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A Guide to Birmingham’s best record labels

As an important centre of the UK’s music industry, and as the springboard for some of the world’s biggest artists, Birmingham is home to loads of businesses and freelance professionals that make the wheels of the music industry turn. This includes record labels, and we thought we’d take a closer look at some of the best labels in the city. However, before we deep dive into that, it might be worth covering off some of the basics around what record labels actually do.

 

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What is a record label?

Record label recording studio with mixing console and speakers

The simple answer to this is any person or group of people that release and sell recorded music. Ideally, they should look after all the business and administration around recordings on behalf of an artist, leaving them free to create. For example, things like collecting royalties, handling requests from people to use the recordings, and making sure the recordings are available on streaming platforms. 

They should also do their best to promote the music that they sell by drumming up interest in the artist or the music they have recorded. It really helps if the person or people behind the label are passionate about the music they are releasing, as they’re more likely to want to get it in front of different audiences!

There are three types of record labels:

  • Major labels: These are huge companies with thousands of employees across the globe. There used to be seven major labels, but these days there are only three: Sony Music, Warner Music, and Universal Music, which is the largest of the three majors.
  • Subsidiary labels: These are smaller record labels that are connected to a major label. Often, they are labels that have been purchased or acquired by majors, or they may have been set up by a major. They still have their own artists and structure, but ultimately are accountable to major labels. Subsidiary labels might specialise in certain genres, styles or territories. Examples are Island Records (owned by Universal), Fuelled By Ramen (owned by Warner), and Epic Records (owned by Sony). Some subsidiary labels used to be major labels, but were then taken over by a bigger major label. An example of this is EMI records, which is now owned by Universal.
  • Independent labels: These are record labels that are not connected to a major label. The vast majority of these labels are small businesses that employ between 1 and 10 people. However, there are some notable exceptions such as XL Recordings (who have released music by a range of huge artists such as Adele and Radiohead), and the Domino Recording Company (who have released music by Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand amongst others). They are both examples of large independent labels. 

Record labels of all sizes used to make most of their money through selling recorded music to the public on CD, tape or vinyl. However, sales of music on these physical formats have been falling and are increasingly being replaced by streaming. Streaming is much less profitable than physical record sales, so labels have had to look at different ways that they can make money from the recordings they own and the artists they work with. 

This shift means that labels now provide many more services to artists beyond simply releasing their music, such as booking tours, PR, consultancy, synchronisation (which is selling licences to other companies to use recorded music in things like TV shows, games, or adverts), merchandising, and anything else an artist might need!

Students who study Music Performance or Music Production at Access Creative College learn all about the different functions of record labels, and the different opportunities that there are to work at record labels.

Without any further ado, let’s take a look at some amazing record labels based in Birmingham.

 

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Shadow City

A great example of a business that has branched out into recording and selling music, Shadow City were principally dance music promoters, putting on some legendary events in the city including right here in Digbeth, the home of Access Creative College. They loved the music that their DJs were playing so much that they started releasing it on limited vinyl runs that sold out in minutes. 

 

One Records

Another example of a live event promoter that also releases music, Birmingham-based One Records is headed up by Adam Shelton, who has been a major player in the city’s dance scene for years. Last year the label released compilation albums featuring some of their greatest tracks via their Bandcamp, and they are well worth checking out!

 

Oaken Palace Records

Officially a registered charity, Oaken Palace Records donates 100% of its profits to organisations that support endangered species. Artists record music inspired by an endangered animal, with each release benefitting efforts to save that particular species. Check out the wonderfully psychedelic Mad Song by Bombay Lunatic Asylum, which is in support of the Masai giraffe,  or the beautifully meditative White Fur by Parallel Lines, which is in support of polar bears. Most releases are pressed onto gorgeous sustainable coloured vinyl. 

 

Skutta

Specialising in Drum ‘n’ Bass and Dub, Skutta releases vibrant dance music that is reminiscent of the classics but completely fresh. The Abbattoir EP by Threshold is essential listening; big and dirty with a distinctive Ragga flavour. Best of all, it’s available to buy on blood-splatter effect vinyl!

 

Iron Man Records

Established in 1996 by gig promoter Mark Badger, Iron Man Records has been releasing wonderfully eclectic music for years. They also provide a range of services for artists, including tour management and legal advice. A highlight from their catalogue is the beautiful lo-fi rock of Redshift (you can hear the glowing track ‘Hanging From The Viaduct’ on their Bandcamp page). Mark remembers: Redshift played the Old Railway in Digbeth many times. I organised the shows. Every time the band played they turned the heads of everyone in the room.’

 

Punch Records

Starting off as a record store in the late 90s, Punch Records quickly became a hub for rappers and DJs. They have since grown into a fully-fledged artist development agency, working with the hottest young talent from the West Midlands in different creative disciplines. Based in the Custard Factory around the corner from Access Creative College in Digbeth, Punch also works with international music organisations on some very inspiring projects. Watch out for the upcoming Shutdown Tour, which brings five of the freshest hip-hop acts to venues across the Midlands in April and May.

 

Oriental Star Agencies

An exploration of Birmingham-based record labels wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the legendary Oriental Star Agencies. OSA started as a small electrical shop that would occasionally import and sell Indian and Pakistani records to homesick expats living in Birmingham. It eventually grew to become a globally recognised record label. OSA brought British Asian music to a massive audience, and pioneered the fusion of Asian music with Western styles, influencing dozens of artists and selling millions of records. Check out this absolute banger: the 1996 Bhangra/trip-hop crossover Chura Liya by Billy Sagoo. 

The label sadly closed in 2016 and the entire catalogue was nearly lost forever. However, in 2023 the label and catalogue were acquired by Universal. This means that this extensive treasure trove of nearly 18,000 songs will be safeguarded and enjoyed by bigger audiences for years to come.

 

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Want to get noticed by a Birmingham record label?

Pile of records with vinyl leaning on it

If you have already studied a Level 3 music course, you might be looking to get your music on the map. ACC Birmingham’s Level 4 Artist Development course.

Apply online today!

Last updated on: 18th June 2024