Like so many of the key people I’ve met in my life, I chanced upon my fellow Transgressive co-founder Tim Dellow in a dark, dank basement in Islington. We were both 19 and full of entrepreneurial spirit, if not glamour: he was selling seven-inch singles in the corner of room; I was selling tickets on the door. At that point, we didn’t realise that a mere three weeks and several pints later we’d be starting an indie label, publishing and management company together.
And it’s that simple. Half the effort is just realising that it’s all possible. The other half, meanwhile, is coming up with a name that doesn’t sound like some kind of dweeb-y student joke.
Eight years on and it’s fair to say that we feel more enthused than ever to work with the artists that we’ve been able to, not to mention consider the experiences and times shared en route. I constantly look forward and back to the music we’re involved with and feel amazed that this is really happening. You can live out your most insane, implausible fantasies. Just think of them and then work day and night to make them happen.
But be warned. This is not running a fish van in the local market. Prepare to be cool, uncool, cool again, work endless hours, and incur more financial highs and lows than your bank manager should really tolerate. It’s basically like being David Hasselhoff.
From platinum records to full boxes of unsold ten-inches, watching your bands storm packed arenas and festivals to struggling to fill the Barfly, we’ve been through it all, and it’s with these moments in mind, I’m thrilled to present to you…
TRANSGRESSIVE’S TOP-FIVE TIPS TO RUNNING AN INDEPENDENT RECORD LABEL
RULE 1: Take risks. Take stupid, ridiculous, f**king risks. Again and again.
The best artists make ambitious leaps throughout their careers, and so should the creative enterprises backing them. Great art isn’t conjured by a fear of the unknown. Close your eyes and jump.
When we started, we set ourselves extremely tight ethical values, which we hold to this day: chiefly, to release every single album we have ever made with an artist, no matter what (something I’ve learnt to be increasingly rare in this tumultuous industry), to work our fingers to the bone for every act, and to sign whatever we believe in, no matter the fad or genre.
Our biggest successes have come when we’ve deviated from what the rest of the music-industry was doing at the time. Whether that was scoring an unlikely Mercury nomination for Oxfordshire office-workers Young Knives’ debut album, (literally) striking gold with a post-rock/math-obsessed quintet called Foals, or when we went straight in at number two with Noisettes – a former blues-punk band that had been dropped by a major after their debut album. Even now we simply sign whatever astounds and surprises us – this month, that’s the incredible electronic soundscapes of Flume and a super-influential, challenging heritage band that everyone knows (can’t wait to announce that one).
The key is searching for authentic talent, great songs or sonic subversion, and artistic honesty. A bonus is when they are nice too. Don’t sign a band simply because other labels want to – sign an artist because you want to amplify their message, their world view, and because you simply can’t get their music out of your head. In short: take risks, don’t overthink it, and then work religiously to make it happen.
RULE 2: Think of ridiculous ideas. Try them out.
Despite the titling of this, there aren’t really any rules to this. It’s not a science. If you think of an inventive way to help draw awareness to the music without detracting from the weight of the message, then enact it.
Just a few weeks ago one of our bands, Gaggle – a 22-piece all-girl choir – have divided the public by making their new single ‘The Power of Money’ available for £3,000.00* on bleep.com.
In an age of industry deflation, illegal downloading and the constant questioning of the worth of music, the whole point is to reflect the actual, genuine cost of the recording, and the investment provided by all those involved in the band and project. It was also to poke a bit of fun at the whole concept of ‘value’, and ‘currency’, and the way we attribute a pound sign to anything.
*In case it’s out of your price-range, fear not, you can still get it for under a quid on iTunes.
RULE 3: Keep your overheads sensible. But just don’t die.
The last thing you need to do is overly glitz up your operation the moment you see returns coming in. It detracts from where the investment really should be heading. Rough Trade is still based in West London near its original shop premises, Creation was effectively a drug den. Real artists don’t want pizzazz – they want humility.
Our first office cost £250.00 a month and was basically two desks side by side and a paint-stained sofa. Admittedly, it was a shambles – I remember one day Tim headed out begrudgingly to do a post run and, had he not, he might have perished: the ceiling above his desk caved in during that fateful fifteen minute interval that he left the office.
We’re now based above a venue in North London. We hear (and feel) the soundchecks through the walls and floors everyday at 4pm. It’s not the peak of class, but it keeps the operation honest and connected. And we live in the hope of discovering THAT amazing new act by experiencing a rumble in our floorboards that rocks us like no other. (In four years, it’s yet to happen, but you never know.)
RULE 4: Keep listening. All the time.
It’s crucial to remember that music has even more of a future than a past, so keep moving with it too. By all means, know and learn (and enjoy) your references and genres, but remember to keep ahead by gorging on everything else that’s being created in the world currently.
I’ve met a lot of people that get stuck in a timewarp – typically attributed to a moment or wave of success that’s hard to see out of. I can understand that. But music develops and changes by the day. The last thing you want to do is lose sight of what it’s up to, whilst from a signing perspective, the only way to avoid becoming stale or regressive is to enjoy and reflect the ebb and flow.
I love the fact that the very first single we released sounds nothing like our more recent acts Pulled Apart by Horses, Dry the River or The Antlers, themselves sounding nothing like Johnny Flynn, Neon Indian or Two Door Cinema Club. Follow your ears.
RULE 5: Enjoy every wonderful second of it.
It sounds obvious, but it’s important to remind yourself what a privilege it is to be involved in such a dynamic, forward-thinking, influential and inspiring, creative environment. Music is essential for the wellbeing and enjoyment of the world, let alone a carrier of some of the most potent, powerful messages that can ever be conveyed. It has the influence to change lives and expand hearts.
By working with and supporting real, great artists, you’re by default involved in this unique exchange. It’s an honour, and an overwhelming blast to be this close to something so pure, visceral and relevant. Don’t ever forget it.
Words by Toby L
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