BRIT Trust Diaries: Universal Music Recordings' Johnny Chandler on the White Label Auction

BRIT Trust Diaries: Universal Music Recordings' Johnny Chandler on the White Label Auction

Date published: 01/03/2023

In the latest edition of the BRIT Trust Diaries, Johnny Chandler, A&R director at Universal Music Recordings, reveals how the vinyl revival helped lead to an incredible charity fund-raising initiative with the annual White Label Auction of rarities from superstar acts…

One of the by-products of the vinyl revival of the past 15 years has been the rising number of white label test pressings – so called because there is no sleeve/label artwork at this early stage – which record labels produce ahead of the full release of a new album. These first-off-the-press copies are typically sent to the artists, their managers or supporting teams including mastering engineers and A&Rs to check the audio is just as it should be before commencing full manufacture of the release. Once approved, copies are archived, and with only five or 10 usually being produced, inevitably they’re highly prized by super fans and collectors.

Between the white label sign-off/approval and the final product going on sale issues can still arise, so it’s imperative to keep copies for reference. But it was only with Universal Music UK’s move from the old offices in Kensington to our new home in Kings Cross in the autumn of 2018 that I was reminded of just how many of these we were holding by then.

I’d previously given some to Small Faces and Faces drummer Kenney Jones and Madness frontman Suggs to auction at various events they’d organised to raise funds for the Pancreatic Cancer UK charity with great results. But our cupboards were overflowing with them at this point and whilst I knew they had value, I wasn’t sure how best to realise it.  

During a meeting with Gennaro Castaldo at the BPI about National Album Day 2019, we were kicking things around and hit upon the idea of creating an auction of album test pressings as a key event for that year’s campaign. He suggested the BRIT Trust - which does so much to promote education and wellbeing through the transformative power of music, supporting brilliant diverse causes such as The BRIT School, ELAM and Nordoff & Robbins - as being an ideal beneficiary. It was perfect, and so the idea of the White Label Auction (WLA) in aid of The BRIT Trust was born.

All we needed now was someone to run the auction! 

Alan McGee had previously recommended Omega Auctions based in Newton-Le-Willows, near Manchester, and a subsequent phone call and their enthusiastic response helped make up our minds that they could be the right partners in this new endeavour. I knew we had plenty of test pressings to hand – enough to make an initial auction work, but it felt essential for it to be an industry-wide event. So we reached out to friends and counterparts at other frontline and catalogue departments at Sony, Warner, BMG and some indies, and were encouraged by their response and subsequent support for the concept. 

To our knowledge there’d never been an auction made up exclusively of white label test pressings before, so, while we were hopeful, we really didn’t know what to expect for the inaugural event on October 5, 2019.  But  we were taken aback by the results – bids totalling over £25,000 came in, with Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino achieving the highest individual price at £1,300 and The Specials collectively accounting for over £2,000, whilst the majority of the items on average each generated hundreds of pounds. We were all over the moon. 

Since then, with the exception of 2020 when there was no activity due to the pandemic, the WLA has grown and is now an event in its own right. In June 2022, it achieved a total hammer price of £43,500. The star turn then was very much The Cure, and their test pressings alone raked in an amazing £12,500 – in large part thanks to the incredibly generous Robert Smith, who signed all the band’s lots. We owe him together with Wet Leg, Sir Paul McCartney, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Sex Pistols, Neneh Cherry, Kylie Minogue, Paul Weller, PJ Harvey, The Who, Rick Wakeman and all the many other participating artists, their management and PR teams and record labels, a huge debt of thanks for their valued help and support making this initiative such a success. The efforts they’ve gone to in order to excite fans and collectors with these has been exceptional and at times just humbling. Special mention has to go to team UMR and all the consultant A&Rs for their total support and the space in which to do this.   

Across the three auctions to date, around £100,000 has been raised for the BRIT Trust and the diverse group of charities it supports. We thought there might be a slowdown as the country emerged out of lockdown in 2021, but not a bit of it, but there is no room for complacency and we’re hoping to make this year’s auction more compelling than ever. 

What has come back loud and clear time and again from each auction is the breadth of the appeal these white labels have with artists and fans. Whether pop or reggae, rock or dance, noughties to nineties or sixties to seventies, there’s a real appetite for these unique pieces.

If they’re signed by the artist or feature a doodle or both that appetite increases dramatically. Notes of provenance again enhance their appeal, whilst the support of the artist for the WLA, and in particular their own white labels via social media and in the press, can significantly impact what’s achieved on the day. Which is why we’ve asked the hugely respected artist PR Julian Stockton to join the team to ensure fans and collectors, who might like the idea of owning a little bit of history connected to an artist they love, get to know all about this annual event.  

Obviously, we’d like the WLA to keep growing so we can raise as much as possible. To do that we need your help and, if you’re up for it, there are many ways you can get involved: 

• If you are an artist, manager or label, please get in touch if you have any recent/new test pressings you’d like to donate and if they’re signed even better 

• By spreading the word and following us @WhiteLabelAuct #WhiteLabelAuction

• By registering for updates with Omega Auctions and maybe even placing your own bids when the time comes

• And finally, if perhaps you have an old white label gem or two amongst your LPs which you can spare, the funds raised will go to brilliant causes courtesy of the BRIT Trust – our music industry charity that welcomes all support, especially at this time when its vital work is needed more than ever.

If you’d like to help please get in touch:

[email protected] 

[email protected]