Tileyard resident Platoon is a distribution and creative services company that’s worked with the likes of Mr Eazi, Rex Orange Country and Billie Eilish. Now, bedding in to its relationship with new owner Apple, the London-based company is showcasing its A&R skills by working with a fresh and exciting crop of international artists…
The last time Music Business UK was in Platoon’s offices to interview its founder, Denzyl Feigelson, was early 2018 – when the exec, who also founded now Kobalt-owned AWAL, eruditely explained to us why he has long believed that artists should, if they can, maintain ownership of their own copyrights.
His view hasn’t changed, of course; if anything, in the subsequent two years, it’s the major labels – with a raft of shorter-term artist licensing agreements, plus deals like that inked between Taylor Swift and Republic Records for her last LP – that have moved somewhat further towards acceptance of this concept.
Something rather major has changed at Platoon since early 2018, however, with Apple fully acquiring the A&R and artist services company at the close of that year. Not that you’d notice much difference in Platoon’s London offices in Tileyard, Kings Cross – which remain, just as they did then, immaculate (and rife with gleaming Apple products, naturally).
Another thing that requires a hefty update for you, dear reader: two years ago, when Denzyl told us about the promising teenage kiddo that Platoon had signed up for distribution a few years earlier, then watched depart to Interscope/Darkroom – Billie something-or-other – we barely managed to scrawl her name down in our jotter. Now, it’s close to question No.1: How did Platoon end up signing Billie five-Grammys-and-a-cultural-juggernaut-of-an-album Eilish when she was still in school – and how does Feigelson feel about her mega-success since then?
We said close to question No.1, because there’s plenty more to catch up on with Platoon. Take, for example, its current roster of budding talent, including Grammy-nominated songwriter-turned-artist, Victoria Monét, and hotly-tipped NYC-born rapper, Princess Nokia. There’s also Platoon’s fast-growing efforts in Africa, not to mention Sagun – a Nepal-based artist who apparently racked up more global streams than any other Platoon-signed act in 2019. First though, there’s that Apple deal to discuss – and why Feigelson feels Steve Jobs’ company “really gets the essence of what we do…”
You, personally, and Platoon as a company, have been a friend and affiliate of Apple over many years, but how did an actual acquisition come about and what difference has it made to Platoon?
It was really just a natural progression. We were doing good stuff, we were trying to build better services for artists, and Apple really understood that. As you see, we’re still here in Tileyard, we’re still Platoon, we’re still independent, we’ve just got a partner who helps us do a much better job.
Is it fair to say Apple was not the first company to approach you about the idea of an acquisition?
That is fair, yes; they were not the first. Certainly the labels had been here – looking more at JVs, because they love JVs. You know, we had such a great run, in terms of A&R, and I think our hearts were in the right place, doing the right thing for artists, going back to Jorja [Smith], Billie [Eilish], Rex OC, Stefflon Don, YEBBA, it was just this great period of allowing artists to incubate freely here.
Why say yes to Apple and not others? And why avoid the label option?
[Selling a stake to a label] didn’t make sense, because artists need to be free. Our job is always to understand the DNA of an artist, because every artist is so uniquely different. No one size fits all, we get that, and so we really don’t want to limit their options; we want everything to be possible for them.
Apple really got the essence of what we wanted to do. And if you think about the timing of it, about October 2018, I had investors, I had to go and raise another round, and there was this opportunity… y’know, it takes years to build a company, it took me 18 years to build AWAL to the point where it went to Kobalt.
This [Apple deal] wasn’t a big protracted negotiation, it just came together quite magically. And of course I have a history there, going back to working with Steve [Jobs] in 2001. From there on I got to work on pretty much all the music innovations at Apple, from the iPod, through iTunes, and up to Apple Music. So I was part of the family, I think.
The definition of what a record label is has changed massively, and is getting increasingly closer now to the sort of deal Platoon offers. Turning that on its head, do you ever feel like a record label, or is that an offensive term to you?
No, it’s not offensive at all. I’ve been doing this too long not to know that we all exist together, it’s an ecosystem that has to work together. But [Platoon] see ourselves as a modern artist services company. We don’t tie artists down to owning their rights, we never have; I never have. I have a long history of doing this, and it’s just in my nature to try and help an artist stay creatively and economically free. Because once you help an artist build a robust business, a lot starts to happen for them.
Do the more artist-friendly deals that record companies are doing now, including deals that are essentially service deals but on frontline labels – see: Taylor Swift – make you proud of the fact that you have stuck your flag firmly in that ground, with two companies, for a long time?
[That trend] has actually allowed us to innovate even further [with our] artist deals. I would encourage you to talk to Victoria Monét, who is one of our priority artists. She’s an amazing artist who’s been through the major label system already.
I don’t want to comment on the specifics of her deal with us, but she has a very creative deal that allows her to do what she needs to do, with us putting a great campaign together, and putting opportunities in the right place. She wanted creativity to be at the heart of what she does, and it’s all coming together for her.
If you look at our current roster of artists, it’s Victoria Monét, it’s kennedi, who wrote hits for Dua Lipa and for Ariana Grande, and is an amazing artist in her own right. There’s also Poo Bear, Justin Bieber’s co-writer for years and years, we’re putting out his solo project. There’s no rhyme or reason in us signing artists who are also great [professional] songwriters, by the way – they have just gravitated towards us. There’s also Aaron Smith and Holly Humberstone, both incredibly talented writers and artists. Everyone I can think of here is incredibly talented as a writer and as an artist.
We recently refocused ourselves in terms of signings; this year, a light bulb went off. Now we have two distinct ways we work with artists: there’s discovery, because we’re good at finding artists, being their first partner, giving them that initial support and encouragement; and then we have sort of the Victoria Monéts of the world, who come to us already quite baked and in need of something different. It’s nice. And it means we’re signing (fewer) artists – very few.
At what sort of rate are you signing artists now?
I think we did one or two a month last year, and that feels about right for us.
How many pages are there in a Platoon contract?
Two. I mean, obviously there’s some addendums, but the basic contract is two pages long.
Our contract is short, and we’ve really worked hard on it over years; it works, it’s solid, but there’s not too much to it, and it’s one of the things that allows us to maintain a creative process.
What do you mean by that?
There are inherent problems, if you think about a 150 to 300-page contract, that takes time [for an artist to work through]; it could take months. What happens to creativity in that process is interesting to watch, and I’ve watched it for 30 years.
Because when you meet an artist, they’re full of creativity, right? ‘I want to do this, I want do that. My first single is this, and then my fourth single is this. I want to do this kind of video, then I want a tour, then I want to do some merchandise, then I want to collaborate with this artist, then I want to go do some live sessions. Oh, and I’m looking at my data and it looks like Germany’s my fourth biggest country…’ And so on.
You want to maintain that. It might seem trivial, but to me it’s not trivial. That’s probably the most important thing that we like to do with artists, maintain that light, that spirit. I’ve noticed in my experience as being a manager of major label artists, that the contractual process [involved in some major deals] actually dims the light a little bit. You’re sort of stuck for a while. You don’t know what your budget is. You can’t go in the studio. You’re talking to your lawyers every day. Maybe your A&R who signed you isn’t there anymore.
Last time we spoke to you, we discussed some artists, such as Billie Eilish, Rex OC, Stefflon Don and others. Platoon accelerated their careers – helping to take them from being raw to market-ready propositions – and then watched them leave to sign elsewhere. Now, you may have had overrides in the contract and probably did very well out of those examples, but does the Apple acquisition mean it’s easier to convince artists like these that you can take their careers further – and they don’t have to leave?
It’s over a year on from the [Apple] deal, we still have a basic website, we don’t solicit, there’s no place that people can send us anything, it’s all word of mouth, and we’ve continued that. I don’t go out. I don’t go networking. I don’t go speaking. The goalposts have changed, I can really focus and do a great job. We’re really doubling down on space here at Tileyard, we’re investing in more space for creativity, including studios, and we’re loving that; we love offering that to our artists. What we’re seeing out of that is much more collaboration, much more engagement with producers and writers, songwriting workshops, things like that. So this is proving to be really fruitful for us.
To go back to your question, I can tell you that we didn’t have overrides for all those artists, because that wasn’t our model. So, Steff happily incubated here because she was free to come and go. This was her office. In fact, this was a building site when we were working with Steff. And even when she got her deal from Polydor, they [Steff London’s team] came in here and we talked about it, we laid out the papers and said, ‘Well, try this,’ or, ‘Go back to them with this.’ So that was the spirit in which those artists were here.
Rex OC was here for several singles and it was obvious that he was going to go places. Billie was here for a period when she just needed to be herself. And we gave her that time, there was nobody pressuring her to do anything, just helping her do what she wanted to do and be who she wanted to be. And then she moved on.
Because of what she’s gone on to do and achieve, can you tell us a bit more about how you came to work with her and what that was like? She must have been incredibly young at that time – like, 15?
Can you maybe address the conspiratorial suggestion that keeps lingering, that she wasn’t just an exciting organic talent, but actually some kind of industry ‘plant’ – a project cooked up between you and Apple?
It was honestly a very serendipitous affair. It was us, in our office, finding her on SoundCloud the same day that two people who were working at Apple, on Zane [Lowe]’s team, also sent me the link. That was Ocean Eyes, and it was undeniable. And it was only on SoundCloud.
The two guys at Apple said, ‘Look, we know the managers and we’d love to hook you up, you should talk to Danny [Rukasin, Eilish’s co-manager, alongside Brandon Goodman].’ Within seconds we called Danny and he was like, ‘I need to get this out, can you help us?’
From there, it was just natural. She had such a wonderful team. The two managers, Brandon and Danny, are incredible. Her mom, Maggie, is incredible. And then, you know, you do what you do. You take her to L.A, you take her into the building and she meets everybody; we introduced her to Zane and Jimmy [Iovine] and whoever was in that day. So, yeah, she got some very early plays at Beats 1, but there was no calculated [plot]… it was just support, but there was support from all kinds of people in the industry, because she was undeniable.
Not from everybody, obviously. There was months and months where labels didn’t really pick up on it, the A&R people didn’t pick up on us. But, y’know, when any artist gets so big, there’s always lots of those stories that come out. Nobody sat in a room and said, ‘Okay, together, we’re going to make her the biggest star in the world.’ We only sat in a room and said, ‘How can we support you?’
If she had stayed with Platoon, where do you think her career would be today?
It’s an impossible question. I think the timing of it… we were so young in our evolution. When they called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a deal with Interscope, with Darkroom’, I was like, ‘Fantastic, congratulations.’ If I was in another world, I could have gone, ‘Well, let me match the offer…’
But I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking we’ve done a great job up to here and now her next evolution is starting and we’re going to support that.
Presumably you’re impressed and pleased with the job that Interscope and Darkroom have done so far?
Oh completely. And it took a minute too, right? It didn’t happen immediately. We’ve all stayed completely part of the family, you’ll see some Gold and Platinum records on our walls there, that they’ve sent us over time.
I’m completely impressed with the work that they’ve done. But you’ve got to hand it to Billie and Finneas, it’s a pure case of the music making the difference. They are self-contained and really hardworking. I saw how hard they worked. I mean it was 2017 that they did the first London show, at The Courtyard, for just over 100 people, including six of us [from Platoon].
On a purely artistic level, so let’s leave the execs out of this success story, why has Billie connected so big, so wide and so intimately with so many people, do you think?
You have to look at everything about the way she was brought up: her conditioning, her amazing parents, the fact that she was home-schooled, that she could go from her bedroom to Finneas’ bedroom and they could talk about… Just the magic of how Ocean Eyes came about: she needed to do something for her dance routine and Finneas said, ‘Why don’t you sing it?’
And if you just look at the craft of their songs. I mean, look at what she’s done with A Time to Die, you know? They researched, they listened to every other Bond song, and yet they didn’t want it to be like any other Bond song. It’s gorgeous. And it captures the spirit of Bond. I just think they’re the voice of this generation, but she spans more than just her generation. She’s one of those that very occasionally comes through, like a Frank Sinatra or Peter Gabriel. She’s that good.
If an artist with that level of potential walked in today, post-Apple acquisition, how would it pan out differently?
Keep in mind, in those days we were just a distribution company. But our hearts were in the right place and we wanted to do more, and we probably gave more than a distribution company [usually would]. We gave our experience, and our network, and we probably talked to the managers every day. But our deals were distribution; you’re free to leave. That was a one-page contract.
I’m not claiming anything; I’m just claiming that at that time we gave an incubation period for those artists, including Billie, but we gave it in our way. Which is, you won’t just upload your music and we distribute it and you’re just another number; we were never that, we didn’t want to be that. We wanted to evolve into where we are now, which is having the resource so that if another Billie walks in here, we will do our utmost to help them build a sustainable, successful business.
And stay with you.
And stay with us. However, we don’t want anybody who doesn’t want to be here. Which means we need to do an amazing job so that nobody wants to leave. Why wouldn’t we?
Obviously this doesn’t apply to Billie, which makes this a
safe juncture to ask, but does it ever frustrate you, or make you sad, when you are in sync with artist, you’re a fan of that artist, but a cheque comes in, you concede that they can’t turn it down, so they move on to a label… and then you see the new people in their life making decisions that you know are not the best for their career?
It might be [frustrating], for some people. But I am extremely lucky and thankful that I’ve been dealt a card that allows me to go, ‘It is what it is.’ I’m just at a place in the last few years where it’s like, I don’t have the time and I don’t want to stress about anything other than focusing on what’s at hand.
I get your question, and it has happened, and it does happen. This may be waxing a little philosophical, but there’s no point in me thinking about [that]; it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do; it doesn’t help. And [that wisdom] comes with age.
Also, I’ve said to any artists who have come and gone that I’m always there for you. You’re welcome to call me at any time. And they do. And their managers do.
I’m going to flip it a little bit, because that was all about the majors’ threat to you. But I would suggest that Platoon might also give label heads a couple of sleepless nights. And yet, when the Apple deal was announced, something that could be seen as increasing your industry weaponry, there seemed to be little out there from Major Label Land but goodwill and congratulations. What’s going on there?
Well I think maybe because we’re an artist services company, and not a label. And it’s also probably quite fair to say that any of our artists are [potential] pickings for them. So, in many ways they’re not seeing us as a threat. I haven’t had an animosity call from anybody since the deal. I’ve only had increased interest and nothing but good vibes.
I bumped into everybody at the BRITs and everyone was incredibly friendly: ‘I see you’re working with Aaron Smith’; ‘My A&R people tell me Holly Humberstone’s the next big thing.’ We’re not a threat; we’re a creative services company. We’re building services here. If anything, they’re looking to see: what are they doing? And if they can learn from us, how fantastic is that?
Whilst it might not drift into animosity, do you think your relationship with labels might now change somewhat? You mentioned your artists being ‘pickings’ for majors – but maybe not easy pickings anymore, as you look to hold on to acts longer, rather than accept them moving on as part of life?
That’s true, but we’re… if you think about it, there are tons of indies out there. There’s more than ever before. Anyone now can put their music up through TuneCore, Ditto, DistroKid, Amuse, Stem, CD Baby, you name it. We’re just out here doing our thing, and I don’t think we’re…
But if the next hypothetical big artist signed with Platoon, then stayed with you, and you had the level of success with them that Billie Eilish and Interscope are having right now, the labels would be looking at you going, ‘Those bastards!’
Good! That would mean we were doing a great job.
The IFPI published its chart of the Top 10 Global Artists from 2019 the other week. Can you see a day that a Platoon artist is in that league?
Absolutely. I look at those things, and it kind of bothers me, even when you look at just the weekly lists, and it’s like, how many indies are on that list? There’s not even the big indies, the ones that have been around for a while.
There was a bit of a moment last year – an MBW headline, in fact – when Aaron Smith landed in the primary position in the flagship playlists of both Spotify and Apple UK on the same day. Did that send a message that Spotify – and other DSPs – are comfortable with your ownership structure, and happy to promote your artists?
I think the other DSPs have always felt that we were artists first, and they, quite rightly, continue to feel that. We had tremendous support with Princess Nokia. She just released two albums, and they got support and coverage everywhere. Both of them are doing incredibly well, on all DSPs. And the DSPs are all very different, which is fantastic. Some are algorithmically-driven, some are editorially-driven.
We’ve had the heads of the DSPs come in, we’ve invited everybody to come here, see what we do, take them into the studios, chat with whoever’s in session that day, they get the vibe. As you know, the reason we built this space was to go, ‘This is your office, come hang out here, come work here.’
I think the Aaron case was indicative of how it’s all going, but we get similar support, constantly, and it’s all because of us doing our job. Aaron just popped over [to Platoon HQ] the other day and Holly Humberstone was in the studio, and it was like, ‘Oh, I wrote a song once with Holly, do you mind if I pop in?’ And the next thing you know, they’re working on something together.
That’s how it should be. I feel like we’re in the spirit of the old Motown, from way back: there are studios, there’s people working together, there’s people writing together, there’s events coming together.
If you wanted this piece to reveal or reflect one thing about Platoon, what would it be?
That we are signing amazing artists to distribution and services deals. And we continue to grow our services around those artists. We’re really happy with how everything has happened since we last spoke; it’s allowed us to become a better version of ourselves. And there’s lots of… well, actually I’m not telling you, because it’s not in our nature to shout about it. Just watch this space – you’ll see.
Platoon is based at Tileyard London.