An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels By Josh MacPhee, 196 pgs.

Apr 06, 2020

I bet you didn’t know you needed an encyclopedia of political record labels, did you? Okay, this slim, easily digestible volume might not be a necessity, but it would be an excellent addition to your bathroom shelf, wedged between your Ben Snakepit and Liz Prince collections. This is actually the third edition and it contains 789 short entries on “political record labels” around the world, each about a paragraph in length and highly informative. You aren’t gonna read this cover-to-cover, and while it’s an excellent resource in its own right as a reference book, its value comes from providing useful and entertaining nuggets of information about random and obscure labels you’ve probably never heard of before.

I like this book a great deal, but I do have some serious criticisms. I’m about to rant, so bear with me here. MacPhee says he grew up enmeshed in the DIY punk scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but by the turn of the century his love of music had been “crushed” by his “disillusionment with the potentials of political punk.” Fair enough. I won’t begrudge him his loss of faith.

Nor will I fault him on his musical evolution into folk and “world music.” It was that journey, after all, which led him to start compiling a list of what he considers political record labels. He states clearly in the Introduction that he limits “record labels” to those that released vinyl records and his understanding of “political” is also limited to exclusively leftist and/or nationalist politics. He has no interest in compiling information on right wing labels. And while I’d personally find information on such labels useful (know your enemy), I don’t fault MacPhee for not wanting to damage his soul by doing so.

I also don’t fault him for only looking at labels from the 1970s to 1990s. I get it; lines sometimes need to be drawn. But I question his justification for imposing a cut-off date of the mid-1990s. He gives two reasons: vinyl was in decline and bands weren’t political anymore. Specifically, he says that music became “more about politics than of it.” Excuse me? That’s some serious bullshit there. MacPhee makes that claim because he stopped being engaged in the late-1990s. That was his decision and that’s fine, but I have serious problems when someone is generalizing and making grand pronouncements about scenes that (by their own admission) they stopped paying attention to.

Any regular reader of Razorcake is familiar with plenty of political punk labels of the past two decades. Moreover, MacPhee dismisses the “return” of vinyl as a boutique fashion being driven by Barnes and Noble and their ilk. I’m sympathetic to that complaint, but many DIY punk labels never stopped pressing vinyl and still do. What’s more, let’s be honest about the fact that vinyl is a Western luxury and many non-Western labels release their music on cassettes and CDs for good reason (for instance, they’re cheaper, more mobile, and hold up better in tropical climates). So just looking at vinyl-releasing labels ignores a huge swath of important political labels around the world. Okay, rant over.

If these things bother you too, just skip the introduction and dive into the almost eight hundred entries. There so much to enjoy here. This is ultimately a labor of love and, even with my criticisms, I am happy MacPhee has such an obsessive fixation (also check out his ongoing zine series, Pound The Pavement). I’m also glad that the press, Common Notions, ponied up the money for full-color logos throughout and let MacPhee design the cover and internal layout. It is gorgeous. –Kevin Dunn (Common Notions, 314 7th St., Brooklyn, NY,