Ultra Music Founder Patrick Moxey on Dance Music Going Mainstream and OMI's Global Success
Ultra music founder/president Patrick Moxey may have cut his teeth throwing underground warehouse parties in 1980s New York, but the dance music veteran fully embraces the genre's move to the mainstream. "I've always wanted to make the music as popular as possible," says the 49-year-old, London-born, Boston-bred executive. It's working: The Felix Jaehn remix of OMI's "Cheerleader" became Ultra's first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July, topping the chart for six weeks with its tropical electronic sound.
The timing of that event was serendipitous, as 2015 represents the imprint's 20th anniversary. Founded by Moxey after a stint in artist management (Moby, DJ "Little" Louie Vega) and label jobs at PolyGram and Virgin, Ultra's hallmark has been its versatility and continued relevance -- from nurturing the North American followings of '90s rave icons Sasha & Digweed to breaking a new generation of stars like David Guetta, Calvin Harris and Deadmau5 during the subsequent stateside boom. It's also a label where Pitbull's breakthrough hit, "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)," can coexist with German techno stalwart Loco Dice's forthcoming Underground Sound Suicide LP.
In 2013, Moxey steered Ultra into a strategic partnership with Sony that significantly bolstered its distribution and global marketing muscle. The results already have been apparent: Ultra notched a top 15 hit with the Robin Schulz remix of Mr. Probz's "Waves" and won a heated bidding war for viral streaming sensation Kygo in 2014, while its A&R cross-pollination with Sony yielded Chris Brown and Deorro's successful "Five More Hours" collaboration. With OMI set to release debut album Me for You on Oct. 16, Moxey is unsurprisingly bullish on dance music and his label's ability to stay on top of the genre's lightning-fast changes. "We've been involved with the constantly evolving flow of dance music sounds, whether it's tropical house, melodic house, deep house or trap," he says. "But great songs are the most important thing."
How did you get your start in dance?
I started a radio show at the University of Chicago and ended up DJ'ing at a club called Smartbar. In the mid-1980s, there was [the influential Chicago record store and dance label] Wax Trax Records, which was run by these goth guys who all wore black and were working with [industrial] artists in Belgium like Front 242, but they also were meeting the South Side [house music] guys like Larry Heard and Marshall Jefferson. I remember a big holiday party in a warehouse where they had the industrial guys from Europe and the South Side guys both playing -- they were feeding off of each other's sounds. I was just a kid in the corner, and it was blowing my mind.
How did that lead you to hosting warehouse parties in New York?
I originally came for graduate film school at New York University. I attended class for about two weeks and thought, "If I do this, I'm going to end up being a professor like my dad." So I took a menial job proofreading advertising copy and started working for a warehouse party by night, and eventually started throwing my own. It was a whole culture of warehouse events that's hard to imagine now because the city's all cleaned up, but then, the police were more concerned about murders. They didn't care that you were throwing a party with 2,000 people.
You basically started Ultra while you were working at PolyGram?
I was working for Russell Simmons and that led to my first label, Payday Records, a hip-hop label through PolyGram. I signed Jeru the Damaja and managed [MC] Guru and DJ Premier from Gang Starr at the time. I was really getting a window into that scene -- I was in the studio with Notorious B.I.G. when Premier was doing records with him; I met Tupac. But I also loved dance music, so I went to my boss and said, "Look, I think dance music is really on the way up." He's like, "Whatever you do, just keep it out of the building." So I started pressing up 12-inches -- almost moonlighting from my job running Payday. Roger Sanchez's "Transatlantic Soul" was the first Ultra record.
How did the "Cheerleader" remix come about?
I was in Montreal and heard the song in its reggae form -- I was in the car with my top 40 promoter, and he had it on a mixtape. I really liked it and tracked it down. I knew there was something missing, so I had it mixed in Germany by Felix Jaehn, and it just fit perfectly. That was sort of moving a great song 180 degrees to open it up to the world, and now it has been No. 1 in 67 countries. It's our best-selling record to date.
Kygo is one of your up-and-coming acts. Are you seeing that melodic, tropical sound he champions cross over into the mainstream?
Yeah; it's exciting. I remember when Britney Spears [her 2011 hit "Hold It Against Me"] did a dubstep bridge -- that was a moment where dubstep went overground. I felt the same when I heard Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean?" with the tropical flavors. But I guess that's just a tribute to the quality. The mainstream has to incorporate it to be relevant.
Were there any cultural challenges in going from working with indies to being part of a major like Sony?
It actually has worked surprisingly well. At first there was a certain amount of skepticism to working singles-driven dance acts -- it was like, "Well, where's the album?" -- but to some extent dance music is the closest thing to the 1950s, where you have the excitement of people buying singles. You can have a huge dance single every week -- why not be the best at that?
As dance music moves toward oversaturation, what are some challenges you see to its relevance and growth?
Right now, there's almost a white noise of dance music. Everyone is making it -- anyone with a laptop can make it. There's no barrier to entry like there used to be, like paying $1,000 to go into a studio. The challenge is going to be reinvention, and reinvention requires musicality. That's why I think the DJ culture peaked in 2013, and now we've moved to electronic artists, where you've got to be a real artist, from your live show to playing instruments. There's no room for somebody to get up and just play a couple of records anymore. Think about how ahead of his time Moby was with his  Play album, with all those deep Southern chants. That's the type of innovation that will help build artists at this point, and that's the kind of musical curiosity that dance music artists need to keep growing.
This article was originally published in the Oct. 24 issue of Billboard.