You'll find a variety of record labels, all of which are devoted to bringing great music to fans. Some labels specialize in only one or two genres while other labels work with a wide range of sounds and artists. You will likely recognize the names of the major labels, and you might have heard of the better-known independents, too.
Since rock is such a popular music genre, many labels release some form of rock, whether straight-up rock and roll, alternative rock, or punk rock. The labels that have been in business for the longest time have often worked in other genres as well, including jazz, soul, or classical.
Atlantic Records, located in New York City, was founded by Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish immigrant, in 1947. From its early years, Atlantic carved out a name for itself in soul music and established itself in short order as the number one rhythm and blues label in the United States. To sign quality acts, they were proactive in scouting for talented artists. Today, they remain a major player, especially in rock music of all kinds.
- Genres - In its early years, Atlantic made its mark primarily in rhythm and blues and soul music, but it has handled increasingly more genres over the decades, including rock music ranging from progressive rock to alternative rock to heavy metal. Along with Atlantic's broad range of rock music, they also release records by hip hop, jazz, and blues artists.
- Famous Artists - Atlantic has worked with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Cream, and Aretha Franklin. More recently, Atlantic released the original recording for the smash hit Broadway show Hamilton. They also work with the hard rock band Halestorm, singer-songwriters Ed Sheeran and Marina and the Diamonds, and country music singer Shooter Jennings.
Located in Los Angeles, California, Epitaph was founded in 1981 by Brett Gurewitz, guitar player for the punk band Bad Religion. Epitaph played a pivotal role in the growth of the Los Angeles punk rock and post-punk scenes. Over the decades, it has branched into other rock genres as well, developing into one of the world's biggest independent labels.
- Genres - Epitaph got its start as a record label devoted to punk music. In the 1980s, the label was primarily a forum for Bad Religion's music, but in the 1990s, Epitaph signed additional bands that enjoyed breakout success, giving the label a higher profile and enabling them to expand into post-punk, emo, and alternative rock.
- Famous Artists - The 1990s saw the success of Epitaph post-punk artists Rancid and Offspring. In 1999, the label signed critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and rocker Tom Waits. Other Epitaph artists include punk band NOFX, emo band Matchbook Romance, and hardcore band I Am Ghost.
Founded in 1980 by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, 4AD is a well-known independent label that specializes in goth and eclectic alternative rock. Located in South London, UK, the label favors artists who have a distinctive, unique rock sound. In the words of co-founder Kent, he wants their artists to be "interesting" and "eclectic."
- Genres - While Watts and Russell aren't crazy about their label being called "goth," the term often comes up when people describe the music they release. Sonically, 4AD's artists can be placed in such categories as alternative rock and experimental, and many of the records they release are considered ethereal and often trailblazing.
- Famous Artists - In the 1980s, 4AD got on a roll when they brought to the world the music of Wolfgang Press, a post-punk band, and the Cocteau Twins, a gothic rock band. The 1990s saw 4AD working with alternative rock bands Throwing Muses, Lush, and the Pixies. One of the most well-known bands associated with 4AD is Dead Can Dance, a blend of neoclassical, gothic rock, and world music.
Subterranean Pop, an independent label headquartered in Seattle, Washington, was founded in 1988 and found itself at the forefront of bringing grunge music into the mainstream in the early 1990s. Even though the grunge movement has faded, Sub Pop continues to be widely respected for its unique roster of indie artists.
- Genres - After getting their start with grunge music, Sub Pop became a well-regarded label for indie rock acts. Jonathan Cohen, senior editor of Billboard, wrote in an interview that Sub Pop maintained its relevancy in the music industry by staying connected with the "pulse of the underground scene."
- Famous Artists - Superstar grunge band Nirvana got its start with Sub Pop, releasing a cover of Love Buzz and the band's debut album, Bleach, with the label in 1989. Sub Pop also worked on early material with grunge rockers Soundgarden, TAD, and Mudhoney. Today, Sub Pop is a strong presence on the independent rock scene, with artists that include the Shins, Hot Hot Heat, Fleet Foxes, and Postal Service.
Some of the first labels in history got their start by releasing the popular music of their day. Many labels continue to work with pop artists, and some of these labels also work with artists in other music genres like rock, country, and hip hop.
Warner Bros. Records
Warner Brothers got its start as a film studio in 1918, and in 1958, the company diversified to making records. Warner Bros. Records, located in Burbank, California, got its start by signing Tab Hunter, a famous film star of the time, to a record deal. For a time, the label signed artists who were associated with Warner Bros. Studios films and television shows, but in the 1960s, they started reaching out to fresh talent, and a recording legend was born.
- Genres - From their early years, Warner Bros. focused on pop music, but they also recorded gospel, classical, jazz, and folk. Over the years, they have maintained a diverse roster of artists who record in genres that range from pop and rock to hip hop and heavy metal.
- Famous Artists - In 1960, Warner Bros. signed the Everly Brothers, a pop sensation, in the first million dollar recording contract in the history of the music industry, as well as Bill Haley & the Comets. Other seminal Warner Bros. artists included Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Newhart, and Petula Clark. In the 1970s, Warner Bros. signed a sonic palette of artists such as Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, and Dionne Warwick. Today, the label continues to feature a diversity of talent, from Emmylou Harris to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Located in New York City, Epic Records began in 1953 as a record label to release pop, classical, and jazz music that was considered less mainstream than that of its parent company, Columbia Records. Over the years, though, Epic has diversified considerably, becoming a major label in its own right, releasing music in numerous genres and working with superstar artists.
- Genres - In the 1960s, Epic expanded beyond its jazz and classical roots to include rhythm and blues, country music and rock and roll. Today, the label is celebrated for its consistent roster of superstar pop acts as well as its successful hip hop artists like Busta Rhymes and DJ Khaled.
- Famous Artists - Though Epic continues to be highly successful today, its best decades would have to be the 1970s, during which the label released multiple records by superstar Swedish pop group ABBA, and the 1980s, during which the label released Thriller by Michael Jackson, which became the music industry's top-selling album of all time. Other legendary Epic artists include Celine Dion, Ozzy Osbourne, Mariah Carey, Puff Daddy, and Pearl Jam.
RCA is one of the most pivotal labels in the history of the music industry. RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America, the parent company founded in 1919 that produced and made commercially available the first turntables and the first records. RCA Records, headquartered in New York City, has long been one of the major movers and shakers in pop music and other genres.
- Genres - From its early years to the present day, RCA Records has been strong in the pop, rock, and country genres. During its heyday in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the historic RCA Studio B in Nashville was a prime recording spot for legendary pop and country artists like Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Chet Atkins.
- Famous Artists - Modern day RCA artists include country artists Wynonna, Marty Stuart, and Carrie Underwood, all of whom also worked at RCA Studio B. David Bowie recorded with the label in the 1970s. Other pop sensations associated with RCA Records include Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Miley Cyrus.
Columbia Records, headquartered in New York City, is the oldest label which is still producing records. The parent companies of Columbia Records, Columbia Phonograph and the American Gramophone Company, were founded in 1887, only nine years after Thomas Edison came up with the idea of making recordings on a tinfoil-wrapped cylinder.
- Genres - From the beginning, Columbia Records placed itself on the cutting edge of recording innovation and the shaping of popular music. One of the label's first recordings was John Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, released in 1897. Over the years, Columbia Records released soundtracks for musicals like South Pacific and My Fair Lady and records that spanned genres from pop to country to rock to soul.
- Famous Artists - In the 1940s and 1950s, Columbia Records worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, and Roy Acuff. Other legendary Columbia artists include Barbra Streisand, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Columbia was the label of choice for the New York Philharmonic. Current artists also call Columbia Records home, such as Beyoncé, Manic Street Preachers, and Kasabian.
Parlophone Records Limited
In addition to having been founded in 1896, making it one of the oldest labels still around, Parlophone enjoys the distinction of having been the label to sign the Beatles to a recording contract in 1962. Parlophone was first formed in Germany by the Carl Lindström Company, and the label established an office in the United Kingdom in 1923.
- Genres - After the formation of its British office, Parlophone made its mark as a jazz music label, but after it signed the Beatles, the label became a force to reckon with in the pop and rock music genres and in British music in general. Parlophone also works with artists in such diverse genres as electrofunk, like the musical duo Chromeo, and indie dream pop, like the band Saint Motel.
- Famous Artists - Parlophone boasts a roster of luminaries who have recorded with them over the years, including Radiohead, the Pet Shop Boys, Coldplay, and Kylie Minogue. The label has worked on albums with Kate Bush, Tina Turner, and Pink Floyd. Newer Parlophone artists include Gabrielle Aplin, Gorillaz, and Eliza Doolittle.
Though heavy metal is a subset of the rock genre, it requires its own category. Over the years since it rose to popularity in the 1970s, metal has branched out into various styles, including alternative metal, glam metal, death metal, and many others. As a result, you'll find labels that specialize solely in heavy metal music.
Roadrunner Records is currently located in New York City, but it originated in the Netherlands in 1980 and still maintains an office there. In the years since its founding, Roadrunner Records has become one of the most well-regarded labels for hard rock and heavy metal music.
- Genres - Roadrunner Records is all about, in their own words, the "heavy music culture," and part of that culture is the discovery and development of new talent in the genre. In 2008, Metal Hammer named Roadrunner Records the best metal label at their Golden Gods Awards ceremony.
- Famous Artists - One of the most well-known metal artists with Roadrunner Records is King Diamond, who became the first of their artists to break into the Billboard 200. Other Roadrunner artists include death metal bands Obituary and thrash metal band Sepultura whose respective albums, Slowly We Rot and Beneath the Remains, were released by the label and remain classics in their genres.
Relapse Records, headquartered in Darby, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1990 by Matthew Jacobson. The label started out in Jacobson's basement in the town of Aurora, Colorado before garnering success and relocating to Pennsylvania. Relapse Records is an independent label that balances a progressive world view with a passion for metal and experimental music.
- Genres - Relapse Records releases music that spans a wide swath of the heavy metal and experimental music spectrum. Founder Matthew Jacobson and his partner Bill Yurkiewicz were both enthusiasts of electronic and ambient music as well as post-industrial music, so their tastes are reflected in the heavy metal acts they sign.
- Famous Artists - Some of the first artists signed to Relapse Records were tech death metal band Suffocation and Finnish folk metal band Amorphis. Other well-known artists in the metal genre who record with Relapse are metalcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan and avant-garde metal band Neurosis.
Though folk peaked in popularity back in the 1960s and 1970s, its roots in American music run deep, and it remains a popular genre to this day. Folk music fans will be happy to know that there are labels that focus on this beloved style.
In the words of the founders of Rounder Records, they specialize in "roots music and its offshoots." Rounder Records was founded in 1970 by three friends who met in college, all of whom love bluegrass and similar forms of folk music. The label is still going strong to this day. Albums released by Rounder Records have won a total of 40 Grammy Awards. The label is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.
- Genres - Rounder Records focuses on roots music, which encompasses the genres of bluegrass, blues, folk, and reggae. The label works with both singer-songwriters and instrumentalists.
- Famous Artists - Rounder Records features a stellar roster of artists. Multiple Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss has been with the label since she was fifteen years old, playing with her band Union Station. Other Rounder artists include blues legend George Thorogood, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, folk rock band Cowboy Junkies, and acoustic guitarist Norman Blake.
Located in New York City, ATO Records, an independent label, was founded by Dave Matthews and manager Coran Capshaw in 2000. ATO Records, which SonicBids Blog describes as "folk-centric," stands for "According To Our Records," and they are one of the most influential labels on the independent music scene.
- Genres - You'll find a variety of genres represented by the artists at ATO Records. While the label emphasizes folk music, you'll find a great deal under that large umbrella: blues, folk rock, psychedelic rock, acoustic singer-songwriters, alt-country, and Southern rock.
- Famous Artists - ATO Records has a top-notch artist line-up, including Alabama Shakes, a blues band, and the Drive-By Truckers, an alt-country band. Other stellar ATO artists include folk rock bands My Morning Jacket, Primus, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Hip hop, also known as rap, is another genre that lends itself well to specialization by labels. Sometimes rap labels are owned by artists who are rappers themselves. Rap fans can choose from a variety of labels from which to procure their favorite music.
Def Jam Recordings
Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons founded Def Jam Recordings, located in New York City, in 1984 to record distinctive urban music in the hip hop and soul genres. Both men liked loud music like heavy metal, rap, and punk that would provoke reactions from its listeners. Soon after they started Def Jam, the label was off and running with successful acts.
- Genres - Def Jam got in on the ground floor as rap was starting to become a major force in popular music. The label focuses on rap music, but throughout its history, it has diversified to remain relevant as hip hop has continued to evolve, so some of its hip hop artists, like Rihanna and Kanye West, have a pop, rhythm and blues, or even a reggae vibe.
- Famous Artists - Def Jam experienced early success with legendary rap artists like Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. Other well-known Def Jam artists over the years include Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Jeezy. Today, the label continues in the same tradition with talented artists like Big Sean, Frank Ocean, and Justin Bieber.
Headquartered in Santa Monica, California, Aftermath Entertainment was founded in 1996 by superstar producer Dr. Dre as a boutique label to release the very best in rap music. Dr. Dre is considered the best rap producer of all time, and he is highly selective about the artists he signs to his label.
- Genres - Aftermath focuses on hip hop music, and Dr. Dre looks for rap artists who stand out from the crowd and bring something new to the table. Instead of quantity, Aftermath goes for only a few high-quality releases a year.
- Famous Artists - Dr. Dre is a phenomenal rapper in addition to being a producer, so he releases his own work through Aftermath. The most famous artist to record with Aftermath is undoubtedly rap sensation Eminem. Other world-famous rappers who have worked with the label include Kendrick Lamar, Game, 50 Cent, and Rakim.
Electronic Dance Music
Electronic dance music (EDM) got its start in the late 1980s, and today it's the music industry's fastest-growing genre. More and more labels focus exclusively on EDM, and it's no wonder, since the genre has grown into a $6.2 billion phenomenon.
In 2011, Mike Darlington and Ari Paunonen founded Monstercat as an imprint for dance music. They started from the ground up, creating a YouTube channel associated with the label which became hugely popular and created legions of fans who wanted to purchase Monstercat's music. Monstercat, located in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada, is an independent, grassroots label whose music consistently tops iTunes sales charts.
- Genres - Monstercat specializes exclusively in electronic dance music (EDM). They also regularly participate in music festivals that are devoted to the genre such as the Amsterdam Dance Event. Monstercat was voted the number one EDM label on EDM Sauce's list of the 65 best such labels.
- Famous Artists - Though Monstercat hasn't been around very long, they can already boast artists who are considered top-notch in the EDM genre such as Vicetone, Krewella, Project 46, and the Pegboard Nerds.
Ultra Music, one of the big movers and shakers on the EDM scene, has been releasing electronic dance music since its founding in 1995 by Patrick Moxey. Moxey started out on the underground scene, but he has always wanted to ratchet up the popularity of EDM and bring the music to as many people as possible. Ultra Music, located in New York City, is listed as one of the fifteen best EDM labels by Complex Music.
- Genres - Ultra Music founder Patrick Moxey has a wide range of musical interests. Before founding Ultra, Moxey worked with Payday Records, a hip hop label. He prizes innovation in electronic dance music, including hints of reggae or a tropical flavor.
- Famous Artists - You'll find a stellar roster of EDM artists lighting up Ultra Music, including Laidback Luke, Armin van Buuren, deadmaus5, and Benny Benassi. Ultra Music also holds a gigantic, three-day EDM music festival each year in Miami, Florida.
Though OWSLA is a relatively recent label, having been founded in 2011 by dubstep artist Skrillex, it has already had significant impact in the electronic dance music world. You will find OWSLA on Complex Music's list of the best EDM labels. The name of the label comes from Watership Down, Richard Adams' fantasy novel about rabbits. OWSLA is located in Los Angeles, California.
- Genres - Skrillex, OWSLA's founder, is a musician, songwriter, and DJ who has grounding in multiple music genres, including EDM, dubstep, and post-hardcore. He releases his own material through OWSLA, and the artists who record with his label are innovative and groundbreaking in the EDM genre.
- Famous Artists - OWSLA boasts a number of highly acclaimed EDM artists, including Kill the Noise, Zedd, Koan Sound, Birdy Nam Nam, and Skrillex himself. One of Skrillex's EPs, Bangarang, won two Grammy Awards in 2013 for Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Dance Recording.
Rhythm and Blues
Rhythm and Blues, or soul music, is a genre that inspired the rise of well-known record labels. Some of these labels, such as Philadelphia International Records, are no longer in business, but iconic rhythm and blues labels have undeniably played a strong role in shaping the direction of the genre and of popular music at large.
In 1959, Berry Gordy, songwriter and entrepreneur, founded Motown, the quintessential label for soul music. Motown's name pays tribute to its city of origin. Detroit is known as Motor City, so Gordy changed "city" to "town" and named his new label Motown. The label has had tremendous impact on popular music in the decades since its founding. It brought soul, rhythm and blues, and other kinds of African-American music into the mainstream and is responsible for 180 number one songs all over the world.
- Genres - Not many labels can boast of creating their own distinctive sound, but that's exactly what Motown did, and its sound continues to be celebrated as the Motown Sound. The soulful style of Motown is a seamless marriage of jazz, bebop, and gospel music, with plenty of reverb effect.
- Famous Artists - Motown has released music by some of the most famous names in the music industry, including the Jackson 5, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The impact of the Motown Sound on popular music simply cannot be overstated. It shaped the direction of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and even hip hop. Current artists include Erykah Badu, Sebastian Cole, and Rich Homie Quan.
Stax Records was established in 1959 by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, who created the company name out of the first two letters of each of their last names. Stewart and Axton founded the label in Memphis, Tennessee as a platform to release the soul music they loved. Stax is considered, second to Motown, the most influential and best selling rhythm and blues label in the music industry.
- Genres - Stax specialized in soul music that featured a rawer sound than that of Motown, with a gritty, no-frills feel and sparser production. During its heyday, there were 167 songs recorded by Stax artists that hit the Billboard Hot 100, and 243 songs cracked the top 100 on the rhythm and blues charts.
- Famous Artists - The most famous Stax artist was soul music and rhythm and blues phenomenon Otis Redding. The label has had many other top-notch artists on its roster, as well, such as Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, and Rufus and Carla Thomas. Newer Stax artists include Booker T. Jones, Ben Harper, and Teena Marie.
Keeping up With Changes
When it comes to recording and distributing music, technology has undergone tremendous development throughout the decades. With the advent of the digital age, record labels have had to shift and evolve to keep up with the means by which fans want to acquire their music, but the essential role of labels remains the same: to provide music fans with the high quality music that they want.