Ultra embraces streaming singles to keep a booming dance genre


The disco ball was spinning like a sparkling moon and a pair of go-go dancers crisscrossed in neon wigs at a Brooklyn nightclub during the recent 20th anniversary party for Ultra Music, one of the record labels in the city. origin of the explosive growth of dance music in the United States.

As a DJ’s mix exploded, Patrick Moxey, the silver-haired founder and president of Ultra, greeted guests with hugs and a big smile. But the party, he said, was not just celebration. It was also a recognition of the struggle – you could say the turmoil – over the years to bring electronic dance music, or EDM, from its underground origins to the mainstream commercial audience.

If Ultra and the dance world as a whole face a struggle these days, it’s simply to keep the momentum going. Once viewed by the music industry as a minor subculture, EDM is now a vital part of the pop world, fueling a growing festival market and providing much of the underlying sound of the Top 40. radio.

Mr. Moxey and Ultra worked in the trenches of the US market for years, pushing now famous artists like Calvin Harris and David Guetta to radio programmers when dance music was still seen as a risk. Today, the label is reaping rewards through a partnership with Sony and with successful artists like OMI and Kygo, a 24-year-old Norwegian DJ and producer who will perform at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on January 21.

“Without Ultra, the American scene would have started all over again,” said Joel Zimmerman, an agent for William Morris Endeavor who represents Kygo and other major EDM groups like Deadmau5 and Kaskade.

Ultra, who released their first single in 1996, made a name for themselves with compilation CDs like “Ultra.Dance” and “Ultra.Chilled” that hit the shelves every year and invariably featured a scantily clad woman on top. the little bag. But these days, the label is focusing on the popularity of singles on streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube. The albums, Mr. Moxey said, are almost an afterthought.

“We went back to a model closer to the Motown model of the 50s and 60s,” Mr. Moxey, 49, said in an interview at the brand’s loft near the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. “The pressure is all on the song.”

While streaming has started to appeal to consumers, its value remains contested in the music industry, as the fractions of pennies that labels and artists earn for each stream are far less than the revenue from a CD download or album. This calculation may be the reason why Adele selected “25”, her hit album, from the streaming services.

But Ultra has fully embraced streaming. The label declined to provide specific numbers, but Mr Moxey said Ultra has always been profitable and continues to grow 10-15% per year, even as the rest of the recording industry has struggling to keep income at a stable level.

A gigantic number of streams make the difference for Ultra. The more than 2,000 videos on his YouTube page have garnered four billion views, and Kygo – who has yet to release a full album – has racked up a billion streams on Spotify in just one year. At Ultra’s office, plaques on the wall commemorate not only sales numbers, but YouTube subscriber milestones as well.

“Streaming is our friend,” said Mr Moxey, whose slowly delivered speech picks up speed when discussing the worldwide spread of dance music online. “Nothing is cumbersome than a piece of plastic when all you want is music.”

Three years ago, Sony Music Entertainment bought 50 percent of Ultra to establish itself in the growing dance world, giving Mr. Moxey a dual role as Sony’s president for electronic music. The deal also gives Ultra some financial security, and the label can now count on Sony’s global infrastructure to help sell records. The artists Mr. Moxey signs are promoted by Sony labels around the world, or by Ultra’s own staff of 25.

Doug Morris, Managing Director of Sony Music Entertainment, speaks approvingly of Mr. Moxey as an old-fashioned record industry con artist. “Anyone who has their own business and keeps it open for as long as they’ve done it,” Morris said, “is doing something right.”

Mr. Moxey made his dance debut while at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, the heyday of house music in that city. He came to New York in 1987 to take the graduate film program at New York University, but dropped out after a week, he said, and started DJing. at warehouse parties and working with hip-hop artists at record labels, where top executives, he says, made fun of the dance world.

He raised $ 8,000 to make Ultra’s debut record, from New York DJ Roger Sanchez, and took it to Miami for the Winter Music Conference, an annual gathering for the dance world, to present to DJs and promoters around the world.

“Someone would say, ‘Across the pool he’s the DJ from Atlanta, he’s the DJ from London, from Paris, from LA,” Moxey recalls. “We gave them a 12 inch vinyl record. This is how you broke the record. It was the Internet.

Mr. Moxey built the label in part thanks to his knack for turning an ordinary song into a hit by finding the right producer to remix it. This formula continued to work for Ultra, which in 2014 hired German DJ Robin Schulz to remix Mr. Probz’s track “Waves”. Soon after, the label enjoyed another hit with “Cheerleader,” a reggae-tinged song by Jamaican singer OMI that was remixed by fellow young German producer, Felix Jaehn, and went No. 1 on iTunes in the whole world.

When asked why Ultra hired him, Mr Jaehn noted that it happened shortly after the success of the “Waves” remix. “So they’ve seen this phenomenon happen before and they probably thought, ‘Let’s ask the next German DJ to try it again,'” he said.

In the EDM world, the perennial question behind the scenes is whether the genre’s popularity is just a bubble about to burst. Dance festival company SFX Entertainment went public in late 2013 for more than $ 1 billion, but its shares were battered by the market, and last week the company revealed it was considering bankruptcy. .

Mr Moxey dismissed the suggestion of a bubble, saying the dance world was healthy and growing. “There is no bubble to burst,” he said, adding that the development of streaming has strengthened the business.

“This allowed the songs to be released quickly and in an exciting way to a global audience,” he said. “And the dance music works in any local language, because it’s mostly the beat.”

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