On paper, 2004 was one of the worst years in living memory to set up a record label. The decade-and-a-half decline in recorded-music revenues was well underway, with CD sales falling off a cliff. And the main lifeline in sight, Apple’s iTunes Store, was unbundling the traditional album. Optimism was in short supply.
And yet: Transgressive Records was founded in London in 2004. From the start, it was a curious blend of analogue and digital, and the tension between the two was arguably what made the company stand out. Co-founders
Transgressive Records was founded in London in 2004. Co-founders Tim Dellow and Toby L met at a Bloc Party concert, with Tim’s Trash Aesthetics label having put out their debut single, which Toby had given a five-star review on the Rock Feedback site that he ran.
From the off, it was a curious mixing of the analogue with the digital – and the tension between the two is arguably what made it stand out. Coming from very different backgrounds but with similar goals, Tim Dellow and Toby L met via Bloc Party, then one of the rising acts on the London alternative/indie circuit.
(The pair would later be joined by Lilas Bourboulon, who moved from France to get involved in London’s music scene, joining Transgressive in 2006.)
“It was very DIY backgrounds for all of us,” says Toby. “None of us really had music industry ties. We were just trying to create a version of music that we liked and that was hopefully devoid of some of the cynicism and jadedness you can get in the music industry.”
Tim admits he “took some persuading” to set up a new label, especially as they were coming at it from very different angles. “Toby was quite tech-focused and future-focused,” he explains. “I was no Luddite, but I was doing a typewriter ‘zine and putting out 7-inches.”
Vinyl was their common ground, although also a brake on their early optimism. At what was to be their first label meeting, Tim arrived with a secondhand box set of ’Christ – The Album’, the 1982 LP by noted anarchists Crass, which Toby was well versed in.
Tim saw their shared love of vinyl – and the more esoteric end of music – as a sign that there was a place for the label that the pair were dreaming up. Toby… didn’t. “Labels are dead!” Tim remembers him saying. “You just bought that for six quid!”
Even so, they started Transgressive with £1,000, with the label’s first release being a limited-run 7-inch single: ’1am’ by The Subways, who were effectively the house band at London’s Buffalo Bar, the venue where Toby co-ran a club night.
“It was definitely a balance between DIY and survival in the early days – but with lofty ambition,” says Toby. “We only had enough to fund one single at a time, but we were always talking about the future and how we were going to start a management company and a publishing company.”
Lilas adds, “It was about whatever opportunity came about – and that’s how establishing a management company started. It was, ‘OK – here’s a new opportunity. Let’s do it.’ We’ve never been restricted in our thinking.”
2005’s ‘Junky Music Make My Heart Beat Faster’, a 10-inch EP by The Young Knives (described on the company website as “[p]erhaps the definitive Transgressive band”), was a pivotal single and “quite a big gamble for us” according to Tim. That led to signing the band to an album deal and their debut, 2006’s ‘Voices Of Animals & Men’, was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Prize.
Industry mentors in those crucial early days included Alan McGee (Creation, Poptones), Geoff Travis (Rough Trade) and Seymour Stein (Sire).
“The resounding advice was to keep patient and stay in it,” says Toby of what they were being told by their label heroes. “Just find genius and the rest will follow. Don’t overthink any other facet of the industry. And sign quality as opposed to a genre or a scene – because those things are fleeting. Don’t just chase a new model for the sake of it. All of it centred around talent and honesty. Those tidbits really stayed with us all the way.”
Tim says the company name came from the Cinema Of Transgression – the New York underground and low-budget filmmaking movement of the mid-1980s, in part a response to the rise of Reaganism. “The second you put a line of good taste in the sand, it’s your duty as a citizen to cross that line,” says Tim of the movement’s underlying ideology.
However, Transgressive’s founders took that as an instruction to swim against the musical tide of the time, rather than to wage all-out war on morality and decency.
“When we started, lots of people were involved in this guitar-y London scene. Actually within it, what we were doing was intentionally picking the bands that weren’t Razorlight. That meant that we were getting exciting and different curios,” says Tim.
“When you look back at our catalogue and those really early releases, you have great and special one-offs. Bands like The Rumble Strips were unique. Young Knives. Jeremy Warmsley was like a James Blake ahead of his time in terms of doing sensitive songwriting with really interesting electronic ideas. Ladyfuzz were just so divisive, exhilarating and out-and-out pop in their approach. I think that outside mentality is something that we’ve really held to our core.”
The reason for putting out so many 7-inch singles in the early days was partly down to the aesthetic the company was founded on, but it also arose from economic necessity.
“Why we did 7-inches at the start is because that was an achievable promise,” says Tim. “For example, it seemed Bloc Party were going somewhere. It would have been ridiculous for me with no experience, no team, no friends and no money to ask them to sign to me for the album and say I’m going to deliver this like Wichita [who signed the band for a multi-album deal] did at the time.”
A high strike rate despite a hand-to-mouth existence led to a distribution and marketing deal with Warner Bros Records – something Transgressive’s founders felt was more suitable than taking the in-house A&R jobs at majors that were being offered to them.
The first breakthrough act from that deal was Foals and was symptomatic of how they wanted to work with a major – availing of the muscle where necessary but retaining their own identity. This led to a publishing JV with Warner/Chappell that continues today.
“The Noisettes’ ‘Don’t Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go)’ is still one of our biggest hits and our first number two single,” says Tim. “There were big syncs that we delivered in collaboration with Warner/Chappell. Two Door Cinema Club has been an amazing story for us. That’s when people can see that you can deliver these things.”
That swimming against the tide attitude continues today with more recent signings like Flume and SOPHIE.
“The reason we were attracted to them is because we knew they were different and we knew they had eccentricities; but we also knew that their perspectives were unique, refreshing and could reach more people. So in that sense, they were truly Transgressive artists, despite the fact that we’re diverse.”
Because Transgressive was founded in a year of enormous digital upheaval and uncertainty, the company soon accepted disruption as normal, and so was not tentative in embracing new platforms and ways of doing business – even if they were to prove fleeting. MySpace in particular was very important in the early years of Transgressive.
“It was the only [social] platform that had a music element to it, crucially,” says Lilas. “In terms of receiving demos as well [it was important]. You probably got more music through that than through your inbox.”
Toby adds, “That was a really exciting era. We definitely were a huge part of the MySpace thing. I remember when we used to market our releases, we used to put our MySpace page above our own websites because we found it more relevant.”
While some independents were initially sceptical about streaming in general and Spotify in particular, Transgressive was willing to work with all new platforms, even though vinyl was a huge part of its business.
“It took a while to redefine the parameters and the business terms [with digital],” says Toby. “It’s like anything – you need critical mass in any industry sector in order for that funnel to justify itself. And it was inevitable that that kind of upheaval was going to occur. When looking back at Spotify [a decade ago], it was disruptive. But from our perspective, we were just excited about the idea of our music reaching people.”
The management side of the company has been building steadily through the years, currently representing acts like Let’s Eat Grandma, Johnny Flynn and Marika Hackman. “When we do a management deal, it is pretty much all or nothing,” says Tim.
This is increasingly typical of the multi-disciplinary nature of 21st century music companies – having to have tendrils in different parts of the business. Transgressive has a label, does publishing and has a management arm. Its background in club nights, fanzines and online music sites also gives it a connection to the musical underground.
While there was a push towards 360-degree deals, led by Edgar Bronfman Jr, at the time Transgressive was first plugging into the Warner Music Group machine, its competitive advantage today is due to 360-degree knowledge and experience rather than treating 360 as an immoveable business philosophy (i.e. sign acts for recorded, publishing, live, merchandise etc.).
“I think we’re fortunate that we’ve acquired that knowledge and those skill sets,” argues Toby. “We’re also really lucky to collaborate with brilliant companies – whether that’s other management businesses, major labels, independent labels or label services. In some form or other we’ve collaborated or collaborate with most of the companies out there. And if we don’t, then we want to on the right projects at the right time. I think that that shared knowledge and that cumulative knowledge means that you can make sensible decisions.”
The music industry landscape in 2019 (growth, optimism, digital buoyancy) stands in stark contrast to the landscape of 2004 (decline, pessimism, digital decimation). Against this, the goal for Transgressive is to keep growing, expanding and diversifying.
“We are focusing on being relevant on the global scale and we have increased our signings on the label side internationally,” says Lilas, adding that the company works with PIAS in America to extend their global reach. “Our roster now is probably 30% UK-based and we have signed our first south-east Asian artist as well. So it’s growing on a global scale.”
Tim says of the company’s next ambitions, “We really care about making great art with our artists. And we want to surpass that each time. Making better music, having it reach bigger audiences and building better businesses for those artists – that’s super exciting.”
Toby sums up what has taken Transgressive to where it is now and what will steer it in the coming years, “If it’s brilliant and it’s meaningful, then it will endure. And if it endures, then you have a career. It’s that simple,” he says.
“If you’re chasing short-term success, you might get short-term results. But what goes up fast has to come down fast. The great thing about doing it for 15 years is that we’re still relatively young enough to keep pushing hard. But we’ve also got the knowledge that sometimes great things take time and we’re not in a rush. We’re only getting going, really.”