Record stores are powerful things. Among the bins, real or virtual, we find a constant supply of life-changing albums and experiences. Friendships are formed there. Bands. Rivalries. We pass along that perfect record that some new friend doesn’t even know they need. We spend hours flipping through the stacks waiting for the next adventure to find us.
Some of these stores make the jump from not merely stocking great albums, but also bringing such records to life in the first place. Today, we’re taking a look at a few of these extra-powerful record stores that began their own labels.
One of the all-time great examples of DIY. Founded by Geoff Travis in 1976, the store quickly became a London mainstay and has continued to be a must-visit-before-you-die shop four decades later. Two years after opening its doors, Travis expanded the store into a record label in order to bring some of the best bands of the time to the forefront. Additionally, he took the co-op model that the store and label were based on to help found The Cartel, a record distributorship made up of like-minded independent British labels.
The store and label parted ways in the early '80s, but were still very much allied. Eventually, Rough Trade opened additional shops in England as well as the US. Unfortunately, both the stores and label went under during the digital download boom. For a few years, it was no more. Both, however, were resurrected by Travis and others (including Jeanette Lee of PiL) and Sanctuary Records. It is currently owned by Beggars Group, but both label and store maintain that strong indie vibe.
1978 saw the birth of this Chicago legend. Physically, the store might have been at 2449 N. Lincoln, but, it was spiritually right at the crossroads of punk, goth, and industrial music. This rising dark tide was embraced by store owners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. In order to better serve the music, they established their own label, and now we have unforgettable releases by KMFDM, Ministry, Psychic TV, and The KLF. Eventually, the label was bought out by TVT and later shuttered in 2001. Nash and Flesher are no longer with us, but Jim Nash’s daughter, Julia Nash, has resurrected the label and released a few records, thus making Wax Trax! an enduring family business.
It all started as a tiny shop in Notting Hill Gate. Sounds like the start of a rom-com and not a massive empire, right? Richard Branson’s behemoth label began as just a cool weird little store specializing in prog and krautrock. While the store was a success in its own right, the label soon blew up and had some of the biggest bands in the world calling it home.
While Virgin’s roots were solidly in the cutting-edge of prog (Gong, Mike Oldfield, and Tangerine Dream all had releases there), things started to change with the signing of the Sex Pistols. Picking them up after A&M and EMI proved to not be a good fit for the explosive band, and Virgin started to expand its horizons to include mainstream rock, pop, punk, and whatever genre Captain Beefheart fits in. Today, Virgin is under the UMG umbrella. So, while it’s a bit more corporate, the label still has interesting groups like Rise Against and Chvrches.
While not as well-known as some of the other entries, Red Rhino Records deserves its spot on the list for sure. By most accounts, Tony Kostrzewa (Tony K) was the kind of person that had a sixth sense about what was going to be big next. When he opened Red Rhino Records as a shop in late-'70s London, it didn’t take long for it to be a popular place for artists, students, and future bandmates to meet. Pulp’s earliest start was on the label. It is of no surprise that Red Rhino was a member of The Cartel.
Another alumnus of The Cartel, Prob Plus began life as one of (if not the) earliest independent record stores in Liverpool. For 10 years, starting in 1971, Probe was the shop to go to if you were looking for something a bit different mixed in with the hits. It was also a great store if you were interested in picking up imports. Many a young record buyer picked up their first American blues, soul, or folk records there. The store was also important in that it carried many of the underground magazines available at the time.
Just under the surface was the underground, and owner Geoff Davies could hear it loudly by 1981. Knowing his customers would love a chance to hear what was really going in their corner of the world, the label was born. Continuing the store’s eclectic tradition, releases by Probe Plus came courtesy of bands such as Ex Post Facto, The Mel-O-Tones, Half Man Half Biscuit, and Cook Da Books. Probe Plus is still bringing the “Music to Drive You to Drink” to this day.
For over 40 years, this New England chain has been selling comic books and records to the masses. Starting with a single shop in Boston, Newbury has grown to 28 locations and is known the world over. While they’re not signing bands, they have moved into the reissue/exclusive label territory. Each title issued by Newbury is pressed in a limited run on color vinyl exclusively for them. Newbury Comics must-haves include Thee Oh Sees' Floating Coffin, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats' Mind Control, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins' Dig, Roky Erickson's Don’t Slander Me, and X's More Fun in the New World.