Ultra Records: Patrick Moxey

Tim Ingham Music week 02/05/13

It’s widely acknowledged that while some amazing dance music was getting mainstream UK acceptance in the mid-1990s, the US simply wasn’t listening.

As The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Propellerheads and more were scoring Official Chart hits on this side of the Atlantic, Patrick Moxey was being told in no uncertain terms that “dance music will never sell in America”.

US radio was refusing to play anything too bass-driven, whilst audiences were perplexed by acts bounding onto stages without guitars. Yet it was within this climate, astonishingly, that Moxey decided: ‘I’ve really got to set up my own US dance label.’

In 1996, Ultra Records was born. Moxey wasn’t new to the game of signing and developing top-notch talent – a previous manager of hip-hop kings Gangstarr, he was given his first notable industry job by Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons.

In the early 1990s, Moxey was picked by Pete Tong to run Payday Records in the US through Polygram – and played a hand in securing the signature of a young rapper called Jay-Z. From there he moved onto Virgin, signing N*E*R*D, Kelis and Beenie Man, but the former student DJ craved to move back into the dance scene.

Despite Ultra’s conception amid an arid time for dance successes in the US, it grew through credibility and some inarguably impressive signings (Roger Sanchez, Cascade) before Sasha & Digweed delivered the label’s first proper hits, selling more than 500,000 records over six albums.

Moxey ploughed on in the face of powerful adversity (while Ultra was still a fledgling outfit, he recalls being told by MTV “dance music will never work”), in the hope that one day the wider US scene would ‘get it’. And in 2013, boy have they.

The explosion of the electronic music scene in America has sent both record and ticket sales rocketing – you’ll recognise Ultra’s name from its loose association with Miami’s Ultra Festival, which drew 165,000 people last spring; or perhaps from its YouTube page, which now boasts more than one million subscribers and two billion views.

Its current roster includes North American artists Kaskade, deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner and Steve Aoki, whilst international artists it handles in the US include Calvin Harris, Benny Benassi, Alex Gaudino, The Bloody Beetroots and Congorock.

Little wonder that Sony has chosen Ultra as a partner to give the major a serious A&R stakehold in the world of EDM. The pair last week announced a new global relationship covering A&R, distribution, international repertoire and more.

As a result of the partnership, Moxey has been named president, Electronic Music, Sony Music Entertainment, reporting directly to Doug Morris, CEO, Sony Music Entertainment.

Sony will distribute releases from Ultra’s recorded music division in North America via RED in the US and Sony Music Canada, while outside North America, Sony Music International and Ultra will share resources to promote and market Ultra’s artists worldwide. In addition, Ultra Music will help promote and market Sony Music artists in the US and Canada.

And that’s not all Moxey has going on: at Midem 2013, he announced his involvement in the Association For Electronic Music – the new global trade body for a genre now estimated to be worth $4bn worldwide each year.

Music Week grilled Moxey on Ultra’s Sony relationship, the growth of dance (‘EDM’) – and whether the bubble is going to burst anytime soon…

It seems like young people in the US have switched allegiances in this generation from rock music to dance…

Absolutely. If you’re a 15-year-old kid right now nothing’s cooler than house. Of course it’s popular with people in their 20s too, but the demographic’s going right the way down. A lot of the people who will be at the Swedish House Mafia Madison Square Garden show [in March] will be there with their mum supervising them. That’s kind of cool.

As Ultra, how have you ridden the current rising trend of electro music in the States? You have popular hits on radio but harder stuff too…

Yeah, where I derive the most satisfaction is hearing a fantastic record like Calvin Harris’ Feel So Close go from leftfield to mainstream. That to me is like a perfect scenario. But then I also love it when we have a fantastic hard techno record and we ship that record out to a club. We try to put that in the box of all the mainstream DJs as well and some of them get it and some of them don’t – but at least we’re challenging; we’re moving their needles, we’re pushing their boundaries. That’s always what Ultra means to me as a label – there’s going to be some candy but there’s also going to be some challenges.

Have you noticed the acceptance of the music you love growing a lot at that mainstream radio level?

Yes, there was a point when radio said that dance music would never work and now it’s changed to exactly the opposite. A lot of that was just perseverance. I give credit to those key live promoters, Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy, Insomnia; and to the agents of the talent who market to Ultra Records for relentlessly pushing the music out to journalists. It’s been a long road but it’s so gratifying now. People might come in on a David Guetta record and discover other dance music. A lot of people can say “Oh, some of these dance records are so pop” but I think it’s creating a bigger universe for more credible underground music.

Do Sony genuinely have a passion for this music?

They had a real hunger for it and fantastic executives… Ashley [Newton] for Columbia in the US, Edgar Berger for Sony global, Pete Edge, the head of RCA in the US. For me it’s like a dream team; empowering these people who have taste to bring in more stuff with taste. And Nick Gatfield is absolutely fantastic. We had a great meeting recently about how the UK infrastructure has really been strengthened. A lot of the pieces of the puzzle are in place so there’s going to be a very, very strong dance music presence in the UK. I’m very excited.

Have Sony taken any equity in Ultra?

Sony has made an investment in the company and there is a repertoire exchange, and we’ve switched our distribution from Warner to Sony. We’re also working on compilations with Sony.

The cynic in me would say, if Sony had a great dance artist, why wouldn’t they just put it out themselves rather than coming to you?

The simple answer is, I think they would. If it’s obviously a hit, it would go through them. But usually you’d want to develop the acts [in the US]. EMI did that with David Guetta and we did it with Calvin Harris. That makes sense for the UK or European major that understands dance music culture very well but knows things might not be that straightforward in the US. The reason Kaskade sells out [tours] in the US is because we’ve been developing this artist for eight years; it wasn’t just like magic.

What does Sony’s investment mean that Ultra can do now that it couldn’t do previously?

It broadens our international reach, it also means that there are lots of interesting acts in North America [coming to Ultra] in return.

Is this going to increase the amount of artists on your roster?

I don’t think we’ll be growing the roster so much but there will be a more powerful and stronger international reach and more of a presence at key music events. Our potential to market in a global fashion is much stronger when you’ve got radio and video teams etc. you can talk to multiple territories at once. Ultra already has people on the ground in the UK, Ireland, Canada and in the US… to add on now a ‘big brother’, so to speak, is a good thing.

You’re reporting into Doug Morris – what’s his understanding on the rise of EDM?

Absolutely great. I was telling him about this rise of electronic music and he was telling me about how it reminds him of Woodstock; it’s just amazing to see how he perceives it, how he relates the cultures. He said he was recently at an event, I think it was in Florida, and he saw three stages – one stage had electronic music and that was having the biggest reaction. He’s there, just as a music lover just watching it happen and appreciating it. For me that’s a big endorsement. What more can you ask for from the chairman of Sony Music who’s been in the game for however long? He’s picked great people around him.

Your YouTube channel seems to have been a big success. What’s the secret?

We have over 2 billion views on the channel and we have over 100,000,000 views a month. I almost see this language of electronic music as a conversation so we have a video producer in-house and we’ll make about 100 music videos a year. For one thing, there’s revenue coming for the artists and ourselves but, also, what fantastic promotion.

There’s definitely a lesson for the wider music industry from the electronic music scene’s relationship with YouTube. But are you satisfied with the income that comes through from the site?

We have a great sales force that deals with YouTube, but the bigger picture is when we’re at electronic concerts and festivals, I’m seeing these incredible artists. For the most part the music business stopped capturing these moments once they stopped selling [as many] DVDs. We recently filmed Kaskade live from the Staple Centre, Benny Benassi from Electric in Brixton. We’ve promoted them through iTunes, put them up on Netflix. We’re sort of finding business models as we go along but if we don’t capture these experiences now, we’ll never have them in the future.

I admit, it is kind of painstaking clearing the rights, especially as some of these guys want to do mash-ups, but if we have a fully-cleared concert piece which can then be purchased, that benefits the artist and ourselves. For one thing, I think it’s a great promo piece in itself to have a whole concert. It’s really been important for me to start to assemble a library of concerts because this is part of the music experience and history. Every year there’ll be some new additional outlet that needs content.

Does that Ultra concert movie business in itself break even?

Yes, it breaks even and I feel like we’re adding great pieces for artists and ourselves. I believe in electronic music for the long-term and all you have to do is think about how many dance music samples other artists are bringing back from the Eighties and the Nineties to see the value of these tracks. We’re doing it right: we recently filmed a concert in Toronto and had 11 cameras and four cranes capturing the experience.

Does YouTube contribute enough for you?

Well, our YouTube channel itself is absolutely profitable – for the artists and ourselves. Streaming as a new revenue is very exciting – whether it’s YouTube or Spotify. A lot of people are like “Oh, don’t put stuff on Spotify.” It’s hard to roll back the clock, that’s all I can say. You have to think about what happens when something like Spotify really takes off; when they make that breakthrough.

How big can the dance scene become?

People often say to me it’s a bubble. Is it? There might be a little bit of a deflation but there’s no bubble to burst; it’s impossible because people’s first instrument now is electronic. When I was growing up young people might have started playing keyboards, some people were into guitar, some into drums. But now most of the time the first instruments are the keyboard or the computer. Electronic music is here to stay, it’s not going anywhere. And the good news for outside genres is that electronic music loves to accept other music; hip hop, rock and more. I think it’s the most inclusive genre in the world.

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