Darcus Beese has taken on a big new job as president of Island Records in the US, effective July 1, 2018. Of course, he's a respected exec and familiar face in the UK music industry with almost three decades at ...
Between The Black Eyed Peas and her solo releases, Fergie has had an extraordinary career so far, selling millions of records around the world. And that’s not all. Last year, she formed her own label, Dutchess Music, in conjunction with BMG. Music Week catches up with Fergie Ferg to find out what she’s learned along the way...
Being a mum in music introduces...
“A whole other element to being a musical artist. It’s hard. My calendar is like schedule Tetris. It’s colour co-ordinated by the minute. Becoming a mom, I obviously have to become more responsible, just in taking care of myself as a person, taking care of that little guy and really taking control of every aspect of my life.
My son comes first, but I am promoting an album so there’s a lot of pressure to do a lot of different things, so it’s been challenging. There was pressure to deliver [2017 solo record] Double Dutchess before I even started it.
I had a kid and [people] were like, ‘Okay, so where is this album?’ Like, what, are you crazy!? I have a kid sucking on my tit – hence [solo single] M.I.L.F. $ was born! Which was lactation for a nation [laughs].”Since going solo, I’ve learned...
“That making an album and caring about every aspect of it – visually, sonically and on socials – all these things are like construction of a house. You’re always told it’s going to be done and then you find out,
‘This wire doesn’t go here!’. You have to take it like construction and give a lot of cushion time... And don’t book shows until you know you have an ending point! You live, you learn. I care about the things I do, I don’t just want to do a bunch of things and see what sticks. If I’m going to do a project I’m going to do a project.
You can love it, you can hate it – and that seems to be a lot of what happens with me, but whatever! When you don’t fit into a box – or even two boxes – people aren’t going to like all the boxes.”My plan for my label Dutchess Music is…
“Just to take it one thing at a time. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew, but to give somebody else the chance [to be an artist] that so many have given me would be a wonderful moment.
Right now, I wouldn’t be able to do that but, when that time comes, absolutely, it’s going to be amazing to pay it forward.”
The Black Eyed Peas is…
“A different animal to my solo work. It’s an amazing one, but it’s totally different. I’m playing the girlfriend to, like, three different guys and the situations they have going on with a girl.
I give the female perspective but I really don’t think there’s room for me to delve into all of my deep personal stuff. It’s a little bit more general when I’m in Peas – the girl stuff is not as autobiographical, or as deeply autobiographical.
On Double Dutchess, I was committed to representing myself fully and all the people who were either too young [to know earlier solo work] or just knew me as the girl from Black Eyed Peas,
I wanted to introduce them to this deeper person – and let them know who I am.”
When a record label turns 25, it’s a reason to celebrate. But for Positiva it’s been one long party: the dance imprint has delivered the bangers that blew up in the clubs, on radio and, now, on streaming services.
From trance and drum and bass to Eurodance and EDM, it’s released huge tunes, scored 14 UK No.1 singles and steered DJs and producers such as David Guetta, Adam F and Jonas Blue to become successful recording artists.
But it’s always stayed true to its roots - even while shifting 35 million singles.
“DJs and producers feel we have an innate understanding of the specialist world, and what it takes to actually get some of these records moving with the right DJs and online partners these days,” says
Positiva/Virgin EMI A&R director Jason Ellis. “That balance is something that’s particularly important for the longevity of the label.”
When Music Week catches up with Ellis, we’re at Ministry Of Sound – the club that once hosted their label residency – for a daytime reunion with Ellis and Positiva’s former executives Nick Halkes and Dave Lambert, both now artist managers.
There’s laughter and some shaky recollection of the facts over the last couple of decades. Today’s reminiscing is a dry run for the International Music Summit (IMS) in Ibiza, where the trio will be interviewed by Pete Tong on Friday (May 25).
“The label’s managed to keep its position in a very powerful place,” says IMS co-founder Ben Turner. “In the last 10 years, Jason’s really taken control of it and kept it relevant, so it’s a big moment for them.”
“We’ll be telling some of the same anecdotes,” Ellis confidently predicts following our four-way conversation, which takes in the corporate stuffiness of ‘90s EMI, the chart battle between Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Victoria Beckham and the label’s clubbing jaunts to such diverse locations as Colombia, Ibiza and Hereford.
As Positiva founder/MD, by 1993 Halkes had already achieved major success in launching XL Recordings and signing The Prodigy, who he now manages. Yet EMI seemed an awkward fit when he was recruited to establish a dance label for the major.
“We kind of knew that EMI was a bit of a backwater for dance music,” says Dave Lambert, who joined as head of A&R.
“Apparently there was a joke going around the industry at the time,” recalls Ellis, a former singles buyer at HMV who joined Positiva in 1999. “What’s the difference between EMI and the Titantic? The Titanic had one good dance band.” Boom boom.
But the major had the last laugh as Positiva soon became a force in the charts.
“It was all to play for - it was an era where you were making up the rules as you went along,” says Halkes. “But there were a few people going, ‘It’s not proper music - you can have some fun with singles, lads’.”
Positiva was soon having lots of fun: its big breakthrough came in 1994 with Top 5 single and European smash I Like To Move It by Reel 2 Real feat. The Mad Stuntman. Everyone has sung along to its crazed chorus.
“That was a record that Positiva was the only label to offer on - everybody else had passed on it,” smiles Halkes. “It became a smash once we started to promote it.”
?Ellis recalls the label’s second release, De Niro by The Disco Evangelists, as the tune that put Positiva on the map.
“I Like To Move It was the one that really exploded,” he says. “De Niro wasn’t a hit but it was a respected flag-marker that really helped cement the label within the DJ community.”
“Positiva’s label brand was key,” adds Lambert, thanks to the design by Jaffa at the Unknown Partnership. But it was Halkes, a hands-on MD, who came up with the visual concept of a plus-sign when Ed Sheeran was barely out of nappies.
“It was all very new to [EMI] this approach where Nick was managing the release from signing through to it popping up in HMV, which is what everyone does now - but that was quite radical for then,” says Lambert.
When Positiva first launched every signing still had to be signed off by Rupert Perry, then president of EMI Records.
“It was a formality but it could be a bit of a pain,” recalls Halkes. “Fortunately, the more successful we got, the more freedom we had.”
Even the EMI address was left off the sleeves in favour of an anonymous PO Box number, while Halkes firmly resisted the suits’ plans for international expansion that would have meant “crap records diluting the brand”.
As the dance boom continued with clubbing brands Gatecrasher and Cream, Positiva had more hits (Bucketheads’ The Bomb!, BBE’s Seven Days And One Week, Alice Deejay’s Better Off Alone) and capitalised on the growing trance scene.
The label also sold a lot of records by Eurodance scamps Vengaboys, signed up one of the first superstar DJs in Jeremy Healy and staged residencies at London clubs Bagley’s, The Cross and Ministry Of Sound, as well as playing at nights around the UK and beyond.
“DJing in Colombia was quite an experience,” adds Ellis. “We had four or five bodyguards and the Colombian equivalent of Chris Evans was our guide for the weekend.”
Halkes’ memory becomes vague as he recalls “high jinks” at Space in Ibiza, though Lambert helpfully reminds him that some of Positiva’s partying antics were captured on infamous TV series Ibiza Uncovered.
Positiva peaked in 2000 with the headline-grabbing chart battle between Victoria Beckham, as a featured artist on Out Of Your Mind by True Steppers and Dane Bowers, and Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) by Italian producer Spiller featuring Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
“The media went into an absolute frenzy,” says Ellis. “There was a call in at some point to ask us politely to move our record so [Victoria Beckham] could have a clearer shot at No.1, but we were like, ‘No, sorry’. It was a very rewarding chart battle where we came out on top.”
But the party was coming to an end – both Lambert and Halkes had moved on by 1999. Ellis had landed a dream job at Positiva as A&R alongside new label head Kevin Robinson just as dance music was facing a downturn.
“The millennium was a massive anti-climax in clubland, it had been hyped up as the best night you’re ever going to experience,” he says. “File-sharing hit and [dance music] was a singles-driven business mainly. A lot of the super clubs closed. The Strokes and The White Stripes came along and everyone started wearing skinny jeans.”
In the noughties, there were various restructures and Ellis admits there was a “pretty lean period” from 2006 to 2008. The label was then brought under Virgin, now Virgin EMI.
Positiva bounced back with David Guetta in 2008, “just at that point where EDM as we know it now just changed everything”, says Ellis. The French DJ’s 2011 hit Titanium has sales to date of 1,798,831 (OCC).
While Guetta moved to Warner Music in 2013 under the terms imposed on the Universal acquisition of EMI, Ellis had built a stable of artists on both Positiva and Virgin, who signed Swedish House Mafia and Deadmau5.
Positiva went on to have huge UK success with the late Avicii (see panel), alongside signings Ellis made to Virgin.
“We definitely had an influence [on EDM],” adds Ellis. “When we signed Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia to Virgin, the deals were quite revolutionary at the time - they were 360° deals effectively.
We gave them a very sizeable advance for a share in their business. In 2009, nobody else was looking to do those deals - Live Nation or AEG weren’t investing that level of money into electronic artists.”
Although Positiva is no longer a frontline label, Ellis says it’s had a “pretty steady run” since Guetta joined in 2009.
“Jonas Blue in the last two or three years has been phenomenal,” he adds. The single Mama (feat. William Singe) has sales to date of 1,084,244.
As a label that has been focused on singles, it means Positiva is now well placed in the streaming era.“Having that understanding of how to work a one-off track is definitely a benefit in the current landscape,” says Ellis.
“Jonas Blue is a classic example, where three of the first four singles have sold more than a million in the UK plus huge numbers of sales internationally. Although he’s making much more commercial pop music these days, his roots are very much in the history of what the label is all about.”
It also means Positiva is more global in its outlook compared to the ‘90s, when releases were often carved up between a network of labels.
“As digital came to the fore and certainly streaming now, it’s gone back the other way whereby you really need one label to run the campaign globally and there are all the benefits that come with that,” says Ellis.
While dance music is going through a lull compared to the urban genre, Positiva’s streaming numbers mean its artists are technically outperforming many of the label’s former glories.
“The amount of [streaming] income that’s been coming into the label in the last three years has just gone through the roof,” says Ellis.
However, he admits it’s “a lot tougher” to break a track compared to the old days of building from the clubs towards a Top Of The Pops performance.
“What has changed is now we’ve got to work them on air and on sale, they’re going on Spotify New Music Friday and you’ve got to keep them alive for seven or eight months – that’s a real challenge,” says Ellis.
Both French DJ Martin Solveig and Jonas Blue are set to release albums, while Positiva has signed new artists Jay Pryor and Moon Willis.
“It feels like we’re in that place where the EDM explosion has probably plateaued a little bit,” suggests Ellis. “So now’s the time to align ourselves with, hopefully, the next generation of DJs and producers.”
Yet there’s a slightly rueful air at Ministry Of Sound as these dance music pioneers note the decline of club culture.
“Going to a club on a Friday or Saturday night was your social network,” suggests Ellis.
“It’s really hard competing with Netflix, social media – trying to get a three-minute piece of music heard is much more of a battle than it was,” adds Halkes.
Positiva is doing its best to get people going out again with a series of one-off parties for the anniversary, as well as a deluxe compilation in September and a documentary. And Ellis is looking ahead – positively, of course – to the next 25 years.
“Because we’ve been true to the scene and the genre, people trust us, artists trust us,” he says. “We’ve built a reputation for being there through thick and thin.”