How Do You Start a Record Label?

A revealing conversation with the man behind some of the most talked-about records of the last few years.

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There's an art to running a good record label. You need to have a rare combination of enthusiasm, curatorial skill, fondness for (and mastery of) hanging out, and an insatiable love of music.

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Dean Bein of New York label True Panther Sounds fits the bill. He started the label in San Francisco before moving the operation to New York—eventually finding a home as part of Beggars Group, the influential collective of record labels spread across New York, L.A., and London. Somehow, he's been able to consistently put out celebrated releases that span genres, by artists who often flat-out defy traditional methods of categorization, including Girls, King Krule, Tobias Jesso, Jr., and Shlohmo.

Dean Bein in the flesh. Photograph courtesy of Ebru Yildiz
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We tracked down label head Dean Bein to hear why he started True Panther Sounds, and how he figures out which artists to sign.

You launched True Panther Sounds after starting a band with your best friend. Had you been harboring any dreams of having a label prior to that?

The funny thing is that while my answer is actually no—I did start a record label when I was 12 years old, and I did one release: 500 cassette copies of a compilation of bands from around the Bay Area. It was mostly punk and hardcore bands, but there was a cajun song, some ska, folk songs and even zydeco! All hand-assembled tapes, put together on a dual tape deck. The label was called Croatoan, named after this mysterious town in Virginia that disappeared completely during the 1700s… or at least that was the story I had heard in a pre-Google era [Editor's Note: That would be a reference to the town of Roanoke, whose inhabitants disappeared, leaving no trace except for the word "Croatoan" etched into a tree.]

I did start a record label when I was 12 years old, and I did one release: 500 cassette copies of a compilation of bands from around the Bay Area.

Tour poster for True Panther artist, Tobias Jesso Jr. Image courtesy of True Panther Sounds
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I guess a different answer is: I never thought that music would ever be my job. I was involved in underground music from the age of 12 and always did different things to contribute, whether setting up garage shows, or scanning zines for friends at my Kinkos job, but in the S.F. punk scene I didn't know anyone for whom music was an actual profession.

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It was what they did, because their social and cultural life revolved around it, but not what paid the bills—that was always a pizza place, drugs, Kinkos, bike delivery, or all combined! I always thought that making a living through music was reserved for those who work on super-commercial music. It wasn't until I moved to New York that I met people who made a living working in independent music, and realized that the community of musicians that I was a part of in San Francisco could benefit from having some sort of industry structure.

King Krule performing in Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Frank Hoensch/Getty Images
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How do you know if a band is the right fit for your label?

I have to feel like I believe them—that doesn't even necessarily mean I have to like them, but I have to believe them and have to feel like they have a voice, culture, or idea of their own that we can amplify but not create. I've fallen on the right and wrong side of those decisions over the years. I don't pay as much attention to analytics or data as I should, I suppose—it's all still very intuitive.

Shlohmo at the 10th annual FYF music festival. Photograph courtesy of Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images

I have to believe them and have to feel like they have a voice, culture or idea of their own that we can amplify, but not create.

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How many nights a week does a man like yourself need to be at shows?

I don't need to go out to shows as much as before because so much of music discovery is online now. But I still go see music 3–4 nights a week because I love it! Recently, I had an experience that I think just doesn't happen anymore: went to a show, saw an opener with no recorded music in the world, and was totally blown away by the music—and now we're doing a record together. I feel like that type of story is such a '90s A&R cliché. It's funny that it happened in 2016.  

Tanlines performing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photograph courtesy of Roger Kisby/Getty images

What are the plans for this summer and fall?

The roster is very small—I barely sign anyone ever, it's got to be a pretty deep connection. So right now, there are just EP releases scheduled: new music from Abra, an amazing singer and producer from Atlanta; Kelsey Lu, who is the "opener" I mentioned just now; and MC Bin Laden, who is this completely insane MC from Brazil, kind of the most prominent voice in the Baille Funk genre. That rules the streets [in Brazil], but hasn't had its proper moment here yet.

Girls posing at Sasquatch Music Festival. Photograph courtesy of Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

What would be your dream record to put out on True Panther?

A Highwaymen/Traveling Wilburys-style collaborative album between my favorite song writers: Christopher Owens, Cass McCombs, Kurt Vile, and Tobias Jesso Jr.  

What's in your headphones right now?

A lot of NBA Playoffs, and The Starters podcast. No Effects, Jesse Cohen from Tanlines' podcast. Demos from a few new artists. New Drake, Bryson Tiller, the music of Gurdjieff.

For an exclusive playlist of True Panther tunes, find us on Spotify @wearesweet!

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