February 28, 2012
After initially earning his cred in hip-hop by signings of Jay-Z, NERD and Beenie Man, Patrick Moxey was exposed to a new music niche -electronic dance music. It impressed him so much that he left his cozy major-label gig to start his own label, Ultra Music in 1995. Before long he'd have several artists selling hundreds of thousands of records - and now Ultra is bringing some of these artists to radio full-bore. Here's how he helped turn a niche music into mass-appeal sales.
What were you doing before you started Ultra?
In the early 1990s, I founded Payday Records, which was a part of PolyGram, where I signed Jeru Da Damaja, WC & The Madd Circle, Jay-Z and others. I also managed the rap group Gangstarr, and executive produced the Jazzmatazz albums. After working for PolyGram, I worked for Virgin where I signed NERD, Kelis and Beenie Man, but what was interesting was that I was hearing all this dance and electronic music happening in the clubs. I went to the bosses at PolyGram and told them I heard all this great stuff, but they went, "Patrick, just focus on hip-hop and leave the dance stuff out of the building. Do that on your after-hours." I got pretty much the same reaction at Virgin, even though -- very quietly -- electronic/dance music was growing to be one of the most popular music genres in the world.
That's when you started Ultra?
Yes, I started Ultra Music as owner/President in 1995 and I'm thrilled to bits with the success that we're having. Every day is an adventure, putting records together and dealing with all aspects of running a company. A&R is certainly my favorite part of the job; to me it's a lot like cooking, to find a track and send it out to your writers, then find the right voice for it. Sometimes it comes out great; other times it needs a bit more of this or that, such as shorten the second verse, having a quicker chorus start, or working in a bridge section for a song. It's great to put those songs together with the team of producers, writers, artists and Ultra's A&R staff.
Was there a breakthrough project that affirmed your belief that Ultra Music would be successful?
Very early on, we began working with some DJ producers from England, Sasha and Digweed, who were virtually unknown, but through an underground network of marketing and street promotion, Ultra sold 500,000-600,000 albums with Sasha & Digweed. They were doing English trance in 1995-99; up to that point I somewhat treated this as a hobby, but the huge Sasha & Digweed success made me realize there's something explosive in electronic music. That was probably the point where I went, "No matter what anyone says, this is something real. In a way, it's similar to what attracted me to hip-hop -- when there's that level of passion for the music, that's what inspires me ... and that's what dance and electronic music has done.
How do you view breaking what has long been street and underground music on commercial radio?
I'm involved with a lot of different dance records, but Ultra only bring the most mass-appeal tracks to radio, because many of the songs just aren't the right ones. We may have to release 50 or 100 records to come up with two or three smashes that are really right for radio. We just kind of leave radio alone unless we've got a record we believe is a hit; one that's beneficial to the stations, beneficial to the listeners ... and to the ratings. We're really careful only to ring the bell on something that really has hit potential.
With all these records, there are two sides to the coin. There's the accessibility side that leads to airplay, then there's the passion our record brings. You want to get a perfect marriage of both, which for us is probably Calvin Harris' "Feel So Close," which is just exploding. We had 37 stations put it in rotation last week. Phil Nieves is doing amazing job on this record.
We were fortunate Calvin Harris was already finished when we got it; it was a case of just marketing, promoting and doing what we do, getting it on MTV and talking to radio about it with great help of our allies ... people like Joel and All Access; the record is already climbing the charts.
With every passing day I remain so impressed with the power of terrestrial radio. Obviously we believe in Internet radio and we are a plugged into the digital world; we work with Clear Channel and everyone else being born now in the Net space, but even in 2012, there's still nothing like hearing your record on Z100.
What was the first Ultra record on the radio?
It may have been Nalin & Kane "Beachball" or Jessy "Look At Me Now," but it was probably something from 2002 that got on WKTU/New York. What a thrill it was for me to hear those first Ultra songs on the records, I still get that feeling.
In general, what's the most successful strategy for breaking Ultra Music on commercial radio - hit up the strongest markets for your product first, or try to break into new and emerging markets?
We go to the strongest markets first. There are a handful of amazing programmers who genuinely believe in the music, who watch the key indicators like Internet and clubs, and can look beyond the research to take a chance on music that becomes tomorrow's hits.
While the Top 40 formats would seem most interested in you product, do you feel you have tracks that can break into other formats?
I want to take a closer look at AAA, Latin and Hot AC because I feel there are couple of places we could get a surprising amount of support. Still, at the end of the day, when someone like a Z100 or B96 steps up on a record, it's an amazing thing that speeds success.
Whenever a band has a major hit, it seems like scores of sound-alike tracks and acts suddenly pop up. Are you now receiving a flood of demos that sound like your most popular artists?
Yes; in fact it's very tempting to keep signing acts that sound similar to what has already happened. That's one of the things that's always most challenging -- to keep finding things that break into new sounds and patterns -- and I have a lot of pride in Ultra's ability to do that. We always bring some amazingly different records to the table. Edward Maya's "Stereo Love" is a record where we got an accordion sound played on daytime American radio from coast to coast, which is pretty wild ... it's kinda insane, but something about it really moves people. Another amazingly different record for us was Pitbull "I Know You Want Me," which sounded like nothing else out there at the time.
How large is Ultra-staff-wise ... and besides track sales, how else do you generate revenue?
The company has about 25 people. We're very focused on radio, marketing, film and TV synchronization, and we also have a great communication with our writers, producers and artists for publishing. In essence, we're a record label, management company, music publisher and merchandiser; what we're doing is a very natural version of 360.
There was a time not long ago when a label doing all those things would have to deal with conflict of interest. Has that ever been an issue at Ultra?
No; the main thing is you have to be good in every aspect of what you do. For example, I arranged for my producer Benny Benassi to co-write a song with our topline writer Jenson Vaughan and Madonna, which is now her new single, "Girl Gone Wild." It's exciting that our publishing company makes huge placements for our writers.
The demo of your target audience -- teens to under-30s - is presumed to be the ones who do the most downloading of music, both legally and especially illegally. How does that impact your business and what do you do about it?
You're absolutely right on that. Our electronic and dance music consumers are the most technologically-savvy people of all music consumers; they will be quick to download anything, legally or otherwise, but there are still many ways to interact with them where revenue will be generated for us and our artists.
We have a very tight timeframe between promotion and point of sale, because music is like water ... you can't keep a grip on it or hold it because it's always flowing. Our job is not to stifle it; we have to move with it. What we're seeing is streaming becoming an incredibly big part of our business. Our Ultra Music YouTube channel has over 100 million views a month; it's the #6 most-viewed YouTube channel in the world. So people are consuming our music. They may not buying as many downloads as we'd all like, but new delivery technology is also serving a great advantage against illegal downloading. When services like Spotify keep launching, it shows a lot of promise for our industry.
I would imagine that with a roster full of dance and electronic artists and DJs, the possibilities of mash-ups would be endless.
Sometimes we've put the remix parts to one of our records up on Beatport and other DJ-oriented sites and let our fans do their own mash-ups. It was interesting to see the actual remix parts of that record go to #1 on a DJ site. That's fascinating, knowing that a record can be reborn and recompiled about 6,000-plus times; it's the ultimate in interactivity.
One of your artists, Deadmau5, performed on the most recent Grammy Awards telecast. How did his appearance impact sales of his product?
It had a great impact. Sales of "Raise Your Weapon," the single he performed, increased more than 200%. Sales of his three albums on Ultra increased more than 200% at iTunes. It was a phenomenal performance. The thing I liked about Deadmau5 performance was that following an intro with the Foo Fighters, it was really just deadmau5 putting on a pure electronic performance. It was just Deadmau5 ... his music, his LED mouse head and his futuristic production. I was really proud of that moment, where a pure electronic dance music artist performed on the Grammys.
After such a performance, are you capitalizing on that by getting Deadmau5 on the road as quickly as possible?
Actually, no. He's in the middle of his next album. He's already cut a number of new songs, which are all amazing. There no shortage of great new material, and he's expected on the road again in America towards the end of the summer.
How do Ultra Music artists exploit the touring aspect of the business?
Some do it more than others. We have a record by Alexandra Stan, "Mr. Saxobeat," but she has yet to tour in North America due to her European commitments. Then we have artists such as Calvin Harris, Steve Aoki and Deadmau5, who are much more involved on the road, which offers them a great unique opportunity to generate press and get on shows such as Carson Daly's. We're currently in discussions with all the major late-night shows for Deadmau5, but it will be timed for the next record, which is tentatively going to be released in the late summer.
We're still actively working Deadmau5 current album, 4x4, which is doing great. It's already Soundscanned 300K in the U.S. and 100K in Canada. We're continuing to reposition the album at retail and sell it while we work "Raise Your Weapon" at radio.
Is the dance/electronic movement still so closely knit that when an electronic/dance artist not on Ultra, such as Skrillex, gets good airplay, it helps Ultra bands as well?
Absolutely. Ultra broke David Guetta at radio, including Z100; now he's on another label and has gone on to more and more hits, which just helps everything we're all trying to do. I see it as a very big positive. Our artist Benny Benassi has a song called "Cinema," which Skrillex remixed, which won a Grammy this year. It has over 500,000 downloads. It's definitely going to be a big record for us - and we're taking it to radio now.
Are you at all concerned that as more of Ultra's acts garner commercial airplay and garner more mainstream success, that you'll lose your street edge?
For me, it is essential that Ultra represents the spectrum of electronic music; we have the pulse of the street, but at the same time, we are able to put the more accessible things to top of the charts, which is what we're doing now. That's what we want to continue to do and never sell out. That's what got us this far ... by being very true to the music itself.
There certainly seems to be a correlation where the explosion of computers and hi-tech devices has fueled the growth of electronic dance music.
That's logical, in that today's average 16-year-old looks at computers, plug-ins and such in much the same way a 16-year-old looked at guitars decades ago. It's a very interesting time for us, where it seems that almost everyone, all of a sudden, wants to be involved with electronic dance music. We've embraced all types of new technology and have adapted it to continually promote our music to our audience.
Does the Ultra Music app do anything special?
Right now it's more of an educational asset, which offers information about label, the artists and their tour dates ... it spreads the word and is a tool for new music discovery. A lot of what we do is what I call editorial, in the same way All Access is a news website and an online music magazine. You guys are actually breaking news; well, we feel the same way about Ultra. Ultra's social media talk about electronic artists on our label and also those not on our label. The Ultra Music YouTube channel can post artists not on the label -- and that's fine with me, because at the end of the day, there's an explosive conversation taking place with electronic dance music and we're proud to be a part of it.