Seattle is world-renowned as a music town so it’s no surprise our little corner of the world is teeming with independent record labels supporting local talent. From garage rock to “night bus music” these local companies are sharing Seattle sounds with the world.
Here are five local record labels who should be on your radar:
A subsidiary of Sub Pop, Hardly Art was founded in 2007, returning to Sub Pop’s early mindset of finding and helping elevate smaller, underground acts —particularly local ones. The two labels share many of the employees related to day-to-day business operation, with two full-time employees, including Jason Baxter, devoted exclusively to Hardly Art, handling the A&R (artists and repertoire). Baxter says the labels prefer not to think of Hardly Art as a “pipeline” to Sub Pop. “It’s not like you could graduate to Sub Pop [from Hardly Art], we think of them as equitable entities in that respect,” he adds. Hardly Art doesn’t definitively express a genre preference but shows a trend of female-fronted (and largely backed) bands that fit somewhere in the Venn diagram of pop, punk and indie. Many of the bands seem to fit closer to the pop/punk genre (not to be confused with the pop-punk subgenre associated with bands like Blink-182), classified by power chords over simple, kick drum-rhythm and repeating lead guitar overlays. Deciding which bands go to which label is an enigmatic process, but according to Baxter one thing remains the same: “If there’s a good band in Seattle, we would love to work with them.”
Hush Hush Records
Founded in 2012 by KEXP DJ Alex Ruder, Hush Hush is an incubator of “night bus music,” a term Ruder uses to describe genre-bending, cinematic music that evokes feelings of nostalgia and sadness in the listener. The term is taken from the idea of what one would listen to while riding a bus at nighttime. Many of the label’s releases are instrumental, providing a contemplative soundtrack for listeners to reflect to. Ruder previously hosted DJ nights, which he called “Hush Hush,” in Capitol Hill, where he featured guest artists each month to perform. His first guest was a local called Kid Smpl, a night-bus-type who Ruder gave considerable airplay to on KEXP. Their friendship continued and Kid Smpl often sent Ruder demos to be considered for radio. As Ruder recalls, “At some point he had sent me 10 or 11 tracks and I was like, ‘This is a lot of music that’s unreleased, it seems like you’ve got an album worth of material.’” Ruder helped him send the demos to various labels—none of them bit. Ruder saw an opportunity and the label launched in May 2012, followed by the first release in August with the Escape Pod EP. The artist? Kid Smpl. Since then, the label has drifted from strictly night bus music, but still carries a heavy lineup of electronic, melancholy, meandering sounds.
Featuring every type of rock you can throw an adjective in front of, Freakout Records was founded in 2016 by Seattle musicians and festival organizers seeking a platform to distinguish and maintain a core of performing artists. In 2015 label co-founder Skyler Locatelli began helping with Psychedelic Holiday Freakout Festival, an event founded by Guy Keltner that has now become the label’s annual Freakout Festival, which celebrated its seventh year this month in Ballard. Locatelli and Keltner found they worked well together and decided to combine their efforts, thus creating Freakout Records in January 2016. The label harbors many types of music, but tends to lean towards alternative and psychedelic rock, the latter encompassing the style of Keltner’s rock-duo Acid Tongue. Most of the bands incorporate some form of electronic sounds in their music, with tinges of disco from more than one act. Locatelli says they went into the venture with the idea to “not just be a label, [but to] also be a producer of events and shows.” That they did, and since then have been showcasing at festivals like SXSW and Treefort Music Fest, curating label-staples including Acid Tongue and Smokey Brights, along with friends of the label, such as Seattle trio Naked Giants. You could say their path to formation was in-through-the-out-door, but at least they’ve made it through the threshold.
Suicide Squeeze and David Dickenson are synonymous. The label’s founder began Suicide Squeeze in August 1996, initially operating it out of a walk-in closet in his First Hill apartment. “I was just trying to figure out what to do with my life, being young and in my 20s,” Dickenson says. “I just happened to be around a lot of people that were in music.” Although known for his personal devotion to artists on the label, Suicide Squeeze has also made a name putting out singles and EP’s for popular bands early in their career, including Modest Mouse and The Black Keys. Stepping back slightly from their indie initiative in recent years, Suicide Squeeze has mounted control over rock, slanting favorably in the direction of punk and its extremities, including post-punk and garage rock, often maintaining the fast drumming and DIY simplicity traditional to the genre. That’s not to say they don’t also dip into psychedelic rock, surf rock and a dynamic array of pop. The label tries to keep their full-length LP releases to five new records per year. “I think that we owe it to the artist always to put our best foot forward and show them the attention that they deserve,” Dickenson says. “That’s something that we promise when they come to Suicide Squeeze and so we obviously want to keep our word.”
Youth Riot Records
Unsatisfied with his experience interning at a record label, Youth Riot co-founder Daniel Cohn decided he could do better. The label, founded in 2014, made an initial leap by signing local highlight Versing, who went to college with the founders. At the end of 2015 Cohn’s attention turned to a “brat punk” group called Mommy Long Legs, who released its debut album in 2015 to popular local reception. Cohn decided this was the sound for the label, and Youth Riot signed the group shortly thereafter. Mommy Long Legs eventually disbanded in 2018, with its final LP failing to pace their previous outputs. The departure hit Youth Riot hard—Cohn saw the band as the label’s route to becoming unshakable. “I was thinking that they were like my golden ticket,” Cohn says. But Youth Riot took it in stride, continuing to release music—the label will soon celebrate their 40th release. When asked if he is thinking of slowing down soon, Cohn says with a chuckle, “Every year I’m like: ‘I think we’ll maybe just do like 5 releases,’ and then we end up doing like 10 or 11.” Although Youth Riot’s catalogue has developed somewhat fortuitously based on artists they’ve attracted, the label sets themselves apart with their willingness to release non-commercial, raw punk. Their acts may not all be of the Black Flag caliber, but with a few power violence releases under their belt, hardcore punk fits somewhere in the moderate.