A truly great record label has a distinct sound, and in most cases a look, that makes it stand out from the rest of the pack. Those labels are the ones that go on to define certain scenes, or even the generations during which they put out their best music. Books about two such labels — 4AD and Stax — have come out recently, and they’re both superb. They lead off our list of great books about record labels that will give you the inside scoop on how some of your favorite music got released.
Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, Martin Aston
Today they put out records by big indie names like Grimes and Deerhunter, but in the 1980s, Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, Pixies, Cocteau Twins, and more of the most important bands of the last 30 years called 4AD home. Aston’s recently released history of the label is a must-have for anyone who wants to understand the music world after punk, the pitfalls of getting too big, and the legacy of the most important label of the decade.
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Robert Gordon
Even though there is no shortage of books on the iconic soul label Stax, Gordon’s new addition tracking everything the Memphis label did right — and how things still went very wrong — belongs on every music lover’s bookshelf.
Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music, Mark Baumgarten
Mark Baumgarten deserves some sort of award for writing this history of the label that defined indie pop in America. While we were shocked it took as long as it did to appear, Love Rock Revolution was truly worth the wait.
Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Fanzine ’79-’83,Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson
Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Records and the Rise of America’s Musical Grassroots, Rick Kennedy
There’s indie, and then there’s Gennett Records, which grew out of Richmond, Indiana into the label that gave us American icons like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Bix Beiderbecke. Kennedy’s book tells the story of a label that probably couldn’t have existed at any other time.
The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and the Birth of Rock & Roll, Rich Cohen
Along with Motown and Sun, Chess is probably the most important record label in American history. Rich Cohen tells the story of the Chicago icon that gave us Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley — oh, and basically created rock and roll in the process.
And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records, Larry Harris
Casablanca was pretty much the quintessential 1970s record label — disco, sex, KISS, Curtis Mayfield, and lots and lots of cocaine. Among other things, this book sums up why the record industry is in the toilet: excess.
The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun, Robert Greenfield
The chances of a music industry visionary on the same level as Atlantic Records founder and president Ahmet Ertegun ever coming around again are slim, and that’s why Greenfield’s biography is so intriguing. The guy gave us Ray Charles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin — basically everybody that ever matters.