When Tim Putnam founded Partisan Records alongside Ian Wheeler in 2007, his motivation was twofold: create a label home for his own independent rock band and blaze a trail for other progressive-minded artists. While his group, The Standard, issued only one album on Partisan, the Brooklyn-bred imprint grew into an indie powerhouse; in the past 12 months, the label notched its most Grammy and Mercury Prize nominations to date, and won three Libera Awards from the American Association of Independent Music including label of the year (medium size).
With 19 employees, including managing director Zena White, spread across offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Mexico City, the label is nearing 100 releases, including recent projects from Americana crowd-pleasers Deer Tick, dream-pop act (and unlikely streaming sensation) Cigarettes After Sex and the catalog of late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. “I’m always keeping an eye on what the name Partisan stands for,” says Putnam. “[We’re] a label that can enhance the human condition rather than exploit it.”
“Without Deer Tick, Partisan wouldn’t exist,” says Putnam. After being wowed by a gig at New York’s Knitting Factory, where Putnam was night manager, he licensed a 2008 rerelease of the band’s acclaimed 2007 debut, War Elephant, which sold over 53,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. The band’s signing to Partisan ended up providing crucial capital that kept the label afloat during the Great Recession. “[New] labels have to have relative success fairly early to sustain the business,” says Putnam. “I made sure we had a structure that wasn’t going to fall down later.”
Indie pop duo Sylvan Esso’s self-titled 2014 debut album sold over 116,000 copies, and its hit single “Coffee” became Partisan’s biggest Spotify track to date with over 80 million streams. Meanwhile, Texas-bred rockers Cigarettes After Sex, which the label signed in 2016, is its most promising international act. “In Mumbai [India], they did two nights at the Royal Opera House,” says White. “It only seats 575, so the promoter made people join a list to buy tickets — 20,000 people signed up.”
When it comes to A&R, Putnam prioritizes acts who are “looking at politics, the environment and global socioeconomics — and who are going to change the culture.” This ideology led him to U.K. punks IDLES, whose lyrics confront toxic masculinity, nationalism and class inequality. The band’s second album, 2018’s Joy As an Act of Resistance., was up for a BRIT Award and the United Kingdom’s Mercury Prize, part of a recent Partisan hot streak during which Irish rockers Fontaines D.C. also were up for the Mercury Prize and Seun Kuti and Bombino were Grammy-nominated for best world music album.
Cigarettes After Sex’s second album, Cry (arriving Oct. 25), is Partisan’s most anticipated fall release. As for 2020, IDLES, Fontaines D.C. and Bombino are all scheduled to release projects, and new signees like folk-crooner Westerman and experimental rock outfit Ultraísta, which includes Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, will make their Partisan debuts. “I wanted to build a label that could challenge how people perceive what popular music can be,” says Putnam, “rather than simply follow trends.”