When I was growing up, a great many labels actually worked hard at having an identity. Blue Note meant something, as did Stiff, Rounder, Sugar Hill, Fania and many more (even some of the majors). Music fans actually bought stuff with a sense of trust for the people who put it out. Packaging, production style, taste, and aesthetic pointed to (big idea) a real live art vision behind each release.
I've worked with and for several reissue labels, and there are basically two kinds: The cheap "just throw it out there" chop shops, and those run by stone music fanatics who invariably wind up spending more than they'd intended because the music and package had to be just so. And these fanatics ran weird little labels that somehow stayed in business even as the industry was imploding around around them. Stubborn resolve plus the irrational love of music often equals longevity.
And so, the brick and mortar record company idea hasn't been killed off, even as digital distribution has largely removed tactile contact from the music experience. There are a few indie labelsOmnivore and Dust To Digital prominent among themwhose releases are wonderful objects. Both focus mostly on reissue/unreleased archival material, and each has matched distinctive musical taste with packaging that sings out loud.
On the surface, the two seem very different. Omnivore is chaired by Cheryl Pawelski, a real-live vetted Grammy-nominated Hollywood major label insider, while Dust To Digital is a tiny Atlanta label run by Lance Ledbetter and his wife April. Pawelski's aesthetic is wide. She's worked on box sets from Big Star to John Coltrane, knows more about major label catalogs and music business procedure than any human I've ever met, and is a third degree black belt record geek. Ledbetter's operation is mom-and-pop-shop all the way, and his focus is almost entirely on vernacular music, not strictly American. Pawelski is much more likely to traffic in artists you've heard of than is Ledbetter, who will point right at something whose very existence you never even suspected. But each of these labels is the creation of someone with a real aesthetic, an abiding love, and a creative notion as to how to present recorded music.
Why do we need these people and what they do? Can't we just stream it all on Spotify or something?
"The bottom line is always the music," says Pawelski, "but what about putting it in a context? A digital file doesn't give you that at all.You don't get a picture, or liner notes. There used to be so much that literally surrounded the musiccover art, notes, even the label designthat were like clues before you even put the record on. The whole thing pointed to something, meant something. It drew you in and made you a fan. When your favorite band was going to put out a new record, you didn't just wonder about the songs. You waited to see the cover, too. A new record was an event, not a file. The great labels had a real identity. I collected all those Sub Pop mail order singles, and I loved the slogan on the envelope'Going Out Of Business Since 1988'and the music and just the whole attitude. I trusted them to make a good record. They kept me curious."
Dust To Digital's packages don't just induce curiositythey force it. Their Grammy-nominated inaugural release, Goodbye, Babylon (2003), was a five CD set of American gospel music and sermons, 1902-1960. The discs (and a 200 page book with Bible verses, lyrics, and serious notes) come in a 12" box packed with cotton. This anthology is a landmark. Nobody had anthologized gospel music so comprehensively, and no reissue ever looked like this.
"It's American music from an earlier time," explains Ledbetter, "and I wanted Goodbye, Babylon to be recognizable to the people who made the records or who bought them in that time, during that period. If you look at pictures of stores or old catalogs from, say, the thirties, you see wooden boxes. So I searched and found a company that does cedar wine boxes with corporate logos, and we cut a deal with them for a thousand. We've pressed up more copies with each run, same company. It's not really that expensive to do, but the dimension it adds to the story you're trying to tell... Well, it means something."
Clearly, it does. Neil Young spoke of it on NPR's Weekend Edition:
"I recently got a gift from Bob Dylan, a good old friend of mine. He gave me a gospel collection of great old American music and early country roots from old 78s. It's the original wealth of our recorded music; it's the cream of the crop and has the history of each recording. It's a great old set called Goodbye, Babylon, and it's incredible. It's in a wooden box and everything, and it's just so beautiful."
(Ledbetter admitted to falling out of his chair upon hearing this.)