Thursday, June 25, 2009


The term 'record label' still has currency, oddly, even as its importance has been in steady decline for 25 years.

In popular vinyl's heyday, an LP or 45's label was part of the package artwork. It added an identifying characteristic: this is an Epic album, a Deram single. It could even bring its own cachet: the double-sided Apple label, for example, is one of the coolest ever. One could even read a label's track listing as an LP was meandering around at thirty-three and a third. (For some of us, in fact, such an activity sometimes took on an unaccountably outsized importance.)

The label started to lose its value as soon as playback became a private matter to be carried out in a sealed compartment at 500 or so RPM. Even having one of those see-through players meant little: the novelty wore off quickly, and trying to read a label on a disc whizzing around at that rate was sorta like attempting a diary entry in a centrifuge.

And now? A 'label' is a word or two of information accompanying release date and bit rate data on a download interface. Yet right this minute every basement glitchmeister in creation is dreaming up a name for her very own label.

Which active independent labels still have celebrity outside of specific microcultures? Even if you're a decades-long music nut who keeps up, drawing up a lengthy list is tough...sorta like trying to come up with more than 20 catchers who belong in the Hall of Fame. You can tick off a dozen or fifteen pretty quickly, and then the steam starts to run out.

One indie already enshrined in Cooperstown is ECM, founded 40 years ago in Munich by Manfred Eicher.

Way too many of my college library hours were spent poring over back issues of Downbeat. Through wallet-draining trial-and-error exercises (yep, as Main Figurehead reminded us, that was our only choice back then), I came to learn that I wasn't yet ready for Sun Ra and was too snooty for Bob James. But ECM struck a chord that still resonates today. That label's catalog of genre-agnostic introspective exploration sounds as fresh as ever, from top to bottom.

Here we have back-to-back-to-back samples of ECM through the years. First up is John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner from their 1976 collaboration, 'Sargasso Sea.' Next is a track from Minneapolis' own Steve Tibbetts and his 1987 release, 'Exploded View.' And we finish up with a live snippet from Nik Bartsch, a pianist whose band is a sterling example of ECM's modern-day vitality.


One final note about labels: another type that has gone the way of the buggy-whip is the fruit crate label. For most of the first half of the 20th century, farmers affixed these carefully-designed labels to the boxes of produce they hauled to market in order to personalize their wares and encourage customer loyalty. Now? A label is just a word or two of information accompanying harvest date and net weight data as your fruit cocktail streams its way through the internet's series of tubes. Which can get really icky without proper maintenance.


Angel of Rock said...

Sub Pop's recent resurgence is an interesting twist in the label legacy. While they reclaimed their household name status (though maybe not to the same degree as in the 80s/90s) it was for a largely different collection of artists.

Green River and Mudhoney to The Shins and Iron and Wine. A slight shift in label identity, and what does that really mean to us today?

Incidentally: Itunes does not allow you to view a song or album's label.

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