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Photography Ella Mitchell

Local Action: celebrating 10 years of the renowned London label

Following the release of a 15-track compilation, label boss Tom Lea reflects on the highs and lows of running an independent label and the importance of putting family over profit

The joy of music is the friends you make along the way, and nowhere is this statement more accurate than with Local Action. Launched in 2010 as an in-house label for London’s staple Phonica record store, Local Action is one of the most respected outlets in underground dance music, with releases ranging from pop-friendly bangers to esoteric club cuts. Headed by label boss Tom Lea, the former editor-in-chief of FACT, the imprint has garnered tens of millions of Spotify plays. But it remains a family affair, with Lea’s flat in Deptford doubling as an unofficial second home for many of the label’s signees. 

“I’ve always been more interested in building a tight-knit family than being one of those labels that releases 20 records a year by 20 different artists,” says Lea. “Don’t get me wrong, as a business plan stacking them as high as possible would work wonders, but I’ve got no interest in it.”

The artists signed to Local Action vary intensely, from award-winning game soundtrack composer Lena Raine, to Dawn Richard’s hypnotic futurism, to Jersey Club royalty UNIIQU3’s hip-hop-infused grooves. But what unites them is their ability to take the sounds of an overpopulated dance music landscape and transform them into something distinctly experimental and envelope-pushing. “There’s not one trait that unites our artists,” Lea agrees. “But ultimately it’s got to be people who I can see us building a long-term relationship with, and it’s got to be people I’m confident throwing into a room full of our artists and them finding common ground.”

The label celebrated its tenth birthday back in March with a big blowout at London’s Corsica Studios. Bringing together some of the label’s longest-standing artists as well as artists from 2 B REAL, Local Action’s Manchester-based sibling label, the night saw sets from Scratchclart, Iceboy Violet, aya (formerly LOFT), Clemency, and a closing set from India Jordan and Finn. An accompanying 15-track compilation record celebrating the label’s greatest hits from the last decade has already garnered 20 million listens in less than a month: The fact that 10 years in we’ve released enough classic records to fill a compilation, been able to play a key part in some of our favourite artists having careers in music and I’ve been able to turn a hobby into a day-job is enough achievement for me,” adds Lea.

There are not many labels that are just as comfortable at throwing ravers in sweaty Deptford basements as they are huge festival takeovers, finding their way onto Billboard charts and Pitchfork end-of-year lists. But Lea’s artist-first approach means that the energy never feels forced. “I really value the family we have here, and these days I speak to people for months before committing to releasing music by them to try and make sure they’re the right fit,” he says. The artists, too, have the freedom to develop their own distinct aesthetics, whether that’s Finn’s lo-fi album artwork, aya’s ketamic poetry, or Dawn Richard’s Afro-surrealism. 

It’s a testament to the label’s ethos; a tight-knit group of music nerds who are as much friends as they are collaborators – label signee E.M.M.A., for example, first became connected to Local Action through her friendship with ambient producer Yamaneko, while aya fondly reminiscences about pandemic studio chills with Lea as “the ultimate way to let off steam”. Lea concludes, “As with any public-facing pursuit there have been drastic periods of self-doubt, frustration, inner turmoil and the rest of it, and it’s taken a long time for the label to get to the point where I’m happy in terms of both the visibility of what we do and our infrastructure behind the scenes, but it’s there now. Mostly.”