The term white label refers to a vinyl record with a blank, monochrome—typically white, but other colors can also be found—inner label. Such copies have long been used by pressing plants as test-pressings and promotional advance copies before final copies with proper inner label design are printed in the actual production run. In Jamaica as early as the 1950s, however, the white label started to become a musical object of its own, when keen producer-entrepreneurs started selling white label advance copies to consumers. Given the Jamaican scene’s obsession with newness and exclusivity, the white label’s inherent mystique and pre-release status quickly made it a hot and desired commodity.1 By the 1980s, it became common practice in the electronic dance music scene to print not just the advance copies but the entire production run for a 12” vinyl club single with blank inner labels. These were, and still are, typically released quickly, roughly, and independently with little to no promotion, often anonymously. Despite the literal meaning of the term, a white label has often come hand-stamped by the artist with some kind of logo or name (often an obscuring pseudonym) in order to make the record identifiable in DJ record bags. This endows the object with an odd aura, since the potential anonymity of the artist contrasts with the individual, unique fragment of their personal labor imprinted on every copy. Sometimes, anonymous 12” releases with professionally printed inner labels are also referred to as white labels, then meaning a low-key, anonymous release avoiding extra-musical information.2
Dance music’s white label culture peaked during the early 1990s, as various styles of electronic dance music were mutated on a month-by-month basis. An endless succession of 12” white labels found themselves in club DJs’ rotations the week they appeared in stores and got thrown out as soon as the next batch arrived. As Simon Reynolds recalls: “During rave’s early-nineties heyday, DJs played the very latest tunes. Eighty per cent of their sets consisted of white-label tracks in the shops that week…”3 The dance music white label was thus purely focused on the temporality of the weekend-to-come, the perpetual “now” of the party, with none of the concern for legacy that traditional artist albums might display (although ironically, it is precisely this disregard for legacy that later made it precious to “digging” DJs and collectors attempting to unearth rave’s “trashcan of history”). Within this original context, the format of the white label was practical, as it reduced costs and sped up the vinyl manufacturing process. Its potential anonymity and quick, low-key presentation also gave artists freedom to experiment with different styles and quickly keep up with the latest dancefloor trends. It became common for dance producers to concurrently release traditional albums and 12” singles for more refined work and white labels for rougher, less accessible, more club-focused material. DJs paid extra attention to white label releases, as they came with the promise of delivering the most uncompromising, banging, and cutting-edge sounds.
For prolific producers, white labels could be a fertile source of income, since a single artist or group could release a bunch of them anonymously or pseudonymously without hitting market saturation; also, as they were typically self-released, all profits went to the artist. London producer Artwork recalls: “…it had got to a point where you’d see that we [our production duo] had three or four white labels on the wall [of the record store] at any one time, under five or six different names. We were sometimes doing 5,000 to 10,000 [copies] of our white labels then, easily.”4 Producers could earn a respectable living while staying quasi-anonymous, which many preferred over a more public DJ lifestyle. This eventually changed when dance music vinyl sales crashed in the early 2000s, forcing studio producers to market themselves as DJs or live performers to earn a living. Partly in reaction against this perceived “face-ification” of dance music culture, there was a small, but influential white label revival in the late 2000s that explicitly turned to the format for its reductionist aesthetic. This attitude is summarized well in the “label statement” of the anonymous white label series Seldom Felt: “Seldom Felt is a brand new label with no set geographical location. The only place you can find them is on the dance floor. No minimal [the word here refers to a frequently shunned style of 2000s dance music], no Ibiza, no sunrises, no ketamine, no Myspace, no repress.”5
Despite the practical advantages of the format, this radical aesthetic of the white label made it a key component in the history of underground dance music culture. In the early ‘90s, its “faceless” eschewal of extra-musical information was considered to be a point of pride; a disavowal of rock and pop’s narcissisms that allowed for a focus on the truly important: the production of impersonal and collective musical forces and affects within the context of the DJ set and the club night.6 A radical process of desubjectification is inherent to the form of the white label. Rather than claiming to be a subjective uttering of the artist, contingently expressed in the form of an object (as with a traditional album), the white label knowingly embraces its status as an object that transcends the artist-subject that produced it. The white label takes on a life of its own as a pure utility-object; a “tool” for DJs on the perpetual club circuit that harbors no aspiration of becoming a lasting work of art, since it will presumably get replaced soon. What makes this process of commodification and obsolescence unique is that the white label rejects the branded imagery and narratives that are typically associated with pop culture commodities. The white label is the pure, empty form of a musical commodity.
Nonetheless, the image of the white label itself has long assumed an almost mythical status within dance music’s historical iconography. In DJ circles, stories about coming across the “Holy Grail” —an amazing, unknown white label that serves the DJ as a “secret weapon”—are common folklore to this day. In this sense, the white label is a psychoanalytic object—it is what it lacks and eschews that makes it desirable. Ultimately, it can be seen as ambiguous whether the white label is an object of pure music, stripped of all extra-musical surplus, or a fetishistic commodity-object par excellence. Perhaps it is both. This ambiguity is illustrated in Berlin producer Mark Ernestus’s account of his initial encounter with the first releases of the legendary Detroit techno group Underground Resistance: “Immediately from the first releases, it was clear to us that this is a very special [music] label. Entirely black [vinyl] labels with nothing but a telephone number etched in the runout groove—of course we had to call immediately.”7
Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, 2nd ed. (London: Penguin, 2001), ch. 14, “Dubwise Situation.”
Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 238.
Laura Martin, “The VICE Oral History of Dubstep,” Vice, 23 June 2015, https://www.vice.com/en/article/9bgm5e/an-oral-history-of-dubstep-vice-lauren-martin-610.
“Seldom Felt label profile,” Discogs, accessed 14 April 2021, https://www.discogs.com/label/94353-Seldom-Felt.
For an exemplary account of the conflict between “pop individualism” and “techno collectivism”, see: Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen, Der Klang Der Familie: Berlin, Techno and the Fall of the Wall, 1st ed. (Noderstedt: Books on Demand, 2014).
Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen, Der Klang Der Familie: Berlin, Techno Und Die Wende, 4th ed. (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018), 203. Translation is my own.