Transgressive Records | how to run a successful indie label

We quiz co-founder Toby L on how the indie label has thrived at the top as it marks its 15th anniversary...
foals_2019

The world of indie music can be full of challenges and changes so to spend 15 years at the top is quite the achievement. 

Hats off then to London's Transgressive Records who mark this milestone in 2019.

Over the years, they've released and continue to release brilliant music, manage and publish the likes of Foals (pictured), Two Door Cinema Club and the Mystery Jets to name but a few. 

Co-founder Toby L has been a past guest at ICMP courtesy of our careers team, The Hub so we tracked him down to find out how the label started, how the industry landscape has morphed and what it takes to thrive as an indie imprint in the current musical climate... 

How did you start your music industry career?

Music was the most important thing to me growing up - listening to it, writing or playing it, supporting it however I could ... so the idea that I'd be working in it full time wasn't even necessarily a choice, it felt like the only way.

I started like pretty much everyone else - being a total nerd. Listening, learning voraciously about my favourite musicians, producers, and then eventually the characters behind the scenes that also played a pivotal role within the fabric of music culture. 

I went to my first gig when I was 10 and shortly afterwards began reviewing and interviewing my favourite artists, out of sheer love and curiosity. This batch of writing ended up on a music website that I started in September 2000, called rockfeedback.com. It endeavoured to be a positive space where a new generation of internet fans and geeks could get excited about the best new music surfacing.

It soon evolved into a monthly club night in London, then a live events company, as well as a TV show on MTV and Channel 4 when I reached my late teens.

Rockfeedback has been going in various forms ever since, which blows my mind considering it was ostensibly created as a coping mechanism and creative outlet while I was having a tough time at school." 

In 2003, I met my now-dear friend and business partner, Tim Dellow. He came down to one of the Rockfeedback club-nights - he was the person pressing up and selling the debut single of a band I had booked that evening - Bloc Party.

We decided to start a fresh new label together, and that little seven inch singles imprint became Transgressive Records in September 2004. Not long after this, we added a third partner, Lilas Bourboulon, and a wider team of new best friends, and so here we are: some 15 years later, releasing albums, publishing musicians, managing acts, putting on gigs and festivals, making documentaries on our favourite artists from around the world ... It's been a totally surreal ride and it still feels like an absolute trip every day.  

What made you want to start your own label?

Initially, in total honesty, I wasn't 100 percent sure about starting a label - from my experience of doing Rockfeedback, interviewing bands and various industry figures, it felt in the early 2000s as if labels were about to undergo a seismic shift, that artists were finally gaining their own control and access to distribution. In essence, what was the role of a record label going to be? That all said, Tim was very persuasive. 

And I soon started to think about all the various unsigned artists - or signed artists, for that matter - that could benefit with what we perceived to be a lack of proper emotional or creative support, pushing boundaries without compromising.

After meeting with a few bands and realising we might be able to help them with what they wanted to do, we soon became quite ambitious. We were lucky that the first releases we signed and released sold out of their pressings and the media also took interest in what we were doing. It all became quite exciting quite quickly. Before long, we wanted to have the most important, diverse music company of our generation - and that ambition hasn't really wavered since. You have to aim high - otherwise, what's the point?

The Subways '1 am' was the first release on Transgressive 

Could you explain a little about how Transgressive began life?

Friendship, late nights out, displaced youthful abandon and, as mentioned, high hopes ... London was an exciting place to be in the early 2000s. Everyone you spoke to was either in a band, starting a band, recording a band, promoting a band, writing about a band, or listening to a band. Music culture permeated every venue and pub. 

Because of what preceded the label, via the club-nights, the music journalism and filming side, we really wanted to keep every element going, to ensure that we weren't just another indie label - we wanted to ensure we had the most to offer artists, practically speaking as well as inspirationally. That meant working a lot harder than the competition and keeping our heads down.

We all agreed that it was fine to be the last person at the party after a show, however, you still had to be in the office the next morning, ready and willing to fight another day, not to succumb to the distractions, nonsense and hedonism."

Working in the music industry is a privilege and there were too many horror stories about those that sadly didn't keep a keen eye on the balance that's required.

Really, though, it was just listening to endless music, going to hundreds of shows, and convincing amazingly talented people that we could dream big and also achieve great things together.

You’ve obviously helped kick start some incredible artists/bands ... which releases are you most proud of? Have there been any highlights outside of the releases?

Kickstarting careers or breaking artists is really fun, not to mention a huge challenge - helping the world to share your view that an unknown musician is truly great and worthy of the world's attention.

However, the really rewarding bit is getting past that phase and working deeper and deeper, over ten years in, with an artist.

A band like Foals we've known personally and creatively almost since we started, and to continue with them has been a joy. I think they're writing and releasing the best music of their career - which makes the bond even tighter.

It's impossible to choose releases that we're most proud of - we found love in every single one of them and that tie will hopefully never break... the memories you associate with those times as well. Today, records that are on my mind, include one of the first we ever released from Young Knives, which was called 'Voices of Animals & Men'. We need to get it up on Spotify, it's an absolute classic. It had a lot of success when it came out, three or four top-40 singles, a Mercury nomination, production from the legendary Andy Gill from Gang of Four. It really is a remarkable set of songs with an incredibly potent, relatable narrative throughout. I also absolutely love the debut record from our most recent signing, KOKOKO! They're making absolutely genre-defying, original music. That record will come out in July and I cannot wait for people to hear it.  

Congrats on reaching the 15th year anniversary! How does it feel to be a veteran of the indie scene?

Thank you, it's weird! Especially seeing the word 'veteran'! I still remember being the kid that was on the door at our club-nights, marking names off on the guest-list, or accepting deliveries for hundreds of seven-inch singles that my cat used to sleep on in my old family home. Those feelings and memories never really leave, let alone a sense of imposter syndrome, that sense we all have that we don't really know what we're doing.

The truth is that, as long as you work hard, ask questions, aren't afraid to make mistakes, have some humility, empathy, respect for everyone you work with, you'll find a way through." 

I think preserving naivety, keeping it all new and fresh, is really important. I occasionally meet people that are jaded, who have perhaps been in the business too long, or who have somehow disconnected from the elements that originally first motivated them. That's a shame. I know that if this all got too much, or if things weren't as enjoyable as they used to be, then I'd probably walk away. This sector thrives from creativity, vitality, energy and positivity. Without those pieces, progress ceases. I feel grateful to be doing this everyday, and still have a love for music in all its various forms that has yet to be rivalled in any of my other passions. Apart from maybe 'Super Mario Odyssey' on the Nintendo Switch.

How important are places like ICMP in supporting the next generation of music industry talent?

Incredibly important. It's so vital from a community and social perspective, fellow travellers meeting like-minded people, that's how scenes are created. Everyone learning from each other, everyone being slightly competitive, too. That's how greatness is achieved. We cannot do it all by ourselves. We need everyone else, and that's a beautiful thing.

How has the role of the record label changed since you started out? And where do you think it’s headed next?

It's immeasurably different. In all decent ways. Things are a lot more transparent than they used to be - I think technology has democratised and organised the business in a way that's totally new. I also think artists have more power than they used to, since there are more options open to creators. It's easier to release a song than ever before, you don't necessarily need a label. 

But I guess the main reason people still want labels is down to my former point - you can only get so far by yourself. Once you've got people's attention and honed your craft, you'll still need support, whether that's strategic, creative, commercial, financial, or all of the aforementioned. It's also a lot more fun to do things with friends. 

For any of our students wanting to set up their own label, what would you advise them?

  • Find great talent, invest lots of time, don't spend too much at the start, ensure you always deliver what you promise. 
  • Be prepared for things to be challenging, people to say no.
  • Don't give up. 
  • Be friendly and kind, and patient. 
  • Have fun. Remember what you got into it for. 
  • Don't waste time.
  • Oh, and most importantly, don't listen to anyone's advice ;)

How do you discover new music in 2019? And how should new talent approach a label like Transgressive?

We find talent, it's our jobs to find it, really. Only twice in 15 years have we signed artists from unsolicited demos or emails. It's extremely rare. When artists are ready to get signed, that's usually when we hear about them / find them.

I'd sooner recommend a person to invest more time in crafting their music and their artistic universe than sending 2,000 blanket spam emails to anyone they can contact in the music industry. To quote Ron Burgundy, 'keep it classy'."  

Who are your current new music tips for the top?

I absolutely love the slowthai record and am thrilled by his last couple of years. The £5.00 tour he just announced - genius. Although it's over a 500 percent increase on the ticket price from his last 99p tour, so it's fair to say he's already sold out.

The punk scene locally and internationally is amazing. Some incredible bands from Ireland and Australia right now. A lot of it is as meaningful as it is utterly hilarious, some much-needed respite in our current climate. Selfishly speaking, the aforementioned KOKOKO! are extraordinary, and our new signing from Canada, Boniface, is one of the best songwriters we've heard in years.

How has the industry changed since you started the label? Are you still as excited now as you were when you began?

The industry has entirely changed. For the better. Formats have evolved - streaming didn't exist 15 years ago, neither did YouTube or social media. It's phenomenal how much it's adapted. As stated above, it means creators have direct access to their audience, they get to control the conversation rather than gatekeepers. For those reasons, and so many more, I'm still just as excited as when I started, genuinely.  

Are there anythings you wish you’d known when starting out?

Experience is a double-edged sword - use it wisely, and you'll avoid obvious mistakes. Deploy it too freely and you'll never take any risks. I loved being clueless but passionate, and don't regret anything we did - even the two times we almost went bankrupt. These moments challenge you into a better form of being, and add strength to your character. We're too fearful of failure in life - sometimes failure is actually the most powerful way to learn and grow.  

What does the rest of 2019 have in store?

Absolutely tonnes of parties and events for our 15th Anniversary, a lot of special releases and radio programmes, and more... 

Plus tonnes of the best records we've ever released ... new ones and/or shows from Foals, Flume, Two Door Cinema Club, SOPHIE, Marika Hackman, Blaenavon, Let's Eat Grandma, Johnny Flynn, KOKOKO!, Boniface, Hippo Campus, Calpurnia, Benny Mails, Julia Jacklin, Songhoy Blues, Alvvays, Neon Indian, Gengahr, Cosmo Sheldrake, Great Good Fine Ok, Mutual Benefit, our Berlin-based contemporary classical ensemble s t a r g a z e, Odetta Hartman, plus a couple of massive surprises up our sleeves. 

Despite the world attempting to destroy itself, there really is a lot to look forward to. 

Visit transgressiverecords.com to find out more about their 15th anniversary celebrations... 

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by Jim Ottewill
June 25, 2019
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