Pete Tong on 10 Years of the International Music Summit & Why the U.S. Dance Market Has Peaked

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Mathew Scott
“Dance music has always had a chip on its shoulder,” says Tong, photographed Feb. 27 at William Morris Endeavor in Beverly Hills. “The whole mission of my career has been to legitimize all that we do.” Grooming by Ashley Humphreys at Celestine Agency

Dance music's premier tastemaker on expanding IMS, his chart-topping successes and where dance music goes from here.

Few in dance music successfully wear as many hats as Pete Tong. As a BBC Radio 1 ­curator, the Dartford, England, native helped launch the careers of many of dance music's elite, from Daft Punk to deadmau5. And as a co-founder of both William Morris Endeavor's electronic-music ­division and the International Music Summit ­conference -- which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week and has added events in Los Angeles and Shanghai -- Tong has extended his influence far beyond its original radio reach. He also runs his FFRR label and plays shows as a DJ.

"I've straddled that weird ­existence between artist and ­executive," says Tong, 58. "I see both sides of the story. Sometimes I feel the artist side has suffered over the years."

This year, Tong donned a new hat: that of chart-topper, after his Classic House LP hit No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart in January. Featuring seminal dancefloor anthems like Jamie Principle’s “Your Love” and the late Robert Miles' "Children" reworked with Jules Buckley's 65-piece Heritage Orchestra, the album resonated with an aging 35- to 45-year-old British raver demographic that "might not go out as much as they used to, but are still passionate about the music," he says. Tong and Buckley recorded the album after their joint Ibiza Classics Tour, which included sold-out shows in Manchester, Birmingham and London, at the O2 Arena.

"No generation of dance music from the beginning had gotten old before," Tong tells Billboard. "Nobody knew how they were going to react."

This year marks the 10th ­anniversary of IMS Ibiza.

It's the most important year since the first one [and] a big milestone for us to reach. We're not a baby act anymore. I feel that we've established a real event there that has a life of its own. There's an element of IMS Ibiza now where people just come to network and hang out because they know it's a place that's got a mini-market in terms of trading, bringing music to it and getting music ready for that moment. There are a lot of publishing and record company artist-producers [there]; I'm very proud of that. 

It's fair to say the other big access and opportunity for us is Asia-Pacific, because no one's really done it. It's a learning experience, but we're already four years in. We're ahead of the curve. We think we can scale up quite quickly up there.

What are the challenges and ­opportunities in the Asian market?

It's the last part of the world where it feels we don't really know that much about it. But the world seems to be opening up more to China, and China is opening up to the rest of the world. I think there’s a perception that there's gold out there in those hills. I'm not saying there isn't, but none of us know how much gold there is out there and how much they really want this scene.

They're very open-minded, and not necessarily following what's been popular. And while the obvious things do resonate quite well, like the peak EDM stuff from a few years ago, it’s not necessarily true to say that it will just reflect. They love a show and they love a great production.

What inspired the Ibiza Classics and Classic House projects?

This opportunity came along at the beginning of 2015, when I got invited to curate a classical show at the Royal Albert Hall. The theme of it was to reflect the dance music history of Ibiza. I reached out to Jules Buckley and he comes hand-in-hand with the Heritage Orchestra, which is run by a guy named Chris Wheeler based out of Brighton. The weird thing was, as the work progressed, everything was theoretical and written down which was so unusual for me, being used to hearing everything from the first drum kick. So to be in silence, effectively, for this whole journey was a bit disconcerting. We didn't anticipate the recording on YouTube going genuinely viral after the next couple of weeks. People all over the world started seeing it and we started getting promoters offering us to do it.

What's your view of the state of the U.S. dance music market?

I think the market's peaked. No one wants to say it too loudly. It's fantastic having had the experience in the U.K. and Europe, because everything is way bigger over here than it was there, but the patterns are similar. The door didn't shut over a day; it was like a deflation, a puncture. I think we've been going through that for a couple of years. And now in 2017, like a housing crisis or decline, you're really feeling it more this year. 

I think you'll see more change and things shake out this year. We were even having these conversations in 2015 and 2016 where we're kind of in a Twilight Zone, like, "How much is it affecting us?" Whereas I think in 2017, the mists are clearing. There are fewer festivals, there are fewer buyers. I think in terms of the market, it does come down to: You need to make better records, you need to throw better parties and festivals. And only the strong survive.

This article originally appeared in the June 3 issue of Billboard.