk of the record label being dead (yawn), it seems a bit contradictory to report that instead of labels closing down all over the shop, a number of important labels are actually being dusted down and rebooted. Over the past few months, Sony has reinstated its RCA label, Universal has brought back the A&M label and EMI has relaunched a number of its heritage labels – including Charisma and His Master’s Voice.
There’s a reason these historically resonant names are being used again. Over the past few years, labels have been eating each other up so much that nobody really knows who owns what; new labels have emerged from surprising quarters (eg Starbucks) and the fragmentation of music means that one label can house both Pop Idol- style wannabes and serious jazz-inflected minimalist artists.
There was a time when a label represented a cohesive set of musical values. For the music buyer, this was a great help because, usually, if you liked something released by a label you would know that other artists on the same label would have a similar set of musical standards. This was best exemplified in the immediate post-punk days when labels such as Rough Trade, Postcard and Kitchenware established their own almost ideological identities.
As odd as it may seem now, people used to be very label-loyal. If you liked the Prefab Sprout album on Kitchenware, you would also consider other acts on the label such as Martin Stephenson and the Daintees. If you bought an Orange Juice album on Postcard, Josef K and Aztec Camera were on the same label.
The major labels were aware of this power, which is why, under the parent company logo, they had subsidiary labels. The A&M subsidiary always had a reputation for being an “artist’s” label, and still means something to record buyers, which is probably why Universal have rebooted it as the exclusive home of bright new prospects for the future. The label is currently home to Duffy and The Courteeners – both tipped to do big things this year.
One the most respected labels ever was the Asylum imprint, set up by David Geffen in 1971 and home to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, Dylan (for two albums), John Fogerty and Linda Ronstadt.
Some of these acts may seem a bit on the quaint side now, but in the early 1970s they were seen as being on the cutting edge of the singer-songwriter movement.
The Asylum label withered away over the years, but now it’s been relaunched by the former owner of the Ministry Of Sound, Ben Cook, who says “the attraction of reviving a brand like Asylum is about buying into its heritage and its magnetism. We want to draw on the original spirit of the label.”
While it would be perhaps too much to expect people to return to buying music partly on the basis of what label it is released on, the second coming of all these old labels with proven track records does at least mean that the industry is putting a bit more thought into how it presents its wares. And that alone should narrow down the search options for all of us.
Dylan – didn’t mind being