Independent Study: Partisan Records, Home of Fela Kuti, Deer Tick, Sylvan Esso

Partisan Records founders Tim Putnam (left) and Ian Wheeler.

Kate Glicksberg
Label: Partisan Records
Founded: 2007
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Number of Employees: 27
Number of active artists: 10
Biggest Release: Deer Tick – “War Elephant” (45k SoundScan)
Latest release: Sylan Esso, "Sylan Esso"
Distributor: ADA
Twitter: @partisanrecords
Website: partisanrecords.com

“I can’t say we know exactly what to do as a label, but I certainly learned what not to do.”

When Tim Putnam met Ian Wheeler he was burning out and jaded. It was 2006 and The Standard, an angst-rock band Putnam had started six years prior in his native Portland, OR, was entering a slow tailspin after its fourth album cycle. The Standard had changed labels three times in four years and Putnam was leading a nomadic, no-frills lifestyle with little to show for his career but bruised relationships and a battered liver. At one point, all four members of The Standard shared a 1-bedroom house on Long Island for four months, each swapping 8-12-hour shifts at the local Lobster Inn. Putnam knew he was aging out.

“I used to play baseball and I thought growing up that I could be a major league baseball player,” Putnam says now. His eyes squint slightly in conversation and his voice is soft but fervent. “But I remember one day watching these guys who were in the minors playing before one of my American Legion Baseball games. They were using wood bats and the way they moved and the way the game just seemed to work around them was a way that I knew it would never work around me. I’m not a good singer. I’m not a good guitar player. I just worked really hard because I loved it so much.”

Wheeler had recently moved to New York from North Carolina, where he wrote for a music blog about his favorite bands, including The Standard. He worked as an intern at Rough Trade Records U.S., then owned by the Sanctuary Label Group, and paid his rent as a sailing instructor on the Hudson River. After Rough Trade, Wheeler transitioned into full-time music PR and met Putnam, then doing marketing and promo for Brooklyn venue The Knitting Factory, through a mutual friend.

As a musician and a publicist, Putnam and Wheeler found they had something in common: they’d both been let down by record labels.

Exterior of the Partisan Records offices in Brooklyn.Kate Glicksberg

“When I was working for Rough Trade, it was in the process of being sold by Sanctuary and they’d really cut funding,” Wheeler says. “We were putting out these great records but there wasn’t any money to do it well. And then when I went to be a publicist it was the same thing -- you’d work a record for three months and then you’d be done.”

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The two men were fast friends, and it wasn’t long before they started talking about going into business for themselves. Putnam was finishing up a fifth Standard album and Wheeler suggested that they start their own label to put it out. Putnam resisted at first, but the appeal was obvious -- the new label would set right the things that he’d so often seen done wrong. 
 
“It’s kind of an amazing thing to be an artist on a label when they stop taking your phone calls because you’re not of value to them anymore,” Putnam says. “I went into so many meetings where people would promise us the world, but in the end we’d just be left shaking our heads. I can’t say we know exactly what to do as a label, but I certainly learned what not to do.”

“The notion that everything is right there when you’re really young just doesn’t happen for everybody.”

Partisan Records, perhaps more than most record labels, places a premium on patience. Since being founded in 2007, Putnam and Wheeler have grown the label to house a modest 10 active artists, including Deer Tick, Sylvan Esso, Eagulls, The Dismemberment Plan, Pure Bathing Culture and Heartless Bastards. Each record the label puts out is marketed over the long term, with the label owners claiming several records that have peaked in sales over a year after release.

If other labels can sometimes act like day traders, going after artists with the hottest stock and looking to turn a profit as soon as possible, Putnam and Wheeler pride themselves on being long-term investors, betting on fledgling musicians they believe in and holding on for the long haul.

“It takes a long time to figure out who you are as an artist,” Putnam says. “Look at people like Mark Kozelek and Bill Callahan and Damien Jurado, who are just now putting out some of the best records they’ve ever written. The notion that everything is right there when you’re really young just doesn’t happen for everybody.”

Partisan’s artist-friendly ethos extends to the contracts it offers its bands, which typically allow them to be released from the label at any time. The approach is inherently risky from a business standpoint, but Putnam insists it has worked to the label’s advantage. An open-door policy insures both artist and label are willful partners acting in good faith, and it’s helped attract choosy bands with an aversion to long-term contracts.

Partisan shares an office with sister companies Life or Death PR and The Talkhouse.Kate Glicksberg

Royalty statements are simplified with gusto, with Putnam and Wheeler making a conscious effort to communicate information about finances and accounting in language their artists understand.

“The moment we knew that there were people really relying on us for their career and their art, the fear of doing a bad job for them outweighed everything,” Putnam says. “I think one of the biggest motivating factors for us has been fear. Fear of doing wrong by somebody or fucking up their art. I know what that feels like and I never want anybody to go through that. I stay up nights thinking about it.”

“People started to knock on our door instead of us always having to knock on theirs.”

Like a lot of small record labels, Partisan owes its existence to maxed-out credit cards and borrowed funds from friends and family. For the first year, the label operated out of Wheeler’s apartment in the West Village, where boxes of records stretched toward the bedroom ceiling. But a breakthrough came early when a mutual friend introduced Putnam and Wheeler to John McCauley, a young singer-songwriter with a craggy caterwaul who fronts the indie alternative band Deer Tick.

Deer Tick had run into a dispute with its record label Feow! Records, which was withholding royalties after selling 2,000 copies of the band’s 2007 debut album “War Elephant.” Enthralled by McCauley’s music, Putnam and Wheeler arranged to buy back the rights to “War Elephant” and rereleased the album via Partisan in November of 2008. At 45,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, it still stands as the label’s best selling release.

“After Deer Tick, people started to say ‘Hey, maybe you guys can do this,’” Wheeler says. “People started to knock on our door instead of us always having to knock on theirs.”

One of the people who came knocking was Morgan Margolis, president of The Knitting Factory, where Putnam still had a job. In 2008, Margolis shared a grand plan to revive the venue’s own Knitting Factory Records and acquire the catalog of Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian iconoclast and afrobeat pioneer. Putnam and Wheeler accepted the task, agreeing to run Knitting Factory Records in addition to Partisan while the venue became an investor in both labels.

Wine inspired by Partisan Records artist Deer Tick.Kate Glicksberg

Today, Knitting Factory Records includes the catalogs of Kuti and his sons Femi and Seun in addition to contemporary world music artists like The Gipsy Kings, who won a 2014 Grammy for Best World Music album. The combined labels moved from Wheeler’s apartment to the office above The Knitting Factory to a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they’ve operated for the past two years.

Partisan’s staff has grown to include 27 employees, with a small three-person office in London. Putnam and Wheeler have also expanded into other businesses, including launching the artists-reviewing-artists website The Talkhouse with Michael Azerrad and becoming partners in the boutique public relations firm Life or Death PR (Frank Ocean, Best Coast, D’Angelo) as well as Figure Eight Management, which Wheeler operates with Brian Long (!!!, Wye Oak, Jose Gonzalez). Each company operates autonomously, but all staff share the loft space in Brooklyn.

“There is very much a family kind of vibe with all the people that work here,” Wheeler says from his desk, an array of framed show posters hanging from white brick wall behind him. “As gratifying as it is to work with the artists, it’s just as gratifying to support and encourage the staff and watch them grow.”

This year, Partisan will release around 10 albums, with forthcoming full-lengths from The Wytches, Field Report, The Amazing, Christopher Denny and Freeman. The label released the self-titled debut album from North Carolina electropop duo Sylvan Esso May 13, which debuted at No. 38 on the Billboard 200.

No longer a struggling artist confined to the Lobster Inn, Putnam says he’s managed to rouse similar levels of passion and devotion as a record man and advocate.

“It’s hard, it’s extremely rewarding and it’s also completely, totally consuming,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.”