Founded in 1994, Crank! Records (don’t forget that exclamation point) played a huge role in the spreading of emo in the mid-’90s. Bands like Christie Front Drive, Mineral and Boys Life pretty much spent their entire (short) careers on the label, Cursive got their start there, and the label’s 1997 compilation (don’t forget to) breathe (don’t forget those lowercase letters and unnecessary punctuation—this was mid-’90s emo, after all) is widely considered a classic of the genre, with tracks from Hot Water Music, the Promise Ring, Knapsack, Drive Like Jehu and more. Crank!’s last release was in 2005, but the label still keeps their website up, even if it hasn’t been updated since 2009. (Of course, if you email the label owner, Jeff Matlow, at firstname.lastname@example.org, he might still have some vinyl lying around…)
Epitaph Records was born out of Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s need to put out his own band’s records. Fat Wreck Chords was created by NOFX leader Fat Mike to put out bands he discovered while always on tour. Nitro Records was created by Dexter Holland of the Offspring after he hit the punk-rock jackpot with Smash and didn’t know how to effectively spend his money yet. (He eventually bought a fucking airplane, so he figured it out.) Still, even though Nitro started off as a sorta vanity label for the braided-and-beaded-haired frontman, it quickly became a safe haven for old punks (T.S.O.L., the Damned) as well as crass ’90s acts like Guttermouth and the Vandals—oh, yeah, and a little band from the Bay Area called A Fire Inside. AFI’s ascent from goofball punk band to AP cover stars all took place on Nitro, which released pretty much their entire recorded catalog up until 2003’s major label-backed Sing The Sorrow. The label continued with strong signings like A Wilhelm Scream and Crime In Stereo, but then the music industry took a nose dive, Dexter took a stronger interest in selling hot sauce than records (not kidding) and the label became largely dormant from 2007 onward. Earlier this year, the independent publishing company Bicycle Music Company acquired Nitro (and its back catalog), but don’t expect any new releases out of the deal.
Speaking of vanity record labels, Kung Fu was founded by two members of the Vandals, guitarist Warren Fitzgerald and bassist Joe Escalante, in 1996 to release ska-punk band Assorted Jelly Beans’ debut album, as well as one-off gimmick releases by their main band like The Vandals Play Really Bad Original Country Tunes and Oi! To The World. The label quickly caught traction with the help of then-up-and-coming pop-punk act the Ataris as well as the re-release of Blink-182’s (terrible) first album Buddha. The label diversified by signing the likes of Ozma, Tsunami Bomb and Audio Karate, but interest in their roster waned in the mid-’00s; their last proper release was in 2005. They recently relaunched their website, though, so who knows what’s in store?
There is no question that Lookout! Records will go down as one of the greatest independent labels of all time. Just for a second, let’s admire a small portion of the bands the label discovered: Green Day, Operation Ivy, Rancid, Screeching Weasel, Avail, the Queers, the Mr. T Experience, the Donnas, Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Pretty Girls Make Graves and dozens more. The pioneering punk label existed from 1987 to 2012, though it didn’t do much of anything from 2005 to 2012 besides lose huge chunks of its back catalog to artists rightfully angry over tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties. It’s a shame that the name Lookout! might be tarnished with accusations of missing money, but their back catalog—300-plus titles strong, including some of the greatest records in the history of punk—will always be there, even if recent pressings may have a different record label’s logo on the back.
The beautiful thing about independent labels is they tend to spring up out of regional necessity: If your scene isn’t getting the attention it deserves, starting a record label to help spread the gospel is an easy way to raise awareness. While largely associated with Louisville, Kentucky, hardcore, Initial did more than just (exhaustively) cover that scene—it focused on the Midwest, covering bands from Detroit, Chicago, Omaha and more. Crucial releases from Boy Sets Fire, Elliott, the Movielife, Ink & Dagger, Criteria, Silent Majority and more were released under the lowercase i, but the label eventually shut its doors in 2004. Founder Andy Rich now works in Las Vegas where he makes more money playing poker than any of us will ever see in our lifetimes. (True story.)
Chicago’s Thick Records was a punk label that pushed the definition of what “punk” was. Founded in 1994, the label’s first big band were Blue Meanies, a carnival-jazz-ska-hardcore hybrid that at times sounded downright demonic. Thick also put out an album by Commander Venus, best known as Conor Oberst’s band pre-Bright Eyes. More than 100 releases followed, including one-offs with At The Drive-In, Alkaline Trio, Local H and more, as well as records from the Arrivals, the Gadjits, the Tossers and others—plus one of the best comps of all time, OIL: Chicago Punk Refined. But Thick more or less hung it up in 2007, existing primarily as a catalog label now.
BIG WHEEL RECREATION
Boston-based label Big Wheel Recreation existed for barely a decade (from 1994 to 2004) but in that time put out some seriously amazing records by some seriously amazing bands. (For real, if you don’t own Piebald’s We Are The Only Friends We Have and Jejune’s This Afternoon’s Malady, you are blowing it so goddamn hard.) The label was also responsible for ushering one of Jimmy Eat World’s best songs ever, “No Sensitivity,” into the world (thanks, split EP with Jebediah that no one ever listened to the Jebediah songs on!) as well as playing an important role in documenting Boston’s straight-edge hardcore movement (Ten Yard Fight, In My Eyes, Fastbreak). The label petered out in 2004 after one too many bland indie-rock releases no one really seemed to care about (sorry, the Damn Personals, it’s not, uh, personal); label founder Rama Mayo moved into the fashion industry before ending up at StreetVirus—which is not a gutter-punk band, but a marketing company that has worked with Disney and Pepsi. So if you ever hear “American Hearts” in a commercial for Pepsi Max or something, you’ll know why.