Okay, everyone get your hipster jokes out of the way now. I’ll wait. Good? Good.
Music history often notes the successes and failures of large record companies such as Columbia Records, Atlantic Records, Capitol Records, etc… However, as the 70s ended, independent labels played an increasingly significant part in the music history. These are my favorite labels, the ones that made a difference.
Vagrant began in 1996, rooted in pop-punk and emo. This is the label that carried many of the bands I, and other white suburban kids, listened to in high school such as Alkaline Trio, The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day and Hey Mercedes.
They’ve continued to do good work, signing bands such as The Hold Steady and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Before Vagrant, there was Lookout! a bastion of pop-punk in sea grunge. The label started in 1987 but really picked up in the early 90s thanks in part to the Gilman Street scene.
Green Day famously started on Lookout! but the label also produced a number of other talented punk bands such as The Mr. T Experience, Screeching Weasel and The Groovie Ghoulies.
The label also scores points for working with Alkaline Trio, Samiam and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
Epitaph Records, founded in the 80s by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, was the other main player in punk rock during the 90s. Several bands who came to have limited to enormous commercial success started on Epitaph. The most obvious examples are Rancid, the Dropkick Murphys and the Offspring.
Its roster also included NOFX and the Weakerthans as well as personal favorites the Bouncing Souls, Hot Water Music and the Descendents.
Matador was founded in 1989, and at one point Capitol Records owned a 49 percent stake in the label. However, founders Chris Lombardi and Gerard Cosloy bought it back.
Despite that relationship (and a short partnership with Atlantic), Matador has always been the label for indie bands. It the past, its roster included many indie darlings with cult followings such as Teenage Fan Club, Guided By Voices, Superchunk and Spoon.
The label still maintains a strong lineup consisting of bands such as Pavement, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, the New Pornographers and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.
Sub Pop Records
Sub Pop, founded in 1986, was home to the “Seattle sound,” which eventually led to grunge’s breakthrough in the early 90s.
The most famous alumna of Sub Pop is Nirvana, of course, but they had a strong regional presence signing bands such as Mudhoney, Sleater-Kinney and L7.
The label wasn’t limited to the Pacific Northwest or its particular band of rock, though. Sub Pop also worked with diverse bands like Built to Spill, the Afghan Whigs and the Reverend Horton Heat.
Now it is home to the Shins and the Postal Service.
SST was the label that started indie labels as we think of them. Gregg Ginn started SST in 1978 as means to release Black Flag (his band) records. The first release was Black Flag’s classic “Nervous Breakdown EP.”
The label quickly started signing like-minded bands, building an impressive roster that included The Minute Men, The Meat Puppets, The Descendents and Husker Du.
Later, the label started to diversify, signing Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and the Screaming Trees. SST still exists today, but it is not what it once was. Now it mainly releases projects directly related to Ginn.