On Branding and the Timely Return of Two Boutique Labels

03/22/2012 11:20 AM |

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Walking around Austin during SXSW you’re assaulted by branding/marketing at every corner — sometimes literally. (No I don’t want a Google Earth coozie!) But amongst the Doritos, Converse, Tito’s Vodka ads that doubled as clothing or stages, I did a double take when I saw a poster with the iconic I.R.S. Records logo stapled to a telephone pole. Below the logo read “YOUR MUSIC SUCKS” in all-caps, and then this statement: “Everywhere you turn, someone’s pronouncing music dead or throwing a funeral for the business. Well, these assholes have never met I.R.S. Records.” We’ll see about that, but welcome back International Record Syndicate all the same.

Formed in 1979 by Miles Copeland (brother of the Police’s Stewart Copeland) I.R.S. Records was the American version of indie labels he’d already started in the UK (Illegal, Step Forward and others) and was one of the ’80s new wave labels, releasing classic records by Wall of Voodoo, The Fall, The English Beat (and offshoots General Public and Fine Young Cannibals) and, most famously, The Go Gos and R.E.M. For a while, seeing the I.R.S. man on the corner of an album was a trademark of quality. But after the label’s distribution switched from A&M to MCA in 1985, I.R.S.’s track record became sullied by the likes of Doctor & the Medics, The Truth and Dread Zepplin. The ’90s were unkind to the label, which folded in 1996.

But like everything else that has cool cache, the imprint was revived late last year as part of EMI which still owns the rights. The attitude was right (“YOUR MUSIC SUCKS”) but the signings so far seem less rebellious, reflecting co-owners Crush Management who handle Cobra Starship, Train and Fallout Boy among others. The first new I.R.S. LP in 15 years was The Church of Rock n’ Roll by over-the-top glam rockers Foxy Shazam, followed by Chiddy Bang‘s debut LP, Breakfast. It feels as if someone at the label found the old logo, though it was cool and said “Let’s use this!” rather than someone who remembered and loved the label’s Regan-era output. Let’s hope their next signing is a little more in the spirit of that undeniably cool logo which they wisely kept.

On the flip, reading a press release for a new single from one-man-electro-band Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs last week, it casually mentioned at the bottom that the band were signed to Casablanca Records, which to me seemed like a giant case of burying the lede. The ’70s label was famous for releases from Donna Summer, KISS, Cher, and the Village People —and synonymous with ’70s excess, be it drugs, cooking the books and radio station payola. The chapter on the Casablanca in Fredric Dannen’s 1991 industry expose Hit Men is jaw droppingly lurid and is just waiting for a movie adaptation.

By the end of the disco era, Casablanca was bankrupt and folded in 1983, absorbed by Mercury Records (which is now part of Universal). They tried a relaunch of the label in 2000 and released a handful of titles including Lindsay Lohan’s 2004 album, Speak, but never really did much with it. Casablanca shut down again in 2009… but this new relaunch is promising.

Run by the folks behind NYC party promoters GBH, the new Casablanca has something I.R.S. doesn’t seem to: a point of view. Keeping with the label’s disco rep, Casablanca 2012 has an enviable roster of indie electronic artists. In addition to Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, the label boasts Crystal Castles, Kindness, Ladyhawke and, excitingly to this writer, living legends Saint Etienne. And they’ve kept the bubbly retro logo too. But hopefully not the daily cocaine deliveries.