In this ongoing series, we take a closer look inside some of the many labels carving their own niche.
After his first attempt at running a record label in his 20s, musician and producer Gabriel Roth decided he’d had enough of the biz. But his friend Neal Sugarman urged him to try again, this time with Sugarman handling the business side and Roth doing what he does best: making records. Seventeen years later, their brainchild, Daptone Records, still resides in the Brooklyn office where it was founded, and maintains a down-to-earth philosophy of crafting great music with a pool of trusted collaborators.
As bassist and saxophonist, respectively, for throwback funk/soul ensemble The Dap-Kings, Roth and Sugarman quickly made their names backing Sharon Jones, with Roth writing most of the group’s songs under his musical alias of Bosco Mann. From there, Daptone introduced the world to Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, The Budos Band, and other acts who reflect the label’s ever-expanding definition of soul. Roth’s story of how he and a small but dedicated team built one of the most trusted brands in independent music is one of focus, dedication, and patience.
Like many other artist-run labels, Daptone began as a hands-on way to release Roth and Sugarman’s own music. The label’s first two releases were Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ first album and The Sugarman 3’s third album, both in 2002.
“We weren’t terribly ambitious,” says Roth, “but we just kept grinding away and slowly built up a good following.” There were no radio hits in store for their niche strain of vintage funk and soul, but word-of-mouth enthusiasm sustained the label and paid off handsomely when Amy Winehouse tapped The Dap-Kings as the backing band for her smash-hit second album, 2006’s Back to Black.
As the press loudly trumpeted a soul revival around the likes of Jones and Winehouse, Daptone stuck to its simple model of curating and releasing music from within its family-like core group of like-minded players and producers.
“We were always making the same music, from the ’90s on, and we just kept going,” says Roth. “We never paid much attention to what was in fashion.”
The growing pains
Like any business, Daptone has experienced its share of trial and error over the years. When opening its in-house studio, Daptone’s House of Soul, the label counted on an income stream that wound up being delayed, which meant having to borrow money unexpectedly. But the label stayed the course in part by keeping down running costs and not aiming to conquer the world overnight.
“Instead of trying to figure out how we could sell a million records,” says Roth, “we thought about how we could sell 3,000 records and break even. I think that’s why we’re still in business.” Even when certain albums didn’t make the desired impact, like the gorgeous 2015 debut album from Sharon Jones’ backing-vocals duo, Saun & Starr, it didn’t amount to a make-or-break turn. And through it all, Daptone’s thorough quality control has meant overseeing vital creative details like arranging and recording rather than hungrily hunting down new talent.
“We try to focus on the things that connect people with the music and the artists, and not get too caught up in the latest big commercial trend,” says Roth. That means nurturing cool artefacts like limited vinyl and pre-release bundles, as well as working with independent stores to enable a closer bond with fans. Even milestones like Back to Black and the acclaimed documentary Miss Sharon Jones! — which detailed the singer’s initial battle with cancer before her 2016 death — haven’t boosted actual sales so much as strengthen Daptone’s rock-solid reputation.
Daptone’s success has allowed the label to green-light such in-house imprints as the garage-leaning Wick, the reissues-focused Ever-Soul, and player/producer Tommy “TNT” Brenneck’s closely overseen Dunham. “They each have their own story,” says Roth. He adds that no matter which specific styles the label might branch out into, “It’s all soul music to us.”
That includes the Latin big-band sound of Cuban ensemble Orquesta Akokán, the freewheeling jazz of Dap-Kings saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum, the timeless gospel ballads of The Como Mamas, and the reverb-laced rock of The Mystery Lights. To do this interview, Roth took time out from recording a new album for James Hunter, an English soul singer who evokes Sam Cooke.
As for achieving visibility overseas, Roth says it was a gradual process. “We were bigger in England than we were in the States for the first few years,” he recalls. “In every country, everything works differently. We try to tailor our response to each of those places and work with local partners.”
With Roth now based in Riverside, California, where he runs his own studio, Daptone has a full-time Brooklyn staff of just five. Despite reeling from the loss of Jones as well as fellow soul veteran Charles Bradley, who died in 2017, the label hasn’t sacrificed anything in the quality or quantity of its output.
Last year brought the psychedelic doo-wop of The Sha La Das and the spiky garage of The Ar-Kaics, while 2019 promises new albums from Cochemea and The Mystery Lights. And in April, Staten Island instrumentalists The Budos Band will release their first album in five years, where they’ll continue to bridge the gap between low-slung funk and soul workouts and atmospheric psych and stoner rock.
“I never really had ambitions to be in the music industry,” concludes Roth. “I think that worked very much to my advantage, because I wasn’t pulled in by a lot of the stuff that people are pulled in by. We didn’t have that illusion that we were going to succeed in the music business. We always wanted to succeed despite the music business.”
Despite the timeless sound of its music, Daptone has succeeded by forging its own unique path in the record industry. “Our model is just trying to make the records that we love,” Roth adds, “and let the rest figure itself out.”