Among America’s dance music trailblazers is Ultra Records president Patrick Moxey, whose label is home to some of the best known names in modern-day EDM, including Kygo and Steve Aoki, and a few of the genre’s biggest global hits, from OMI’s “Cheerleader” (a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 in July 2015) to Mr. Probs’ viral phenomenon “Waves.”
The latest to scale the pop charts is Kygo’s “It Ain’t Me,” featuring Selena Gomez, which peaked at No. 2 on U.S. radio earlier this summer, and, according to Buzz Angle Music, has seen to-date audio streams of more than 244 million since its release in February. Not your typical dance floor fist-pumper, the song’s lyrical content is cutting and dark, about a relationship on the skids due to alcoholism, and features one of Gomez’s most sophisticated vocals, expertly produced against a tropical-house beat. It’s a stunner of a song, that, thanks to Ultra’s partnership with Sony Music (Moxey serves as president of electronic music for the company), eased its way to worldwide domination. (Capitalizing on the momentum, Kygo recently released a documentary, “Stole the Show,” which is off to a strong start at Apple’s iTunes.)
Moxey, who came up through the New York City warehouse party scene — and credits his lifelong love to music to a David Bowie concert he attended in Berlin in 1982 — founded Ultra in 1995 and has expanded the company to include a management and publishing arm. Over 22 years, he’s seen more than his share of DJs come and go, but, as he tells Variety, dance music is here to stay.
The notion of a dance music bubble — and inevitable burst — has been a topic of debate in recent years. What is the state of the genre currently?
Music, in general, is in the beginning of an explosion right now. I see ten years of solid, upward growth coming. Even markets that are fully mature, like Spotify and the Nordics where you see it in every house, are still growing in terms of subscriptions. We went through a decade of down-ten-percent-a-year, which I survived with Ultra by growing 20 percent a year. And when I look forward, I see growth of five to ten percent each year. It’s a very exciting time.
Is there a sector that’s particularly robust?
Intellectual property. Whether it’s the sound recording or the copyright, there’s always ebbs and flows as new technologies come into the space, and some fluctuation in value. Right now, with the value that you’re able to command through streaming, that puts sound recordings in a really hot place. With publishing, for whatever reason, it’s gotten there a bit late on the streaming side, so there’s some correction that needs to take place. I think publishing value is a little low for what it should be. Let’s face it: music is catnip for humans. It’s a huge asset.
How has Spotify changed the business from where you sit?
It’s transformed it. It pays artists and labels properly. I think it’s a wonderful service. The only downside is the skip rate within Spotify if something is a bit too dramatic or polarizing. Let’s say the Clash came out tomorrow, would they work at Spotify? But it’s a great resource and their algorithms pick up on stuff that people really want and push those tracks to the top. But we need to have other platforms as well that can break things that are a bit more radical.
Six months after its release, “It Ain’t Me” remains a pop radio staple and is still being streamed more than 5 million times weekly. Why do you think it’s resonated?
It’s a brilliant song. It stands out from all the rest. There are a lot of L.A. pop songs written with a certain amount of Top 40 fluff. “It Ain’t Me” is an L.A. song but it’s written with meaning and that takes it to a whole other level. Selena Gomez, she’s been going through a bit, so when her voice comes on top of Kygo’s amazing keyboard work, and with that killer chorus … they really came with an absolute smash. It’s a tribute to Kygo and the wonderful musician that he is.
Does Ultra’s alliance with Sony deserve some of the credit?
I think it was helpful to have Sony International to deliver records to so many countries at the same time outside of the U.S. and Canada for us. But Ultra has always had hits — from Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me,” … and certainly when we had something like OMI’s “Cheerleader,” which was a quirky Jamaican song. That record was No. 1 in 68 countries at the same time. We’ve also had great success with Steve Aoki, one of my favorite people. At Ultra, we’re a record company, we’re a publishing company, and we’re making documentary films and concert movies. Technology has gifted us with that three-dimensional-ity.
You’ll be five years into your deal with Sony in December. Do you see that alliance continuing?
Ultra has been more successful each year and we’re reviewing our options at the moment. There’s no shortage of choices, let’s just say that.
Doug Morris was at the helm when the deal was signed. How different is Rob Stringer’s leadership and what’s your view of the transition?
It’s interesting, Rob is very hands-on. Doug picks his lieutenants and lets them go out into battle. I think Rob is a bit more visible [with] more meetings and a more intense management style. But overall, he’s a music man. He has an incredible one-to-one relationship with his artists and their managers — whether it’s having them out to dinner, and, before we’re through the appetizers, people are singing and doing shots. There a real rapport with Rob that goes beyond spreadsheets and numbers. Rob is about that, too, but he’s a personable and a larger-than-life character. The way the transition has been handled between Doug and Rob has been exceptionally smooth. I’m so pleased to see Rob, a music guy, get that job.
Certainly Calvin Harris is a good example of long-term development of a dance act, albeit not Ultra-specific. With “Feels” currently climbing, to what do you attribute his track record?
His career trajectory is perfect. Inside, he is a great songwriter.He doesn’t need anyone to tell him what trend he’s on. You saw him very much in the middle of the EDM thing, but then he moved, at the right time, ahead of the curve. And now again, he’s moving at the right time to funk. When you love music, and something gets very popular, you get bored, and you start to dig down and find what’s new.
It seems the DJ and female pop artist combination is the formula of choice. Do you anticipate that trend continuing?
That’s the formula now but, the great thing about music is that it’s always subject to change. For example, I see urban music and hip-hop as incredibly hot right now — so much so that Steve Aoki works with Migos and Gucci Mane and Lil Yachty. Same thing with Carnage, who we just had a gold single with — electronic trap is meeting hip-hop and the two genres are fusing. We just started working with an artist called Black Coffee he’s mixing South African voices and sounds with house music, he’s also the hottest DJ in Ibiza this summer. … When looking at the Top 40 charts, almost everything is some sort of a duet. You’ve got a singer and a rapper; or two singers; or three rappers. I don’t know if it’s that people have A.D.D. these days and need to hear so many different voices. But it’s almost getting rare to have one artist do an entire song.
OMI did with “Cheerleader.” Can he live off that track for the rest of his life?
The answer is probably yes, but OMI is far too driven to be a one-hit-wonder. We’ve been recording in the U.K. and have six or seven fantastic songs. He’s so focused, and he sees his competition as Bruno Mars — the best of the best. OMI was the key writer on “Cheerleader.” He’s a special talent.
Dance acts spend their lives on the road. Do you see DJs continuing to tour years into their careers, as heritage rock acts do?
There are DJs that started out in their twenties that are still DJing in their fifty-fives! Will we one day see Ibiza: The Musical on Broadway? It’s possible. Dance and electronic music has been around since the ’70s and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. And there are plenty of older dance fans. You see the Chemical Brothers back on the road and the gigs are full. Some of dance music is about the hot song of the moment, but there are also dance artists that are strong brands and those brands, I think, are timeless.