Business Interviews

Q&A: Tim Dellow, Transgressive Records

By | Published on Tuesday 30 September 2014

Tim Dellow

Launched in 2004 by a pair of enthusiastic teenagers, Tim Dellow and Toby L, Transgressive Records is this year celebrating its tenth anniversary.

In their first year, the label worked with artists including Mystery Jets, The Subways, The Pipettes and The Young Knives, before finding an early (and continuing) mentor in the form of long-serving A&R man Seymour Stein. Since then the company has gone on to release music by the likes of Graham Coxon, Bloc Party, Regina Spektor, The Shins, Foals, Johnny Flynn, Liam Finn, Pulled Apart By Horses and many more.

The company has also branched out into other areas of the music business, with a publishing arm and both artist and producer management companies. Its founders are also creative directors of TV production company LoveLive, which has worked with Rihanna, Eminem, Adele and many more.

Tonight, as part of the ongoing birthday celebrations, Transgressive hosts an evening at The Barbican in London, with performances from Dry The River, Mystery Jets, Johnny Flyyn, Marika Hackman and Cosmo Sheldrake, all compered by Huw Stephens.

Ahead of that, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Dellow for a look back at Transgressive Records’ first ten years.

AM: What was your background prior to setting up Transgressive? You were pretty young, right?
TD: I was in a small math-rock band, and putting out DIY photocopied zines and shows. Toby was pioneering internet blogging with and putting on more successful shows. We were both eighteen when we met, but had quite a lot behind us by that stage!

AM: And what prompted Transgressive into life?
TD: I think a desire to release music that wouldn’t come out without us – champion things that we really believed in.

AM: How much did you know about how a label worked before you started? How steep was the learning curve?
TD: A little from having DIY labels pressing my own music onto vinyl, and from both of our experience interviewing bands and label heads about how it works… but there’s nothing like making mistakes for yourself! We were lucky in finding a raft of exciting bands early on – and so you learn quickly from seeing how those careers develop too.

AM: Did you have any sort of ethos or outlook for the company when it started, and have you stuck to that?
TD: 100%. We wanted to do things right – ethically and fairly – and to make sure that we brought a value to our artists. To make promises, and keep them. Pretty much everything else has changed through the passage of time though. Originally we were only going to release things on vinyl, and never CDs, for example. But we found that you have to adapt to the market when acting in the best interests of your artists and their ambitions and, as long as you keep the important parts at heart, flexibility is a good thing.

AM: How did the connection with Seymour Stein come about, and what was his input?
TD: We first met Seymour because we were interested in releasing Regina Spektor who he and his then colleague Michael Goldstone had signed to Sire in the USA. Toby had been a fan and friend of Regina from putting on her early shows in the UK, and when we heard there were plans to re-release her last album, we pitched them a UK only compilation of her first three underground releases. Seymour was really excited about our passion and approach, and as he did with Creation, Rough Trade and Mute before us, flew us out to NYC to meet with him. It was such an inspiring introduction to a true music man.

AM: What was it like meeting someone so revered, so early only?
TD: Personally speaking, it opened my mind. I was still thinking really ‘punk’, really DIY. He showed us that there were only two types of music – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – and as long as you follow your ears, you can really make an impact and bring your passion to the masses.

AM: How far ahead were you thinking back then, did you ever imagine you’d be celebrating your tenth anniversary?
TD: We were always really ambitious, and I think a bit more self-righteous back then, so probably! Once you start falling in love with bands, not just the records, it’s a compulsion to grow, and keep adding value to their careers.

AM: Over time you’ve added management and publishing divisions to the company. Was that a natural progression of what you were doing?
TD: It was partially strategic, partially lucky, and partially about survival. We didn’t know what publishing was when we started, but found a great partner in Warner/Chappell, and used it as a way to sign The Noisettes who were one of our favourite bands of the time who were already in a record contract. But now, it’s probably the biggest side of what we do.

AM: How important do you think that sort of diversification is for indie labels in the modern music business?
TD: I think there’s something fantastic about doing one thing really well, and I’d suggest that if you’re going to diversify, find great partners, or employ experts in that area. You trade off reputation so much, and it can easily be eroded if you don’t continue to keep those promises!

AM: You’re also involved in LoveLive. How does the world of TV differ to the music industry?
TD: LoveLive’s a great endeavour – it’s broadened our horizons once again, and a lot of the work we do in finding new ways to monetise content, and create new income streams for the music industry really inform and support our other activities.

AM: You’ve worked with a lot of different artists over the last decade, but are there any that really stand out as highlights?
TD: We’re honoured to have worked with so many incredible artists – and all have been special in their way. From releasing At The Drive-In and Graham Coxon, who influenced our musical development so much, to discovering Gengahr and Alvvays, who we know will change lives in the future, each is a privilege. Genius isn’t measured by an artist’s scale, and as such, being in such close relationships with them, we have highlights every day.

AM: Were there deals you wanted to do that just got away? And how do you feel about not working with those artists now?
TD: Ahhh, so many… We would have loved to have released Kelis’s new album. Working in some capacity with a band like Wild Beasts would have been incredible. But everything happens for a reason, and you have to remain philosophical. And we’re hoping to be working in this industry for a very long time, so hopefully there’s potential for paths to cross at some stage in the future.

AM: The music industry has been through a lot of change since you started, what would you say to two teenagers looking to set up a record label today?
TD: “Don’t…” “Really, think about it…” And then, if they keep pressing, encourage them, but get them to focus on things that are easily achievable and grow it organically. And probably join AIM. Then just find genius.

AM: You’ve done various things to celebrate the tenth anniversary already, but tonight is the show at the Barbican. Tell us a bit about the artists you’ve got playing that and how you chose them.
TD: We always wanted to have a bit of a ‘swankier’ gig as part of the celebrations, and The Barbican, with its incredible architecture and commitment to all things cutting edge seemed like a great statement show.

We’ve got five acts playing in total – many which could headline this venue under their own steam, each of them doing really special sets.

Johnny Flynn is one of our most important artists, and we’ve worked with him for eight years now. His influence has factored on so much of our roster, and we couldn’t think of a more appropriate person to close the night.

The Mystery Jets have been friends for ten years now, from their first single on Transgressive, to the two records of theirs we publish, and their approach to music is so expansive and ambitious.

Dry The River have just released one of the best albums we’ve been associated to, and hit the Top 40 with it too, so is a great excuse for a party.

Marika Hackman is a complete genius, brought to us by Johnny Flynn, who’s album next year will be an important piece, and from what I’ve heard, a real early contender for the Mercury Prize.

And then finally, Cosmo Sheldrake, who was also introduced to us through Johnny (perhaps our best secret A&R guy), and whose inventiveness and unencumbered approach to the possibilities of sound will be the perfect opener.

AM: Where do you see Transgressive in another ten years’ time?
TD: I believe in rude health. Still subverting the industry from within, and replacing old structures with something more positive. And releasing music that could change your life.