Fifteen years ago, Tim Dellow and Toby L decided to take on the music industry with £1,000 and no real idea of how to do it.
Along the way they’ve picked up three co-workers, a shed load of experiences and an impressive roster of artists including the likes of Foals, Two Door Cinema Club and Flume.
Today, Transgressive Records is labelled as “Britain’s definitive indie label for the 21st Century” according to Rough Trade, one of the UK’s biggest record stores.
For the first time in a new documentary for Radio 1 Newsbeat, they’ve let cameras behind-the-scenes, on stage and in on the search for new talent to see the challenges that come with keeping a record label going.
Of course, it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
There was the time Tim “got pinned against a wall” by a producer, they find it “bizarre” they’ve never had a number one hit and are still on the hunt for a Mercury Prize win despite being nominated four times.
But you don’t last this long, at this level in the music industry if you don’t have a survival instinct.
Here are a few pearls of Transgressive wisdom…
Throw out the rule book
Toby says he and Tim had “ambition beyond their means” at the start, with few contacts or knowledge of how the industry worked.
Two years in they were joined by a third member of the team, Lilas Bourboulon.
“None of us had any preconceptions, none of us came in thinking, ‘This is how you’re supposed to work in music’,” she explains.
“We never had a rule book and that means we’re all open to new things.
Lilas says they’ve taken risks along the way, signing acts when they “haven’t had the financial backing”.
“We’ve never gone bankrupt, so we must be doing something right…”
Go with your gut
Reflecting on the label’s journey, Toby says: “Without trying to sound too sob-story about it, when I was at school I felt pretty alienated by my peer group.
“The moment I found music… that’s when you meet your people. It’s at those junctures that your life changes.
“To look at what we’re doing now… the artists and releases we’re working with, it’s surreal.
“And as much as it’s nice to reflect, we’re also focused on the next steps. You can’t get caught up in your own hype, that’s how you get left behind.”
Two Door Cinema Club started working with Transgressive in 2009, attracted by their approach of “doing the opposite of what is sensible a lot of the time”.
“I don’t think they ever think, when they take an artist onboard, whether they’re going to sell a million albums or not,” says frontman Alex Trimble.
“We have streaming and social media so you have this instant access to numbers and algorithms.
“So many people are turning their gaze towards those things as an idea of how an artist is going to perform, but Transgressive do things based on gut.”
Give honest feedback
Another key element for any label is finding new talent.
At Transgressive, a lot of that responsibility falls to A&R manager Mike Harounoff.
He’s has worked in the business for 10 years after meeting Lilas on her way to a Mystery Jets show, and realising not everyone in the music industry was “a big man in red braces and a briefcase”.
“A&R in its most basic sense, stands for artist and repertoire.
“It’s finding new artists, getting them settled with the company and working on new songs and how and when we release them.”
This means he often finds himself having difficult conversations with acts about music they might have been working on for years before showing it to the label.
“You don’t always agree on the music but nor should you try to disagree.
“You’ve got to be honest with each other.”
It’s important for that relationship to continue in the studio.
During the making of her latest album Marika Hackman told Newsbeat “It’s about them knowing me really well”.
“They know how to manage my expectations without being a massive downer.
“That’s important because I’ve worked with people before who will be like ‘You’re gonna be a star’… and then that doesn’t happen.
“Tim and my mum are still the first people who hear my music and I just need validation from them that I’m not going insane.”
Be the ‘good guys’
Transgressive were the first label to sign the alternative rock band, Foals, who have gone on to win multiple awards and release six albums. They have continued working with them throughout their career.
Although they now release music on Warner, they still have a publishing deal with Transgressive which means they work with the band before and after release to get songs heard by as many people as possible.
Along the way, the band have been offered deals by other labels but say they’re keen to keep working with “the good guys” in the music business.
“We were still at university and not even considering being in the band as a profession and they wanted to sign us,” explains drummer Jack Bevan.
“Transgressive have smashed the glass ceiling and are beyond the good guys.
“You can be seduced by the business aspects of being in a band but that’s never been us. We want to work with people we trust and respect.”
Step outside your comfort zone
By the late 2000s, the indie guitar bands that some labels had committed to were starting to go out of fashion.
As other genres became more mainstream and tastes generally became more eclectic, the label adapted and started to find sounds from all over the world.
Their roster now includes a German orchestral group, a multi-instrumentalist from the US combining jazz and psychedelic pop, and dance producers.
Back in 2012, they signed Australian producer Flume who has over 9m monthly listeners on Spotify.
“When that largely London/UK scene started dissolving we were lucky that we weren’t tied to a mast,” says Toby.
“We’d gone off on a different UFO mission really – it’s like we were somewhere else altogether.”
They also work with African collective KOKOKO! who are originally from the Congo.
“Other labels were dropping names of people and genres they were working with and it didn’t really match up with us,” says band member Xavier Thomas.
“It’s important to not be pigeonholed and they were genuinely keen to work with us.
“You can’t fake that level of excitement, unless they’re really good actors but they seem to still be enthusiastic about working with acts like us.”
Mental health matters
A growing concern for the music industry is the health – both mental and physical – of everyone involved in the release of new music.
For Transgressive, the issue has been fairly prominent over the last couple of years for one of the acts they manage – Ben Gregrory, the frontman of indie-rockers Blaenavon.
In January, the band released a letter to fans explaining how Ben had been recovering from a “stress-related breakdown” around Christmas 2017, which had delayed the release of their second album and led to the cancellation of several shows over the last couple of years.
“I can’t describe in words how much they’ve had my back,” says Ben.
“My relationship with Toby is long-winded and complicated but all for the best reasons.
“If I’d been on any other label in the world I genuinely don’t know if I would have been able to do it.”
Toby says that when it comes to supporting artists, the issue becomes “more than just a band on our label”.
“We care about them as much as family members.
“The industry is still learning how to support artists properly on a soulful, mental, physical level.
“It’s still very early days in knowing how to nurture and care for people.”
Everything changes, all the time
“It’s not the kind of career where there’s a set ladder for anyone.”
Grace Manning joined the company as a project co-ordinator just over a year ago after meeting Tim at a conference for women in music.
She says her job has taught her there’s “no one-size-fits-all plan” for releasing music anymore.
“I’d love to say every project is the same and I go ‘Right, we’ve got eight weeks until it comes out, this is everything we need to do. Done’.
“That’s not how it works at all.
“The industry is modernising so quickly and putting out music is so different to how it was 10, even five, years ago.
While discussing how they teased singer-songwriter Marika Hackman’s new album, Grace suggests some of the label’s approach plans can feel “very experimental”.
“We have no guarantee of success, however you want to measure success these days.”
“It’s risky and scary but a lot of fun – that’s the only way to do it really.”
Toby says the first 15 years of the company is just the start.
“In another 10 to 15 years we’ll hopefully still be active, doing what we love with the same values but everything’s changed yet again… God knows in what ways.
“Music feels like a barricade at times and anything creative feels like it could be hard to into. But it can happen for you.”
Radio 1 Newsbeat’s new documentary How To Survive The Music Industry: The Transgressive Story is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.