Label Spotlight: How Ministry of Sound Expanded Out Of a Bus Shelter To Become a Dance Leader

Ministry Of Sound
Courtesy of Ministry Of Sound

Originally located in an abandoned bus shelter that was renovated into the iconic nightclub from which it takes its name, Ministry of Sound has been a leading electronic music label since its launch in the mid-90s, when London was a primary hub of the then-burgeoning dance scene.

Roughly 25 years later, the club itself is currently closed due to the pandemic -- but the label itself has raved on, releasing some of the scene's most successful tracks of the last year, including the massive Imanbek remix of Saint Jhn's "Roses" and Regard's "Ride It."

These hits aren't just flukes: the Ministry back catalog contains a barrage of era-defining anthems including Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction," Eric Prydz's "Call On Me," Tim Berg's "Seek Bromance," Fedde Le Grande's "Put Your Hands Up For Detroit," Kid Cudi vs Crookers' "Day N Night," London Grammar's "Hey Now" and Duke Dumont Feat. Mnek & Ame's "Need U (100%)." Such sonic diversity remains a calling card, with the label -- which was acquired by Sony in 2017 -- focused on signing artists that sound nothing alike so as to cover the biggest swaths of the sprawling dance world. The current roster includes London Grammar, Sigala, Skream and more. It's also the UK home for artists including Doja Cat and Oliver Heldens.

Here, Ministry of Sound President Dipesh Parmar discusses the label's origin, its brightest stars and what aspiring producers can do to get on the Ministry radar.

Who founded Ministry of Sound, and what inspired them to do so?

Ministry nightclub doors were opened in 1991 by Justin Berkmann and James Palumbo. They opened without a drinks license or any seating, and at the time it was in one of the roughest areas in South East London in a disused bus shelter. Paradise Garage was the inspiration – the sound system, the main room, the music. It was the first of its kind, and still to this day is one of London’s biggest and best super-clubs, which is no mean feat given the turmoil and continued threat of nightclubs in London for property redevelopment.

The label was a natural progression for the nightclub and was originally called "Sound of Ministry." It represented what was played, the hugely successful compilations business was also started around the same time as the first release, Sessions Volume One by Tony Humphries.

What are all the ways the label comes to life for fans? 

There are so many different businesses under the Ministry umbrella and so many access points for any consumer or fan of dance music, young or old. You see the compilations advertised on TV, a fitness playlist on DSPs, the music we release on the label and the tours and events side of the business. It’s a multimedia entertainment business – outside of the label itself we have a huge focus right now on the playlisting and curation side and we have our own ecosystem across all DSPs. We’ve recently had artist takeovers for our flagship playlist Dance Nation from the likes of Calvin Harris and MK, as well as live filmed sessions with Solardo and Todd Terry.

Our virtual Ministry Weekender festival over lockdown saw Pete Tong, MK and DJ EZ join the likes of newcomers on the label, Bklava and Dance System. We really want to position ourselves as one of the global homes for dance music, and it feels that almost 30 years on from inception it’s still as relevant.

Where are you based? Does your location affect the musical output?

The nightclub is based in South East London in Elephant and Castle. It’s a pretty urban setting, and I totally believe it’s part of the success of both the club and also the label. It’s an event destination, there’s no walk up. If you’re going to Elephant and Castle on a Friday or Saturday night, then you’re going to the club.

The label was based a corridor away from the main room in the same disused bus shelter and literally an hour across London from all the major labels in High Street Kensington. We liked being an outlier, away from the competition. It allowed us to form our own identity in our own way, almost with an underdog mentality. What was amazing was if you had an artist come to see us, we could crank up the sound system in the main room in the middle of the morning, no matter what day, and you could hear your music played on one of the world’s biggest and best sound systems – there’s not many labels that could say that!

Are you an indie or a subsidiary of a larger label?

We were an independent record label, but almost three years ago Sony acquired the label side of the business including the compilations brand. I truly believe it was the best move for the continuation and success of the brand. Ministry had a UK office, and we use to license our repertoire to a number of licensees – both major and independents depending on the act.

But with the emergence of streaming a few years ago and a need for a global platform, that system felt dated and Sony was able to give us the international tools and team we needed to move the business forward. The nightclub, tours and events business is still run out of Elephant and Castle separately, but we always love to go back and visit and we still work together! I have such fond memories of working there for almost 18 years.

How many employees does Ministry have?

Ministry within Sony now has a team of around 20 people that work across the label – A&R, marketing, digital, socials and then with Curation, we have editors and digital marketing. We plug into Sony for international, syncs etc., but we still like to run as an indie within a major. All our promo is outsourced – we work across such a variety of genres with dance music and also non-dance artists. It’s not a one size fits all, we like to put a bespoke team around every single and artist, and you won’t find the same team on Regard and Sigala also doing Doja Cat or Tate McRae. We’re really diverse musically and proud of that.

Courtesy Photo
Dipesh Parmar

Do you have regular office hours, or do you keep an unorthodox schedule?

We like to try and keep as regular hours as possible, but of course being out at the weekend or during the week at gigs makes it impossible to be rigid. I don’t think it’s fair to expect people in at 9:30 a.m. if they’ve been out until the early hours. I want Ministry to be a fun place to work. We have a young and hungry team that wants to win.

How has everyone at the label stayed in touch during quarantine, and how has the pandemic affected your release schedule, if at all?

I think it’s fair to say we were even busier during the pandemic! Dance music has and continues to over index in the UK according to the BPI across streaming and radio. People want feel-good and uplifting music. The UK went into lockdown, and we had the first No.1 single for two weeks with SAINt JHN ‘Roses’ (Imanbek Remix). It really focused the team. It gave everyone purpose that actually, we can still try and operate in a way to deliver what our fans and the public want.

Doja Cat followed with her massive hit "Say So" soon after, who we work in conjunction with RCA U.S on. We also recently followed up Regard’s huge debut hit with ‘Secrets’ feat Raye, which has been in the UK top 10 singles chart for a massive eight weeks! We’re also having a moment with Paul Woolford & Diplo’s latest hit ‘Looking For Me’ with Kareen Lomax which has just hit the Top 10 UK chart. We’re enjoying success with newcomer Tate McRae signed by RCA U.S which we are the UK home for who has just hit the top 15 UK chart and climbing. As well as launching the new music from our hugely successful band London Grammar who have sold over 3 million albums globally and new single from Sigala who has had 7 UK top 10 hits feat James Arthur – we’re definitely not stopping there either…!

Who are the must-know acts on your current roster?

There are quite a lot but as a snapshot, London Grammar are a trio from the UK. I fell in love with Hannah’s voice and the music they make from the first note. I just knew I had to sign them. We’ve just launched ‘Baby Its You’ the new single from their third album produced by George Fitzgerald, its beautiful and the album is sounding incredible!

Regard is a new artist who we signed after seeing signs on Tik Tok. "Ride It" was a huge global hit, and no one expected us to follow up with "Secrets." Raye killed it with the song, there’s more to come too. Sigala just delivers time and again; he’s one of the most consistent UK dance pop producers there is, he deserves the recognition and credit.

Franky Wah is a UK newcomer whose anthem "Come Together" became Radio 1’s lockdown anthem over the summer, he’s an exciting one to watch. Internationally we work with the U.S on Doja Cat who is just an incredible artist in every sense of the word and Tate McRae who feels likes she’s at the tipping point of greatness.

Is there a common sound or ideology that ties releases together?

The great thing about all of the above is none of the artists sound anything like each other. That’s so key for me – no one competes in the same space, and that’s something I want to continue within the label. I don’t want any artist to feel like they are less of a priority than another on the roster due to their sound.

What's one piece of advice for aspiring producers who would like to get on your radar?

Please don’t send 10 or 20 tracks and expect someone is going to listen to them. The team and I try and listen to everything, but it’s impossible to give feedback if you’ve sent a link with more than 2 or 3 songs – it says to me that you’re not sure. It helps if there is already some buzz around something, but not essential. Don’t write me an essay of why you should be signed, a couple of sentences will do. Let the music do the talking initially.