'We're not in competition with anyone': Partisan Records - The Music Week Interview

They’re with the bands: (clockwise from top left) Jeff Bell, Tim Putnam, Grian Chatten, Zena White and Joe Talbot photographed for Music Week in London

"I hate the word indie.”

As an opening gambit from Tim Putnam, co-founder of Partisan Records, home to guitar music streaming overlords Cigarettes After Sex and Mercury Prize-nominated pair Idles and Fontaines DC, this is certainly unexpected. But he’s not done yet.

“Indie means boring to me,” he continues, sat alongside his label’s MD Zena White and GM, international Jeff Bell on a sun-splashed late summer afternoon. “It means the same as the word ‘alternative’ meant at the end of grunge, it’s nebulous. Guitar-driven rock was self-interested and boring, I don’t know how else to put it.”

Coming from a label boss who grew up near Portland, Oregon and got into music around the time grunge took off, his words land heavily. But Music Week isn’t sipping beers around a picnic table in an industrial estate car park with team Partisan to badmouth the music that puts clothes on their backs. Far from it. We’re here to celebrate the label being, as Bell puts it, “the strongest we’ve ever been”.

Fontaines DC’s gritty, poetic debut Dogrel, and Idles’ violent, chaotic second LP Joy As An Act Of Resistance make up two of the 12 places on the Mercury Prize shortlist for 2019, and Partisan was behind them both. Futhermore, both albums crashed into the Top 10, Dogrel (21,261 sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company) hit No.9 in April this year and Joy… (52,049) debuted at No.5 last September. Then, Idles scored a BRIT nomination, while at the AIM Awards (which take place a few days after we meet) the Bristol band bagged two awards. Partisan scooped the big one: Best Independent Label.

Idles motormouth Joe Talbot and Fontaines DC’s thoughtful singer Grian Chatten are here too, lifting their label bosses off the floor during our photo shoot and indulging in lagery larks like all good rock‘n’rollers should.

But they only represent part of Partisan’s story: initially, its roster revolved around Rhode Island’s Deer Tick, and now stretches from Grammy-nominated Nigerien act Bombino, to Australian experimentalist Spike Fuck, not to mention Fela Kuti’s back catalogue.

Also synonymous with the rising indie are emotional Texan minimalists Cigarettes After Sex, who broke through with their self-titled debut in 2017. To cite just one of a ream of stats, their biggest song, Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby, has almost 100 million views on YouTube. Hopes are high for their next record, Cry, due in October.

It’s fair to say that Putnam – who co-founded Partisan alongside Ian Wheeler in New York in 2007 as a vehicle to release an album by his then-band, The Standard – didn’t really expect any of this. But that’s not to say that he and his team are riding a wave of luck and chance. It’s clear that everyone at Partisan, artists too, takes this extremely seriously. They’re trying to change culture by empowering musicians to make meaningful art, and they believe the current state of the world, from music biz machinations to political skullduggery, means that now is their time.

“People are appreciating what we’re doing,” says the New York-based Zena White, who took over as MD of Partisan and its sister label Knitting Factory in 2017. “Our job is to prove that people should care about the artists we work with and think have something valuable to say. For a US independent label that isn’t very old, the fact that two of our artists have been nominated for the Mercury says something about the artists.”

While White notes that Partisan “isn’t proactively looking for awards” and the focus is purely on being part of the Mercurys mix, it also says something about the strength of their operation. With offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Mexico City, the label has come a long way. Muso Putnam has imbued the whole process with the sensibilities of a former poetry student whose first record was Devo’s Freedom Of Choice. In college, he wrote a thesis on Leonard Cohen’s poem, A Kite Is A Victim.

Bell and White are made of similar stuff – indeed the overwhelming impression is of a label staff and roster united in ethos – which means our talk feels markedly different from standard music business chit-chat. Strap in for a conversation that wanders through cultural change, the major label question, how to treat artists and beyond…

Why is Partisan enjoying such a purple patch?

Tim Putnam: “The foundation of Partisan was the idea that I never wanted the artists to be branded by the label. I want this label to be defined by the artists we work with. We’re not trying to say, ‘Come under our moniker and be defined by us.’ What’s amazing right now is that the artists we’re working with are speaking such unique languages. Their success speaks to what’s happening culturally more than what we’re doing, but we’re getting better at doing it.”

How does the label of today compare to the one you co-founded in 2007?

TP: “That was about as difficult a time to start a label as any, with what was happening in the music industry with streaming, the physical business and all the rest. It was tough. I’ve been very fortunate in that I was allowed to make a lot of mistakes to get to this place. I realised that accepting all the things I wasn’t good at and finding those strengths in others was going to allow us to build in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. That’s the difference in what the label is now, that’s something I’m really proud of.”

Jeff Bell: “I’ve just passed my six year anniversary at Partisan and I’m one of half a dozen people who can say that. The label is the strongest it’s ever been. Our global network is, too, we’re seeing success everywhere, not just the US and UK. As far as momentum goes, the label is in a really good place.”

TP: “We’ve adjusted to thinking globally and that has allowed us to work with bands from Ireland, the UK, the US… It doesn’t matter. It’s about trying to find where in the world we’re able to have success, building off that and then moving that success into the markets and territories we want to, even if those markets aren’t initially receptive. A lot of labels put out a release, it connects or it doesn’t and then it’s onto the next. We’re trying to take the less is more mentality, where if we know that something can connect, we keep working until we find a place where it does, then we can build from there.”

Are you going about things differently from your competitors, then?

Zena White: “Competition doesn’t create the conditions to make the best art. Tim has never really followed trends and he’s the main person doing A&R, even if we all contribute because it’s a small company. Through not following trends we’ve found ourselves in a situation where, because we’ve empowered our artists, we’re in a time and place where what we’re doing is what fans want.”

TP: “We’re not in competition with anyone. I’ve never seen it that way. We’re in competition with ourselves, when you’re your best self you’re doing your best work, the moment you start looking outwards, you start making decisions from a place that is not healthy. It’s rare to always be ahead of the curve, if you remove yourself from that, you put yourself in a place where you can work with artists that have a unique voice outside of what everybody else is looking at from a commercial point of view. You have to be a part of the conversation to change it, and that’s more important than winning the argument. So much of our goal is to put our artists in a position where they’re part of the conversation. You do not get there from being competitve, you end up signing things from a place of desperation to win.”

Are you aware of the industry view of what you’re doing?

ZW: “It’s not that we weren’t doing a good quality of work before, it’s just that, within the industry at least, there is a trust there. People are like, ‘They got it right once, let’s see if they get it right twice, I’ll back them again. Oh, they got it right thrice, this is something I’m going to support.’ And that has been helpful. In getting people to care, the first port of call is getting the industry to care.”

TP: “I don’t care whether people like or don’t like what we’re doing, I care that they have to care about it. That was the struggle for our label for so long. Nobody had to care about what we were doing, it’s where we were at, where they were at. You need to get people to a place where they can feel that way, that’s the work.”

What can you offer to artists?

JB: “It’s hard to know what a label does these days and where the value is added. We sit in the middle of the different parts of the business, live, management, publishing, press… Everything. It’s almost like a mini information economy, taking what’s working in one place and using it to leverage another part. That’s something Partisan has done pretty well. The second part is our focus on investing in what’s happening globally to offer a wider network to artists, beyond the traditional.”

What specifically do you mean?

JB: “It sounds obvious, but streaming has blown open the doors in a lot of places. It wasn’t that long ago you had to rely on someone to bootleg some CDs to get an artist into a market. Our job is to create visibility, working with live teams in particular. Latin America and especially Mexico are exciting for us.”

ZW: “Other music companies can look at newer developing markets and not see the money there yet, they know it’s coming but they’re holding off. We’re not looking at the money, we’re asking, ‘Are there potential fans there and can we reach them?’ The human aspect of why people could connect with our artists has always been there, the internet allows us to reach them. We’re able to take an artist like Idles or Fontaines DC and think about the world as a whole, rather than focus on where they’re from.”

What does having two artists on the Mercury Prize shortlist mean to the label?

ZW: “We’re encouraged by the fact that the shortlist is 75% independent, with a lot more challenging music than we’ve seen in the past few years. That’s predominantly what our roster is. That’s a signal for us that the industry is getting on board. What we’ve been doing is finding ways around the industry to get Idles a Top 5 record, to get Fontaines DC on BBC Radio 1. We’ve been figuring out how to build the audience so big that it’s undeniable, in a non-traditional way, because the traditional avenues aren’t available for this music right now.”

Do you put the same things into each artist campaign?

TP: “People saying guitar music is on a comeback are very much missing the wood for the trees. What’s actually making a comeback, which the Mercury shortlist points to, are artists with a relevant message with depth, talking about what is happening, regardless of what instrument they’re playing. The most fun thing about working at this label is that every artist is so different that we’re constantly challenged, what works for Idles is different to what works for Spike Fuck, Bombino or Fela Kuti, or Fontaines DC, or Cigarettes After Sex. You constantly have to evolve. The moment you stop learning, you start going backwards. We have to evolve on behalf of the artists. Every time we sign someone it’s a unique voice that requires something totally different.”

Where do you stand on the differences between indies and majors?

JB: “It doesn’t feel like ‘indies vs majors’, different artists need different things. Some artists thrive in the major scene. For the artists we work with, it’s a slightly longer game and a more tailored approach, maybe. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other.”

TP: “The majors are absolutely unbelievable at what they do.”

JB: “That’s why they’re the majors!”

ZW: “Both types of company feed off each other. The Mercury shortlist is indie-dominated and it reflects an appetite for change, a different narrative. The independents have often been the ones able to play outside the rules, break down barriers and allow change to happen in a way the majors have been very good at duplicating to reach a mass audience.”

What does Partisan stand for in all this?

TP: “There is no way I’d ever say that every artist should be on our label. What we do is particular to the artists we work with and it’s the right label for them, we’re able to have success together because we’re completely aligned. I’m extremely proud of our artists and employees, every person who works at the label and the artists have a common sense of purpose, a shared vision and realistic expectations of what all of us are trying to accomplish. I have no intention of being the biggest label in the world, I simply want to be the best. To be the biggest means a tremendous amount of compromise, it’s a very different thing to trying to do the absolute best. I want our artists to know there is no label they’d be better served at than here.”

What state is the independent sector in these days?

JB: “It feels like a real community in the UK. When the Idles and Fontaines DC records came out and tucked in at the higher end of the charts, it’s not like other indie labels were patting us on the back, it was more people saying, ‘Thank you, this is possible’. It was more a sentiment of gratitude, it’s a weird word to use in that sense, but that’s what it was. It comes back to the conversation starting to change. It shows there’s a wider thing happening and that was encouraging for other people in the indie community.”

How encouraged are you by the appetite for your acts?

ZW: “The thing I loved about being able to break some acts in a traditional charting sense is how much the fans were empowered by it, they just love it. It was so refreshing to see fans get behind it and make a difference.”

JB: “That was a big part of the Idles campaign. The band and management were amazing at bringing fans in to get to know the story of the band. Getting a Top 5 record creates a whole new level they can share their message from.”

TP: “That is the story. The fans of each of our bands are what allowed for their success. The industry is increasingly metric-driven, and us being able to nurture the core fanbase of each of these acts is what has allowed them to have success. The industry followed after the fact, in some cases it happened in spite of the industry. Idles were too British, Fontaines were too Irish, CAS were too slow… This label has become something that is much more about the whole being greater than its individual parts. It just so happens that we’re at a time where what we’re curating is connecting with a lot of people.”

Finally, how excited are you for the future?

ZW: “Genre is far less important now. The barriers to entry are more about feelings [music can evoke] rather than the genre box you can put it in. That’s really exciting for the artists we work with.”

JB: “It’s not just the artists, it’s the listeners, too. The audience is at an exciting place.”

TP: “To be able to do this is an unbelievably humbling privilege. We’re about to go through a tumultuous time, and a lot of our artists are going to have something to say that’s worth listening to. We’re trying to do something different. The records our bands are making right now are ‘fuck you’ good, I’m very excited about that. [Laughs] and I don’t mean that in a bad way!”

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