Industry Insider: Wez Saunders On Defected 20 Year Anniversary, Getting Your Track Signed

Defected Records Managing Director Wez Saunders shares his tips on how to get your track signed and how the label has adapted to the internet.
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Wez Saunders

Wez Saunders

When it comes to the pantheon of house music labels, there are a lot of imprints old and new that come to mind, but any list that doesn’t include Defected Records is wrong. The label has put out some of the biggest house records since it was formed 20 years ago. Whether it is Kings Of Tomorrow “Finally,” Dennis Ferrer “Hey Hey” or Camelphat & Elderbrook “Cola,” the label has helped define the sound of house music across the world.

The label was started in 1999 by Simon Dunmore, who still steers the ship into new waters 20 years later. It has expanded into an event brand with sub-imprints pushing the label’s sound into new and exciting areas. It has also expanded with more employees and a larger structure to handle events, A&R, business, marketing and more. Wez Saunders joined the label a few years ago after a winding career path through finance and music and has become the Managing Director.

With their 20-year anniversary happening all year, we decided to get Wez in for an Industry Insider piece to share some vital knowledge for anyone who wants to have their music signed. We chat about the legacy of Defected, how the label has evolved to shifting consumption patterns, capitalizing on success and more.

Defected’s Glitterbox show is coming to on House of Yes on December 6.

How has Defected adapted your business model from CDs, then to downloads, and then to streaming?

During the transition from physical to digital products, a lot of our peers / partners / business associates struggled - as did we. This was a challenging time for not just us, or the dance music industry in particular but the music business as a whole.

In our world, the sound had shifted from traditional house music to big room, progressive house & EDM and a lot of people were lost or perhaps disillusioned by what was going on. Staff was cut, and many people went out of business.

We focused on staying in our lane and continuing to release the type of music that we were synonymous with, and once our producers and associates re-found their sound and direction, and the deep house era happened, it gave a second wind to real house music.

This coincided with a rebrand of Defected (visually) and records like Storm Queen “Look Right Through (MK Remix)” helped us to push forward as a business.

Fast-forward to the transition from downloads to streaming. We were slightly late to the table, watching, learning and waiting in anticipation as to how this was going to impact the scene. However, once we had enough research to understand the market, we began to roll out a streaming strategy across our playlist offering, our radio show and understand it is now a singles market. This has changed the way we release music, singles and compilations in particular, and there is a much longer tail now on music -- all of a sudden, records we would consider “a hit” and perhaps upstream to help cash flow the business, we no longer have. 10m streams can have the same benefit on an independent label as a record that may have crossed over 10 years ago. Producers are starting to earn good money again, and the volume of streams helps to only grow their communities and profiling. Long may that continue.

Does streaming impact the types of records you sign?

No. We always look to sign good quality house music. Whilst we of course do release records with samples or re-recorded samples, we have always looked to sign and work original records in the main. Our A&R guys continue to invest time and energy into projects like The Vision, Horse Meat Disco, Dames Brown, Qwestlife, Dave + Sam; all of which are 100% original productions. This philosophy has remained the same throughout Defected’s 20-year history.

Defected is a massive dance label and brand, especially in Europe. How do you guys adapt your strategy for the States and North America?

Honestly, we are still learning. Camelphat & Elderbrook “Cola” opened a door for us in the US, and working alongside Big Beat on that record (and Ferreck Dawn, Robosonic & Nikki Ambers “In My Arms”) helped us to get a foothold in the States from an events perspective. After “Cola” was nominated for a Grammy and the record & artist were given a platform across US-led streaming profiling & playlists, we invested in a PR & promotions strategy to help continue to grow. We began small in the US, and still have a lot of work to do but we have begun, and looking forward to returning with both Defected & Glitterbox brands at the end of this year, and throughout 2020.

We have worked with US artists from day 1. Many of them comment on how the “British kids” get their music when they travel this side of the pond. We are hoping to continue to grow this across the US, this year, through 2020 and beyond.

What did you guys learn from the massive crossover success of “Cola?” How does a label capitalize on a track that is getting momentum to make it even bigger?

We were working on an international strategy for our records before “Cola” landed. We agreed that the next record we had with that type of potential, we would retain global rights (except the US, where we knew we still had much to learn) and work it ourselves.

We were offered a significant amount of money to license “Cola” on, saying “no” and believing we were able to deliver was a bold move. But having done so, and leveraging a real hungry, talented team internally, our PR & promotions network worldwide, alongside the natural heat and momentum of an amazing record now certified 30+ times worldwide and over 400,000,000 streams helped us to believe in what we suspected, and deliver. We learned a lot!

What was the learning curve learning to throw your own events, with your own DJs, at your own venues?

In my opinion, Simon Dunmore has been extremely humble in his approach to putting on events for a long time. He has been patient, starting small, building a community, providing that community with exactly what they are looking for (both events & music-wise), learning from those activities, being sure to walk before we could run, and building.

We understand what our community is looking for and we understand our market value by territory. Having put on a 10,000+ capacity FSTVL this year in London, we know we need to start smaller than that (ie/ 1,000-2,000 capacity venues in some locations outside of the UK) and grow in those territories.

Tell the story of how you got your job at Defected and then your journey through the company.

Back in the late 90’s, I used to DJ. Then my now wife fell pregnant when we were very young and by the time I was barely 22, we were married with two children (who are now 20 & 17; my wife and I celebrated 18 years of marriage this October).

Because of this, I hung up my headphones for the first time and focused on what my mother-in-law called “a real job” in investment banking. I worked for Deutsche Bank from 1998-2010, promoted every 2 years I was there. In 2008, I’d just been promoted to Vice President and was on the path to become the youngest ever Director in DB’s history at that time. However, my then 24-year-old brother was diagnosed with and 23 days later died of Leukemia. This turned my world upside down.

Not long after his death, I returned to work and realized I didn’t want to work in the financial scene any longer, and that I wanted to return to music. I am very fortunate to have a wife who supported my decision. I went into the office, explained the situation and my Managing Director agreed that - if I completed my projects - he would make me redundant. Nearly 18 months later / 2 years after my brother’s death, the day before my 30th birthday, I was made redundant. The day after my 30th birthday, I set up my own record label. This evolved into a label suite, developing young people and managing artists. During this time, I was also DJing & producing again and met Simon Dunmore through Kevin Saunderson.

I was looking for a mentor. One night at some ungodly hour, I wrote to Simon explaining who I am, what I had done and that I was looking for a mentor. He invited me to Defected HQ, spent a couple of hours chatting and 2 days later he called to offer me a job as “Singles Manager” (promoting Defected Records to club DJ’s).

I began in March 2014, and slowly but surely evolved the role to take responsibility for radio plugging, executive producer of the Defected In The House radio show, Head of Marketing for Recordings, Head of Marketing for the Business and when the former Managing Director left the business in May 2017, Simon offered me the position.

I am very grateful and thankful for Simon believing in me and giving me these opportunities time and time again. It’s now my job to not let him or the business down and continue to grow the business in exactly the same way I grew my own career. We have a very hungry and exciting young team in the main, and I am very fortunate to be able to work and learn alongside our staff at Defected Records.

What are two of the biggest mistakes you see producers make when sending music to Defected?

A lot of producers will send a track, and upon rejection immediately send a second. For me, I assume that the first record you sent will be your very best otherwise surely you would not have sent it? Therefore, sending a second in such close proximity makes me question whether the second submission is of a standard, and if so why you didn’t send it in the first place.

The second thing is not marking up demos properly. A lot of the time I will download and listen on the road and if the track isn’t named properly (with artist name) or has any contact info attached to the metadata / file name (ie/ email address), sometimes it’s hard to find out who sent this in the first place, and therefore not always able to provide constructive criticism or worse, sign a record!

What can music labels, DJs and producers do to be more environmentally conscious and battle climate change?

I think first and foremost, the world has to take this seriously. So many still believing this is some sort of conspiracy, which is pretty crazy. I am not referring to music people here, but I see a lot of late-30-year-old’s-onwards questioning the legitimacy of climate change, which is quite astounding. Whilst smarter travel is the most obvious suggestion, it really isn’t as simple as stopping flying. We should explore smarter travel opportunities and use our positions on the road to act as diplomats across the World. I heard Claire O’Neill discussing “A Greener Festival” at the AFEM AGM at ADE recently, and I definitely think across the board we can work together to spread the message, work at greener club / festival / artist activity, eliminating plastic, targeting zero waste and trying to slow down, if not stop climate change all together. We cannot undo what is done, but we can stop it.

What are current projects Defected is doing that you are most proud of?

Hard to name just one. There’s a lot of amazing music and projects happening at the moment. However, the stand out projects include two singles - Roberto Surace “Joys” and Endor “Pump It Up” (which after Camelphat & Elderbrook “Cola,” Lee Walker & DJ Deeon vs Katy B & MNEK “Freak Like Me” and DJ SKT featuring Rae “Take Me Away” is the 5th record I have signed for Defected), and then several, ongoing and extended artist projects from The Vision, Horse Meat Disco, Dames Brown, Qwestlife & Dave + Sam, plus Honey Dijon amongst others. Keep an eye out on what’s coming up.

What does Defected look for in potential employees?

Hunger. We hire hunger. As Steve Jobs said, I want to be the dumbest person in the boardroom. Add hunger to that, and anything is possible.

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