Declaration of Independents: Sun Records

Declaration of Independents: Sun Records

A big part of what makes independent labels so appealing is that they allow us to believe in the more romantic aspects of an artistic career. The origins of the companies themselves often make excellent stories, whether it's the drama of a scrappy underdog making good or a seat-of-your-pants rail against the mainstream. If it's not the companies we find compelling, it's the artists they sign. When we as fans listen to albums and go to the concerts of musicians who have already hit the big time, there are varying degrees of magic in our understanding of where these people came from and why society has let them make a career of playing songs for giant crowds. Independent labels are often the step between obscurity and stardom. Except for those once-in-a-century flukes when a producer from a major record company stumbles upon one of the greats in a dive somewhere, most of our favorite artists made their bones doing road shows and billing local clubs. The luckiest among the scraps get snapped up by indie outfits doing whatever they can to stay afloat in one of the most brutal businesses in the world. That's why it feels so reassuring to know that even the legends started out as nobodies desperately trying to impress small-time record producers who were themselves not all that impressive. Such is the case with a fellow named Sam Phillips, the guy who half-inadvertently brought rock-and-roll to the world. In 1952 he opened up a little shop in Memphis where he allowed people to literally come in from the street to record music. He called this business Sun Records. Tennessee was, at least musically, the most diverse place in America. All of the ingredients of rock were slowly converging, mostly because a majority of rock came from the musical traditions of the black community. R&B, Gospel, Blues and Swing rarely made inroads into the white world, but when progressive acts like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis got the rock bug it was a different story. Along with folks like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, these early stars of the Sun label brought country music to the mix and rock music was born. By the time Sun had European distribution, the records got into the hands of the kids who would grow up to be the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But it wasn't all peaches and cream for Sun in the beginning. They famously had to sell Elvis to RCA just a year after they made his contract just so they could keep the label from going belly-up. Especially in its first decade, Sun Records didn't hold onto its stars for long. It took five years before they even released a Long-Playing album, Johnny Cash's Johnny Cash and His Hot and Blue Guitar. Sun ended up being a prototype of indie label standard procedure. They discovered the greats, then saw them sold or just plain vanished into major corporations. These days Sun is basically a back-catalog company. Shelby Singleton of Mercury Records bought the entire operation in 1969 and turned it into a mill for box sets. But by that point, Sun had done everything it was ever going to do for music. The sad fact is that indie labels are not built to last. They grow out of scenes rather than business models, so in the rapidly changing landscape of popular music they end up dissolving, whether by increased obscurity or corporate acquisition. All the same, what would this world be without Elvis, Cash, or Lewis? If Sun had opened its doors in 1972 instead of 1952, it would have been a punk label.