Underground music labels that push boundaries

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Independent music has never been easier to find than in this modern digital age. Having access to the internet means streaming music is just one click away. But with apps like Spotify and Apple Music, many of the smaller, lesser-known musicians lack the financial backing of a large record label to be able to afford the fees that come with these popular streaming apps. Big labels like EMI and Capitol have the financial support to pay for advertising, high-budget music videos, and a fleet of lawyers ready to sue anyone who uses even a single chord of a copyrighted song. These forces push out the artists who are struggling to land even a single gig, and just want to share their music with other like-minded music fanatics.

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In an ideal world, one would be able to turn on the radio and actually hear a variety of different and unique songs rather than the same five Katy Perry songs. But sadly, we live in a culture that has grossly commodified art to the point that the most successful artists no longer make art for art’s sake but rather because of the millions of dollars that come with releasing a successfully generic pop album.

However, the frustrating lack of quality music released by mainstream record labels can be remedied by exploring the vast world of independent record labels. If diving headfirst into the deep ocean of independent music seems overwhelming, here are nine independent record labels to kick off 2018 with a fresh new soundtrack.

Boasting talents like Toro Y Moi, Cloud Nothings, and Beach House, Carpark Records is a Washington D.C.-based label that showcases artists who have a lighter, more pop-influenced sound but still strive for creativity. From playful electronica to breezy, laid-back bedroom pop, Carpark Records is reliable in its consistent output in easy-listening tunes.

Secretly Canadian is another great label to start off with for those who are just dipping their toes into exploring independent labels for the first time. A little more experimental than Carpark, Secretly Canadian adds a little kraut to their rock with artists like The Suuns, while balancing their grit with folk artists such as Damien Jurado. Based out of Bloomington, which is home to Indiana University’s school of music, Secretly Canadian is one of many independent labels that strives to shed some light on up-and-coming musicians.

A self-described “boutique” label, Oakland-based Gold Robot Records release all their music on either 7” vinyl records or on gorgeous and intricately decorated cassette tapes. Each record is uniquely designed for an immersive listening experience. Gold Robot also shares all of their releases for free in digital form, as well as compilations and featured mixes. They have also done vinyl pressings for artists that haven’t been signed to Gold Robot, like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

Without sacrificing quality for quantity, Brooklyn-based Exploding in Sound Records strives to bring its listeners the best noise and experimental rock being produced right now. The label only has a small handful of artists signed, yet every artist—as well as every release—drips with originality and raw talent. Since its inception in late 2011, Exploding in Sound has failed to release a single disappointing record.

Signalling the shift in labels that focus on experimental rock to more electronic-based experimentation is the label Lullabies for Insomniacs. Launching in 2016 as an offshoot to her late-night radio show on PBS, which took place from 2 a.m to 6 a.m, Izabel Caligiore curates a wide variety of eclectic and experimental electronic music perfect for late-night study sessions. These noisy and percussive explorations into abstract soundscapes are mesmerizing in their own right and carry their listeners deep into the night.

The Minimal Wave label was launched by Veronica Vasicka in 2005 and has done the invaluable work of historical recovery. A loose network of like-minded musicians in home studios scattered across Europe, Minimal Wave reanimated the impulses of the early avant-gardes with help of analog synths that emerged from the brief post-punk moment of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The label specializes in high-quality vinyl pressings of minimal synth and new wave artists from all over the world.

French DJ and producer Cosmo Vitelli created I’m a Cliché in 2004. Besides the ability to release his own production without depending on anybody else, the goal was to discover and release the production of artists he liked. Taking shape through a balanced mix of obstinacy and volatility and a reverence for the past and experimentation, this label has honed in on a distinct sound. The label invites artists that Vitelli admires to compose one original track at a time. In fact, the label strictly released singles until its first full-length last year from Vitelli himself. Each track is set at a slower, funkier tempo of 100 beats per minute, resulting in a distinct theme within the label.

Cómeme, meaning a body that gives itself away, is the globe-spanning work of Chilean-born now Berlin-based electronic artist Matias Aguayo and includes the collaborative and visual efforts of Christian S and Norwegian-based Charlotte Bendiks. The experimental dance label invites loony beats, joyful lunacy, and self-styled electronic primitives to join in on turning a nightlife fiction into reality. This collective fantasy, utterly devoted to the dark side of the disco ball, keeps a certain wanderlust alive in its rhythmic beats.

Princípe Discos is a record label based in Lisbon, Portugal. Founded in 2007 by Nelson and Pedro Gomes with the debut of Marlon Silva aka DJ Marfox’s EP, Princípe Discos is fully dedicated to releasing 100% real contemporary dance music coming out of Lisbon, as well as its suburbs, projects, and slums. The label allows for new sounds, forms, and structures with their own set of poetics and cultural identity to have a platform as a record label.   

Though there are hundreds of independent record labels to explore, these labels are pushing the boundaries of music through their experimentation. The internet has allowed independent labels reach their audiences, spanning geographical boundaries to connect artists and enthusiasts alike, all over the world.

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