10 New Zealand Labels You Should Be Listening To
Many artists believe that time alone in the middle of nowhere gets the creative juices flowing, and in New Zealand’s case this has certainly proved to be true. Many miles over the sea, our neighbouring country is home to some of the world’s greatest musicians, and some exceptional labels who back them.
There’s a stack of revolutionary Kiwi music being released by some of the hardest working labels in the world, all built off a sincere love of music. Here are ten of them.
Ball of Wax Records
Referring to themselves as “a seedling record company, based in Wellington, NZ”, Ball of Wax Records are releasing some of the best alternative music New Zealand has to offer.
Their small roster of artists includes Zero Cool, a grunge/indie duo who offer up minimalist vibes with rural NZ charm, alongside Wellington local and classically trained vocalist Blaek, whose music is a mixture of delicate, emotive folk and electronic exploration.
Their solo art-pop artist is French Concession, aka Ella Chau Yin Chi, whose music takes influence from her Shangai and Kiwi roots, incorporating it into ethereal pop vocals and vivid syncopated beatscapes.
Lil’ Chief Records
Founded in 2002 by Scott Mannion and Johnathan Bree, Lil’ Chief Records was born out of a love of pop music. 16 years ago while working together at a record store, Mannion and Bree noticed a musical shift happening throughout Auckland, one which inspired them to release their own tunes.
The initial two releases on Lil’ Chief were of Bree’s DIY duo The Brunettes. The success of the two albums meant success for the business, and secured The Brunettes as Lil’ Chief’s front running artist.
The early releases shone a light on the growing need for a DIY pop label to exist, and Lil’ Chief soon went on to sign Voom, The Reduction Agents, and The Ruby Suns, who alongside The Brunettes signed with US label Sub Pop. As pop music continued to evolve, as did Lil’ Chief.
The label went on to welcome electronic artists such as Princess Chelsea and Pikachunes, along with a bevy of bedroom producers such as Dog & Wolf. All the artists resided in either Wellington, Christchurch or Auckland, where the label was based out of an old house in the suburbs for 14 years – still considered by Mannion as the “…spiritual home of the label”.
These days the label has returned to its roots, with Mannion and Bree promoting new solo albums that seamlessly define the Lil’ Chief sound.
Arch Hill Recordings
In 1998 a group of music playing mates including Ben Howe, Greta Anderson, Jim Laing, and Dave Mulcahy inspired the birth of Arch Hill Recordings, after working together at Arch Hill Studio in Auckland. In 1999 the label released their first album by Dave Mulcahy.
Since their early days the label has expanded significantly outside of the small group of friends and their projects, releasing albums by iconic artists including The Clean, David Kilgour, and Luke Buda. Not to mention a huge selection of up-and-comers including Surf City, Ghost Wave, Familt Cactus, Doprah, and more.
All of whom have access to Arch Hill Studio, which is no longer hired out to bands outside of the label.
Flying Nun Records
In 1981, record store employee Roger Shepherd started what would soon be New Zealand’s leading independent label, Flying Nun Records. With no prior experience, Shepherd took a very DIY approach, and the label remained an on-the-side project while he continued his work at the record store until 1986.
If Shepherd heard music he liked, he would find a way to release it and concern himself with the financials later, which resulted in the company closing to bankruptcy in 1990 in the midst of their successes. Soon Shepherd signed a deal to incorporate the label with Festival Mushroom Records, and another deal in 2006 between FMR and Warner Music Group turned Flying Nun into a legacy label.
Considered by many to be the springboard for New Zealand’s best guitar bands, in 2009 the label was purchased from WMG by a group of Kiwi music industry insiders, including Shepherd, and has gone on to sign and release music by contemporary NZ bands including The Courtneys, Fazerdaze, and Mermaidens.
In 2006 Ian Henderson started Fishrider Records to release an LP by The Dark Beaks. Despite having zero intention of carrying on the label full time, Fishrider Records was showered with positive feedback from happy customers, reviewers, and radio hosts worldwide. Henderson was inspired to continue.
Henderson’s adoration for solemn lyricism and tempered melodies defined the label’s early releases with bands such as The Puddles and The Shakespeare Monkey. While the releases in those first six years were prime examples of the famous Dunedin sound, in recent years new wave, post punk, psychedelia, and British shoegaze inspired bands have taken over the roster.
The label is run out of Henderson’s home in Dunedin with the help of Occultation Recordings for UK and European distribution, which helps save on shipping costs and allows Henderson to run the label with a focus on the art first. It’s up to the bands to organise their own art, and they have full say on how they present themselves, and their music, while Henderson chooses to focus on project management and coordination, PR, and bookkeeping, among other administrative tasks.
Henderson has stated that he’s a fan of everything the label releases, and only wants to put music out that he would hold in his own record collection. Henderson’s careful selection has been essential to Fishrider Records’ ongoing success.
Coming to life in 2005, Deadboy Records is an independent label distributed by Universal Music New Zealand and ran by friends Vasley and Angelo.
The label’s focus has been on quality over quantity, and over the past ten years they’ve released 30 hardcore, punk and rock albums by award winning artists and chart toppers such as The Jury & The Saints, Saving Grace, In Dread Response, False Start, and Silent Torture.
Melted Ice Cream
If you’re interested in discovering some of New Zealand’s best punk music, look no further than Christchurch based label Melted Ice Cream. Founded in 2011 by Salad Boys vocalist/guitarist Joe Sampson as a bootleg label run out of his apartment, it later evolved into an original cassette label, and is now being run by Sampson’s ex-roomie Brian Feary.
The label was built on a passion for local music, and both Sampson and Feary have taken a casual approach in the running of the label, releasing music of friends’ bands, as well as music they’ve been involved in making.
The release of Sickest Smashes from Arson City, a compilation album showcasing artists from the Christchurch punk scene, was a defining moment for the label, and helped move Melted Ice Cream in the right direction. Featuring singles by Salad Boys, Feary’s band The Dance Asthmatics, and the Transistors among many others, a large portion of the featured artists have gone on to release albums through the thriving local label.
trace / untrace
Inspired by Auckland’s Prison Tapes and our very own Flightless Records, Julie Dunn and Richard Ley-Hamilton started trace / untrace in 2017, and have since released cassettes by favoured Dundein artists The Rothmans, asta rangu, Koizilla, and bediquette. The label is based out of Dunn’s kitchen, where the tape machine is located.
Before the formation of trace / untrace Dunn had no experience in the music business, but plans to take full advantage of her position and promote more “…women, non-binary, and young people…” in the heavily male-dominated Dunedin music scene.
Besides her plans to promote inclusivity, Dunn also wants to start a platform for sharing DIY techniques with musicians, such as how they can make good quality merch without the expense, how to record cheaply, and how to host a good DIY show. As she says:
“… anything that makes it easier for people to make music and get it out into the world”.
Founded in 2015, Prison Tapes has been serving as an independent NZ record label specialising in cassette and digital. The label are home to a few of the country’s best up-and-comers from a range of genres including Estère, who creates a unique brand of electric blue witch-hop, and Reuben Winter, whose work features a mix of ambient experimental musings and early ’90s breakbeat rhythms.
Prison Tapes are regularly signing and releasing the best new indie/alt music out of New Zealand so if that’s your vibe, they’re definitely a label worth keeping up with.
In 1984 deep in the depths of Christchurch, Failsafe Records was born. Specialising in guitar-based acts, ranging from swooning pop and driving powered rock to swirling sonic soundscapes, the label have released music by a number of artists over the years including Double Happys, Nocturnal Projections and Loves Ugly Children.
Success came knocking for the label in the early ’90s following the release of its Avalanche Compilation featuring Loves Ugly Children alongside Pumpkinhead, Lurch and Supertanker. In 1995 Failsafe went on hiatus, resurfacing in 2001 with music from Substandard, Hooster, and Kimo, and more, before launching their Retrogenic Series of retrospective releases highlighting overlooked bands from the last 25 years.
In 2018 they continue to work as a completely independent label and distributor, and are working hard “mastering, collating, communicating, and tracking down tapes”.
By Chloe Kay Richardson
Happy Mag’s NZ Week is a new initiative spotlighting New Zealand as one of the world’s most exciting cultural hubs.