Defected boss Simon Dunmore on real house and the record industry

House | Thursday 17th March 2016 | Christina

In Defected, Simon Dunmore has built one of the most long-running and successful house labels the music industry has ever seen – it has achieved number one records, held residencies at some of the best clubs in Ibiza, hosted events all over the world, and retained a loyal band of artists and followers. Now he’s getting in the festival game with Defected Croatia 2016. Following the first festival announcements, we got his thoughts on Ibiza, EDM, real house and the record industry.

Hey Simon how are you doing?
Very good thanks.

I see you’ve just come back from Japan, how was it?
Oh it was great. It was a holiday actually, which is very unusual. I’ve been to Japan maybe seven or eight times but when you’re DJing you get to visit far-flung places and invariably you go to the airport, go to the hotel, do the gig, go back to the airport, and you don’t really get to see very much, and Japan is always very intriguing to me. I was absolutely a tourist. I went to see temples, a Japanese wedding and all sorts of traditional stuff, which was great. I had a thoroughly good time.

Oh good. Did you do any gigs out there or was it purely a holiday?
No, I was with my wife and we just took some time out. It was Valentine’s. Work is so hectic and I travel so much, sometimes I miss the little important things in life like Valentine’s Day or the occasional birthday, so I thought I’d make the most of it this year. No gigs. A gig would have unravelled everything!

Yeah I guess it takes a toll on you doing a show and having to travel all the time.
Yeah you just don’t get to see places properly. I’ve been all over the world but I haven’t seen a lot of places. Like I say, in and out, but it was good.

So Defected are heading to Croatia in August for your own festival. You just released the first phase of the line-up but what else can people expect from the event?
I think that if people decide to go they’re going to have a chance to get a broad experience of house music across the board. A lot of nights DJs are very specific about other DJs they play with, sometimes the music isn’t as eclectic and as broad as I would like it to be. I think hosting a festival, especially one that runs through the daytime on the beach, and having a main stage and then having an after party at Barbarella’s, allows us to really book a lot of DJs. Because the environments are so varied, we can make the music varied and we can make the experience varied, so yeah, a very eclectic DJ line-up and a very eclectic selection of house music I’m hoping for.

That actually leads right into my next question about the Thump article that was posted before you did your line-up announcement, about all dance festivals having pretty much the same line-up. What’s your take on that?
I absolutely agree with the article 100%. I think that a lot of promoters really don’t take chances. I think they’re very lazy, and I think that once someone gets into the circuit it’s really hard to dislodge them. There’s an array of great DJ talent and a pool of artists that could be used more sensibly, which don’t seem to get a look in. The problem is, as it says in the article, all the festivals seem to be booked by four or five people, and whilst I realise that time is a factor, just picking the same DJs and going to the same agents, I think is becoming more and more apparent. So I’m very proud that our line-up doesn’t suffer from that, I believe.

Yeah very interesting. And why now for the festival? Why not two years ago, three years ago?
Do you know what, it’s something that I ask myself. The reality is we were never asked. We got approached last summer by the people that basically curate the sites throughout the whole season, and they mentioned that they’d seen us in Ibiza - we’d been to Pacha and made that work, we’d been to Booom! and made that work, and then last summer in Amnesia - and they were quite aware of the fact that we take our crowd with us wherever we go. They said “Croatia’s a really up-and-coming destination for clubbers and young kids etc. Why don’t you curate a festival there? Maybe you can persuade your crowd to go to Croatia.” We’ve done Ibiza for 13 years and I think it’s good to leave your comfort zone every now and again and shake things up. It just seemed like the right time, the right idea, and at the moment the reaction’s been fantastic and I’m really glad we made the decision. Yeah, it’s exciting.

So it’s not a case of Ibiza’s getting a bit stale and a bit same-y, that’s why you’ve gone to Croatia, it’s more that you wanted a change?
I think we definitely wanted the change and we’ve definitely acknowledged the fact that Croatia is a growing market and we should absolutely be involved in it. Ibiza definitely has to address a number of issues. I think that musically it seems to operate in two universes, which is EDM and techno. It doesn’t really acknowledge very much in between, and I think that’s why people are starting to choose different destinations, because I do think it’s limited what you can actually get from Ibiza these days. But I spent many summers in Ibiza, it’s an amazing place, and I absolutely want to go back there at some point, but I just think it was really important for us to try something different.

Of course you’ve still got Glitterbox at Space Ibiza, which was one of the success stories of last season. Why is that? Is it because it provides different kinds of music to the EDM and techno you just said?
We started Glitterbox for that very reason, because I was speaking to people or people were getting in touch with me saying, “where can we go? Everything’s either very dark and techno or super, super commercial and VIP”, and Ibiza seems to have forgotten about what made Ibiza special in the early days, music being eclectic. Everyone goes on about the Balearic sound of Ibiza, and really there’s not a Balearic sound of Ibiza anymore because everybody goes that there is going there to market what they’re doing for the rest of the year. We touch upon that, we have Pippi as our resident, we use as many of the local residents as we can in our line-ups, but we do feel that we offer something, musically, alternative to what else is being offered on the island. 

It is a throwback to those Balearic parties, and you’ve brought Glitterbox to London before, to Ministry of Sound, and now you’re taking it to We Are FSTVL. How do you think it’s going to translate to a London environment?
We did a party just before Christmas at Ministry and it was quite an experience because we did our Defected in the House nights there and the majority of people are between 18-25, very young, and Glitterbox was probably people between 25-40. A completely different crowd and a completely different experience, which is exactly what we wanted actually. The people tend to be holding onto their youth a lot longer and no one wants to grow old quickly, that’s for sure, so I think again it fills a gap in the market and it works really well. I think it will work anywhere that we place it, as long as the line-up is good and the musical experience is consistent. I think We Are FSTVL will be nothing but successful.

Just going back to Ibiza, it’s going to be the last year of Space as we know it. What are your thoughts about the changes taking place at the club, and what they mean for the island as a whole? Does it mean it’s going to be more EDM and VIP?
The only ones that can truly answer that question is the people that are going to take it over. I hope that they see the need for diversity in music and DJs, and offer the people that go to Ibiza something a little bit different. Having competition and having a variation of nights and promoters is actually a really good thing for the island. It attracts different people, it attracts more people, it gives people a better experience. What happened with Booom!, where it basically got closed down by politics from other clubs that wanted to see it shut down, it wasn’t a great thing for the island. The island needs variety. If everyone went to Ibiza year on year and there was only five clubs to go to, once they’ve done that circuit, what are they gonna do? They’ll go and find somewhere else, literally somewhere else, and I don’t think that’s a great thing for the island. I think the new owners will take it as an opportunity to bring something fresh to the island.

 A lot of people feel like they’re getting a bit priced out of Ibiza now, and a lot of the free parties on the beaches keep getting shut down, it seemed like it last summer anyway, so it’s making it really difficult for younger people who maybe can’t afford to buy tables at all these clubs, to go there.
That is a factor and that is a reason why Croatia is becoming a popular destination. The fact is, if you look there are cool places to go in Ibiza. Yes some of the beach parties did get closed down, I mean some of them because of the politics I mentioned earlier and some of them because you’ve got 5,000 people on the beach and they don’t have the proper facilities, you obviously have to have health and safety concerns as well. It’s not just the VIP aspect of the island that caused those fee daytime beach parties to get closed down, sometimes they were so popular, I’m not saying they were dangerous, but there were concerns, so there were a number of factors obviously involved. But I think the appetite for people to go out and club in the daytime, and go to a beach and listen to dance music, it’s clearly there, that’s why the parties are so popular. So for them to just go “oh we’re not going to let them happen, we’re going to shut them down”, I think it’s burying their heads in the sand a little bit. It’s something that they have the facilities to do there and I think the people that were there were not necessarily out of hand or causing trouble, they were just having a really good time, so why not embrace that and offer people that kind of opportunity. That’s where Ibiza needs to look at itself. And yes, a lot of the clubs are way, way, way too pricey, admission, drinks etc. Eight, ten euros for a bottle of water, it’s not great.

Yeah I agree. Do you think then that there’s a way to come past that? The prices have gone up so much, is there going to be another side of that? Are they going to fall off or keep getting more and more expensive?
I think the problem is there’s no balance. San Antonio was a really good entry point for a lot of people to go to the island, especially when you’re young, first time going over there, there used to be a reasonably vibrant club and bar scene. There’s been a huge migration from San Antonio to Playa D’en Bossa, and I think that now everyone populates Playa D’en Bossa apart from Sankeys, who do I believe offer a good entry point in terms of admission prices etc. Everything is still geared up for that high end and people that need to acknowledge that not everyone that goes to Ibiza is a high roller with extraordinary salaries and can afford to pay €60 every night to get into a club. Actually I was in Amnesia last year and a young kid went to the bar and ordered five Jagerbombs, the bartender bought him the drinks and said, “that’s €110”. I literally saw his jaw drop. I’m lucky, I had some drinks tokens and he just looked so distraught that I said, “do you know what, I’ll get these for you”. Actually it was a real moment for me. If you’re a kid and you’re going to Amnesia, and we as a label are driving people to this club, and they’re going to the bar and that’s their night out gone, in one go. So all of these reasons make Croatia a good proposition for us to get involved with. When I say all of these things, I’m not the first person to say it, and I’m not saying don’t go to Ibiza, but I think that at some point the policy that they have with looking after VIPs and drink pricing is going to hit them in some way.

There’s also going to be a Defected stage at We Are FSTVL, so you’ve got the weekend covered. What is it about that particular festival that made you want to host those stages there?
We get on really well with Reece and Dave that promote the festival, we feel that it is, in terms of the stages and the DJs, probably the best clubbing proposition in the south of England. They were the first people to ask us to do a festival in the UK and every year we’ve grown. The first year we did a stage with 1,200 people, then it was 3,000, and last year it was 6,000. We’ve filled it every time, so I think that they value us as well, and it’s in our heartlands. We are a London based label, it’s just down the road, and we have a great time.

Are you playing that weekend?
I am, I’m actually playing both stages but early on.

So what would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since Defected started?
Oh wow, have you got a couple of hours? I think the transitions and changes that the music industry has gone through have been difficult to navigate at certain times. The challenge we’re facing at the moment is the migration from people that were buying downloads to the streaming model, which the major labels have really aggressively pushed people towards, and the return that you get from releasing, making and promoting music is not what it used to be. You just have to look at your business and make necessary changes to get through these periods of time. We had a similar experience when we used to sell 12” and CDs and the odd music cassette, and that industry and that part of our business died, and people started downloading, so it’s something we’ve experienced before. The problem is we have to make the changes before the customer or the consumer or the people who end up buying our music are necessarily ready to populate those platforms. When people are streaming and happy to pay their subscription, we need to be there and ready waiting for them, so we have to make our changes now, and there’s always a lag between the revenue we need to see coming back in for us to be able to sustain our business. Running a business is no joke, it’s difficult, so they’re the biggest challenges. As a label owner, we employ 30 people at Defected, DJs and writers and people that are relying on us to succeed so that they can get paid and earn a living, so it’s quite a big obligation. Sometimes when you sit here and you haven’t had a good month in terms of sales, you realise how responsible you are to these people, and that’s quite daunting. They are the biggest challenges; navigating the business and also the responsibility you have to the people you employ and the artists that are signed to you.

I guess if you have a great success, it’s great for you but also if there’s a problem or something didn’t work out as well, you have to bear that on your shoulders too.
Absolutely 100%. When HMV went out of business, they employed people with business qualifications and that were very experienced, they didn’t manage their business well enough and ultimately their business changed because of it. It’s still in existence but it’s a much smaller company now. When they made their changes, because we are reliant upon them to sell our music, it adversely affects us as well, so even if you run your business well, people that you work with can affect your ability to trade. If you look at the high street from five years ago, there was HMV, Virgin, Tower Records, probably a couple of other chain stores selling music, they’ve all gone. And every time one of those went out of business, they’d go out owing us money.

Yeah as a customer you think, “oh HMV’s closed, I can’t go there to get my CDs”, you don’t think about the knock on effect it has on everyone that supplies the music to them.
Yeah a massive effect, so ultimately then people make the change, they go to iTunes. I’m not sitting here going “oh my god, it’s terrible, the music industry’s fucked”. The record industry is different. If we put out good music, do our weekly radio show, and if we’re consistent and give people a good experience, they might come to an event, they might buy a t-shirt, they might buy a CD. There are a number of ways in which we can get rewarded for sharing our opinion on music. That’s what anyone that releases music does, “I like this piece of music, here it is, I hope you enjoy it as well”. They buy it, they go dance to it, or they want to wear a t-shirt, but you only get that loyalty if you’re consistent. So again, that’s the challenge. The record industry has changed, it’s definitely difficult, but the music industry when you look at it as a whole is still a viable business. We’re still here.

It also seems like a bit of a strange time where people are less concerned about owning music with all the streaming services that are available yet people are also really into buying vinyl again. It’s a weird mix of not wanting to own music but also wanting something physical as well.
Yeah I think that the resurgence of vinyl is obviously a great thing. The volume isn’t there, it’s still a kind of cool marketing angle rather than something that’s going to replace the decline in revenue from other areas of the business. For me, I’m of that age where I used to go to a record store, buy a record, get on the bus on the way home, look at the record for thirty minutes, go “I can’t wait to get you home and play you on my turntable”. It was a significant thing in my life. Every Saturday I’d go into Black Market or whatever, know the people behind the counter, they’d give me the records that had come in that week, I’d spend an incredible amount of money, more money than I could afford every week, and go home and play these records, and think that I was really cool for doing it. And when your mates come round, you can go, “I bought this record, it’s amazing”, they look at like it’s just a piece of plastic, you put it on and everybody loves it. You don’t get that kind of experience from playing a record from off your phone, and I think that people are slowly starting to rediscover it a little bit. People that are really passionate about music understand the value of music and what goes into making a record. A lot of investment, time and creativity goes into producing great music, and I believe that people deserve to get paid for it, and they’re not really getting the reward they deserve these days. Going back to the Ibiza thing, it’s about balance. I do hope the balance is restored in terms of people getting paid for their creativity.  

You talked a bit about the biggest challenges you’ve faced but what about your proudest moment since Defected began?
Oh wow, overall the proudest moment is to successfully run a business for 17 years. I left school with no business qualifications, I literally made this up as we’ve gone along, we’ve made many mistakes, some have cost more than others but we’ve learned from them. A lot of labels don’t last as long as what we’ve managed to make Defected last, so that is actually what I’m most proud of. And the fact that the brand is still very, very popular, probably as much as it ever has been. Other significant things are residencies at Pacha for eight years in Ibiza, probably one of the best clubs in the world; a number one record with Roger Sanchez - ‘Another Chance’; a number one record with Storm Queen – ‘Look Right Through’. As an independent label to have two records top the charts I think is a significant achievement I’m quietly very pleased about. And to have long term relationships with people who work here, some people have worked here for ten years, some artists have recorded records for the label for ten years, and people that buy our music, some people have bought it for longer than ten years. That is, I believe, a reasonable achievement. My aim was when I started Defected, which I could never, ever get close to, was in my record collection I have certain labels - Philly International, Strictly Rhythm - they stand out as sections in my record collection and in 15 years time if record collectors have Defected sections, then that’s when I will have achieved what I set out to do.

I’ve seen you talk about the fact that Defected stands for “real house music”. Can you just clarify what you mean by that? I’m always interested when people say “real house” because it means different things to different people.
Yeah and of course it absolutely does. It’s more club music than dance records that are necessarily played on the radio. We have had records that are played on the radio but normally because they’re hugely successful and popular in clubs first. A lot of the dance music that gets made now gets made with the intention of getting played on the radio. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, people can have success and fair play to them, but I think when the EDM thing happened, to me that wasn’t really about house music or club music, those records were novelty records in the same way the Vengaboys were novelty records, and they seem to get confused with club records. So me stating that Defected was about “real house” music was just me kinda putting my flag in the ground and saying, “we make dance music but it’s different from the stuff you’re hearing on the radio”. When Guetta was having hits with Kelly Rowland, I’d be DJing and kids would come up to me and say “can you play some house please?” and I’d be “well I’m playing house”, and they’d be “no like David Guetta”. I understand why they’re saying that but it’s really hard to argue and reason that out with people. I’m never going to say to someone that their taste in music is inferior to mine because music’s a very personal thing but that’s all it is, it’s more of a club based dance music than a commercial, radio based dance music.

EDM sometimes, to me anyway, feels a bit soulless. When you hear it on the radio it’s not really about anything or to make you feel a certain way. When you hear a real record that’s made to make you dance in club, that does something to you, and I feel like EDM doesn’t do anything.
Yeah I think it’s functional. House music can be functional as well, for sure, but I think that’s why it’s started to decline in popularity. Everybody knows what’s going to happen. There’s no surprises. There’s gonna be a breakdown, there’s gonna be a drumroll, track’s gonna kick back in, the fireworks are gonna go off, and you’ve seen it all before. The DJs are playing to the show they’ve produced rather than it being spontaneous. DJing to me is not about, I’m not going to be cliché and say you’ve gotta take people on a journey or whatever, but it’s going through your record box or folder and going “that record might work now, I shouldn’t be playing that record but I’m gonna take a chance”. And if you take a chance and it works, it’s an amazing feeling. That doesn’t happen with EDM, everything you see is absolutely syncopated and programmed to go off with the visuals that are going behind you or the fireworks that are going to go off in 30 seconds time. It’s like when a band knows they’ve got a crowd in the palm of their hand, they go on a jam and maybe do some improvisation, and for me that’s the human element that’s missing from EDM. And from a lot music. I think that tech house suffers from the same thing, the same formula and same scenarios that EDM suffers from -  drums, bassline, breakdown, track comes back in, drums, bassline, breakdown, track comes back in - and there’s no soul in it.

So what do you think is going to come next if the EDM bubble is maybe starting to burst or people are getting a bit disillusioned with it? Can you see something that’s going to take its place?
I think people will hopefully just dig a little deeper and find their way to music that they love. It will mean a broad range of genres will probably benefit from it. I don’t see them all being pointed in one direction and ending up somewhere else, I think some people will go to techno, some people will go to deep house, guitar bands are back again and that’s where they’re going to end up. That’s the great thing about music, it’s part of what everybody does even if it’s subconscious. It goes back to what I was saying, that’s why it’s important when music is made that people are paid for their creativity.

What would you like to do more of in 2016?
Sleep [laughs]. Maybe just try to enjoy it more, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it but to stay interesting for 17 years you’ve always got to be trying to do something different. Even if it’s not radically different there needs to be an evolution, so we’re always under pressure to move things forward. That’s why Croatia is absolutely important, it gives us the opportunity to do something new and make us leave our comfort zone. But I’ve got a family, I’ve got three children, as I said I’ve missed occasional birthdays or sports days, things that are important to people as they go through life, so to have a little bit more time for myself and my family. Again I’m not saying, “oh my god, it’s terrible”. I’ve actually been clubbing with my son several times now, it’s a real experience and something that I’ve really enjoyed. The other thing is as well is maybe to start to give something back to the kids. We talked about doing workshops for school kids, maybe in the summer holidays and stuff like that, because being a DJ, being a producer, it’s a great experience even if you just do it for fun. If you make a living out of it, even better.

Yeah that sounds really good. The workshop idea is great.
Yeah I don’t know, scholarships, academies, etc. The industry has been good for a lot of people I know and they if get the opportunity to give something back or share their experience, it’s a good thing. 

Follow Simon Dunmore on Twitter. You can get tickets for Defected Croatia 2016 here