La­bels with love: why record com­pa­nies re­boot old re­li­ables

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Brian Boyd on mu­sic

‘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.

bboyd@ir­ish-times.ie

Dylan – didn’t mind be­ing

la­belled

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