Lex founder Tom Brown (right) with MF Doom.
The IMI 30th Nov 2021

Lex Records at 20: 'I’m still running off those old rules of thumb - sign artists you believe in and invest in long-term deals'

Beginning life as an imprint at Warp, Lex Records became a fully independent indie in 2005, thanks in no small part to the rising star of Danger Mouse. Here, Lex founder Tom Brown looks back on the two decades that have passed since the label's first release, and talks about the old school principles that have led to Lex’s success…

Tom Brown’s music industry career began at Warp Records in 1998. At the time, Warp was still based in its hometown of Sheffield, and Brown was at the coalface of the independent’s mail order business, which was taking some of the first tentative steps into the world wide web.

“It was the early days of the internet and I’d be sending Chiastic Slide by Autechre to someone in Alaska, or Come To Daddy to someone in Hawaii,” Brown remembers. “It was one of the first global record stores and it boomed as the internet boomed.”

By night, Brown promoted a regular hip hop night called Dropping Science, with Tom Mitchell – brother of Warp co-founder Rob Mitchell and Tom Panton who would end up working at Warp himself, eventually heading up the company’s live events and artist projects. Kid Acne, Dan The Automator, Blackalicious, People Under The Stairs are just some of the significant names that graced Dropping Science stages during a particularly exciting time for independent rap.

At the turn of the millennium, Warp moved to London. By this time, Brown was firmly embedded among emerging hip hop talent and felt that he would be able to help artists he felt had real potential by putting out their demos on vinyl.

“Everyone would go out on a Friday night and by Saturday morning there would be armies of hungover people pouring through the record racks at Rough Trade or Selectadisc, spending their money on vinyl,” he explained. “I thought I could press a 12 or 7 inch and get it sold in those shops.”

Brown dutifully informed the management at Warp of his plans and, rather than being met with any level of resistance, Rob Mitchell said, “Why don’t you do it as a series of singles inside Warp and we’ll fund the whole thing. You can use our infrastructure and we’ll split the ownership down the middle.”

Brown started to get in touch with people that he thought were doing the most exciting things at the most independent ends of rap. While this venture was only supposed to accommodate a limited run of singles, a number of artists, including Boom Bip and Sage Francis, came back offering whole albums.

“They were excited that a label with an account department and distribution worldwide was interested,” says Brown. “Prior to that, they’d been putting out awesome releases with really tiny indies. This was an opportunity for them to reach a wider audience.”

Brown started putting nights on at Plastic People – a basement club based in London’s Shoreditch that was famous for its small square footage but mighty sound system. “We put a chair in the middle of the room because there was no stage, Brown remembers. “You’d have Sage Francis or Buck 65 stood on a chair with the crowd around them and an amazing sound system. It was a really special event.” Danger Mouse was a regular DJ at these nights and, after dropping off some demos with Brown, would go on to sign with Lex Records to become an influential and longstanding figure on the label’s roster.

Lex Label Manager Zoe Davis with artist Andrew Hung.

In July 2001, Lex released its first 12″, Disflex6’s Hot Season EP. In September that same year, the label released the first of three Lexoleum 12 compilations, featuring Boom Bip, Danger Mouse, Edan, Jamie Lidell, J-Zone, Kid Acne, Madlib, Peaches and Sage Francis.

Lex’s first album release came in 2002 – Boom Bip’s, Seed To Sun. “We got a big sync and there was a track that kept getting picked up on compilations,” says Brown. “It sold really respectable numbers compared to Warp stuff, so we kind of grew into a full-size record label while we were still part of Warp.”

By 2005, the indie rock scene was beginning to turn heads, including the top brass at Warp, who had worked with plenty of great bands in the past, including Pulp before they signed to Island. With the likes of Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand soaring at this time, Warp signed Maximo Park to pursue their own success in the genre.

“I think at that point they were looking at Lex as something that was soaking up a load of cash,” says Brown. “We’d probably released about 10 or 12 albums. Ghetto Pop Life by Danger Mouse was a really special record, we spent more on that than we usually would. Sales were decent and we got some Album of the Year stuff at the end of 2003 but it didn’t break through and earn money.”

At the start of 2004, Danger Mouse released The Grey Album. Brown passed a copy to Remi Kabaka during a meeting at Warp, which led to Danger Mouse producing Gorillaz’ Demon Days album.

Within two years, Danger Mouse was having success on multiple fronts as one half of both DANGERDOOM and Gnarls Barkley.

“So, the Gorillaz album was getting made, as was the Gnarls Barkley album and DANGERDOOM, and we were promoting The Grey Album but, at that point, Warp saw their future in cracking Maximo Park,” remembers Brown. “They told us that we needed to wrap up any records that we were working on.

“At the start of 2005, it felt like I had the most exciting artist in the world on a long-term deal. I said to Warp, ‘If I can get another label to pick up Lex, will you sell out your share to them?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, sure.’

Brown went to see a number of labels about buying into Lex, but soon realised he had to take on the challenge himself.

“After I bought Lex – for not much money – the Gorillaz album came out, then DANGERDOOM, and then the Gnarls Barkley demos leaked and started to get played on the radio. That felt like a whole new chapter, working with a megastar artist and having a bunch of opportunities…”

Promotional video for The Grey Album

Do you think Warp hadn’t really realised the full extent of what you had there?

I think they were just very focused on this scene that was blowing up and taking labels like Domino and their peers to a level they’d never got to, and they just had to be in on it. They signed a band in Maximo Park that was very successful in that scene and did it to a certain extent.

I still don’t know why they didn’t see a future with Danger Mouse. I remember one of the bosses saying to me that, when he heard the Gnarls Barkley demos, he thought it was just another project like Danger Mouse and Jemini – that it would get really good press but wasn’t going to make good money. At the company at the time, I think they saw it as: there are expensive artists that never make money but are amazing and need support and long campaigns; and then there are artists who turn in a record begrudgingly, you don’t hear from them for five years but they made lots of money – like Boards Of Canada or Aphex Twin. I don’t think they could fit Danger Mouse into one of those categories comfortably. It’s hard to know what they thought. They were certainly happy to sign off on the deal and see the back of us.

What were the key successes for Lex that meant the label could ultimately stand on its own?

Well, a lot of the time you start working with one artist and it leads to another. Danger Mouse was working with a guy called J-Zone who was a really brilliant hip-hop producer and MC. He was big at the time and he introduced Danger Mouse to Jemini. Jemini had had a small career and put out some amazing records but had never really broken through. He went to record with Danger Mouse, which led him to Prince Poetry from Organized Confusion and we did his first solo album, which Danger Mouse put together as well. That led to more relationships.

I guess the key thing for us was that Danger Mouse worked on the Prince Po album, he worked with MF DOOM and there was real chemistry there, and then they worked together on the Gorillaz album, on a track called November Has Come.

We signed DOOM off the back of success with Danger Mouse and income from Gnarls Barkley. We did a worldwide deal and then worked with him for every studio album from 2005 onwards. The first album he delivered, Born Like This, was possibly his lyrical peak. It’s got a couple of tracks that have broken through and it was a really dense, dark album.

He relocated to London and we got to work with him quite closely on the JJ DOOM album, which was really cool. He worked with British artists like Damon Albarn and Beth Gibbons from Portishead. It was awesome to work that closely with him.

We’ve also worked with Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins for a long period of time over the last decade. Alan Moore’s a legendary comic book writer – he wrote Watchmen, V For Vendetta, loads of classic Batman and Superman, and he re-invented Swamp Thing. That was very much like working with a hero. We’ve just released his first feature film which has gotten great reviews. That was really interesting, to work on a long-term film project and see how that industry works.

What brought about the move into film?

I was working on Neon Neon, which is Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals and producer Boom Bip. The first album was Mercury nominated and the second was a staged production with the National Theatre in Wales. It was a hugely ambitious project. We were working on a video for a Neon Neon track and the producer on that was working with Mitch Jenkins, who’s a Sunday Times photographer amongst other things. I ended up meeting Mitch and he was working on turning an Alan Moore story into a photographic novel called Unearthing.

I thought we could do an audiobook, so we got two artists on the label, Doseone and Andrew Broder, to score this thing with a load of other artists. Then Mitch and Alan decided they were going to do a short film. I’m still really good friends with the people at Warp, so I introduced them to Warp Films, which was still part of the group at that time. Warp had a deal with Film 4, which was funded by the UK Film Council, but the coalition government came in and scrapped the UK Film Council and switched it over to the BFI, which ultimately meant Warp lost their funding. They asked us to make the short film, since we made music videos. We financed the first short film and then got a bunch of brand money for the second one. Alan kept writing short films that were increasingly weird and mystical so increasingly hard to fund. In the end we released five short films. We put three of them together to run as a feature at film festivals and sold them to an AMC horror channel.

Then Alan wrote a feature film script and wouldn’t let anyone edit it, wanted to pick his own cast, wanted Mitch on board as co-creative director…  and filming doesn’t normally work like that. It made it really challenging to raise the funds. But, in the end Alan got to make the film he wanted to make.

He had such clear ideas of every element – every song you heard on the radio in the film, he’d written the song, created a group, the record label they were signed to and their backstory. He’d written whole newspapers, every advert you’d see in a newsagent’s window… It was a challenge but it was very exciting.

In a very different way, Gruff Rhys is very easy to work with but still knows what works for him. It was the same with DOOM – very particular. When you’re working with artists like that, the trade-off is that you’ve got to do it their way, on their terms.

The other projects that stand out for me: we had all that success with Danger Mouse, Neon Neon felt like a really big deal for us, then there was an era where we spent a lot of time working on DOOM’s albums. More recently we’ve had a breakthrough album for BadBadNotGood, and the biggest album for Ghostface Killah for a long time. We also worked with Kaleida, who had huge streaming numbers. We hadn’t worked with a group like that before – making electronic pop music in that way.

Official trailer for Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins' 'The Show' (2020)

One particularly stand-out success on your roster more recently is Eyedress…

We signed Eyedress in 2016 and he’s built up his career over the last few years. When we first started talking to him, he’d just left an imprint of XL. We signed him for several albums and worked through that. The first album was difficult in a way because he was working on different kinds of things from quite trappy rap music, garage rock and slinky space-age RnB. It’s always tricky when you’ve got an artist whose records cross over different genres. We found a rhythm of working and, when he moved to LA, it put him closer to artists like Mac DeMarco, who he’s done shows with and has become friends with. He did support shows for loads of artists in that scene and started building a following. By the time we were gearing up for the third album, we could see that it actually made a difference in the States – his streaming numbers were starting to pick up and he was having more of a following every time we released something.

We got three tracks upfront before the rest of the album was mixed and just started to release them with a bit of a video at the end of 2019. We were going to drop the album at the end of the first quarter of 2020. We released the first three tracks, they got a bit of coverage and the fans were into them, but then we had to move the album to the end of the year because that was when the pandemic really hit. There was no way we were going to release an album.

Eyedress would make a video for a track on the album and drop it himself so, by the time the album came out in August 2020, we’d probably released nine singles. The whole year had been micro campaigns around tracks and videos. There weren’t any shows.

The first thing that we noticed was that songs were taking off on Instagram. We worked with Motive Unknown, the digital marketing company. It’s a fantastic resource for an independent label with a small team like ours to have – that kind of knowledge and understanding of digital marketing from massive major label campaigns. From quite early on in 2020 we’d be saying, ‘Jealous is doubling its streaming numbers every month. It can’t carry on doing that or by the end of the year we’ll be streaming 100,000.’ Over the year, it did take off.

Eyedress with Lex A&R Daniel Horitz.

It started to take off on TikTok as well, and Motive Unknown had adapted a strategy from a track that had been a hit on YouTube a few years earlier. We were really ploughing all the cash we could get our hands on to re-promoting Jealous, releasing new singles and promoting those. Jealous just grew and grew. It’s never really let up. It leveled off eventually, but it’s been neck and neck with the biggest Beatles track every day for almost a year now. It’s not letting up.

In the meantime, Eyedress has had other tracks go big – a second track, Romantic Lover, blew up in the spring. Jealous went gold in America, Australia, Poland, Ireland and Canada. We’re nearly at the threshold for platinum in The States and Romantic Lover’s doing the same.

This summer we had the biggest campaign we’ve run for a long time for the new album, Mulholland Drive, and the first single we released has just surpassed Jealous. Everything’s going bananas.

It’s really changed everything for us. We’re coming to the end of a deal with AWAL – before that we’d been through Warner ADA worldwide. Because we’re a small team, it’s been really important to us, especially in the streaming era, to have a worldwide distribution platform. But I think, because of the way we’ve been working, we feel confident enough to switch away from a distribution model for digital and go as directly as possible. That’s what’s happening at the moment. At some point we’ll transition everything and we’ll be suppling everything to digital platforms directly.

Eyedress - Jealous (Official Video)

What do you attribute the Eyedress success to? Was it just that you hit upon a digital strategy that works for this particular time in the business?

I think one of the things is the way we work with artists. When I set up Lex, I was really junior at Warp so I’d ask them a question and they’d give me a basic answer. Since 2005, I haven’t really had anybody to talk to. I’m still running everything off those basic, old rules of thumb: sign an artist that you believe in, that you think hasn’t reached their potential; invest heavily in that artist on a long-term deal so that you’ll start making your money back on the second or third album. For a really long period of time at the start, that worked. We had Danger Mouse and DOOM on Lex in 2008/2009, then the second Gnarls Barkley album through Warner with Lex branding, and Born Like This from DOOM. Then the Neon Neon album was Mercury nominated and it felt like everything was coming together. Then the music industry collapsed. Recorded music dropped off a cliff and kept going for years. We didn’t know when we were going to hit the bottom.

For us, vinyl kicked back in, but that’s not really a business model on its own, and then streaming started to take off at the end of 2014. It’s really in the last four or five years that things have grown really quickly again. That business model of signing artists on long-term deals made a lot of sense at the start but, when everything was in freefall, it really didn’t work for a few years. In some ways, that’s why things like the Alan Moore film project were important. We released the same number of records but it was a slog for a long time.

Signing long-term deals and supporting artists in making the music they want to make because you’ve got faith in them – that’s working again now. It’s a completely different structure. For a hit as big as Jealous, back in 2005, you’d need the infrastructure of a major label to manufacture CD singles, advertise on TV and get radio spots. All the money would come in a very short period of time. Jealous is turning over very good money every month without getting smaller. And it’s barely touched the bottom of the Billboard charts but it’s gone gold. That must be the same for hundreds of other tracks.

Where would you like to see Lex in 10 years’ time?

10 years goes by really fast these days. I’m not sure. I’d like to think that the next 10 years will be a period where those principles still work. We have discussions about what might happen with formats and the wider music industry, it’s impossible for a tiny company like ours to predict that. What we can do is take our share of revenue from the success of artists like Eyedress and invest in more long-term deals with artists that we think have got the best years ahead of them.

It feels really exciting. We’ve got another Danger Mouse album coming at some point, we’ve got a new project from Boom Bip, who was the first artist to release an album on Lex, so we’re still working with artists that we were involved with 20 years ago, as well as signing artists who feel this is the right home for them. I’d like to carry on doing the same!