For most students, the dorm is a place to study, crash, or binge-watch old episodes of Breaking Bad for hours. But for Lizzy Plapinger, her dorm room at Vassar wasn’t just a place to lounge in between classes: it was the makeshift headquarters for her burgeoning boutique record label, Neon Gold.
In 2008, Plapinger and her longtime friend and label co-founder. Derek Davies, were spending every waking minute dreaming about their post-college plans. They met as teenagers while working at a Martha’s Vineyard summer camp: she grew up in London, and he had emigrated to the U.S. from the U.K. as a child, so a mutual love for British pop and up-and-coming indie bands sparked a friendship and transformed into a partnership in adulthood.
"As we grew up, we continued sharing music back and forth, and we were totally obsessive," says Plapinger. “Then I went to Vassar and Derek went to New York University, and we just always had this dream in the back of our minds of starting this record label: at that point, we had been friends for so many years, and we had such an aggressive and arrogant sense of music. If we loved something, the greatest feeling was just turning all of our friends onto it."
While classes and internships took up their days, Plapinger and Davies — who scouted for labels — spent their free time combing music blogs and MySpace for their next favorite song and hitting shows as frequently as possible in the city. When they came across "Sleepyhead," the glitchy, dreamy debut single from an up-and-coming band from Boston called Passion Pit, they knew their lives were about to change.
"We both were like, 'This is everything to us,'" Davies recalls of the first time they heard "Sleepyhead." "We were like, 'We'll never find a band this good, this early, ever again!'" adds Plapinger. That didn’t turn out to be the case: they took the leap and approached Passion Pit to see if they would be interested in putting out "Sleepyhead” as a 7", and Neon Gold was born in 2008 — three semesters before they’d graduate from their respective colleges.
"We had this pipe dream of starting our own 7" singles label, taking this very U.K. business model but doing it in a New York context and doing it for cool, credible pop music,” says Davies. “We spent the summer pulling everything together and working a few different jobs to cover the startup costs. We released our debut double-A side 7" with Passion Pit, and it just kind of exploded from there."
Building a tastemaking boutique label
Other artists — particularly fiercely independent, female pop stars on the rise — appreciated the sound Neon Gold was cultivating, along with their unabashed appreciation for dance, electronic, and pop music at a time when pop was, as Plapinger puts it, a "dirty word." Marina Diamantis, then of Marina and the Diamonds, had connected with Davies through Neon Gold’s music blog, which covered the music they enjoyed in addition to their own releases; she loved what they were doing, and though she'd just signed with Atlantic Records, she teamed up with Neon Gold to release her debut single, "Obsessions," later that fall.
"We were able to build a relationship with artists all at once, and build this public resume of what our taste of Neon Gold represented and stood for — and also cut our teeth in the industry as we were releasing each release," Plapinger says. "At that point, Derek and I are traveling back and forth to the U.K. to go to festivals, see shows, and meet with artists, and also still running all the shipping in my dorm room, fully doing Neon Gold and school at the time."
"We basically started spending all of our long weekends or breaks from school over in the U.K. and throwing club nights there," says Davies. "We met Ellie Goulding around that same time, and she became another one of our first releases. We spent those last two years in school doing these kind of handshake deals, limited edition, 500 quantity 7" runs."
In 2010, Neon Gold, itself, had graduated — from burgeoning indie to major label tastemaker. Plapinger and Davies inked a venture with Columbia Records, which enabled them to not only sign their first full-length releases, but learn what it takes to successfully roll them out. Plapinger, a recording artist herself, also signed to Columbia with her dance-pop duo, MS MR, which allowed her to experience the major label system on both sides of the contract. They also started hosting monthly concerts with Pop Shop, their curated showcase at New York’s Tammany Hall, which served as the launchpad for future hitmakers like Charli XCX and Dua Lipa (whose first U.S. performance took place under their banner).
Setting up [Pop]shop
Pop Shop elevated Neon Gold’s profile at sprawling music festivals like New York’s CMJ Music Marathon and Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW), and it also introduced Plapinger and Davies to Sarah Kesselman when they moved the showcase to a new venue, Santos Party House, in 2012. Kesselman, a longtime talent buyer and booker with the iconic CBGB on her resume, immediately connected with Neon Gold’s independent, upstart spirit, and they had the chance to collaborate on a CMJ showcase with a then-unknown Australian artist that had released his debut single through the label.
"I always had this DIY, grassroots indie feel, and that was where I always wanted to be positioned," says Kesselman. "I came back to Santos because I wanted to be at an independent venue where I had more leverage and autonomy. When [Plapinger and Davies] approached me to bring a show in, it was CMJ, and I hadn’t heard of Neon Gold. [For] CMJ, I had to book the biggest things I could because there was so much competition. They gave me a list that they were going after, and they were like, 'There's this no-name artist named Gotye, he’s really big in Australia, we're trying to get him.' I was like, ‘If you get Gotye, you can have the night.' That was how we met."
Soon, Plapinger and Davies invited Kesselman to join Neon Gold as the label’s manager, and her expertise in the live space and business acumen continued to fortify their growing operation as they continued to learn from the industry while shaping their corner of it. After their contract was up with Columbia, Neon Gold signed a new deal with Atlantic Records that made them an imprint under its esteemed umbrella in 2014. It was an organic fit as Marina, Charli XCX, and Icona Pop, another act Neon Gold supported from the jump, all called Atlantic home. For their first release, Neon Gold helmed Sucker, the sophomore album of their old pal Charli XCX, and Plapinger was struck by the parallels between their new major label partner and her role within it.
"Something that’s really meaningful to me is that it’s Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald at the helm of this company," she says of Atlantic’s chairman/CEO and chairwoman/COO. "It’s a unique situation to see a male/female duo running this company. I think there was a real symmetry and reflection to what Derek and I were doing at Neon Gold, and seeing what they were creating with Atlantic, it's inspiring, and it's cool to see sort of a reflection of a similar kind of partnership to aspire to."
A new beginning at Atlantic
Atlantic offered them the chance to experiment while pursuing releases they were passionate about, all while receiving input from some of the most venerated executives in the business. “When we went to Atlantic, I think it was also important for us to learn where to take guidance from people who are more senior to us, and have all this experience, and learned to really trust our gut,” says Kesselman. “Figuring out where that support especially came to the forefront when we brought Christine and the Queens, who had a full album in French, and we just felt so strongly about it, and so moved by it. To be able to work with that album and do a half French, half English album in America, I think it’s still one of our proudest moments.”
Since joining the team at Atlantic, Plapinger, Davies and Kesselman have continued to challenge themselves with every project while carving out a place for themselves — in the major label ecosystem, but also in the music industry at large, and without shifting their focus, passions, or indefatigable drive to keep searching for that new favorite song.
“We still hold true — we still sign direct artists to Neon Gold without going through Atlantic — but being so early on, and being a company that can be nimble to adapt to both the changes in the industry but also the artists’ needs, was something that really appealed to me,” says Kesselman. “I like that we can kind of hold true to we are, what we want to work with, how we want to do it, and we can be flexible to support the artists in whatever way they need through our various forms of business, it was either a light support with booking them on a show like Pop Shop or posting on the blog, or signing them to just a single deal through just Neon Gold, or signing them for an album with Atlantic.”
The work continues at Neon Gold, and Plapinger, Davies, and Kesselman are looking forward to their stacked release calendar ahead — one that’s chock full of strong female voices using their power and agency to bring as much equity to their projects as possible.
“Neon Gold has always been a label that’s been defined by strong creative independent women, both on the inside with Lizzie and Sarah, and out, with Marina and Charli and Tove [Lo] and Winona [Oak],” says Davies. “One of the larger trends that we’ve been trying to get into is trying to empower more female producers and engineers, and creatives in that respect. When that statistic came out that a startling 2.1 percent of all producers in the music industry are female, it was really alarming. I know that was a big wakeup call for Marina, and a big inspiration for her current project and her last single, ‘Man’s World,’ which had a fully creative team from all aspects of the project, whether that was production with Jennifer Decilveo, engineering with Emily Lazar, and all the female creatives she used for the video and photos, onwards to just really trying to bring in female producers and engineers wherever we can on whatever project we can.”
They’ve come a long way from the days when they were shipping their 7” singles out of a Vassar dorm room, but looking back, Plapinger, Davies, and Kesselman couldn’t see it going another way.
“That passion for music, that natural curiosity and growth on the business side of how this industry operates, have always gone hand in hand for Derek and me,” says Plapinger. “I think that’s why we’ve been able to sustain 10-plus years. It’s really equal parts love of music and wanting to be the greatest fan and champion of the artists that we back, but also a genuine curiosity and interest in how this industry operates, because it’s the fuckin’ Wild West, and it’s pretty much been the Wild West since we started. It’s shifting now, not only year-to-year, but month to month and week to week, with whatever new platform is being added into it. That appetite for constant growth and how that reflects and helps the artist, it’s interesting to us and always has been. The sooner we get to understand and learn it and use it as a tool, the sooner we get to be a bigger and better loudspeaker for the artists that we think need to be at the forefront of that.”