Editor's note: This article first appeared in sister publication Flying Kite.
After a decade of radically declining revenues, Nielsen SoundScan reported a 1.3 percent increase in album sales in 2011. While the rise of the mp3 as the most popular mode of music consumption has cut into record label and artist profits -- namely due to the proliferation of illegal downloading -- last year showed a 19.5 percent increase in digital album sales.
What this means for record labels, particularly independent labels, isn't quite clear. What is for certain, though, is that labels must constantly adapt to a wildly unpredictable economic landscape in order to remain viable.
Siltbreeze and Relapse are two of Philadelphia's longest-running independent labels. Both have built strong brands and maintained a loyal consumer base by focusing on niche genres -- the former on underground rock music (everything from garage and psych to punk), the latter on heavy metal music.
There are also dozens of exciting, newer independent labels currently based in Philadelphia: see BadMaster, Evil Weevil, Brutal Panda, Enemy Soil, Richie Records and High Two, for starters. But two of the most compelling are Seclusiasis and Data Garden, as both use a variety of fresh strategies to engage consumers in unique ways.
Beginning in 1987 as a self-published music zine, Siltbreeze
evolved into a record label two years later. Operating from founder, and sole employee, Tom Lax's Bella Vista apartment, the label has since released 150 albums in cassette, CD and vinyl record formats, with pressings ranging from 500-1,500.
"One of the biggest challenges has been battling an indifferent and overwhelmed buying public," says Lax. "But the impetus from the beginning has always been to release records that I would buy myself. I've never put out something in an attempt to create a trend, but perhaps this sort of thing has followed in the wake of records I've been involved with."
With about seven releases each year, and with sales steadily at about 1,000 units, Siltbreeze has never had a big selling record (at least not by traditional industry standards).
But Siltbreeze succeeded by being one of the first to specialize in a more experimental, and rawer, type of rock music—while others sought to maximize sales, Lax focused on the music emerging from rock's underbelly. He released work by seminal indie-rock bands like Guided By Voices and Sebadoh, as well as local acts like Bardo Pond, Strapping Fieldhands and, most recently, Far Out Fangtooth. Since sales weren't the priority, Siltbreeze could take risks on forward-thinking, but marginalized, music that a small group of devoted listeners wanted to hear. These consumers trust that Siltbreeze's product is consistently good and difficult to find elsewhere, and so the label has endured.
Founded in 1990, Relapse
has been based in the Philadelphia area for the past 12 years. (With a staff of 15, the label also has representatives in New York City, the Netherlands, Japan, and Portland, where founder Matt Jacobson currently lives.) For seven of those years (2001 - 2008), Relapse maintained a record shop on South Street, but has since relocated its central offices and warehouse to Upper Darby.
Relapse has released nearly 700 albums, and currently averages about 30 releases each year—with units ranging anywhere between 1,000 - 75,000, CDs remain the most popular format. The biggest seller to date is Atlanta band Mastodon's Leviathan which, since its 2004 release, has sold about 300,000 copies worldwide.
"It's more difficult than ever to monetize music," says Rennie Jaffe, the Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Relapse. "And we can't expect to sell our product at the price points we used to, or at the volumes we once expected. But, at the same time, there's more music to consume and more people to consume it than ever before."
The extreme metal music community has always had a ferocious desire for high-quality art work and unique album packaging, both of which Relapse has excelled in delivering. One of the label's upcoming releases, sludge-metal band Baroness' Yellow & Green, comes with a 30-page hardcover book featuring art by the band's frontman. And, last year, Relapse created a scratch-and-sniff box to house an album by the band Brutal Truth, and a chainsaw-shaped vinyl record for the band Exhumed.
By implementing these innovative physical packaging strategies, Relapse has successfully maintained a high demand for its product. Simply put, you can't scratch-and-sniff an mp3.
, the joint label run by electronic dance music artists Starkey and Dev79, focuses on releasing music by grime, dubstep and bass music producers like Distal and DNABEATS. It began as a concert-presenting organization in the early 2000s, but label activity increased soon after. (Around that same time, and with producer El Carnicero, Starkey and Dev79 also started a sister label called Slit Jockey). This year, Seclusiasis will release about 15 albums, with a focus on digital formats, as well as their first USB flash drive album.
"Having a strong brand and an image is more important than ever," says label co-founder Dev79. "The peripherals of what goes on with the label are often what's being sold to the audience more so than the music itself."
While keeping a close ear to the streets in order to curate the best contemporary bass music, Seclusiasis understands the importance of its ancillary activities. It frequently releases free compilations and mp3s, and also hosts both a monthly Sub FM live radio show and a monthly podcast to preview unreleased music. The label also maintains an active blog, which includes Dev79's "Stuff Yer Face" food column and Starkey's "Beat Artillery" column on music production, and Seclusiasis still hosts live performances where both founders often appear onstage together. All of these tactics are designed to help Seclusiasis build a deeper relationship with its audience, and to create a culture for the label that goes well beyond music.
A newcomer on the scene (and no stranger to the pages of Flying Kite
), the South Philadelphia-based Data Garden
label specializes in experimental electronic music, particularly that which focuses on the relationships between plants and technology. So far, the label has released three albums.
"We're not just trying to activate people to buy music," says electronic musician and label co-founder Joe Patitucci. "We're looking to inspire people to experience music, art, technology and the natural world in new ways."
The label wing is just a small part of what Data Garden does. They have an online journal that features interviews, essays and videos documenting and investigating historical and contemporary issues in electronic music. And Data Garden also organizes unique events, as it plans to do with the Kickstarter-funded second installment
of its interactive Switched-On Garden series this October.
"The online community and public events aspects are inseparable from the label," says Patitucci. "They're part of an expression of the larger idea that is Data Garden -- the events and the website ultimately give our audience a context for the music we release."
Like Seclusiasis, Data Garden's work surpasses the traditional record label model of simply throwing albums onto the market. In order to survive as an independent label in a time when revenue from album sales is uncertain, these local labels show that it's critical to diversify the ways they interact with audiences and develop their brands.