July 20, 2024

I Signed…A Contract With The Devil..again! A Very Brief And Incomplete History Of Hard Rock/Metal Record Labels-Part 2

As we hit the 52nd  anniversary of Heavy Metal a couple  of years back (2020), as Managing Editor of Metal-Rules.com, one of my goals is to try to add more editorial content and technical information so people can use MR not only as a source of entertainment but reliable information as well.  In our 30,000+ pages of content, we have written almost 14,000 CD reviews, 500+ book reviews, 400+ DVD reviews. Over 25 years we have conducted over 2000 interviews, and our international staff have reviewed over 1700 concerts and festivals world-wide.

We are also celebrating our 27th year as a website so to add even more value for our readers I written a series of articles about various facets of Heavy Metal.   Every year, I am increasingly happy to discover more and more authors, books, on-line publications, scholars and academic studies scouring our massive archives, citing and sharing our work.

Therefore, my modest goal is to continue to make Metal-Rules a resource and repository on a variety of (hopefully!) interesting topics and not just a shallow dumping ground of regurgitated press-releases, click-bait, pop-up ads, political posturing, countless lists and rankings of albums, and endless industry gossip. There are plenty of good sites that already do that well and they are all enjoyable in their own way.

Each feature in this series is named after a Metal band, album, song title or lyric. Feel free to go back and read the other articles in this series.

Mar 2020- Read All About It (Canadian Metal magazines)

April 2020- Gathered In Their Masses (American Supergoups)

May 2020- A Tribute to The Past  (Tribute albums)

June 2020- Reborn In Blasphemy (Re-recorded albums)

July 2020-Still The Orchestra Plays (Metal bands and orchestras)

August 2020-Japandamonium (Live in Japan albums)

September 2020- Grandfather! Tell Me A Story! (Concept albums)

October 2020-Gathered In Their Masses Part 2 (European Supergroups)

November 2020-Don’t Run For Cover (Covers albums)

December 2020-No Presents for Christmas (Christmas albums)

If you have any suggestions, comments or ideas for future articles, please let me know.  You can reach me at joshuawood@shaw.ca.  Thank you!

The whole concept for this essay was really born out of my interest in useless Metal trivia.  I had noted  many years ago that the first release by the Underground Symphony label was a Various Artist compilation with a catalogue number of USCD 001.  That stuck in my mind for some reason, probably because I own it and still listen to it.    I also follow the industry a little bit as a fan.  If I see something on a specialty Metal label, such as Limb Music for example, it is pretty much an automatic/blind buy.   As our industry hit the 50+ year mark, we have started to see more historical documentation about the Metal industry.  I’ve read books about various record labels such as Neat, Noise, Peaceville and Metal Blade and I fully expect more of these types of books to be published in the near future.  Many of the big Metal labels are overdue for a book or documentary.  Dedicated fans like myself seem to have an interest in the growth of this cottage industry.

Some history….

Over the first ten years or so of Heavy Metal (1970-1980) Hard Rock/Metal bands were signed to larger existing record labels who, for the most part, did not care about the style of music but saw this new form of music as a trend or fad, and one that could be profitable, even if it only lasted a while.   For example, the first Black Sabbath album released on Friday the 13th, February 1970  was issued by Vertigo Records, (catalogue # VO 6, 847 903 VTY)   a subsidiary of Philips/Phonogram a company that had been around since 1950.  While Vertigo was an imprint specializing in heavier rock, it was still part of a much bigger, established record label.   There was a similar situation with Led Zeppelin.   The first Led Zeppelin album was issued in 1969 by Atlantic Records (first founded in 1947) with the rather uninspiring catalogue number of 588171.   Zeppelin was just one of many, many bands on the label that had many different types of musical artists.

As Metal music grew in stature, status and sales, more and more big existing record labels, the gate-keepers with keys to kingdom; meaning cash, recording studios, in-house art departments and access to record producers, saw the financial potential of this new form of heavy music and the industry rapidly grew.

With innovation comes entrepreneurial spirit and it wasn’t before long that Hard Rock and Heavy Metal specialty labels started to appear.   Some bigger labels started their metal-only sub-labels and imprints.  For example, the aforementioned Phillips/Phonogram founded Vertigo to capitalize on the new music trends.  Some record labels were founded by young fans with drive and a bit of money, the quintessential  example being a young Brian Slagel borrowing money from family members to found Metal Blade Records.  Some were founded with a profit motive and some were founded with a love of supporting bands, sometimes both but it is not my position to judge their motives.  It is interesting to note that several labels started by licensing albums from other already established record companies before signing their own exclusive artists.

By the time Quiet Riot’s classic Metal Health  hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1983, the floodgates opened and more and more Metal specialty labels were founded.  Between 1982 and 1989 at least twenty five Metal specialty labels were founded and the metallic cottage industry was spawned.  This was in addition to all the major labels like Atlantic, Island, Capitol, Epic, Sony, Columbia, A&M, Polygram etc,  all who had strong metal catalogues and deep rosters.

In the wake of grunge music, more of these niche labels sprung up in the early 90’s driven by entrepreneurs who wanted to keep the music alive when all the major labels had largely dumped their metal rosters and the genre had been driven back underground.  As Metal music grew and divided and divided again, even more specialty labels were founded specializing in specific sub-genres.  Labels focusing on just sub-genres like Glam, Doom, Death Metal, Power Metal or Black Metal proliferated across the planet.  After 1990 the number of Metal labels started to explode at double and even triple the pace.  Between 1990 and 1995  as many new labels were founded as in the prior 20 years!  In 1992 alone at least eight new record labels were formed!

The business pattern is very clear.  As soon as a new musical movement emerges, the industry springs up to support it.   For example, in the early 90’s when Black Metal was a hot commodity, several Black Metal Specialty labels, such as Osmose, Malicious, Head Not Found, Moonfog, Hot, Misanthropy, etc,  all were founded within a two or three year span.   In a similar scenario, as glam and melodic Metal became less popular and bands were dropped from major labels, there was still demand for the style and several labels specializing in that style, such as Now & Then, Saraya, Frontiers, Long Island, Perris, MTM, Escape, Point, Megarock etc, all stepped into fill that void between 1992 and 1996.

For the purpose of this article I decided to make a cut-off date of 2020. (more or less)  25 years works well and today there are thousands of Metal record labels, some are one-man operations founded to promote their own band, up to giants like Century Media and Nuclear Blast with dozens of staff and offices around the world.  Some of these labels became so large and so profitable that in a strange reversal of fortune, large, multi-national corporations are buying Heavy Metal specialty labels.  For example, in 2008, Warner Music, the third-largest record company in the world, bought Roadrunner Records, originally a small Dutch Metal specialty label founded in 1980, for some big money!  Whether the record label is big or small, old or new, they all contribute to the greater body of work of the music we love.  It is interesting to note that as of bout 2010 the number of records labels dramatically decreased.  This is because of physical media become less desirable as a commodity combined with the increase of digital consumption of music.

The false label explosion.   There are literally over 42,000 record label’s that have released Hard Rock or Heavy Metal in one form or another.  Most of them are short-lived, defunct and or independent with very little catalogue. Most of them are created for tax purposes and to have some sort of corporate status and industry regulation.  Very few survive. As the physical music industry virtually collapsed now almost every band is their own record label. In the past decade (2010 and onward)  have seen a massive increase in the number of ‘labels’ but very few actually put concrete investment (ie, real cash money) into other bands.  These so-called labels are shells with usually no paid employees, maybe just the founder drawing some profit. The concept of a ‘record label’ has truly evolved.

Let’s go back to the roots of this article.   Recently, I bought an album by the band Raging Storm.  The bands self-titled debut was released in 2002 on Metal Fighter Records, a little label out of Greece and the catalogue # is MF 001.  It reminded me of the aforementioned Underground Symphony release,  US CD-001.  It occurred to me it would be an interesting exercise to compile a list of all the very first releases of all the Metal record labels!  All the ‘001’s’ , as it were.  I made a list of about 125 or so Metal specialty labels and their first release for your reading pleasure and reference.  This list is very specifically only Hard Rock/Heavy Metal labels, not other record labels that have released Metal albums, of which there are even more thousands!  I can’t list them all, for example, little labels like Bluelight Records from Finland who signed Stratovarius and Tarot as their only Metal bands.  You can check out Appendix C for a few honourable mentions.

Lastly, I’m not going to get bogged down with licensing deals, international sub-deals, reissues on different labels and so forth.   For example, Under One Flag was a sub-label founded by Music For Nations to license US releases from Combat Records so I choose not include them in the main body of work because they were founded probably for taxation and organizational purposes and all their stuff was released elsewhere, earlier.   The same goes for Fierce, Mayhem, Futurist, HNE,  etc, all largely importers and licensing deals.  (Look for them in Appendix C)  I’m trying to keep it true, the roots of Hard Rock/Heavy Metal labels, and their earliest efforts.

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