‘A Community Rather Than an Industry’: Scenes from the American Association of Independent Music’s Libby Awards

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Photos by Francis Jimenez.

Echoing out of the Highline Ballroom, the timeless groove of funk and soul mixed with the Hudson River air as vocalist Charles Bradley* and his eight-piece band brought the house down on a West Side assembly of artists, labels, and tastemakers last week. Inside the colorfully lit venue, many of independent music’s most important individuals had gathered for the 4th annual American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) Libera Awards.

The Libby’s (as they’ve been affectionately dubbed) have established a reputation of honoring the most innovative artists and labels in independent music. “They’re finally becoming clear in what they are and what they represent,” said Molly Neuman, the vice president of A2IM. As Neuman explained in reference to multiplatinum artist and “Album of the Year” nominee Taylor Swift, “We have music that’s important and successful by any measurement alongside music that’s really challenging like Aphex Twin. I think that’s really the testament; we have a community here that touches so many different people, but we’re all about quality and creativity.”

Highlights from the evening included the honoring of several prominent women in the industry. The “Appleseed Award” went to Alison Wenham of AIM, who was said to be instrumental in bringing the Independent Music community together since the early days and the inspiration behind A2IM’s formation. Later in the evening, the “Lifetime Achievement Award” was presented to Patricia Chin, co-founder of the reggae-centric Queens label, VP Records. “[Chin] has really been so visionary and committed and independent, and I think it’s an amazing opportunity to celebrate her,” said Neuman. “It’s just wonderful that we have these two immensely influential and important women to celebrate alongside all the wonderful awards, artist, and labels.”

Charles Bradley and his band performing during the A2IM awards.

For an industry so often dominated by men, these awards represented an undaunted celebration of the other half of the story. Earning the award for “Hardest Working Artist of the Year” was vocalist and soul/ funk revivalist Sharon Jones, along with her band, the Dap-Kings. Accepting the award on her behalf, Neal Sugarman, co-founder of Brooklyn’s Daptone Records and a member of the Dap-Kings, spoke openly about Jones’ recent winning battle against cancer. “It was an incredible comeback story,” said Sugarman. “She can say, ‘The fans are the people that helped me get through this recovery period and kept me alive so I can keep doing what I’m doing,’ and it’s not talk. I see it it night after night, and I see her shedding tears over the fact that she’s still able to do what she was born to do which is to get in front of an audience and sing her ass off and move people to intense excitement. She’s been doing it non-stop! It’s a miracle, honestly.”

Having won in the category last year, Daptone itself was nominated again for “Label of the Year” (for five or fewer full time employees). This year, the award went to Ann Arbor, Mich.’s forward-thinking Ghostly International. Another Brooklyn-based label, Partisan Records, was also nominated for “Label of the Year” in the “six or more employees” category. Ian Wheeler, co-founder of Partisan Records and a first-time nominee, humbly expressed that the nomination was a wonderful nod to their hard-working artists and staff members. “[We] wouldn’t have started a label if we didn’t feel like we had something to say,” said Wheeler. “We admire all the other record labels just as much.” (Taking home the award in the category was legendary Seattle label, Sub-Pop.)

Ian Wheeler (left) and Tim Putnam of Partisan Records.

Aside from artist and labels, commercial music service providers and retailers play a huge role in the independent music industry. The award for “Marketplace Ally of the Year” honors the company that has been most supportive or benficial to independent artists and labels. New York-based distribution company and nominee, The Orchard, represented by COO Colleen Theis, expressed the organization’s gratitude for A2IM and the Libby Awards. “The Libbys celebrates creativity and forward thinking by recognizing the most vital and exciting sector of music,” she said. “It’s through companies like ours and the others represented that local talent from Brooklyn can easily connect with music lovers worldwide.” The organizers of Record Store Day, the annual event celebrating independently owned record stores, took home the award. “I come from a community of mutants and misfits, but you guys make me feel right at home,” said co-founder Michael Kurtz as he accepted the award.

Also spotted at the event was Syd Butler, bassist of NYC art-rock band Les Savy Fav, and founder of Frenchkiss Records [disclaimer: as a musician, this is a man with whom I’ve had a working relationship]. With an extensive history as both an independent artist and leader of an independent label, Butler is a true insider and champion of the industry. “Indie labels and indie bands are more about the authentic artistic community. They take chances that major labels can’t,” said Butler. In light of this freedom, he explained, “Indie labels are always in the trenches. Seventy percent of bands on indie labels have to succeed versus 20 percent of those on major labels. They have to think outside the box and they have to do it fast.”

Syd Butler.

Attendees were in good spirits as the night wound down rubbing shoulders, catching up, talking music, and enjoying the fruits of the open bar. To any outsider, it would seem more like a gathering of old friends. “Independent labels are actually a community rather than an industry,” explained Laura Lyons, the marketing coordinator for New York’s ATO Records. In spite of sometimes fierce competition in an industry where battles are hard-fought, the camaraderie and mutual respect that filled the ballroom was a manifestation of the genuine spirit and purpose of independent music.

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Editor’s note: This story originally stated that Charles Bradley was born in Brooklyn; Bradley was in fact born in Gainesville, Fla. The story has been updated to reflect the mistake, we regret the error.

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