Dance, like nobody’s watching: how Defected Records kept the party going

The Drum 03 May 2021 07:00

The night-time economy was the fifth biggest industry in the UK in 2019 according to the Night Time Industries Association, driven in no small part by clubbers getting hot and sweaty on packed dance floors up and down the country.

Social distancing, of course, put a stop to that, and the sound systems, smoke machines and strobe lights were switched off. But you need only look at the well-documented rise in illegal raves to see how passionate the dance music community remains.

With clubs closed for the foreseeable and the livelihoods of DJs, dancers, promoters, bar staff and security threatened as never before, the seams that hold the industry together are under strain. And keeping the dance music community together while it is apart has fallen at the feet of record labels.

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For Defected – one of the biggest dance music labels in the world – that’s where Tom Coxhead comes in. One of our Future 50, the house music devotee has helped bring Defected’s fans online over the past five years, from a mere 200,000 Facebook fans to an overall following of 6.8 million bass-addled heads across the web.

That work has seen the label experience its “busiest year ever” for records in 2020, despite the collapse of the touring circuit that previously underpinned release schedules – and create unique virtual festivals incredibly quickly.

“For me, it was and still is the greatest radio show of all time. In its simplest form, it’s just a two hour mix. But the way it’s curated, it has become so important in dance culture. When I started, it didn’t really have a social media account. It already had a community in terms of the radio presence, but it was down to me to start the social community from scratch and then grow it.”

Coxhead and the Defected team understood earlier on how dire things were for the live music scene, even if they couldn’t predict how long the crisis would last. So they decided to bring the club to fans’ front rooms, desktops and mobile screens with the Defected Virtual Festival, one of the first virtual music festivals staged by anyone in the UK.

So the team staged a series of gigs at the Ministry of Sound, complete with dancers from sister label Glitterbox to make sure the energy and movement of the music wasn’t lost in transmission. The project came together in little over a week and required a fresh line-up, new branding and a reliable streaming setup. “It was quite an experience and quite a job, but it’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of.”

It’s not the only way it has sought to engage with fans. As digital activations ramped up and consumers became leery of yet another Zoom-enabled social event, the team resurrected Faith – a house music fanzine that had gone out of print in 2012. True to its fanzine roots, the magazine was distributed freely via Defected’s e-commerce channels and Coxhead tells how the quarterly publication feeds into his social strategies.

The label could never have predicted launching a virtual festival and a print magazine in the same year, but both moves have given Coxhead plenty to play with online. “It was another avenue for us to do something a little bit different and it allowed us to talk about music that was a little bit different.”

“It’s sometimes hard to be optimistic, but you’ve always got to be optimistic. Out of bad times usually comes amazing music and amazing moments. We’ve got to be positive. Our events and our events team will come back. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing and bring good music and good vibes to people.”

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CoxheadTom CoxheadMinistry of SoundDefected Virtual FestivalPrintworks