Indeed, “Joys” won “Track of the Season” at last month’s DJ Awards, but the moment felt even more well-earned considering the bidding war in which Dunmore and his team outlasted major labels to sign it in the first place, as well as successfully navigating the radio landscape. “I’ve got a good nose for these kinds of records after being around for so long,” he says, “so it was a calculated risk signing the record, but it’s paying off.”
You could say Defected was built on calculated risk. Dunmore, who had spent a decade working in the music industry as a DJ, record store employee and doing club promotions and A&R for major labels, was then running A&M Records’ dance division, AM:PM, when he decided to bet on himself by starting his own label in 1999. Within a few years, the London-based label achieved its first No. 1 hit on the U.K. Singles chart, Roger Sanchez’s “Another Chance,” and released soon-to-be house classics such as AFTC’s “Bad Habit,” Shakedown’s “At Night” and Kings of Tomorrow’s “Finally” -- the latter of which Dunmore says he still hears every summer, all summer.
No one was fully prepared for the landscape-shifting EDM boom at the turn of the next decade. New dance devotees, especially ones overseas in America, sprinted en masse to lasered-up festival main stages, where they reveled in big-room builds and filthy dubstep drops -- sounds and worlds that seemed like the polar opposite of Defected’s. The label fell into a major slump, as producers followed a new and extremely profitable trail. “There were times where financially we were close to going out of business,” he says.
Rather than fold, the label chose to wait out the EDM craze while continuing to release the music they loved on their own terms. Second-act records like Solomun’s smoky remix of Noir & Haze’s “Around,” the Larse version of Candi Staton’s club spiritual “Hallelujah Anyway” and FCL’s slow-burning “It’s You” became testaments to Defected’s unwavering ear, making it a reliable alternative to EDM’s hyper-neon glaze. In 2017, Camelphat and Elderbrook’s “Cola” afforded the label a new level of validation when it earned a Grammy nomination for best dance recording. “That brought so many people into our universe,” says Dunmore. “Almost everything we did as a business benefited from having that one hit record.”
Twenty years after Defected’s formation, it's still standing, and stronger than ever. More than just a record label, it really is its own universe spanning several sibling labels (such as the disco-leaning Glitterbox and tech-minded DFTD), radio shows, merchandise, club nights and even full-on festivals in London and Croatia. But at its heart, Defected is still very much a home for house music.
As it prepares to take an international victory lap at Amsterdam Dance Event, followed by a U.S. tour in November, Billboard Dance spoke with Dunmore about Defected’s origins, overcoming various hurdles and the legacy he hopes to leave.
When’s the last time you danced really hard?
Publicly, probably… oh, God (laughs). Actually, Croatia. We had some real moments in Croatia. On our last night the heavens opened, and the main stage outside was uncovered so everybody ran for cover, but we kept playing the music and people gradually started to come back. Then the rain stopped, and I don’t know where people had been hiding, but they all came back and it was a real moment. We all got a little carried away with ourselves, and I think there’s video footage of me dancing pretty hard, actually. So not so long ago.
Let’s go back a little further in time. It seems like your path to Defected was pretty organic.
It absolutely was organic. I went from being a collector, to being a DJ, to working in a store to promoting records at clubs for major labels. Then, to make the promotion easier for me, I started commissioning remixes. Then I started to recommend records to be signed by my A&R guy at the time; he eventually left and I got his position. Then I got offered to run the dance department at AM:PM, which was at A&M Records.
I felt at that point, since I’d been in the music industry for ten years, that I knew enough to start my own label. But while I did know enough to start my own label, what I didn’t know was how to run a business. That’s probably what I’ve learned over the last 20 years. I had a plan as far as the sound I wanted to represent, the producers I wanted to work with, the DJs and the target audience, et cetera. I think we had that down, but managing stuff, people being ill, people leaving, hiring, firing, all the administration you have to take care of, were things I had no experience with. While you’re busy doing all the creative stuff, all the fun and good stuff, you have to stop to take care of business, which was where the shock to my system came.
What was the house music landscape in the U.K. at the time, and how did it affect the label’s momentum starting out?
It was extremely vibrant. We’ve always had an amazing club scene in the U.K., and I don’t ever see that changing, to be honest with you, but house music and dance music were getting extensive support on the radio. In our first year, we had eight Top 40 records in the sales chart, and at least six or seven of those were heavily rotated on national radio or KISS FM.
Jumping ahead ten years later, the EDM boom happened overseas. Did it change how you marketed your brand?
The EDM thing was something we really struggled to come to terms with, actually. We have a real tradition in the type of records that we release, and the people making EDM records couldn’t really relate to that. In a lot of instances, they had their own labels -- they didn’t need to actually sign to or license their records to another label. So it was a particularly difficult period for us, because everybody kind of got sucked into the EDM phenomenon. People who were making records for us and populating our [release] schedule were all of a sudden making records and signing them to Axwell’s label, or labels that they wanted to be aligned with. So we really had to dig in and re-group and just ride it out.
But funnily enough, all those kids that were introduced to dance music by EDM are probably coming to our events now, so it was the gateway to people getting into dance music. So initially it was difficult but now I think we’re benefitting from it.
It’s surprising to hear that Defected was so affected by the EDM boom, when it seems like so many strong records came out during that period.
Well, EDM wasn’t for everybody. For the people who couldn’t relate to it, I think we were the go-to label whether you were a producer or a punter. The fact that everybody moved away from house music and we stayed where we were, the community saw that as really valuable. The people who made those records believed in us and supported us enough to give us those records to release. That’s acknowledged whenever I speak to people such as yourself -- they acknowledge that we stuck to our guns when we were having a tough time, and that counts for a lot.
“Cola” was also nominated for a Grammy award. That’s already a big deal on its own, but for a label to have stuck to its guns, creatively, and still achieve that milestone in a largely commercial space must have been hugely validating.
For the act, for the label and for dance music in general, it’s always good for those records to be aligned with the high achievers. For us as a label, we need a record like that every two or three years to generate income that we can re-invest into new talent, infrastructure, staff and all the things that you need to keep your business moving forward. You can't do that necessarily that beginning and ending with DJ records; you need an element of crossover to generate the income. But it also gives the producers the belief that we’re able to deliver a record on that level. It gives people the confidence to submit their music to us.
So being visible in that respect is really helpful across the board, but what that record actually did for us… We decided to release the record ourselves globally. We did one license, which was to Big Beat in the United States, and that was because the United States is so vast that we didn’t feel that we were equipped to deliver that record in that territory. In every other instance around the world, everybody who played that record, played it with Defected Records artwork, on Defected Records. That brought so many people into our universe. They started following us on Instagram, Facebook.. They began to recognize the label and started to collect records that weren’t just “Cola.” Almost everything we did as a business benefited from having that one hit record.
How has the digitization of music and the rise of streaming changed your business model and primary revenue sources?
Revenue went down significantly, as it did for everybody. But costs also went down significantly. So if you managed your business really well, it shouldn’t have had an adverse effect at all. Manufacturing costs went down, the cost of mastering went down. Transferring instead of sending things by hand via couriers… the costs went from being astronomical to a very small number. In terms of marketing, instead of taking out ads on radio and ads on TV, pages in publications or putting posters on walls in cities, extraordinarily expensive exercises; all of those things disappeared because you had Facebook and Instagram. You could advertise on the Internet. So the business changed beyond all recognition because of the consumption and the revenue generated by that consumption to the way that you marketed records. You just had to move quickly.
We do make money from our events. They’re hugely popular, but that’s not always been the case. They’re our marketing; they’re our direct interface with the consumer. So if somebody loves a record, they may mention it on their social media. But if they go to an event and they hear it, they definitely mention it on their social media. So the event becomes the realness of everything that we do.
What do you think is the key factor to Defected’s staying power?
Consistency. I think people trust us now. If you constantly deliver a good product, people will believe in you, and we work really hard to not let people down.
In three words, what is house music to you?
Escapism. Inclusive. Community.