Feature

The beat goes on for Defected's virtual festival post-lockdown, but sponsors can wait

Defected Records’ virtual festival has proven so successful that it’s already carving out a place for live-streaming in its post-pandemic plans – but brands eager to get involved will have to be patient as the label sits tight for the perfect fit.

Every Friday since lockdown was imposed in the UK, indie dance label Defected Records has been delivering relief from isolation in the form of banging beats.

On 20 March, it aired the inaugural Defected Virtual Festival on YouTube and Facebook Live, inspired by similar live-streams it had undertaken in London and Croatia last year.

“We never even intended to do a second one,” Defected’s recently-appointed chief business officer James Kirkham tells The Drum. The idea, he explains, was initially floated as a means of uniting house music lovers in a time of crisis and giving DJs the chance to perform while unable to travel or tour.

Those DJs were initially carted to London institution Ministry of Sound to perform over the course of 12 hours to an empty dance hall. But since week two they have been blasting tunes from their living rooms and home studios.

Big names such as Sam Divine and the Mambo Brothers have taken over the decks and three weeks in, the label snagged Calvin Harris to headline from his LA mansion.

However, with more events organisers now clamouring on the digital and live-streaming bandwagon – hoping to appeal to an at-home audience against the backdrop of Covid-19 – Defected’s early play is already paying off.

A total of 2.5 million people tuned into the live stream of the first edition, breaking Facebook records. After signing up to stream on Twitch too, the weeks since have pulled in 7.7 million viewers and 25m impressions.

“The layer we never expected was this level of involvement with fans,” says Kirkham, noting how Defected’s online community of “around 5 million people” across social has helped catapult the festival beyond the house music community.

“We’ve had a patient sending us videos of him raving from his hospital bed. In the first week, two NHS workers shared themselves on Instagram tuning in on an iPad in their ambulance. Parents have been dancing with their kids in the living room.

“It’s had this lovely, positive, all-access appeal. There’s been a digital and social feedback loop and the [impact of that] has been wonderful and unexpected.”

Due to the overwhelming audience demand, Defected has committed to continuing the broadcasts for as long as possible.

Sister disco label Glitterbox will take over the reins this Friday. Well-known for its larger than life production and performers (the last event at Printworks in London had an official ‘Vogue-ing’ room) fans can expect a flamboyant online iteration complete with famous faces from the drag scene and live dance tutorials.

Kirkham says: “We’d be mad to stop the [virtual festival] entirely. It was born out of necessity and to give people a bit of relief on a Friday when they need it most in isolation.

"But [post-coronavirus], I have a feeling that an interesting strategy will be born out of it, and we should be delivering these as virtual pillars now and again.”

On-screen buttons on the streams have been encouraging donations to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The label has raised £100,000 so far, lending a charitable element to Defected's efforts beyond bringing dancefloor energy to living-rooms and kitchens around the world.

Sponsorship, but make it digital

Defected’s key business remains its record label, with albums from DJs such as Honey Dijon and Horse Meat Disco set to be released this year, and a back catalogue of classics firmly under its belt.

It also has an online store and “pretty agile merch operation” where its millions of social followers flock to buy t-shirts and more.

However, the label also relies on a stream of sell-out events to help it pull in revenues. These range for club nights in cities around the world to flagship festivals and parties in London, Ibiza and Croatia. Past sponsors for its events have included Café Belvedere and energy drink Relentless.

As brands get over the initial shocks of the coronavirus lockdown, they are looking to funnel budgets once reserved for live events into alternative online programming.

Naturally then, a variety have been approaching Defected about getting deals in place to partner on its digital festivals. Kirkham, however, is adamant that whichever brands the dance giant chooses to work with must not only boast the right credentials, but also the right approach.

“We’ve had a lot of people suddenly knock on the door and lean in, which is lovely," he says. "There’s been a real mix of brands – including alcohol advertisers, sports, apparel and telecoms – which are obviously focused on connectivity – that are seeing the potential to attach themselves to this positive celebration of unity.”

When the festival started, there was never an intent to monetise it. But, as chief business officer, Kirkham is far from allergic to the notion of getting a sponsor on board. He’s just cautious of how it will impact the overall experience.

It’s far easier to incorporate a drinks sponsor in a club setting than it is on say, Twitch or Facebook Live.

“We’re not rushing it,” asserts the chief business officer. “We want to make sure it feels right and that it’s the right value exchange for the community. We don’t want to solely badge it and interrupt the experience.”

He’s not averse to having different brands dip in, our out, either: “It could be a long-term sponsor or it could be a week-to-week [contract].”

Kirkham’s challenge of balancing the need to derive a return on investment on live digital events versus interfering with fan experience is one that’s likely to crop up for organisers around the globe as traditional sponsorship rules are thrown out of the window.

When the Holler founder and Copa90 boss joined Defected, he outlined a vision to build out the group’s content division to get its proposition and artists front of mind for music fans.

So, what has the impact on Defected’s own brand been over the past few weeks?

For one, it’s clocked up 200,000 new followers across all of its social platforms.

“We’ve also seen our merchandise and apparel spike and peak every week too as people flock to buy gear to wear during the virtual festival,” Kirkham adds.

“None of this was expected and it’s like the virtual festival is becoming a vital part of our communications strategy. It will be fascinating to see how we start embedding it into our regular brand comms.”

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.