December/January 2023

by Gareth Shute

Leftover CDs To YouTube Success: 20 Years of Lil’ Chief Records

by Gareth Shute

Leftover CDs To YouTube Success: 20 Years of Lil’ Chief Records

Over the last two decades, Gareth Shute has taken a wide range of roles within Lil’ Chief Records – band member, CD distributor, event organiser, media rep, and even tour driver for a visiting US records label. Here he takes us through the history of the very indie Auckland label, from its start in a rundown Kingsland flat, to becoming the launching pad for the viral music success of Princess Chelsea and Jonathan Bree.

The success of Lil’ Chief Records in recent years has hinged on online breakthroughs that might be hard for some to get their head around. Princess Chelsea’s music video Cigarette Duet has over 80 million views (three times that of Lorde‘s Solar Power), while on Spotify the song is at 65 million (so more than the two most popular Six60 songs combined).

Chelsea now plays to packed houses across Europe, and the success of Cigarette Duet has generated more revenue from synch deals and YouTube ads (etc). Her labelmate Jonathan Bree has had a similar breakthrough with his song, You’re So Cool (at 26 million views).

Impressive numbers, but it’s a lot more difficult to build a career when your fanbase is thinly spread across the entire planet. Unfortunately, there is no easy secret to share about how Lil’ Chief achieved this viral impact, though we’ve learnt plenty of lessons over the years.

Ironically, YouTube hadn’t even been launched when Lil’ Chief first started. The label was the brainchild of Auckland musicians Scott Mannion from The Tokey Tones and Jonathan (then of The Brunettes), along with Lawrence Mikkelsen – though he was sensible enough not to put any money in! My own involvement began when Jonathan and Scott took over the flat downstairs from mine – a Kingsland villa that was so decrepit Scott’s room had a tray on the roof which the landlord had attached to catch water leaking from our shower upstairs.

Lil’ Chief’s first release was The Brunettes’ 2002 album ‘Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks’. It was actually a co-release with EMI, arranged through Neil Finn. He’d heard Liam complaining on TV about The Brunettes not having any label support so suggested his friends at EMI should get in touch.

The Tokey Tones came next, followed by The Nudie Suits, which was led by Jonathan’s cousin Mark Lyons. Jonathan had first started playing music as a 12-year-old in Mark’s former band, Plaster Saints. The Nudie Suits drew from the moment in musical history where country music first morphed into rock’n’roll and Mark’s partner Dionne Taylor drew on her Samoan heritage by playing lap steel in the band (finding a connection with other Polynesian greats such as Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm), while her cousin Tammy played violin.

The Brunettes remained Lil’ Chief’s flagship band, with Jonathan’s songwriting talents backed by the multi-instrumentalist skills of singer Heather Mansfield and the amazing drive of their manager at the time, Melinda Olykan. In 2005, The Brunettes used their meagre savings to visit the UK and fluked a support slot with US group, Postal Service, which put them in front of Jonathan Poneman – the owner of Sub Pop Records.

This kicked off a very exciting period. Another Sub Pop group, The Shins, asked The Brunettes to join them for a tour across the US. Meanwhile, Poneman was becoming so enamoured with Aotearoa that he brought his staff here for a retreat in 2006. I was given the job of driving them around the South Island and it was quite surreal seeing Mark Arm from Mudhoney sitting on a West Coast beach playing my ukulele.

The Brunettes signed to Sub Pop, as did another Lil’ Chief act The Ruby Suns, who had also signed to Memphis Industries in the UK. The Ruby Suns were run by Ryan McPhun who’d previously been The Brunettes’ drummer, while the band’s former guitarist James Milne started The Reductions Agents and Lawrence Arabia (both of whom released their debuts through Lil’ Chief).

Jonathan Poneman believed that we could create the same hype around the Lil’ Chief scene as he had done for the Seattle grunge scene in the era of Nirvana. He loved the slower songs by our recent signing Voom and suggested dividing their recordings into two albums – rock songs on one and more moody tracks on the other – then Sub Pop would consider picking up the latter. This led to Lil’ Chief’s first attempt at telling one of its artists what to do – and it was roundly rebuffed!

The focus on overseas did mean some mistakes were made at home. For example, Lil’ Chief released an album by Shaft, just prior to one by local music legend Alec Bathgate from Tall Dwarfs, Toy Love, and The Enemy. This ended up causing Shaft to get the majority of the coverage, so the Bathgate album was somewhat overlooked. (Alec has since re-released his solo work on vinyl, so do seek it out).

Around this time, Lil’ Chief also put out acts we loved like The Gladeyes and Edmund Cake/Pie Warmer (ex-Bressa Creeting Cake). In our home city, one of our biggest claims to fame was our Xmas parties. It is quite bizarre to think back to the Checks crammed into the Lil’ Chief kitchen or musical teen trio Teacups performing in the corner of Jonathan’s crappy flat (the group included both Chelsea Jade, and Liz Stokes from The Beths).

The Brunettes seemed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough when their video for Her Hairagami Set was put on the homepage of the new-ish web platform, YouTube. It raced to 200k views, which was then a mighty number. The video showed a puppet of a teenager taking a hairdryer into her high school, so she could mess up the hair of a bully. Sub Pop thought that this was too reminiscent of the recent Red Lake school shooting, so pulled all promotions for the song and video just as it was taking off.

The Ruby Suns had their own breakthroughs. ‘Sea Lion’ received an 8.3 on Pitchfork and Oh Mojave reached many listeners through being used by an ad campaign by Microsoft (though as a vegetarian Ryan turned down a lucrative offer from Mcdonalds’). The Ruby Suns gained a similar boost when In Real Life appeared on Grand Theft Auto V.

However, the worldwide sales of CDs were collapsing. Making matters worse The Brunettes were dropped from Sub Pop on the eve of a US tour and found their new manager was going through a mental breakdown. The group were saved by Ben Goldberg (manager of Beirut) who passed them onto his intern – a young singer named Sharon Van Etten. This meant they could finish the tour, but the band broke up afterwards.

Jonathan Bree started a solo career instead, and his new song Boxes reflected on the piles of unsold CDs in the Lil’ Chief garage: ‘Boxes full of plastic that no one wants to buy / Stacked in my car, sitting in the drive / Having our own label, well it was pretty nice / We helped put out some great stuff / Threw some awesome parties … but now there’s only boxes.’

The label continued to release great new acts. Sheep, Dog & Wolf found listeners throughout the world for his rhythmically-complex, yet melodically beautiful work. For others, Lil’ Chief was a stepping stone on their way to bigger success – most notably, Djeisan Suskov from Lil’ Chief act Cool Rainbows later became a member of Leisure and an in-demand producer who co-wrote hits by Benee, Matthew Young and others.

Yet the most important act for the label during this period was undoubtedly Princess Chelsea. Chelsea Nikkel started out in punky indie group Teen Wolf, then joined The Brunettes as a keyboard player for multiple international tours. Her 2011 debut album ‘Little Golden Book’ showed off both her talents as a pianist and her subtle sense of humour. Cigarette Duet was the catchiest track on the album, so Jonathan Bree directed a suitably eye-catching video for it, as well as singing on the track.

The viral success of Cigarette Duet happened slowly. Over the first two years, it gained 10 million views on YouTube, making it one of the top 10 NZ music videos on the service. Year by year it continued to be discovered anew. It was already at 50 million views when it became a TikTok phenomenon in 2021. Influencer Brittany Furlan used it for a video that showed her partner Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe) smoking a cigarette to annoy her. Subsequently, over 26k TikToks used the song. TikTok pays royalties on the amount of videos that uses a song, not how many times it is streamed so it was great that our aggregator at the time, DRM, was so helpful in navigating this new world.

I Love My Boyfriend also went viral for Chelsea via TikTok. Not to be outdone, Jonathan created his own aesthetic using featureless full-face masks and this eventually saw his video for You’re So Cool take off. In 2019, Lil’ Chief co-founder Scott Mannion finally came out with a follow-up album to his Tokey Tones work under his own name in 2019 (after 15 years of silence), producing the minor online hit Your Kinda Love.

Lil’ Chief Records at 20 years old is feeling more vibrant than ever. A new distribution deal with US heavyweights Secretly means that our untidy approach to physical and digital sales will finally be unified. It’s also great that people who were involved at the start like myself and Lawrence Mikkelsen are now joined by Chelsea and the ever-helpful Rebecca Stitt, who keep the label moving forward despite the fact that it still has no full-time staff.

Over the years, there have been plenty of stressful times, with arguments amongst ourselves, sleepless nights, and tears were certainly shed. So I think the real victory is the fact that we’re still all close friends and that the label is still putting out great music, which is being heard by more people than ever before.