Talking with Defected Records About Their Virtual Festival, the Future, and the Community Tuning in

The future of the industry might seem grim at this moment, but while straining our eyes towards the end of the tunnel to spot a glimmer of light, we’re regularly distracted by sick tunes blasting from loudspeakers all over the world, going from artists to fans' homes in real time. Among those who adapted swiftly and hit us with a weekly Virtual Festival are Defected Records, a household name in the House community. We discussed the importance of the latter and the potential for artists.
Defected Records on Their Virtual Festival and the Community
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Urska Jaksa

"Bringing people together through live events is magical, but the feedback loop can be even more involved at a virtual festival than at a 'real live' one," is one of the thoughts that stand out from our conversation with James and Wez of Defected. Besides representing a label that has introduced us to many House classics (hey, sometimes we really do feel much better “At Night”), they’re uniting people on the dancefloor with events like Glitterbox and festivals such as Defected Croatia

During this unprecedented pause on events, enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have faded. The Defected Virtual Festival team has witnessed videos of people raving in a hospital ward, dancing NHS workers, and families enjoying festivities together while introducing children to House music – all to beats served by a heavyweight lineup including Roger SanchezCalvin Harris as Love Regenerator, ClaptoneBlack Motion and others. A strong, digitally enabled community seems to be key for a quick response, so we dug deeper and addressed the future and the potential of this home2home concept. And in the conclusion, we've gathered some advice for all of you who are using this downtime to rethink your strategy and trying to get labels to notice your demo.

“It is this community that has become our life blood and that will therefore continue to enable us to adapt. It means we’re not reliant on outside marketing and can swiftly craft, create and activate to thousands and millions of people in a moment.”

Struck by the cancellations of gigs, the music industry has quickly shifted from clubs to screens. Besides the massive extent of livestreaming today, it’s nothing new: the tools were already here and the virtual world has been merging with the physical one for some time. Is this why the music industry was able to respond quickly or is flexibility just in the nature of the business? 

James Kirkham, Chief Business Officer: Defected are a new-era music company. We’ve amassed well over 5M followers and are fortunate enough to have the world’s biggest House music community. It’s this community that has become our life blood and that will therefore continue to enable us to adapt. It means we’re not reliant on outside marketing and can swiftly craft, create and activate to thousands and millions of people in a moment. It means if we create content or ideas that cut through, we go outside our own walls and way beyond our own community, into the wider music-loving universe. So whether we’re promoting a new record, pushing a video, telling a story or launching an entire virtual event, we can act swiftly with the business so agile and dependent only on a digitally enabled music-loving audience. 

James Kirkham: “The layers of fan and audience interaction during the broadcast will become more commonplace.”

The industry has lived through many changes over the years. Was there ever a time as challenging?

Wez Saunders, Managing Director: None of us have ever quite experienced anything to this degree before. The music industry has travelled across many choppy waters, be it the transition from vinyl to CD then later from physical to digital, through piracy and most recently, a shift in downloads to streaming and subsequently businesses/providers/competitors going out of business as a result of any of those changes. What has never happened before is the complete pause on events activity. Event organisers, festivals and artist agencies are at an absolute standstill right now, and I doubt the businesses and artists solely reliant upon gigs have ever experienced anything like this before. We are very fortunate to have multiple facets to our business, with recorded music at the centre of everything we do.

How do you see the future: will this change the music business forever? Or will it bounce back to “the usual” when the situation stabilizes?

James: I see lots of little changes coming to light, hopefully many of them welcome. From adversity comes great creativity and positivity too. It takes a moment in time to cause people to think differently and act in a smarter, more thoughtful, creative fashion. Our Defected Virtual Festival has succeeded for many reasons beyond just first mover advantage, which was a result of us being able to act in such a nimble manner. I think the layers of fan and audience interaction during the broadcast will become more commonplace. Elevating fans into the social sphere, highlight favourites and helping them become small stars of the show through their own involvement. I also see a more personal relationship between artists/DJs and their audience. Despite being behind a screen, there will be a closer proximity coming to the fore. It will be expected to be able to get closer to an artist, spend time in more intimate Q&A, virtual meet and greet style sessions – albeit on technology like Zoom or WhatsApp.

Wez Saunders: “Turn the adversity into positivity. Use this time to remember the reason you started in this industry in the first place, to remember your ‘why'."

Calvin Harris says Defected helped define the sound of House music he was listening to as a teenager and he still keeps his demo rejection letter. Now, he joined the Virtual Festival as a headliner with the Love Regenerator set. How does it feel to go full circle?

Wez: It’s amazing. Calvin Harris has remained a friend of the label ever since Simon Dunmore (Defected’s founder and owner, A/N) called him as a teenager and wrote him that letter. Simon and Calvin have remained in contact across all these years. Andy Daniell (former Defected A&R, now FFRR) developed a relationship with Calvin too, supplying him with records and acapellas and generally sharing information on music. As a company, and as individuals, we have huge admiration and respect for him, and very much welcome Love Regenerator to the Virtual Festival.

Listen to the set here while you scroll a little further to find advice on how to get eyes and ears on your demo.

Events build strong bonds with the community and they're still more interactive: artists can read the crowd, adjust their sets accordingly – all the things that can’t really be done via screen. On the other hand, people can now show up in their tracksuits without having to get a nanny and we’ve heard some positive feedback about that. Is technology able to recreate the dancefloor experience or is it still a second-best option?

James: I don’t believe it's better or worse, it's just different. Dancefloors unite people. Our parties and events bring people together in a way that is magical. Accessible to everyone, no barriers or obstacles, where anything goes. People bring their personalities and characters to dancefloors and share this beautiful common experience. It's alchemic and primal. 

Our virtual festival has been different. We wanted to bring people together, we wanted to unite people, we wanted to generate positive feeling in the face of genuine adversity and uncertainty. What became most rewarding for us as a brand was the involvement of the individual. This feedback loop was way more involved, interactive and whole than we can even get at a festival in 'real' life. We've had films sent from a man raving in a hospital ward in Greece. We've had NHS workers in their vehicles, dancing to the music on their iPad. We've had countless videos of cross-generational families, where children were being introduced to House music for the very first time, dancing with their parents in their lounge. These magical layers are exactly what has made it so different, so widespread, and has given everything such breadth.

“We've had countless videos of cross-generational families, where children were being introduced to House music for the very first time, dancing with their parents in their lounge.”

Considering artists currently aren’t “distracted” by being on the road, do you think we can expect a higher level of creativity and improvisation in the studio and some really great records as a result?

James: I hope it's less binary than before and that artists know they can create, innovate, tell stories, think, make, do. There is limitless opportunity to put out creativity in whatever form it might take. Before, it might have been about adhering to a well-trodden cycle of making a record in the studio, promoting it, touring and repeat. Now, because of this enforced period indoors and away from others, it means artists are thinking more about their brand, how to communicate with their fans, how to activate ideas through social media in an inventive way, how to cut through the clutter, and plenty more besides. This can only be a good thing.

To follow-up on the topic of sending demos – up-and-coming artists now have the time to think about their vision and approach. Any advice for them on how to stand out and get on the radar? What’s the main criteria when picking a new artist to sign or book?

Wez: Build a story. Don’t go in cold on your pitch. Use the time to connect with artists you wish to support your records. Try to get them into any online streaming activity that’s going on right now. Use the assets to continue to promote the music and yourself. Create content. Use the time to be innovative and creative. Build a bigger picture and develop a promotion plan for yourself and your record. Be unique. Offer something different. Focus on quality over quantity. If you do that right, you will stand out from the crowd. Be seen and heard.

As for the main lessons to be learnt, Wez advises:“Turn the adversity into positivity. Use this time to remember the reason you started in this industry in the first place, to remember your ‘why'. Remember, without the people, you are nothing. Protect them, cleanse the industry, review values and future-proof. Innovate. Create. Provide.” James concludes: “There’s no room for a lazy simplistic approach at this. It will get ruthlessly filtered out by millions. But engage them, and they will do the marketing for you.”

 

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Urska Jaksa

Urska Jaksa

Managing Editor at Viberate
Storyteller with a nerd eye for music data. Believes in the healing power of group singing, while her ultimate cure are live shows.