A few years back I gave a speech at the Starr Gennett Foundation’s Untouchable Times weekend outlining my theory that Gennett was the first independent record label. I have given this talk a few times since either about Gennett or about the history of indie labels in general and wrote an article for Starr Gennett’s quarterly and the liner notes for the album “Sunshine On Your Back Porch: A Celebration of Gennett Records.”
I always tell my students that it is the small things that mean the most to you in your career. The fact that I have seen this article referenced back a few times and that it has become a part of the ‘accepted wisdom’ on the history of indie labels is one of those.
Now, today I got word that something even cooler is happening – The Starr-Gennett Foundation is making that ‘claim’ into a T-Shirt.
So, in celebration of helping to cause a wave of hip T-Shirt wear – below is an excerpt of that article:
Gennett Records, The First Independent Record Label by: Charlie B. Dahan
Throughout the brief history of the recording industry, it has been the independent record label that has been at the forefront of change in music. The first explosion of ‘indies’ occurred in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with labels like Blue Note, King, Sun, Duke, Atlantic, Chess, Dial and Modern to name a few championed the vibrant new genres of urban blues, Be bop jazz, R&B, country, soul, gospel, doo-wop and rock and roll. However, the template for this revolution was cast in 1915 when a piano company decided to augment its business into recording and releasing sound recordings.
An independent label is one that exists unaffiliated with a major recording label. These labels concentrate on recording music and artists outside of the ‘mainstream.’ A major record label is one a less than a handful of companies who account for the vast majority of records sold. In today’s music industry the four major recording companies consist of Universal, Sony-BMG, Warner Music Group and EMI. In the era in which Gennett existed, Victor and Columbia were the labels that exhibited the qualities of a major.
Most independent labels begin when the founder(s) pinpoint a vacuum in the market and seek to fulfill it. They realize rather early on in their efforts that it is a futile exercise to try and directly compete with those labels that are the established large labels, the majors, and instead must operate outside the parameters of ‘popular music.’ Gennett did not start their endeavor into the recording industry like most indies, as their intention was to compete with Victor, Columbia and Edison, but the big three proved quite an immovable force. Victor or Columbia could easily attract artists to them or away from Gennett that would attract large audiences or shelf space. This market dominance was compounded by their tight reign in which Victor held onto the industry standard patent on lateral cut discs, thus making the venture into vertical cut discs costly and less attractive.
Gennett was one of the first labels to realize that success as a record company lies in recording music that was not considered mainstream. They bore witness to the success of Okeh releasing the first blues record in 1920 (Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’) and hillbilly record in 1923 (Fiddlin’ John Carson’s ‘Little Log Cabin in the Lane’) to phenomenal sales success. This evidenced that to operate outside of the margins of popular norms and to produce records that could be profitable at a lower sales figure meant success and survival and America was ready for ‘new music.’
Gennett’s openness and willingness to record all styles of music leads them to not only some of the earliest recordings of real jazz, blues, country and ethnic music but the distinction of being the first record company to develop independent label characteristics. Independent labels embrace different and unique artists and offer their artists a sense of freedom to record their music their way with the musicians and repertoire of their choosing. What was vastly different between the Okeh approach to making records and Gennett’s was the use by Okeh of ‘music men’ to help shape and produce the music for release. What we the listener get from the Gennett methodology is an accurate picture into what these artists sounded like without any outside influence from a producer or A&R (Artist and Repertoire) person.
Why did Gennett offer ‘creative control’ to many of its recording artists? It has been theorized that it had a lot to do with the fact that they did not hire many ‘music men,’ those individuals that had experience in music and the recording studio and in many cases Gennett simply used various staff that were already under their employ in the piano factory. Their lack of experience with music led them to simply let the artist record and not offer input or advice, whereas another label employed people for such consultation. For example, Columbia’s A&R man during the 1930’s and beyond, John Hammond, would not only oversee the production of the artists with whom he worked, but often chose the material for them to record and was notorious for augmenting the bandleaders ensemble with musicians he felt were better equipped to handle the repertoire. This theory simply passes the studio personnel at Gennett as music neophytes when much of the material recorded went on to be rejected as substandard or not worthy of the allotment of shellac.
Perhaps the true answer for Gennett’s offering a more creatively freer environment in which to record lay in the sheer volume of recording that occurred and in the variety of styles and genres the artists were representing in the studio. The ledger books and recording cards that survived indicate that the studios were constantly recording and booked with artists of so many styles it would be near impossible to possess both the time and expertise to A&R each and every one of them. It requires a considerable amount of time, energy and manpower to go through the process of pre-production wherein some employee would work with the artist on material, arrangements, and personnel. Instead, the artists were given the time and space to record each song up to three times and then the staff would convene to choose the most marketable of the bunch. While there is a level of quality control, it occurs after the recording and what’s captured is more in the control of the artist.
Gennett has many developments and achievements in music credited to it and its history, but those mostly focus on the music and artists whose recording they released. However, Gennett had a profound effect on the development of the infant recording industry and set the template for what would become its most important element, the independent record label. For it is the indie that embraces what is new and different, provides the artists a platform in which to showcase their ideas and supports them to the best of their ability and funding. Indies change more than just the styles of music to which the public listens, they change culture and society.