Twelve L.A. indie labels you should know: a primer
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A consensus seems to be growing that Los Angeles is in the midst of a renaissance for independent music. In a recent Sunday feature, we set out to discover just how it is that while the major labels continue to suffer layoffs and severe sales losses, this city’s scrappy, savvy, taste-driven indie imprints have, in fact, been thriving. As a corollary to that, we’ve spoken to and profiled 12 of L.A.’s most active young labels, from artist-owned black metal powerhouse Southern Lord to chart-climbing indie rock outlet Danger Bird to progressive hip-hop imprint Anticon. Here’s hoping they’ll all end up in a GZA song some day.
Sargent House (Echo Park)
Longtime talent manager Cathy Pellow started Sargent House in 2006 with one artist: Seal Beach prog-punk band Rx Bandits, who were ready to call it quits after selling around 150,000 records through MCA/Geffen and, according to Pellow, ‘never seeing a penny.’ Today, her stable comprises ‘a middle class of awesome musicians,’ also proggily inclined, able to live off their earnings. She also manages a sister label co-run by the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez Lopez.
IAMSOUND (Mid-City West)
With artists as diverse as British electro-popper Little Boots, Midwestern screwgaze trio Salem and L.A.’s own Afro-pop ensemble Fool’s Gold, IAMSOUND is as diverse as it comes, offsetting a tasteful, if broad, curatorial instinct with learned business knowhow. Founded in 2006 and run by video director Niki Roberton and online marketing expert Paul Tao, the label also understands community, evidenced by its ongoing “L.A. Collection” vinyl series, featuring a genre-hopping set of local up-and-comers.
Stones Throw (Mt. Washington)
Founded in 1996 by DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf, a.k.a. Chris Manak, Stones Throw moved to L.A. from Northern California a decade ago in order to be closer to its flagship artist, the cult-beloved and highly prolific Madlib. With a winning catalog informed by his playful, jazz-steeped compositions (see MF DOOM’s ‘Madvillainy’ and J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’), plus a rising tide of vital new acts, the label is positioned to become the hip-hop equivalent of a major indie like Sub Pop.
Hydra Head (Los Feliz)
Hydra Head’s holdings include roughly half of the metal and metal-adjacent bands currently making waves in music, from “black ambient” artists such as Alhambra’s Xasthur to Seattle sludge kings Big Business to Providence mathcore act Daughters. Isis frontman Aaron Turner co-owns the label with Mark Thompson, who can be found most days of the week at their Sunset Junction-situated record shop, Vacation Vinyl. ‘Music is my life’s blood,’ Thompson said.
Post Present Medium (Hollywood)
No Age drummer Dean Spunt started Post Present Medium in 2001, four years before his widely acclaimed band even existed. The label, which skews punk and includes the most recent releases from fellow the Smell-alum Mika Miko and Abe Vigoda, was funded using money won in a settlement after a car accident involving the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson. Spunt founded PPM hoping to make a scene that he could call his own. Clearly, he succeeded.
A collective of geographically dispersed left-field rap stars created Anticon in 1998, then moved to Oakland to buckle down. A string of genre-busting releases followed -- from WHY?, Sole, and Themselves -- lending the label the chutzpah to relocate to L.A. Today, Anticon’s portfolio is diverse, including the psychedelic swamp funk of Tobacco and the bright beat music of Baths. Label manager Shaun Koplow oversees things from an office that he shares with Alpha Pup.
Manimal Vinyl (Hancock Park)
For four years, fashion stylist Paul Beahan has run Manimal Vinyl out of his home in Hancock Park. After dropping out of the local scene due to a lack of inspiration, he was brought back in on hearing the psychedelic sounds of Devendra Banhart and his cadre of Eastside folkies. Beahan’s first signing was the similarly aligned Chapin Sisters, but in an ironic twist, his label is now best known for synthesizer-heavy art-pop from acts such as Hecuba and Bat For Lashes.
In the Red (Eagle Rock)
Founded in 1991 by a Cal State Fullerton student named Larry Hardy, In the Red has grown to become one of the most respected imprints in U.S. garage rock, featuring releases from Vivian Girls, Jay Reatard, Strange Boys, Black Lips and locals Wounded Lion. Still, it’s a decidedly indie operation, and Hardy fittingly runs the label from his detached garage. His retort to the major labels? ‘I can sell 15,000 records from my backyard. Why have the machinery?’
Alpha Pup (Downtown)
Though its offices are downtown, Alpha Pup’s constituent parts come from various points around the city via its numerous artist-run imprints, which include Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. The company was founded in 2004 by producer Daddy Kev, a.k.a. Kevin Moo, and focuses its efforts predominantly on digital releases from the electronic innovators affiliated with Moo’s club, Low End Theory -- hotly tipped names such as Nosaj Thing and Lorn.
Southern Lord (East Hollywood)
Southern Lord’s aesthetic is, in the words of label manager Eddie Solis, ‘rooted in doom.’ The label was established in 1998 by guitarist Greg Anderson, mastermind of revered experimental metal duo Sunn O))), and like its neighbor, Hydra Head, has come to represent roughly half (the other half) of the most exciting names in artistically inclined, though positively thrashing, metal. Solis dismissed the idea of a rivalry existing between the two: ‘If they do good, we do good.’
Dangerbird (Silver Lake)
Co-founded by Jeff Castelaz, a manager with a proven track record, and musician Peter Walker, Dangerbird embodies the intersection of good business and artist-friendliness. Under the bright blue roof of the label’s headquarters, a small staff handles publishing, merchandising, licensing and recording (they have their own studio) -– amenities that seem to suit Dangerbird’s roster of indie rockers quite well. Those serviced include Silversun Pickups, Sea Wolf and Hot Hot Heat.
Not Not Fun (Eagle Rock)
The psychedelic soul of L.A.’s underground, Not Not Fun specializes in lo-fi tunes as prone to experimental drone as they are to raw, funk-fueled groove. Husband-and-wife team Amanda and Britt Brown originally conceived of NNF as a cassette label responsible for limited-run musical artifacts -– tapes, for instance, bedecked with found seashells -– but it’s since become the home base for hazy, dazed experiments such as Sun Araw, Ducktails, Robedoor and L.A. Vampires.
-- Chris Martins
Upper photo: Post Present Medium founder (and No Age drummer) Dean Spunt. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: Fool’s Gold, on L.A.-based label IAMSOUND. Credit: Pitch Perfect PR