Why Do Record Labels Still Exist? (Part One)

It’s rare that a record label, small or large, shows up in the news for positive reasons. We regularly hear about unfair contracts, paltry payments, and putting profit over music. With the digital distribution options now available, why do artists even bother?

This is a totally valid question! I could write a whole thesis paper about it (and I’m sure someone else already has). It’s probably best to answer in the context of my own experience.

An animated Bad Friend logo.

I started a label called Bad Friend Records in 2012, and it remained fairly active through 2017. Currently, we’re laying low, but Bad Friend still exists. We put out a single of mine last year, we still pay our artists, and we might actively work with other artists again in the future. To date, we’ve put out 17 records in a variety of formats, quantities, and genres. I’m not an expert on this topic–I never interned or mentored with anybody, I just stumbled through it as best I could–but I’ve learned a little bit along the way.

Let’s start back in the aughts, before I even considered launching a label. I was playing in a band called Tereu Tereu, based in Fredericksburg, VA. We also spent a lot of time in DC, and I eventually moved there. In 2009, we financed our debut album and released it independently on CD, vinyl, and digital platforms. No label.

At the time, I was enamored with DIY culture, and I thought doing it all ourselves would garner respect from at least a few people. It didn’t. We hired a publicist, but as far as I could tell, he snorted our money up his nose and bailed. I later learned there are actually music publications that, as a general rule, won’t review records that aren’t on a label.

We also worked with a college radio publicist, who successfully got our album to a bunch of stations and helped us get a little airplay. Of course, that doesn’t translate into sales, unless you’re playing shows in the cities with the stations that spin your discs.

We did a little bit of touring around the East Coast, but we didn’t quite line the shows up at the same time as the radio campaign, so we missed out on any synergistic benefits. We sold records at our shows, but that was the only place to find them. When I moved to DC, I got Dischord Direct, the mail order & distribution arm of Dischord Records, to take a few copies of the album. They often keep local music in stock. Record stores in the area bought a handful of copies from them, which was an unexpected treat, but that’s pretty much it.

A few years later, we put out a few more songs, and we got pretty negligible results. A little college radio play, perhaps, but not much else. The whole process felt like pouring your heart into a black hole.

Sometime in 2011, I started talking to my friend Tommy Siegel about the situation. His main band, Jukebox The Ghost, was doing pretty well. But he had another band called Drunken Sufis that was also getting nowhere with press. They were making exciting music, but they were struggling to find their niche.

After much consideration, we decided we ought to join forces and start some kind of label. Power in numbers, right? We figured if we could create a home for music we loved that wasn’t getting traction elsewhere, maybe we could get more attention. Maybe we could get more press and more sales. We had no idea what we were doing, but that’s when (and why) the idea for Bad Friend was born.

Stay tuned for Part Two to find out how we launched the label, how it opened a few new doors, and why communication is everything!

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