How Astralwerks Won the Porter Robinson Bidding War

Porter Robinson

Alexander Frederick

Porter Robinson’s debut album is coming, and it’s coming to Astralwerks.

The label of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim -- and most recently, Deadmau5 -- has prevailed in a competitive bid to sign the 21-year-old DJ/producer’s first long-player, Billboard has learned. After a process that reportedly had Robinson shopping a near-complete album to a variety of majors and EDM-focused indies, the young star landed at the label (an imprint of Capitol in the U.S. and Virgin EMI in the U.K.) -- precisely, he says, because of its non-EDM credentials. The as-yet-unnamed album is scheduled for release some time in 2014.

“The thing that was most critical for us in deciding which home to have was that they get the vision,” Robinson tells Billboard exclusively. “There are a lot of labels out there that want to have the next big EDM thing and that’s totally not what the album is about at all. It kind of lives more in the alternative space than in the dance world. I needed a team of people who had experience with both worlds.”

The industry has been buzzing about the album since Robinson and his management team, Aaron Greene and Neal O’Connor from Slush Management, started playing it -- under very high security -- for various labels.

“It’s got hits -- plural,” said one label manager.

While Robinson’s resume includes the usual bullets for a developing EDM DJ/producer -- tours opening for Tiësto and Skrillex, remixes for Lady Gaga, festival headlining slots -- it’s his potential as a cross-genre, career artist that has everyone so excited.

“This was a very competitive deal which was completely expected and warranted. Porter is one of the most talented artists of his generation and will be ushering in the next incarnation of electronic music,” says Astralwerks GM Glenn Mendlinger. “Expect genre-defying music, technology, visual art, forward-thinking social media integration and a bold touring strategy [from this project].”

While both parties are tight-lipped about the details of the deal, Astralwerks says it is "not a 360" but “a long-term and multi-faceted partnership,” indicating that it’s for more than one album and involves more than just music. Astralwerks cut one of the first and most extensive 360 deals in EDM with its signing of Swedish House Mafia -- and its touring, merchandising, documentaries and iPad apps -- prior to the group’s explosion into an arena-selling-out sensation.

But the deal also gives the young star plenty of autonomy. “There were a lot of contenders for trying to get this album and trying to sign me overall,” says Robinson. “I think we were able to structure things in a way that were really favorable and kept me totally free. I have final cut on everything.”

“I’m not willing to have any dumb oppressive deadlines,” he continues, “I think we’ve been super clear from the get-go that the music has to come first and it has to be done in a way that’s totally free. And whatever you want to offer us for that, great -- and if you want to give us a record deal, awesome. And everyone still seemed to want to.”

In a market where crossover dance hits have typically been driven by a combination of anthemic toplines and driving EDM beats, Robinson’s new label is no doubt eager to find a hit from their new sign. To that end, Mendlinger is confident that Robinson can deliver -- all while challenging the status quo.

“There will be multiple singles that will excite and surprise people and touch multiple formats,” Mendlinger says. “The musical direction of this album is non-linear; it shatters pre-conceived notions of formulaic dance music and elicits a visceral response, exploring the themes of vastness, beauty and emotion. With the evolution of radio in the US, as well as the rapid growth of dance music here, the stage is set for us to bring Porter’s music to a much wider audience than what was possible even one year ago.”

With their recent addition of Deadmau5, Mat Zo (who debuted atop the Heatseekers Chart this week), and now Robinson, Astralwerks has resolutely revitalized its position in the dance music world, a space it pioneered two decades ago, breaking artists like the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, during the electronica explosion of the mid to late ‘90s. Part of this, says Mendlinger, is due to the imprint’s freedom in signing artists directly to the label and -- as with Robinson -- in joint deals brokered with their sister labels in the UK, all in close step with the artists and their teams.

The power of unified international departments is partly what brought Daft Punk to Columbia under a similar situation (with a completed album and fully conceived marketing plan, ready for execution). It also inspired the creation of Universal’s PM:AM alliance, and Sony’s recent strategic alliance with Ultra Music.

That’s all in the background for Robinson, who’s rightly focused on the music.

“I feel more strongly about this music that I’ve written for this album than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I think it would be doing myself a disservice not to say that overtly. If I didn’t totally believe in this, then no one would ever hear it.”