The Knocks, Charli XCX and Marina and the Diamonds
The Knocks, Charli XCX and Marina and the Diamonds
Design by Dilan Rodriguez

Neon Gold Turns 10: Inside the Tastemaking Pop Label Charli XCX, Tove Lo and More Call Family

by Avery Stone
September 29, 2018, 8:32am EDT

This fall, Lizzy Plapinger and Derek Davies are celebrating a major anniversary of an event that changed their lives. And no, it’s not a wedding — it’s the 10th anniversary of Neon Gold, the influential boutique pop record label they co-founded. Yet Plapinger jokes that Neon Gold X, the festival-like bash they’ve planned at New York’s Knockdown Center today (Sept. 29), will feel like a one anyway: After all, it’s a gathering of family (so say the artists who’ve called the label home), a celebration of successful partnership (in this case, a creative one that’s endured its fair share of industry challenges), and an opportunity to toast the future, however many changes it will bring.   

“It’s going to be such a reunion,” says Plapinger of the event, which will feature performances from a stable of Neon Gold artists past and present, including Marina (until recently known as Marina & the Diamonds), The Knocks, St. Lucia, and Broods, as well as Plapinger’s own musical project, LPX. “[It’ll be] unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.”   

Plapinger, 30, and Davies, 31, are perched on neighboring stools at the bar Loosie Rouge in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. They’ve walked over from the label’s nearby offices, located directly above the venue Baby’s All Right. “We’re so consumed with the organization of it that any time I have a second and step away, I’m like, ‘Fuck, 10 years?’ That’s a long time for anything.” Plapinger says. She turns to Davies, her short maroon ponytail whipping around, and places a hand on his shoulder. “That you and I are still friends and we’ve weathered whatever friendship-like turmoil happens in 10 years; that we’ve had a business that sustained 10 years; that we’ve worked in music for 10 years,” she says, her voice trailing off in disbelief.   

There are parts of Neon Gold’s origin story that almost feel lifted from an early-aughts rom-com, minus the rom part. Both born in the U.K. to American parents, Davies and Plapinger met a New England summer camp at age 14. They quickly bonded over their love of music and stayed in touch throughout high school. In college — Plapinger went to Vassar, Davies to New York University — they worked different industry internships and met up at shows, while Davies ran a music blog, Good Weather for Air Strikes, on the side. Starting their own label wasn’t ever something they aspired to until 2008, when they stumbled upon a song they felt was so unique, they couldn’t imagine anyone releasing it but themselves.

That song was “Sleepyhead,” the debut single from a little Boston-based outfit you may have heard of called Passion Pit. “I remember the first phone call we had about it,” says Plapinger, shaking her head. “We were like, ‘We’re never going to find something this good unsigned ever again. We gotta do it now! This is the golden opportunity!” (The song quickly took off online; Eventually, Passion Pit would become the first Neon Gold-affiliated act to headline Madison Square Garden.)

That golden opportunity turned into many more. The label’s first series of releases — mostly singles, as Plapinger and Davies were inspired by the U.K.’s thriving physical singles model — included tracks from the likes of Gotye and Ellie Goulding and eventually caught the eye of major labels. In 2010, just one day after graduating from their respective colleges, Plapinger moved to New York, and the duo signed a three-year joint-venture deal with Columbia Records. (When that contract expired in 2014, they signed a joint-venture deal with Atlantic Records, their current parent label.)

Plapinger and Davies’ single releases weren’t the only thing that earned them a tastemaker reputation — so did their parties. In 2011, they launched Popshop, a monthly club night that took place at the now-closed Tammany Hall venue on the Lower East Side. The small, intimate shows, which now take place at Baby’s All Right, provided an infrastructure for Neon Gold artists to hone their crafts and performance chops while also connecting them with eager fans and like-minded peers. Popshop shows marked the U.S. debuts of artists like Tove Lo, Charli XCX and Dua Lipa, as well as the first shows ever for Halsey and St. Lucia. 

“What Neon Gold cultivated, especially around Popshop, was such a cool freaking thing to be at,” says Michele Santucci, a former Columbia Records executive who now is artist project lead at Spotify Studios. “If you knew that artist on that lineup and you were there, you were in early. And that was one of my favorite things about them as a label, as a company — like, shit, they really have their ear to the ground. I just remember always wanting to be there, making sure I was up on it. One of the first times that I actually got put on the list, that was the first time I felt like I got the proper invite to the in-show in New York.”

The Knocks, the duo of Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner and James “JPatt” Patterson, look back at this era fondly. “[Playing Popshop] was one of our first live shows in front of all our friends,” Ruttner says. “[There was] a tiny little stage. It was just really crazy. I have one photo from it, I remember, where we both just look like we’re going nuts — back in the day when we used to play these sweaty little shows. It was a big turning point for us.”

The same year they launched Popshop, Plapinger reconnected with producer Max Hershenow, a friend from Vassar. They began making together under the moniker MS MR and signed with Columbia, which led to a shift in day-to-day operations as they juggled Plapinger’s touring and promotional obligations: Plapinger worked from the road while Davies held down the fort in New York.

One thing that stayed the same? The close personal relationships they maintain with artists. “Anyone we’ve worked with has met both of our parents, has stayed at our house,” says Plapinger. “We’ve never worked with anyone we don’t like. I think that’s really unique. We have this no-bullshit genuine community. Our artists get really excited to be on tour together. They support one another.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Neon Gold associates talk about the label in literal family terms. “Everyone refers to [Derek] as Dad,” says Emmie Lichtenberg, one of Plapinger’s closest friends from Vassar who now helms her own production company in Los Angeles. (Lichtenberg is a former Billboard employee.) “He’s a very generous spirit — with his time, with his creative energy. If you send him something, if you have a question, if you want his feedback on something, he will give it to you and he will be there for you.”

“It always felt like such a family from day one,” agrees Charli XCX, whose first release on Neon Gold was “Boom Clap,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 in 2014. “Derek and Lizzy were some of the first people I knew in New York, and they were the people who introduced me to so many people who are still my friends today ...  Everyone shares a love for pop music and partying — AKA my dream.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Daddy Davis making sure we don't die -- #daylatebutImswedishso

A post shared by Tove Lo (@tovelo) on

Marina, who has known Davies since his music-blog days at NYU, says the bond extends beyond music. “Neon Gold connects like-minded individuals,” she says. “I have never really been part of a community since I moved to London at 18 — I wasn’t part of a university or college so finding my own people was difficult. But I’ve always felt very welcome, as all the artists who work with them do. Neon Gold always emits a very inclusive energy.”

It’s why she she’s chosen to debut new music as well as her newly shortened moniker at Neon Gold X, her first U.S. show since 2015. “I’m performing out of love and gratitude for my friends,” she says “and that feels like an excellent place to start a new era from.”

In recent years, Neon Gold has gone from helping artists spread their music to also helping them make it. One way the label has cultivated its own internal culture is through its bi-annual songwriting camp in Maderas Village, Nicaragua, which Davies and Plapinger began in 2016. The two pitched it to their inner circle as artist-driven and fun — in other words, the antithesis of a traditional factory-like songwriting camp, in which producers and writers are paired in various combinations and expected to churn out song ideas. (Because of the current political unrest in Nicaragua, the label has stopped holding the camps for the time being.)

“When Derek told me about their songwriting camps in Nicaragua, I was like, ‘Uh, I kind of have a little bit of a hard time at writing camps,’” says the Swedish pop star Tove Lo, whose first Neon Gold release (in conjunction with Island Records) was her smash 2014 single, “Habits (Stay High).” “But this is literally just all of my friends that I love making music with and having a good time with, so what could go wrong?”

Lo has released multiple songs she’s written in Maderas, including her 2017 track “Bitches,” which was re-released earlier this year as a remix featuring, among others, Neon Gold pals Charli XCX and Icona Pop. “We were [on a boat] just listening to — I can’t even remember which song it was — but it was this really cool track, and I just started singing the “Bitches’” chorus idea on top of it,” Lo says. “And Derek was like, ‘Hey, you really need to remember that. Record it right now on your phone!’ And I did, and lucky!”

Neon Gold has also used Maderas as a chemistry test for artists they’re considering signing. In fact, two of Neon Gold’s most recent signees — the Swedish pop singer Winona Oak and the Minneapolis-born Your Smith — say Maderas sealed the deal on their partnerships. 

“I honestly didn’t think it was going to be for me,” Your Smith mastermind Caroline Smith says. “I don’t write music like Tove, I don’t write music like Captain Cuts. I thought I wasn’t going to like the setting. I was so, so, so wrong. I literally loved everybody I worked with at that camp. Most of the people who I met there now comprise the network of people I work with on the regular.”

Says Oak, “The uniqueness in every artist is encouraged. There’s no such thing as trying to shape someone into a specific frame or into something they’re not.”

This type of collaborative artist development — not just breaking artists, but laying a foundation for them to work together and champion each other  — is what Plapinger and Davies are focusing on as Neon Gold moves into its next decade.

“I think there was that moment when we first came out,” says Davies, “when we were the 21-year-old wunderkinds finding band after band after band and releasing all these singles. That was true, but we weren’t developing artists. We weren’t really realizing a campaign. We weren’t creating sustainable careers in the way that I think we are now.”

Plapinger and Davies cite the turning point as the start of their partnership with Atlantic Records in 2014. Though Neon Gold worked on a few album campaigns (St. Lucia, Haim) at Columbia, their deal with Atlantic allowed them to focus more on artists’ longevity. This week, Neon Gold put out their second LP with The Knocks, New York Narcotic.

“If you look at Atlantic’s track record with joint ventures and imprints, it’s kind of second to none,” says Davies.

“[Look at the imprints] Fueled by Ramen and Canvasback,” Plapinger continues, “[Atlantic has] just a general commitment to artist development — which I know sounds like a blanket, broad-stroke statement, but it’s really true with them. You think about the artists that they’ve signed and seen through that maybe didn’t pop off on album one.”

Their mission is not without its challenges in an era when radio’s barrier to entry is steeper than ever, and when the rise of streaming means there’s more noise to cut through. While achieving critical acclaim has been no problem for artists on the roster, household-name status remains more elusive.

“It’s harder [now] to get bands on the radio,” says Lichtenberg, “and radio is, no matter what, a big part of how you break an artist. But Lizzy, as a touring musician and as an artist, knows what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure she’ll admit that there are lots of confusing things out there — things that, probably, no one has the right answer to right now. But she knows the questions that are being asked.” And Davies is clear about their priorities: “We don’t sign things based on hits, we sign artists because we believe in them as artists,” he says.

Now, as they kick off their next decade together, Plapinger and Davies are more confident than ever. “All the labels that we aspired to be like — all the U.K. and singles labels — we’ve outlasted, for the most part,” says Davies. “I feel like we have the strongest roster we’ve ever had [right now].”

“I think the fact that we’re 10 years in,” Plapinger says, turning once more to Davies, “and you’ll always be one of my best friends — it’s pretty epic.”

Davies smiles. “It’s like the best part.”