The list of quality acts which British label Chess Club has worked with across its ten years in business is something to behold.
Thanks to the A&R nous of 29-year-old founder Will Street and business partner Peter McGaughrin, artists who have released early recordings on Chess Club include Wolf Alice, Jungle, Mumford & Sons, Swim Deep, MØ, Chet Faker, Sundara Karma and Billie Marten.
The label was founded in 2007 after the duo first started working in A&R together at Polydor – which was then run by Colin Barlow and now-UMG UK chief David Joseph.
McGaughrin hired Street, whose Chess Club nights in London were playing host to the likes of MGMT, Bon Iver, Lykki Li, Laura Marling, Florence & the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Bombay Bicycle Club and The xx.
“You can try and get to know people in a few meetings, which is what A&R people tend to do, but that can be a pretty flawed approach that labels waste half a million pounds on all the time.”
peter mcgaughrin, chess club/red light
Chess Club the label was then launched outside of Polydor by the pair as a way to put singles and EPs out by artists they loved.
The first release was the solo project of Jay Jay Pistolet – now better known as Justin Young from The Vaccines.
McGaughrin recalls: “For Polydor it was a really good thing because we’d be able to go into A&R meetings and say, ‘We’ve just found this great new artist, we’re starting to release records by them already and we can monitor it. We’ve got a relationship with them so if you do want to sign them as they get bigger, we’re there first.'”
He adds: “You can try and get to know artists in a few meetings – which is what A&R people tend to do – but it can be a pretty flawed approach. Alternatively, if you create and put music out together you quickly find out if they are as creative and hardworking as you think they are and if you’ve got the same vision.
“Labels waste half a million pounds on that flawed approach all the time.”
Colin Barlow eventually left Universal for Sony in 2012 – and took Street and McGaughrin with him to RCA UK.
Street was promised that Chess Club would exist as a joint venture with access to a marketing fund at Sony, which is where it still sits today.
By this time, Chess Club had developed new artists like Mumford & Sons, Local Natives, Grouplove and White Lies on short-term deals – only to see these acts subsequently sign to bigger, rival labels.
“It was frustrating doing all the hard work for a few years only for someone to give acts a nice cheque and take them off your hands. joining rca has allowed us to see things through to albums.”
will street, chess club
“When Sony approached us one of the things I asked was for Chess Club to be able to see things through to albums,” says Street.
“Colin totally took that vision so we were able to keep the independent arm, do EPs, be very fluid and not have to answer to anyone – but have that option where, if after an EP release things got to an exciting level, I didn’t have to wave goodbye to an artist.”
Street remains on staff at RCA – with a new boss in David Dollimore – while McGaughrin, as well as co-running Chess Club, is now managing artists such as Everything Everything, Django Django, Frightened Rabbit, Pumarosa and Nilüfer Yanya at Red Light in London.
Of Dollimore, who was formerly MD of Ministry of Sound, Street says: “He totally gets our ambition of trying to create a culture and a brand like he did so well with Ministry on a much bigger scale. He wants to grow Chess Club and help me make it a bigger success.
“Alongside David, Neil Hughes [RCA MD], Adrian Jolly [Head of A&R] and [Sony UK boss] Jason Iley have all been really supportive of the label over the years and continue to help us get stronger with their backing.
“David Dollimore, Neil Hughes, Adrian Jolly and Jason Iley have all been really supportive over the years. They all understand that the stronger Chess Club can be and the more that artists want to be a part of what we do, the stronger RCA is.”
“They all understand that the stronger Chess Club can be and the more that artists want to be a part of what we do, the stronger RCA becomes.”
There are three strands to Chess Club today: the independent side for single and EP releases, album artists that are signed to the Sony JV and a publishing company in partnership with Downtown Music Publishing.
Artists Chess Club has successfully up-streamed into RCA in recent years include MØ – who has a second album in the works – as well as Billie Marten and Sundara Karma.
New names on CC roster include Skott (pictured inset – an international priority for Sony who will have a debut album out next year), and on the publishing arm Hinds, Casi and Little White Things.
Ahead of celebrating their tenth anniversary in November this year, MBW chats to Street and McGaughrin to find out how they find the sweet spot between patience and momentum, measuring success in 2017 and funding long-term A&R with modest budgets.
Has anything changed in your approach to A&R over the last decade?
McGaughrin: Development is always the same; it’s about giving people time and a good amount of creative pressure and some tools to be able to grow, then supporting and guiding them to the right place.
Street: And time – things take time to develop. You do see artists being signed too early when they should have taken 12 months, released singles and EPs independently and built a fanbase of their own before signing a long-term deal.
McGaughrin: And understood who they really were as artists without pressure, which is a hard thing to do within a major label deal.
What would be your advice to someone starting their own label today?
McGaughrin: Just do it. We didn’t know what we were doing! Do things for passion, not because you think it might be a hit. Normally those two things don’t live in the same place.
Whenever we’ve done things that we were really passionate about, other people believe in that and you build up a consistency with what you do.
“Sometimes there’s a temptation to jump on something because of a short term goal, but that’s never worked out particularly well for us.”
Street: Get as hands on as you can so you learn the basic mechanics of putting records out. Get to know people because it’s all those grassroots contacts that are so useful to have moving forward.
Be broad as well. One of the reasons why we are still going is we have never just been a singer/songwriter, indie rock label or dance label. The breadth of artists that we’ve worked with has probably reflected that of a major. It means you are able to move with fashion and you’re not just aiming in one direction.
What have been the hardest lessons learned across 10 years of Chess Club?
McGaughrin: Losing artists because we didn’t have the resources and backing to be able to give them the best time. Now we’ve got that it’s made a massive difference to what we do.
“When Island swooped for Mumford & Sons that one really hurt. it was at that point that I’d had enough with not having the resources to compete.”
Street: When Island swooped for Mumford & Sons, that one really hurt. We’d worked with those guys for two years across three EPs but Chess Club wasn’t really in a position to support them further. It was at that point that I’d had enough with not having the resources to compete.
In the UK, major labels have been ‘breaking’ fewer and fewer acts over the last five years. Why do you think that is?
Street: The way you define ‘breaking’ is going to have to be viewed quite differently. Album sales in general have declined but there are other aspects you can look to for success, like streaming, sync and ticket sales.
If you’re an artist who gets to play Brixton Academy on your first album, does that count as breaking? You might sell 10-30,000 albums to get there, which isn’t traditionally a ‘breaking’ artist, but I see that as a major success for a debut artist.
“If you’re an artist who gets to play Brixton Academy on your first album, does that count as breaking? I see that as a major success for a debut act.”
McGaughrin: I think majors will view the economics of that success as not necessarily enough to keep their business model going, but over the long term it will be. Catalogue recordings are the bedrock of the major’s business and what we’re trying to do is sign the future of that business.
I think the forward-thinking execs realise there is going to be a sea change – it just takes a while to come. In the meantime, if we can put out the best music that we can find and start artists off and stay with them longer term then we’re going to be part of that. That’s the ambition for Chess Club.
Street: Someone like MØ is a really good example of that. We’ve been working with her nearly five years and she’s now starting to rack up serious streaming numbers on her second album campaign, while breaking internationally. The persistence and faith in what the artist is doing has really paid off.
How does the business remain sustainable in the short-term development period?
McGaughrin: There are hundreds of ways you can make money now. Each individual case probably doesn’t amount to what selling records used to make, but added up it can be a lot more. That’s where the future is.
“There are hundreds of ways you can make money now. Each individual case probably doesn’t amount to what selling records used to make, but added up it can be a lot more. That’s where the future is.”
I think we are at the cusp of halcyon days where there is a lot more for everyone. I’m certainly starting to see that on a management side and as part of Chess Club as a label as well
Streaming has been blamed for making the UK charts slow and samey. Is there a solution – and is it important that there is?
McGaughrin: I think that Top 10s and 20s and all those other things are a marketing tool that fitted the old world very well, but it’s not really that relevant to the new world.
There is a certain element where you have to simplify things to make the public engage and the No.1 of any particular genre is always going to be exciting to the public as a way of telling a story for your artists.
“in a world where you’ve got a million Spotify playlists, all of which have got a niche, artists can be successful without those traditional barometers of success.”
But in a world where you’ve got a million Spotify playlists, all of which have got a niche, artists can be successful without those traditional barometers of success.
Just by the nature of that [charts] will become less important.
What would you change about the music business and why?
McGaughrin: There has to be a tension between patience and momentum. Sometimes when things move too fast everyone makes bad decisions and it fucks up, and when you are too patient you can give an artist all the time in the world but actually it needs a bit of momentum to work.
“Labels and the media are sometimes are too quick to write things off when they should be given more time, and are too quick to push things faster when they’ve got momentum.”
Labels and the media are sometimes too quick to write things off when they should be given more time, and are too quick to push things faster when they’ve got momentum. Having the right tension between those two things is the most important thing to get right.
I think people are going to sign record deals less early, and labels are going to demand more time for artists to prove themselves.
Then who funds development in that initial period?
McGaughrin: Sometimes it’s the artist themselves by working [a day job] while trying to create. Sometimes you do a different type of deal earlier on like we do at Chess Club where we can bring some investment to the party either through our indie side or publishing arm.
We can’t pay your rent when we’re putting out an EP for you, but we can pay for videos, recording, vinyl manufacturing and PR, which enables you to get into the game. Sometimes we look to do a publishing deal earlier on.
Then I think there is going to be more and more inventive funding from companies like Kobalt, Believe and Platoon.
When you’ve got something great, and a good vision for it, there are options for funding. It will never make anyone rich at the beginning but it will be sustainable.
Then you can go into the right kind of deal where everyone goes in with confidence rather than, ‘This is going to cost me a load of money but everyone else is trying to sign it so… bang’.
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