Music Features

Label Buds Is the Future

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Explaining Twitter to someone who isn’t on it can be exhausting. Have you ever tried? Beyond even the strange logistical elements of the platform that are unique and hard to summarize, it can be genuinely hard to really articulate the strange ecosystem the platform has developed into. As has been analyzed, discussed and, yes, Tweeted, ad nauseam, one of the singularly fascinating and infuriating developments in that ecosystem is the fact that news that is often monumental can feel overlooked, while things that are inconsequential are given giant platforms. Without question, the kingmaking and monument-destroying power of Twitter is, in a word, scary.

But at its best, that ecosystem allows news on Twitter to FEEL big even when it’s small—that’s why we’re still there, right? That’s the theoretical allure of social media, to have our own worlds validated and see things we find important raised up. When the grizzled Don Giovanni Records Twitter account, whose disposition regularly reads, “we’re only here because we HAVE to be,” was casually shooting out tweets at 11:43 AM PST on a random Wednesday afternoon in late January, you’d expect the usual from an independent label in the year 2019: A Spotify link to a recent album, the URL for a new music video, perhaps a show poster, or maybe a promo code for some discounted merch sale. But rather than the usual, Don Giovanni, along with seven other independent labels, was using the Wednesday lunch hour to disrupt that precious algorithm-driven ecosystem and lay the groundwork for what they’re hoping is, in its own way, a small revolution:

“So me and my label buds formed a group called… label buds,” the Tweet stated. “Our goal is to try take things back into our own hands the way things were when we started out labels, and out of the hands of bro-run tech companies trying to control our corner of the industry.”

Sent out by Don Giovanni owner Joe Steinhardt, that Tweet, along with similarly worded sentiments from the accounts of Broken Circles, Exploding In Sound, Father/Daughter, Topshelf, Tiny Engines, Fire Talk, and Arrowhawk, was a small, earnest, and preliminary shot heard round the internet — or at least, it should’ve been. To date, that initial Tweet has 449 likes and 35 Retweets, ironically the perfect kind of summary of Label Bud’s ultimate anti-“bro-run tech company” goals.

“When I stared Don Giovanni Records it was really easy for an extremely small label like mine which was run out of a drawer and a closet in my dorm room at college to be able to reach people who would like what we were doing,” says Steinhardt. “There was a whole DIY network involving things like ads and reviews in magazines like Maximum Rock N Roll and Razorcake… At some point that DIY network got replaced by a bunch of tech companies like Facebook, Spotify, Google, Apple, Twitter, that were run by the type of people who that whole DIY network was built to exist outside of, and ultimately serve that same crowd.”

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Jessi Frick, who co-owns Father/Daugher records with her father Ken Hector, has been an outspoken advocate on Twitter about the plight of the indie label in the 21st century, going so far as to pen a three-part collection of essays about running an indie music label, which is some of the most insightful writing you can find about the topic. Naturally, that energy and passion is part of what led to the creation of Label Buds. “The idea came out of our distributor’s label hang,” Frick explains. “We all go through Redeye Distribution and figured we can use each others’ platforms to help get the word out about our new releases. We don’t see any of these labels as competitors, we’re all trying to break through the noise with limited budgets and resources, so why not band together to keep each other in business?”

Out of that distributor’s hang in December came at least some of the ideas for Label Buds. “We all came away from that feeling really rejuvenated and inspired,” says Topshelf Records co-owner Kevin Duquette. “There’s a palpable energy to everyone’s shared enthusiasm and experience at that event that we wanted to try and carry over to what we collectively do digitally.”

Having a digital footprint is something that’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds, including Label Buds. For as many ways as Spotify and Apple have made music more accessible, those platforms have become equally destructive to indie labels, particularly in their service of and preference for major label artists. “The only labels I really see as competitors are the major labels and the major indies who operate like the majors,” assures Steinhardt. “I think most labels feel the same way. We’re all trying to build something bigger than ourselves as far as a music community and ultimately, when we all talk to each other, what we really want to see is good artists and good people succeed, even if it’s not always in our own best interest.”

As of now, Label Buds is simply a playlist, a kind of update from a similar group playlist that resided on Tiny Engine’s Spotify from earlier last year, made up of upcoming releases from the eight labels. It’s a small but decidedly important step to cut through Spotify and Apple’s auto-populated and major label-dominated playlists, a way to make sure you check out artists who otherwise won’t appear on “Discover Weekly”-styled content. “I think it also sprouts up as a ‘strength in numbers’ / cross-pollination type thing, where we all recognize our respective audiences might appreciate this as much as we do,” explains Duquette. “But also (it’s) a response to seeing our catalogs repeatedly underserved and underrepresented in the playlisting spaces of major digital platforms.”

Naturally such a project—Twitter algorithms be damned—sparked a fair amount of interest among other independent labels who similarly see the benefit of uniting, among them Philly DIY label Get Better Records. Both founder Alex Lichtenauer and Potty Mouth’s bassist Ally Einbinder, who help run the label, understand the necessity of this kind of label comradery even as technical outsiders to the current group, perhaps even more than some of the labels in question. Not distributed by Redeye, under its current organization Get Better won’t be an official Label Bud, but that’s okay with both of them. “What I liked about it most is it’s not like ‘we’re in competition with one another,’ it was a group effort to say ‘we’re all in this together,’” says Lichtenauer.

Get Better mostly remains a one-person show, and has been for more than a decade. “This is truly a DIY operation,” reiterates Einbinder. “There’s no in-house publicity, or marketing team. It’s very organic.” Cutting through that strange ecosystem of Twitter and social media is something Get Better has been fairly good at through the course of its existence, inadvertently leveraging a no-bullshit presence with an account that isn’t afraid to voice political and social opinions, or as Lichtenauer describes it, foster a “see-something-say-something” mentality, all of which has given them a slight algorithmic edge in recent times.

But finding a way to translate that small success into streaming numbers remains an uphill battle. The found success through promotion and overall streams for independent labels, both in Label Buds and outside of it, varies wildly, and who knows if a group playlist will be able to spread that wealth. “Music is changing a lot now and Spotify is kind of the elephant in the room,” Lichtenauer states. “No one wants to really talk about it but we all have to use it, we all have to pretty heavily depend on it to get people to hear music. People aren’t going to Bandcamp as much any more because it’s all on Spotify.”

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Still for Einbinder, and plenty of people who have been championing the concept online, the symbolism of the Label Buds playlist matters just as much as the theoretical implications of getting music straight to fans. “What I think is cool about the ‘Label Buds’ idea is that its an acknowledgement that all of us independent labels are, for better or worse, operating within the same larger ecosystem of music consumption,” says Einbinder. “It’s not like you can just opt out because that’s how music is heard, but it’s not just being accepted that that’s how things are now, it’s still maintaining the ethic of what it means to be an independent record label.”

Label Buds, whatever it is and whatever it will become, will currently remain tethered to Redeye Distribution. “A lot of other similar and like-minded labels have reached out to me about getting involved in the group,” Steinhardt mentions. “But one of the main features of this group is that it exists within our distributor because a lot of what we want to leverage our combined power for is internal marketing opportunities within distribution that are normally only affordable or available to much larger labels.” Get Better, on the other hand, will simply be watching the experiment unfold, undoubtedly taking notes for their own impending battles with tech giants and whatever inevitable changes the future holds for the DIY label model. “I think our long-term goal for the group is to be able to serve as a model or a catalyst for similar groups to form,” explains Steinhardt. “It would be much more beneficial to independent music, for example, if we worked with dozens of other labels to start their own groups and suddenly there were multiple groups of labels, than it would be for there to be a 30-label group that was too big to really function in any meaningful way.” That’s a goal that’s not lost on either Einbinder or Lichtenauer.

More playlists, a dedicated social media presence, custom email newsletters—the future of Label Buds is unclear, but it seems bright. “It’s by no means an exclusive club or anything—it really was just an idea that sparked from wanting to help each other out,” reiterates Duquette. “We’re still kinda feeling our way around ways to do that, but there’ve been some exciting early discussions on what that can look like amongst ourselves.” For the spectrum of indie labels, some kind of unifying platform is going to be the next step. We can only hope that when that news does come,  the message is able to break through that Twitter noise and make it onto our timelines.

CJ Simonson
CJ Simonson is Merry-Go-Round's music editor. The only thing he knows for certain is that "I Can Feel The Fire" by Ronnie Wood is the greatest closing credits song never used in a Wes Anderson movie. Get on that, Wes.

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