Independent, do-it-yourself record labels pre-date the origins of punk—there is a long and respected tradition of small record labels within the history of the music industry. Sam Phillip’s Memphis-based Sun Records, after all, is generally credited with helping invent rock & roll. Before that, there was a plethora of small record labels in the U.S. that recorded and released jazz, country, and soul music to small, dedicated audiences. Moreover, it was not entirely uncommon for bands to create their own labels, often as vanity projects within a larger multinational label. Some of the best-known examples are the Beatles’ Apple Records, the Rolling Stones’ Rolling Stones Records, and Elton John’s Rocket Records.
But the arrival of punk signaled a marked increase in the number of small, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) record labels. In part this was due to changes in major record companies themselves. Prior to the emergence of punk, American and British record companies began investing heavily in new recording technologies, which meant that older studio equipment and studios suddenly became available for independent music producers and companies to either buy or rent at affordable costs. Enterprising individuals, such as Miles Copeland, Bob Last, and Tony Wilson, were able to obtain old recording studios and equipment and create their own independent record labels: Copeland’s Step Forward, Last’s Fast Product, and Wilson’s Factory Records. Thus, pioneering punk bands benefited from changes in the established record industry that were unrelated to a promotion of a DIY ethos.
Yet punk’s DIY ethos also encouraged many bands and entrepreneurs into the record industry. London’s Stiff Records was started with a £400 loan from Lee Brilleaux, singer of the pub-rock band Dr. Feelgood, and is credited with releasing the first punk single in November 1976, the Damned’s “New Rose.” The Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch EP was the first British homemade record. The band borrowed £500 from family and friends to record and release the EP. According to singer Howard Devoto, the actual recording session took three hours, with another two for mixing.
The EP was released in January 1977 on the band’s own New Hormones label and quickly sold all 1,000 copies of the first pressing. The EP went on to sell 16,000 copies, largely through mail order. Arguably, Spiral Scratch is the most important of the original punk releases. While the Sex Pistols, with their “Anarchy in the U.K.” single (released the previous November on EMI), showed that virtually anyone could be in a band, the Buzzcocks showed that anyone could release a record. The EP literally showed how one could make a record, with the details of the recording process (e.g., number of takes and over-dubs) and pressing costs printed right on the record sleeve.
The influence of the EP was profound, not just on bands and listeners, but on the recording industry itself. Bob Last claims that he founded his Fast Product record label after picking up Spiral Scratch: “I had absolutely no idea there’d been a history of independent labels before that. Spiral Scratch turned my head around.” In the wake of Spiral Scratch, small DIY record labels sprang up across the U.K. Soon after, London’s punk band Desperate Bicycles formed Refill Records to release their own single in May 1977. The sleeve contained a breakdown of the recording costs (£153) as an inspiration to others to follow suit. As the band chanted at the end of the song “Handlebars,” “It was easy, it was cheap — go and do it!”
One of the biggest problems faced by self-releasing bands like the Buzzcocks and Desperate Bicycles was how to distribute their releases across the country and beyond. Mail orders were important, so many labels advertised their offerings in the punk zines that were also emerging at the time. Many U.K. labels began distributing their releases through an organization of independent retailers known as the Cartel. The Cartel was centered around the Rough Trade record store in London, which had connected with other stores across the U.K. to form an independent record distribution service. Thus, punk helped create a system of recording, pressing, and distribution that was autonomous from the corporate music industry.
The emergence of the British small record label scene was celebrated in the Clash’s song “Hitsville U.K.” The song, also inspired by (then) independent Motown Records, name-checked several emerging U.K. indie labels, such as Small Wonder, Fast, Rough Trade, and Factory. The irony of the song was that the Clash was never on a small label, having signed to CBS in early 1977.
The increasing popularity of punk at the time meant that the established record companies began to take notice. For the major labels, punk offered a new market of youth consumption from which they could profit. Within a few months, major U.K. record labels began signing punk bands, or bands that they thought might be profitable in the new “punk market.” The Sex Pistols was the first U.K. punk band signed by a major label, contracting with EMI in October 1976. The Stranglers soon followed, signing to United Artists. The following February saw the Clash sign to CBS, while the Jam signed to Polydor. By 1978, most of the best known U.K. punk bands had been signed by major record labels: Generation X and Stiff Little Fingers went to Chrysalis, the Vibrators signed with CBS, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sham 69 signed to Polydor, the Undertones and the Rezillos went to WEA, and the flag-bearer of the DIY record label movement, the Buzzcocks, signed to United Artists.
This major record label signing frenzy had a substantial impact on the U.K. punk scene. It created further divisions between bands who were now competing for possible major record label contracts. It also helped commodify the punk scene, bringing external attention to what had initially been a small scene built upon personal connections. Punk was now becoming a commercial product that was packaged and sold by the media and major record labels. Many bands did not resist the allure of a hefty paycheck or the promise of reaching a larger audience.
But the signing spree also played havoc on the small record labels that had helped create and nurture nascent punk scenes across the U.K. The small independent labels simply could not compete with the power, strength, and resources of the major record labels. The result was the pilfering of some of their best, most profitable talent by the major labels. For example, the Good Vibrations record label that had been so instrumental to the development of the punk scene in Belfast lost four of its first six bands to the majors. The raiding by major labels was devastating to small record labels, many of which effectively became little more than scouting agencies in the shadow of the major labels.
But it would be too simplistic to create a narrative of small labels being born and then crushed by major record labels. Some of those DIY labels in the U.K. did close up shop (Good Vibrations, Fast Products), while others transformed themselves into bigger, more commercial record companies (Factory, Rough Trade). But many DIY record labels survived, continuing to release punk music. As the corporate music industry’s commercialization of punk mutated into “new wave” and then moved on, looking for new fashions to capitalize upon, punk went underground and continued to be nurtured by DIY record labels.
Punk scenes developed across the globe, often grounded by local DIY record labels that had been inspired by the initial outpouring of U.K. punk labels. For example, the Los Angeles punk scene from 1977–79 embraced the DIY ethos, in part, by necessity as established labels ignored the local punk scene. Chris Ashford, a clerk at a local record store, formed What? Records and released the Germs’ single “Forming” in July 1977. Greg Shaw had started Bomp! Records in 1974, spinning it off the similarly named zine. Another zine writer, Chris Desjardins of Slash, began releasing records. David Brown, Pat “Rand” Garrett, and Black Randy created Dangerhouse Records in 1977, which released singles by X, the Weirdos, the Dils, the Alley Cats, the Deadbeats, Black Randy, and the influential anthology Yes L.A. As David Brown recalls, “The do-it-yourself aspect of the production and packaging spoke for itself. We created ideas for affordable products which set the pace for imitators, like the clear plastic-bag 45 sleeves (because traditional sleeves cost more than the records to be pressed) and the multi-color silkscreened picture disc used for Yes L.A.”
Yes L.A. was just one of the numerous influential compilation albums released by early independent punk labels. Many compilation albums were released by punk zines to document a specific local scene. An early example is Maximumrocknroll’s 1982 release Not So Quiet on the Western Front, featuring forty-seven bands from California and Nevada. That same year, the independent record store Newbury Comics released This is Boston not L.A. on their Modern Method Records imprint to document the burgeoning hardcore scene in Boston.
Compilation collections are also released by record labels as samplers for the various bands on their roster. In this way, the album is aimed more to promote the label rather than document a scene. Notable examples include Alternative Tentacles’ 1981 Let Them Eat Jelly Beans!, Epitaph’s Punk-O-Rama series, and Fat Wreck’s 1994 Fat Music for Fat People. For many listeners, these compilation albums represent important introductions to scenes and bands they might not be familiar with. For example, ROIR’s influential 1984 compilation World Class Punk, with twenty-seven bands from twenty-five countries, was an important reflection of, and introduction to, the increasingly global scope of punk at that time.
As in the U.K., American DIY punk bands also released their own albums. The Plugzs self-released their first album Electrify Me in 1979. Greg Ginn of Black Flag formed SST Records to release his own band’s music, and went on to release some of the more influential hardcore punk bands from Southern California. Likewise, Jello Biafra and East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys formed Alternative Tentacles in 1979 to release their band’s “California Über Alles” single, before going on to release a wide range of influential punk bands. That same year, the Bad Brains put out their first single (“Pay To Cum” b/w “Stay Close To Me”) on their own label. The following year, their Washington, DC friends in the Teen Idles posthumously released an EP on their own Dischord Records. For many, Dischord would provide the template for punk DIY record labels, further strengthening the position of small record labels within the U.S. punk scene. By the early 1980s, small DIY punk labels continued to spring up across the U.S., Europe, and the globe, as documented in George Hurchalla’s excellent Going Underground (2005).
In the U.S., DIY punk labels were instrumental in creating the 1980s indie music scene documented in such places as Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001), Steven Blush’s American Hardcore (2001), and Eric Davidson’s We Never Learn (2010). One of the dominant narratives concerns how this scene exploded with the runaway popularity of Nirvana following the 1991 release of Nevermind, producing something akin to “The Punk Explosion, Part Two.”
Underground DIY bands like the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Replacements and, most notably, Green Day, that had been slogging around the tour circuit, playing in small venues, and releasing records on small indie labels suddenly found themselves being courted by major record labels and MTV. Each of those bands listed above chose to sign contracts with major record labels (often before the commercial success of Nevermind). In a case of history repeating itself, the heightened media/major label attention impacted the DIY punk scene from top to bottom.
Big Black’s Steve Albini recalls, “I saw a lot of friends and acquaintances turn their bands which were previously something that they did out of passion into a shot at a small business. In the course of doing it, they ended up hating their bands in a way that I used to hate my job, because it became something they had to do: it was an obligation.”
In the wake of Nirvana’s success, there was another frenzied round of major label signings, similar to the pilfering that took place in the 1976–8 U.K. punk scene. Again, major labels were signing away the best-known bands from the small record labels that had released their previous work. One of the benefits that occurred to these small labels was that, in some cases, the major labels bought off an act’s contract for a substantial fee, providing the small label with a much-needed cash infusion. In other cases, the label was able to make significant profit from holding onto a band’s back catalogue. Such was the case of Berkeley’s Lookout Records, after Green Day signed to Reprise in 1994 and achieved mega-star status. Other labels found themselves catapulted into larger commercial success as their bands rode the wave to greater popularity. Such was the case for LA’s Epitaph Records, which was started by Bad Religion’s guitarist Brett Gurewitz in 1988. In 1994, three of the label’s acts — the Offspring, NOFX and Rancid — all had hit records (ironically, Bad Religion had signed to Atlantic Records the year before), transforming Epitaph into a moderate-sized commercial record label, with several sister labels, including Anti- and Hellcat Records. Indeed, the 1990s “resurgence” of punk in the U.S. transformed a number of small labels into more commercial labels.
The impact of the Nevermind-inspired explosion is often bemoaned in American DIY punk circles. Ian MacKaye of Fugazi commented that “a few years ago, when punk rock spread everywhere, it became really hard for me. Suddenly it was like some weird horror movie.” Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division mused, “Alternative music was now so mainstream that it was safe for frat jock types to embrace. Instead of punks being the runts, now jocks were becoming punks, adding a new ignorant macho edge to the scene.” Azerrad complained that, in the post-Nevermind world, “Punk had winnowed its heritage down to a single inbred white gene, working hairsplitting variations on a simple theme.”
Yet, this characterization is only true if one looks at the cookie-cutter “punk” acts that continue to be marketed by major record labels (Warped Tour, I’m looking at you). Azerrad laments the death of the DIY punk scene, but only because he stops looking for it after 1991 — and because he was only looking at North America. Just as DIY punk in the U.K. went underground post-1978, DIY punk in the U.S. continues to thrive under the radar long after the media hype-machine and major record label spending splurges of 1994.
In other corners of the world, the Nirvana inspired “Punk Explosion, Part Two” helped spread DIY punk culture. In places such as Indonesia, Russia, and the Philippines, the influx of CDs and tapes by bands like Green Day, Bad Religion, and Nirvana sparked indigenous DIY punk scenes. Ironically, DIY punk labels have sprung up globally partly because global capitalism’s attempts to profit off of passive consumers actually led to the development of a vibrant, independent, anti-capitalist DIY punk culture. Today, DIY punk culture thrives on the existence of thousands of DIY record labels across the globe.
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