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

With nominations for this year's Future 50 currently open, we profile last year's inductees. Musicians, venues and record labels face an existential threat from the pandemic, but Defected Records has helped to keep the party going under lockdown. We catch up with head of digital marketing Tom Coxhead to find out how.

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.

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

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.

In the pandemic, he has helped build new bridges between Defected’s artists and this bereft fanbase. “Music is more important than ever right now,” he says. “What I’ve tried to do in my career is to bring people together through positivity and music. I think there’s so much negativity out there that the positive stuff really shines through. Our messaging was all from people who love dance music and dance culture and wanted to give something back to people.”

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.

Coxhead’s career followed a winding path prior to Defected. Originally envisioning a career as a professional cricketer, he started a music blog while at university and was credited with discovering artists such as Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa and Example (“I got lucky,” he says). Following post-uni stints at a Land Rover parts firm and as a sous chef, he began working in social media marketing and ended up working on BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix with the brief of drumming up a social media presence for the highly regarded witching hour show.

“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.”

Defected recruited Coxhead because of his work on the Essential Mix, with the idea of repeating the trick for the label and persuading its own community of faithful fans to come online. During the pandemic, that community has grown both in importance and in size. Music fans with time on their hands have flocked to Defected’s Facebook page, bringing its following on the platform to 2.7 million. “It’s something we’re very proud of.”

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.

“The community is what makes Defected, and at our events at Printworks, Ministry of Sound or in Croatia or Ibiza, it is the people who come to them that make them. We just wanted to bring the people together.”

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.”

Defected has now staged nine virtual festivals to date, seen by 14 million people worldwide and starring huge artists like Calvin Harris and Carl Cox. As the year progresses, the label has also been streaming ‘bedroom sets’ from artists across the globe.

Coxhead says the success of the virtual gigs has inspired the team to incorporate them into its physical festivals... whenever they make their grand return. “There are a few conversations going on, but we want to keep bringing the Defected or Glitterbox experience to people virtually. I think it will be impossible not to incorporate that into our events moving forward.”

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.

“We’re taking bits out of the magazine and making those into social profiles for the Defected channel. I’m a house music obsessive and a lot of the artists and music featured in there are very much my kind of thing. The reaction to it has been amazing.”

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.”

For Defected, the good news has been cut with the bad. As the pandemic continues to devastate the industry and the world it operates in, Defected itself had to make redundancies. But the label is going into 2021 with new premises, a busy slate of releases under its belt and a massively strengthened social profile.

“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.”

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

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