Independent record labels are small companies that produce and distribute records. They are not affiliated with or funded by the three major records labels. According to SoundScan and the Recording Industry Association of America, indie labels produce and distribute about 66% of music titles, but only account for 20% of sales.
The distinction between major and independent labels is not always clear. The traditional definition of a major label is a label that owns its distribution channel. Some independent labels, particularly those with successful artists, sign dual-release agreements with major labels. They may also rely on international licensing deals, distribution agreements, and other arrangements with major labels. Major labels sometimes fully or partially acquire independent labels.
Other nominally independent labels are started and sometimes run by artists on major labels, but are still fully or partially owned by the major label. These labels are frequently referred to as vanity labels or boutique labels, and are intended to appease established artists or allow them to discover and promote newer artists.
According to the Association of Independent Music, "A 'major' is defined in AIM's constitution as a multinational company which (together with the companies in its group) has more than 5% of the world market(s) for the sale of records or music videos. The majors are (currently) Sony, Warner and the Universal Music Group (which as of 2012 incorporates EMI)... If a major owns 50% or more of the total shares in your company, you would (usually) be owned or controlled by that major."
Independent labels have historically anticipated developments in popular music, beginning with the post-war period in the United States. Disputes with major labels led to a proliferation of smaller labels specializing in country, jazz, and blues. Sun Records played an important part in the development of rock 'n' roll and country music, working with artists such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. These independent labels usually aimed their releases at a small but loyal audience. They relied less on mass sales and were able to provide artists much more opportunity for experimentation and artistic freedom.
In the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s, the major labels EMI, Philips, and Decca had so much power that smaller labels struggled to establish themselves. Several British producers launched independent labels, including Joe Meek (Triumph Records), Andrew Oldham (Immediate Records), and Larry Page (Page One Records). Chrysalis Records, launched by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, was perhaps the most successful independent label from that era. Several established artists started their own independent labels, including The Beatles' Apple Records, The Rolling Stones' Rolling Stones Records, and Elton John' The Rocket Record Company. These labels tended to fail commercially or be acquired by the major labels.
In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the American music business changed as people began to more quickly learn the industry. Several companies set up their own recording studios, and the number of label owners began to increase. Many of these owners realized that whichever label first publishes a song is legally entitled to receive compensation for every record sold. Following the original pioneers of the music industry, many new labels were launched over the following decades by people with industry experience. During the 1980s and 1990s, many rap labels were started by artists looking for new talent. Madonna is one example of an established artist who helped launch the career of newer artists with her Maverick label.
A&M Records is widely believed to have been the most successful independent label in history due to its 37-year run and catalog of commercially successful and critically acclaimed records. Founded in 1962 by trumpeter Herb Alpert (A) and record promoter Jerry Moss (M), A&M was initially the label and distributor for Alpert's own Tijuana Brass recordings, but the label quickly began signing other artists. Over its 37-year run, A&M sold records from such artists as Sergio Mendes & Brazil '66, Claudine Longet, The Carpenters, Phil Ochs, Carole King (A&M distributed her label, Ode Records), Joe Cocker, Free, Cat Stevens, Procol Harum, Humble Pie, Peter Frampton, The Police and Sting (as a solo artist), Styx, Bryan Adams, Amy Grant, Suzanne Vega and Sheryl Crow. A&M was also the initial distributor of Windham Hill Records and George Harrison's Dark Horse Records. Alpert and Moss sold A&M Records to Polygram in 1989 with the caveat that Alpert and Moss would continue to manage the label. Polygram was bought by Universal Music Group in 1998, and A&M folded the following year.
The punk rock movement was another turning point for independent labels, the movement's do-it-yourself ethos creating an even greater proliferation of independent labels. In the United States, independent labels such as Beserkley found success with artists such as The Modern Lovers. Many of the United Kingdom labels ended up signing distribution deals with major labels to remain viable, but others retained their independence, such as Industrial Records, Factory Records, Warp, Ninja Tune, Wax On, and BlancoMusic. Another factor that came to define independent labels was the method of distribution, which had to be independent of the major labels for records to be included in the UK Indie Chart. The UK Indie Chart was first compiled in 1980. The chart was unrelated to a specific genre, and the chart featured a diverse range of music, from punk to reggae, MOR, and mainstream pop, including songs by artists like Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan on the PWL label.
The late 1970s had seen the establishment of independent distribution companies such as Pinnacle and Spartan, providing independent labels an effective means of distribution without involving the major labels. Distribution was further improved with the establishment of 'The Cartel', an association of companies such as Rough Trade Records, Backs Records, and Red Rhino, which helped to take releases from small labels and get them into record shops nationwide. The UK Indie Chart became a major source of exposure for artists on independent labels, with the top ten singles regularly aired on the national television show The Chart Show. By the late 1980s, the major labels had identified an opportunity to establish new artists using the indie chart, and began setting up subsidiary labels that were financed by the major labels but distributed independently. This allowed the major labels to effectively push the indie labels out of the market, and the independent chart became less significant in the early 1990s. The term "alternative" was increasingly used to describe artists, and "indie'" was more often used to describe a broad range of guitar-based rock and pop.
The Offspring's 1994 album, Smash, is the best-selling independent record of all time. The album was certified six times platinum in the United States and sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. Norman Schreiber wrote a 1986 book called The Scouting Party Index of Independent Record Labels that covers a list of over 200 independent record labels, their artists, and examples of their work.
Beggars Banquet is a British independent record label that began as a chain of record shops owned by Martin Mills and Nick Austin, and is part of the Beggars Group of labels.Bieler Bros. Records
Bieler Bros. Records is an independent record label in Florida.Birdman Records
Birdman Records is an independent record label based in South San Francisco that was founded by former Warner Bros. Records A&R vice-president David Katznelson.Bridge Records
Bridge Records is an independent record label that specializes in classical music.Carpark Records
Carpark Records is an American independent record label established by Todd Hyman in 1999 in New York City and relocated to Washington, D.C. in 2005. Its subsidiary labels are Acute Records (which reissues obscure postpunk records) and Paw Tracks (which releases music by Animal Collective and associated solo acts Avey Tare and Panda Bear).Domino Recording Company
Domino Recording Company (or simply as Domino) is a British independent record label based in London. There is also a wing of the label based in Brooklyn, New York that handles releases in the United States, as well as a German division called Domino Deutschland and a French division called Domino France. In addition, Stephen Pastel presides over the subsidiary label Geographic Music, which releases more 'unusual' music from Britain and outside of the Western world. In 2011, the company announced that it was beginning a book publishing division, The Domino Press.Downtown Records
Downtown Records is an American independent record label based in New York City with offices in Los Angeles. Owned and operated by Josh Deutsch and Terence Lam, the roster includes Nick Murphy, Brett Dennen, Electric Guest, Tei Shi, Goldroom, and Tommy Genesis.Estrus Records
Estrus Records is an independent record label from Bellingham, Washington that makes surf, garage and trash rock music.
They have released such bands as Mono Men, The Drags, The Mummies, Supercharger, Impala, Man or Astro-man?, the Makers, Gas Huffer, The Mooney Suzuki, Soledad Brothers, DMBQ, The Cherry Valence, Midnight Evils, Federation X, The Trashwomen, Satan's Pilgrims, The Von Zippers, Tricky Woo, Untamed Youth, Immortal Lee County Killers, The Dexateens, Marble Orchard, The Mortals and Southern Culture on the Skids.For many years Estrus hosted an annual festival, Garage Shock, at The 3B Tavern in Bellingham. Garage Shock featured bands from the labels roster, as well as others from around the world. The last Garage Shock, in 2001, was held at Emo's, in Austin, Texas.
In January 1997, their entire mail-order inventory, private record collection, and some band gear were destroyed in a warehouse fire.Frenchkiss Records
Frenchkiss Records is an independent record label based in New York City. The label was started in 1999 by Syd Butler, bassist and founder of Les Savy Fav. The label's first purpose was to release Les Savy Fav's second album The Cat and The Cobra, but has since been the label responsible for discovering a varying array of artists such as The Hold Steady, The Antlers, The Dodos, Local Natives and Passion Pit. The label has recently added a music publishing side as well, Frenchkiss Publishing.
The company was acquired by The Orchard in September 2014.Get Low Recordz
Get Low Recordz was a San Francisco based independent record label founded in 1991 and owned by rapper/producer JT the Bigga Figga. The first artists who released material on Get Low Recordz were JT the Bigga Figga, Get Low Playaz, San Quinn, The Game and D-Moe. In 1995 the label got a distribution deal with Priority Records for a few years. The label became involved in a beef with Memphis Bleek's record label of the same name. For some time, the label had since been dissolved.In the Red Records
In the Red Records is an independent record label in Los Angeles, California, formed in 1991 by Larry Hardy. It is known for hosting garage rock related bands on its label.The label's first release was by The Morlocks, and its second release was Kings of Rock. Hardy has publicly stated that he wished he would have waited for Mick Collins' The Gories material to be finished for the first release. However the Gories recording was slow going and Larry became impatient, rushing the two initial releases into production.Bands that have released LPs on this label include Cheap Time, Cheater Slicks, Thee Oh Sees, Reigning Sound, Dan Melchior's Broke Revue, The Ponys, The Intelligence, The Hunches, The Dirtbombs, The Deadly Snakes, Sparks, Andre Williams, Black Lips, LAMPS, Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Jay Reatard, The Horrors, Bassholes, The Fuse, Country Teasers, The King Khan & BBQ Show, Panther Burns, Demon's Claws, Mark Sultan, Vivian Girls, Monkey Wrench, Human Eye, Strange Boys, Blank Dogs, Dávila 666, Speedball Baby, Sonic Chicken 4, Wounded Lion Meatbodies, and Fuzz.Invisible Records
Invisible Records is a Chicago based record label founded by Martin Atkins. In 2001, Invisible Records started a subsidiary label Underground Inc..Megaforce Records
Megaforce Records is an American independent record label founded in 1982 by Jon Zazula and his wife Marsha Zazula to publish the first works of Metallica. It has offices in New York City (where the corporate office is located) and Philadelphia. The label is distributed in the United States by RED Distribution, having previously been distributed by Atlantic Records from 1982 to 1987 while Anthrax' recordings from 1988 to 1993 were marketed by Island Records.
Megaforce artists that have appeared on the Billboard Top 200 chart include Metallica, Blue October, Anthrax, Overkill, Testament, Mushroomhead, Ministry, Bad Brains and Meat Puppets. The Black Crowes and Meat Puppets have both received various RIAA certifications in the US.Neurot Recordings
Neurot Recordings is an American independent record label founded by members of Neurosis in 1999. Gradually expanding, it has showcased a variety of artists including a number of sludge metal, post-rock and noise bands.New West Records
New West Records is a record label based in Nashville, Tennessee, and Athens, Georgia. It had offices in Burbank, California, and Beverly Hills, California. The label was established in 1998 by Cameron Strang "for artists who perform real music for real people" and has been home to indie rock, alternative country, and Americana bands. The label's records in the US were previously distributed by Alternative Distribution Alliance beginning in 2013 through to 2018 when Redeye Distribution assumed distribution in 2018. The PIAS Group handles the distribution in Europe.Parasol Records
Parasol Records is an American independent record label based in Urbana, Illinois. The label was founded by Geoff Merritt as an outgrowth of the catalogue Parasol Mail Order (which was started in 1991).
The Parasol Records banner also includes the smaller labels associated with it, including Mud, Spur, Hidden Agenda and Galaxy Gramophone.
The majority of Parasol's releases have been indie pop CD and 7" vinyl singles. Artists signed to Parasol Records are:
16 Tons, The 1900s, 7% Solution, Absinthe Blind, Acid House Kings, The Action, AK-Momo, Mark Bacino, Bikeride, Brian Leach, Bruno, Matt, Budgie Jacket, Busytoby, C-Clamp, Doleful Lions, Elsinore, Honcho Overload, Hot Glue Gun, Lanterna, The Moon Seven Times, Neilson Hubbard, Hum, Jack & the Beanstalk, Jenifer Jackson, Ryan Groff, Sugarbuzz and many others.
Geoff Merritt and friend Ric Menck (Velvet Crush) also run Reaction Recordings—best known for the "Songs of the Pogo" (Walt Kelly and Norman Monath) re-release along with re-releases from The Action, The Vertebrats, Crippled Pilgrims and Richard Lloyd.SpinART Records
SpinART Records was a New York City-based independent record label that released recordings by The Apples in Stereo, Clem Snide, Frank Black, and Michael Penn.
The label was started by Joel Morowitz and Jeff Price in 1991. SpinART filed for bankruptcy in April 2007 and went out of business.
As of 2013, Jeff Price is founder and CEO of digital music auditing company Audiam. Joel Morowitz is the owner of Ecstatic Electric Pro Audio.Western Vinyl
Western Vinyl is an independent record label founded in 1998 and based in Austin, Texas.Young God Records
Young God Records is an independent record label formed by Michael Gira in 1990 that specializes in experimental, avant-garde and often non genre-specific releases. The label was named after an EP released by Gira's band Swans called Young God.
The label's original intent was to facilitate the release of Swans' music, but while the band was disbanded Young God grew to host the Angels of Light as well as a number of other unique bands and artists, including: Akron/Family, Devendra Banhart, Lisa Germano, Ulan Bator, and Mi and L'au. Swans was re-formed in 2010, and began again releasing music under the Young God label. In 2012, Gira told Pitchfork that Young God wouldn't be putting out any new albums by other bands, citing the decline in revenue.