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Defected Records’ New Owner Wez Saunders On Protecting The Label’s Legacy: ‘I’m Not Here To Reinvent The Wheel’

"I want to continue the work that made me a fan of Defected," says Saunders, who acquired ownership of the venerable U.K. house label in August.

On a late summer morning in London, Wez Saunders walked into work at the Defected Records headquarters and greeted his staff as he has for years. But on this otherwise normal day, something felt different: “Just for a split second,” Saunders recalls, “it was like, ‘Wow, I own this now.’”

On August 23, Defected announced that its founder, Simon Dunmore, was stepping down as CEO, with Saunders, who has been with the label in various roles since 2014, acquiring the music company and all its subsidiaries. (Dunmore will stay on in a new role as A&R consultant.) 

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Though Saunders had worked closely with Dunmore in running Defected’s day-to-day operations, there’s a pressure in taking over a label with so much history. When Dunmore launched Defected in 1999, its first release, Soulsearcher’s “Can’t Get Enough,” reached No. 5 on the U.K Singles chart. By its second anniversary, it achieved its first No. 1 with Roger Sanchez’s 2001 single “Another Chance,” along the way releasing future house classics like Masters At Work’s “To Be In Love,” Paul Johnson’s “Get Get Down” and Kings of Tomorrow’s “Finally.” Nearly two decades later, Defected earned a Grammy nomination for best dance recording with CamelPhat and Elderbrook’s 2017 hit “Cola,” which raised the label’s profile beyond club circles. In 2020, it landed another viral smash in John Summit’s “Deep End.” 

But with all the chart-topping highs came perilous lows: the company had nearly reached a breaking point during the EDM era in the early 2010s, when big-room builds and dubstep drops were the commercial craze. As Dunmore told Billboard in 2019, “There were times where financially we were close to going out of business. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to collapse nightlife altogether as clubs, festivals and touring were paused for over a year.

Staying resilient and in its house-devoted lane over the years has allowed Defected to enjoy the spoils of its hard-earned success. Even as the label enters this new era, Saunders’s goal is simple: keep the music front and center.

“I’m not here to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “I want to continue to be true to the legacy of the company and continue the work that made me a fan of Defected.”

How surprised were you by the news that Simon was selling you the label?

It wasn’t something we necessarily had planned. I started at the company in March 2014 as club promotions manager, and within quite quick succession — two years — I’d worked up to executive producer of the radio show, label manager, head of marketing for recordings, head of marketing for the business and eventually managing director. It was like everything I’d ever done had led me to this point of managing director for the label.

When COVID happened, we went into a bit of fight-or-flight mode as a business. But we were putting on the weekly virtual festivals, and that really put us in the shop window, because we reached over 50 million people, raised 1.2 million for the COVID-19 solidarity response fund and launched branded. We had an offer [to sell Defected] from a major label and an offer from an events business, but it was clear that the majors didn’t really understand our events business and the events business didn’t really understand the recording business.

We were talking about Simon’s options and Simon said, “If I’m gonna sell, I would prefer it to be a management buyout because we can have continuity and consistency, staff will be looked after.” And I just said, “Okay.” As with everything in our relationship, you only have to ask me once… Here we are.

How has your headspace shifted as CEO?

When you’re working for someone, there’s always an element that even though you’re responsible and accountable, somebody else is there to share that somewhat. Normally I walk in — and I still do walk in and say “morning,” every morning — but when we told staff and I walked through the office and I said, “morning,” just for a split second it was like, “Wow, I own this now.” Even down to things like the records on the wall in my office, it’s actually realizing that you have that level of ownership over those things. It’s quite an interesting headspace I didn’t have before, but it also makes you think about your duty of care.

Earlier this month Defected announced standard royalty rates and nullifying unrecouped balances from before 2012. How are those affecting the label?

Part of the mission statement of the business is to service the community whilst helping our artists build longer-lasting, more impactful and more profitable careers. We were looking at some of the things Simon and I had actually decided on prior to the acquisition, because we realized that there were still some legacy contracts that perhaps required a little bit of attention, things that were 18, 22, 25 percent. We wanted to standardize the minimum royalty rate of 30 percent across our business. It’s a different industry now than it was 10 years ago. In 2012 streaming wasn’t a thing … So we decided that every year, we will write off unrecouped balances that are over 10 years old. Most of the artists are recouped; there’s not a huge amount here, but it’s important that those people are actually earning and they’re not just tied up into contracts. Outside of Defected, too, it’s important that the industry looks at this. 

Something that has helped Defected endure over the years is its ability to adapt. The label adopted social media early on in marketing strategies, was staging virtual festivals early on in lockdown and earlier this year launched a 24/7 broadcast channel. How has live streaming specifically changed your business model?

Our fans come from all walks of life. Some people want physical activity, whether that’s buying vinyl or attending events; some people want digital, whether that’s downloads or streaming or watching streams online. And some people are going to want to learn about web3 when it starts to grow, whether that’s virtual reality, augmented reality, NFTs or whatever that may be. So we always try to cater to our fans. The “In our house we’re all equal” mentality rings true across the business. We’re always thinking about how we can look after everyone, whether you’re 18 years old or 70 years old. 

So how did you meet that demand?

We came up with the idea of broadcasting 24/7 and what that would look like by combining our playlists offering our live DJ mixes, our radio shows, the live broadcasts and a whole host of other elements. We are now broadcasting 24/7 across YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. During the pandemic, we had 50 million views on all of our repertoire in basically six months of activity. We’re tracking about four million views a month. So it’s around the same amount of people that are still consuming the repertoire on a monthly basis. It’s become a full-time part of our business. It’s not something that we monetize, it’s something that we’re doing because we want to service our fans. We want to make sure that people have something to access for free, whether that’s downloading our podcast on iTunes, listening to our repertoire on SoundCloud or tuning into our radio station 24/7. There’s something for you.

Simon has previously talked about the hardships of navigating EDM and streaming eras. A decade later, house music is in a space where marquee artists like Drake and Beyoncé have adopted it for their own respective albums. What does that say to about its longevity and appeal, and where do you see it going from here?

House music historically has been underestimated. It’s like all the genres of dance music. I always look at it like a pendulum: As it swings from left to right and it goes from commercial-vocal to underground, it passes through house music as it has done for forever. The culture of house music was always about bringing people together. The whole origins of house music being an underground fashion in LGBTQ+ communities and black communities were always designed to give people an opportunity to get together and have fun. I think that continues throughout, and as you rightly say, the EDM moment really brought a version of house music however you dress it up — whether you call it EDM or progressive house or whatever the name people gave it — to the forefront.

At the same time, you have the underground scene that starts to thrive, and the same will happen. There’ll be people that are unhappy about Drake bringing house music to the forefront and there’ll be people that are really happy about it. For me, it’s all for the love of house music. The more the merrier. There are so many layers of house music that a commercial act isn’t compromising your space, just as an uber-underground act isn’t challenging pop culture. There’s room for everyone.

What do you consider Defected’s biggest strength?

We stay in our own lane. Simon tells a story that, during the EDM times, there was a point where the A&R team was just getting played loads of demos that were very big-room, EDM-sounding demos. And he was like, “If this is the future, we’re done.” So he was like, “We need to remind ourselves what we stand for and focus on making and releasing records that suit that sound.” Then records like MK’s remix of Storm Queen, Huxley, Reboot and all sorts of artists really helped to reestablish that.

That’s one of the things we’ve done really consistently for 23 years. That’s very much on my mind that it’s something we need to continue to do. I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. I want to continue to be true to the legacy of the company and continue the work that made me a fan of Defected. Simon has done so well for all this time. He’s going to continue to work alongside me as A&R consultant, and hopefully we can continue to be true to our word and true to house music.

I was going to ask if there were any changes you were planning on making, but it seems more like if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Exactly. Our events business, our recordings business and the publishing company are in really good states. And we have room to grow in the U.S.; I think Defected still has a job to do in North America in particular. Our tours in America earlier this year went really well, and that’s helped us to continue to grow slowly but surely. But a lot of the focus in the short term is going to be a bit more behind the scenes. We’re gonna focus on developing our sync business, continuing to grow our publishing roster, and making use of the studio that we have in the office. Those things will complement the existing business.

What do you consider Defected’s biggest challenge going forward, and how do you plan to approach that?

We need hits! We always want to make sure that music is front and center of everything we do, so making sure that we have good records is always the biggest challenge for us. If we are able to find good records, then we can continue. Everything we do is a derivative of that: our events, business, our merchandise, et cetera. 

With Simon staying on as A&R consultant, do you have any say now in what records get signed?

No — I mean, Simon and I have spoken about this quite a bit, more so recently. Ultimately as CEO the final decisions lie with me, but I have what I consider the greatest A&R man in house music working alongside me. So I’m not going to challenge. Simon is what Simon brings into the company. He will always be the founder of Defected. He and I are friends as much as associates.

If I remember correctly, you were instrumental in signing “Cola” when other labels had passed.

It was a weird scenario. There were a couple of labels that passed on it, and they’d sent me the demo. We’d set up a label called DFX, which we didn’t really pursue, and I’d been looking for demos that would fit the ethos of that brand, which at the time was a bit more commercial radio, sort of streaming friendly, similar to what the D4 D4NCE label I set up in October 2020 has become. 

I’d asked the CamelPhat guys for some demos. They sent one record, which we passed on. Then they sent “Cola” and I didn’t listen to it for three weeks. I was just sitting at home one Sunday, like, “Oh, I should check those demos” — and the link was dead. I messaged one of the guys, Dave Whelan, and he sent it to me and I was like, “This is great.” I remember I sent it to [former Defected A&R] Andy Daniell and he came back and said, “This is not for DFX, we should talk about this for Defected.” And the rest is history. 

But I’ve actually been involved with signing and working quite a few records. When I started as club promotions manager, two of the first records that I worked in the company were Oliver Dollar and Jimi Jules’ “Pushing On,” and then MK’s “Always (Route 94 remix).” Then I signed SKT’s “Take Me Away” records on Azuli, Lee Walker vs DJ Deeon’s “Freak Like Me,” then “Cola.” Then I signed Endor’s “Pump It Up,” and then I signed John Summit’s “Deep End” and ultimately Summit as an artist. 

So I’ve been directly involved in eight of the top 12 records that Defected has ever put out, and I’ve worked everything from 2014. Sometimes I get a little carried away and forget that I’m in an executive position and can be a little hands-on when it comes down to promoting music. But I can’t help myself. I still get a buzz when I get radio play. 

What Defected track sums up how you’re feeling right now?

“Heaven” by The Vision.