Like butterflies, young hearts and information, rock bands want to be free. Wilco's recent launch of their own dbPm label is a reminder of the legacy of acts who've established independent enclaves within the imperial sprawl of the recording industry. While everyone is familiar with The Beatles' Apple Records misadventure, here are six early pioneers who took their grooves into their own hands, with varying results.
Frank Sinatra — Reprise: In 1960, no artist dared to stand against a label. Which is why Sinatra loved the idea. He'd just renewed his deal with Capitol Records, then decided, "Screw it, I want my own label." After a foiled attempt to buy Verve, Frank, on advice from attorney Mickey Rudin, invested in his own company. To everyone else, the label was pronounced re-preez, but to Frank, it was re-prize. As in reprisal against Capitol, and all the "cretinous" rock'n'roll they were releasing. Frank signed Vegas pallies Dean and Sammy, as well as jazz greats like Duke Ellington. But when first year sales fizzled, he lost interest and let Warner Brothers take over. Grudgingly, he soon became labelmates with Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and Tiny Tim. Sinatra remained on Reprise until the mid-'70s, when it was finally absorbed into Warners. Reactivated in the '80s, the label is now home to such acts as Green Day and appropriately, Michael Bublé.
Frank Zappa - Bizarre / Straight: For an artist as prolific and uncommercially minded as Zappa, having his own label was imperative. So in 1967, Zappa and business partner Herb Cohen started Bizarre, Inc. Among the company's seven divisions were a publishing arm, a management branch handling Linda Ronstadt and Fred Neil, and two labels: Bizarre, for avant-garde music, and Straight, for mainstream. Both were distributed by Warner Brothers. Bizarre's first two non-Zappa releases, Lenny Bruce - The Berkeley Concert and the eternally challenging An Evening With Wild Man Fischer threw down the gauntlet for the obscenities to come. Meanwhile, Straight introduced the decidedly un-mainstream Captain Beefheart. Bizarre / Straight folded in 1973, with Zappa eventually founding three more labels - DisCreet, Zappa and Barking Pumpkin.
Moody Blues — Threshold: Deram/London execs frowned on the expensive artwork and gatefold sleeves that were part of the Moodies' pop-prog mystique. Unwilling to compromise, the band took a cue from The Beatles' launch of Apple, and created the Threshold imprint in 1969. While their own releases and solo projects thrived, attempts to develop new bands - remember Asgard and Trapeze? - fell flat. As did a chain of Threshold record shops ("People would come in then go down the street and buy the albums a quid cheaper at Woolworth's," Justin Hayward said). By the late '80s, the Threshold logo remained only as a symbolic nod to the past.
Rolling Stones - Rolling Stones Records: In 1970, after inadvertently signing away a decade's worth of copyrights to Allen Klein's ABKCO, the Stones were ready to control their vinyl destiny. The million dollar advance they scored from Atlantic helped to pay off their enormous tax debts in Britain. Meanwhile, their newly appointed honcho Marshall Chess provided a link with the band's American blues influences. From Sticky Fingers to Some Girls, the Stones released several strong albums on their own label, while helping lone signee Peter Tosh bring reggae into the mainstream. Though Rolling Stones Records is no longer active, the famous lip-and-tongue logo (designed by John Pasche) remains on reissues.
Led Zeppelin - Swan Song: "We're executives and all that crap," Jimmy Page said in 1975, but was quick to point out their label's noble mission. "It's designed to promote acts that have had raw deals in the past." Those acts included Maggie Bell and The Pretty Things. While neither found great success, new band Bad Company became Swan Song's breadwinners. Despite mismanagement and the money-guzzling film The Song Remains The Same, Swan Song outlasted Zep, finally folding in 1983. It now exists as an imprint for reissues.
Grateful Dead - Grateful Dead Records: Hatched by Jerry Garcia and manager Ron Rakow in 1973, the initial idea for Grateful Dead Records was to bypass conventional distribution altogether and sell records from ice cream trucks at concerts. Seed money would come from the federal government's Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Company, with the Dead declaring themselves a "minority" and raking in $300,000. In the end, they got a conventional bank loan, and some distribution help from Atlantic Records. One misguided movie project later and the label was kaput. In 2007, Rakow was jailed for tax evasion.
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