This year marks the 25th anniversary of Positiva Records – the label behind artists such as Reel 2 Reel, Spiller, Vengaboys, Alice Deejay, Shapeshifters, Paul van Dyk, David Guetta, Jonas Blue and Swedish House Mafia.
It was originally set up by Nick Halkes and Dave Lambert in 1993 as part of EMI’s first serious move into the booming dance music scene in the UK.
In the 25 years since it was established, it has seen dance go truly overground, ridden the explosion in the CD market, watched aghast as the internet overtook the record business as both a disruptive distribution platform and a new kind of tastemaker; seen a fresh generation of music fans moving away from electronic music; been revived by the rise of streaming and a re-focusing on the single; and, finally, found itself at the forefront as the US fell to EDM.
Music Ally spoke with Jason Ellis – Positiva’s director of A&R who joined in 1999 from EMI’s sales team – about how the label has had to adapt to industry, market and technological shifts and why streaming is delivering the biggest hits of its lifetime.
#1 A handful of acts in the 1990s (Prodigy, Underworld, Orbital, Chemical Brothers) made the transition to album acts, but the singles market was so buoyant that it didn’t necessarily matter
“There were a handful of acts who have gone on to be the godfathers of the scene – but not many have managed to replicate that since. Predominantly on the commercial hit single side, it was a lot of faceless and unknown producers from far-flung corners of Europe making great club music that would be licensed to the UK amongst a network of predominantly independent labels.
The majors didn’t really have much of a look in at that point. And that was one of the reasons why Positiva was set up – as EMI at the time had no presence really in the scene and felt like it needed to get involved.”
#2 DJs, sales reps and promoters were dance music’s first social network
“[As an EMI sales rep] I had access to a lot of early promos and imports. I just had a good ear for what could work on the dancefloor from a DJ capacity but that could also sell records in the shops. I started connecting with the people at Positiva at the time. They appreciated my input as their man in the Midlands who could tip them off on records that were selling well on import or that were coming through as potential signings.
Before the internet and before social media, you had these pockets of likeminded people who were connected around the big cities and the clubs – like Miss Moneypenny’s in Birmingham, Venus in Nottingham, Vague in Leeds – all the big cities around the UK which all had vibrant and exciting club scenes.
The likes of Judge Jules, Jeremy Healy, John Kelly, Seb Fontaine and Tall Paul would travel around and they would be the connecting points between all these little independent scenes. You could go for a night out in Leeds, Nottingham or Sheffield and find a nightclub that felt like the one that you would go to on a regular basis in your city. It was a really exciting time.”
#3 Dance broke apart the London-centric structure of the music business
“A lot of Positiva’s big successes in those early years were what you might call regional records – records that were huge in Scotland and the North West maybe but not necessarily tracks that would work in London.”
#4 Dance music was far bigger than most people remember – but then the internet happened
“In 1999 and 2000, Positiva wasn’t just the biggest dance label in the country, we were neck and neck with Polydor as being the most successful label in the UK. It was an incredibly successful period. I got promoted to run the label but this literally coincided with file-sharing going rife, sales starting to disappear and everyone’s scratching their heads trying to figure out what was going on.”
#5 Filesharing kicked in at the very worst time for dance as a new generation began looking elsewhere
“What coincided with filesharing was, as is often the way because dance music tends to go in cycles, the next generation of kids wanting to listen to The White Stripes and The Strokes. So, dance music wasn’t cool anymore.
There was a perfect storm of everything that could possibly go wrong going wrong. I was sitting there having just been promoted to run the label asking, ‘Have I done something wrong?’ It was a really tough period.”
#6 The early 2000s were dance music’s wilderness years
“It was a period of treading water and trying to take stock of how to navigate through this new world. That period from 2000 to 2003 was really tough. We did manage to pull a couple of rabbits out of hats and have some hits like Shy FX and ‘Shake Your Body’, which was a massive drum & bass record for us at the time.
There were also some things that we managed to license – like Lasgo’s ‘Something’ which was a really big record for us in 2002 as was The Ones’ ‘Flawless’ in 2001.
We were still very much a singles label at this time. We didn’t really have any album acts of any nature at that point. It was slim pickings still trying to find a few hits to get us through, to be honest.”
#7 The model that powered dance in the 1990s was increasingly irrelevant by the turn of the millennium
“Looking back, I guess it was probably slightly out of touch. It was very much clinging onto the model that had worked for the previous five or 10 years.”
#8 In a time of desperation, the bidding wars raged out of control
There were album successes on the label. Adam F’s Colours was an album that Nick was very proud of back in 1997. Even BBE managed to progress to an album project after two or three hits. Then we had a boom period with Vengaboys and Alice Deejay on a pop level that sold good numbers of records.
But there was definitely a period of just focusing on trying to find that handful of hit records that could get you through. It became very competitive because there were more labels in the scene than there were hits. So, when a big record cropped up at Midem or Popkomm, the bidding wars were just ridiculous. It was so high risk.”
#9 Downloading’s shift in focus from the album back to the single was dance music’s liferaft
“When iTunes came along, it was a bit of a saviour for those of us working in the one-off singles market. Finally we had a marketplace! For example, Shapeshifter’s ‘Lola’s Theme’ was a big #1 record for us in 2004 but just about scraped silver. It did something like 220,000 in its lifetime before it was deleted [physically].
For almost the first 20 years of the labels – 1993 to 2012 – we had one platinum single, which was Alice Deejay’s ‘Better Off Alone’ which sold 660,000 copies in the UK. When a single got to a certain point in its life, it was deleted and you couldn’t sell it anymore. Obviously iTunes changed that so we started to see a bit of a longer tail creeping in.
Then in 2012, David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ was the first single that we had that sold a million. Now when I look back at the more recent history of the label, platinum records come along quite regularly because of the nature of streaming and the long tail that we have.
We did a rough calculation and we think we have done between 35-38m singles in the UK in the history of the label. But nearly 10m of those have come in the last three years. That is largely down to the huge success of Jonas Blue and others – but also all those records of the last five-to-10 years that just keep on streaming.”
#10 SoundCloud became the new white label
“The precursor to digital was the white label van distribution network. It was often about personal connections. The handful of specialist stores in Soho had a lot of power because they would be getting 10 copies of the hot new US import and who they chose to sell those 10 copies to could really dictate the trajectory that a record would take.”
#11 Dance, more than any other genre, has had to constantly re-educate itself
“There were several periods throughout my career where we have had to re-educate ourselves, learn new tricks, adopt new strategies and adopt new policies. Certainly scouring SoundCloud and, before that, MySpace looking for new producers or exciting new music was a big part of our working week. Or having scouts and other people around us who would doing that on our behalf.”
#12 Shazam tags became the new yardstick of success
“Shazam has always been a really valuable asset to electronic music as a relatively instant gauge of popularity – looking at when you get a play on certain radio shows to see what kind of spikes you get. Or even scouring its top 200 for unusual tracks that you don’t necessarily know.
Especially in the summer, you would see real spikes in tracks from Ibiza or from big festivals. Martin Garrix’s ‘Animals’ was one of those which had been a big club record that was bubbling away for a while, but the Shazam numbers over that summer just kept getting bigger and bigger. It became undeniable that the public wanted to know what this record was.
With Shazam there was a nice balance there with the data to back up the consumers’ interest to want to know what a track was. At the moment with Spotify, playlisting and the unbelievable amount of data that is created from that, it feels like it has gone a little bit too far towards the data-driven element.
There has to be a balance between the gut feeling for a track that you think might reach a bigger audience and the cold, hard facts that a streaming platform can provide you with.”
#13 On air/on sale is arguably a bigger challenge than filesharing ever was
“The biggest challenge we have had in recent times is the on air/on sale model. Historically dance music would live off platform for months. Yes, we knew that filesharing was rife, but in many ways that could help with the promotion if the record was being shared around.
A big track might not be available until the end of the [Ibiza] season. It might be available on import or be out in certain territories, but you would be signing it, you will be developing it, you would be working towards an impact date, the pre-orders would be up – so sometimes you could be working a track for months before you even did the radio edit and have a shorter version that you could take to daytime radio.”
#14 Today tracks start short and have to be extended – not vice versa
“With the obsession around New Music Friday and getting off to a good start on day one, you have to have that version ready. If you want to have commercial success, having that version that works on streaming from day one is critical.
More often than not now I will get a two- or three-minute idea from a producer or an artist who is signed to us that we then finish up and then you create the extended version from that – rather than working with the seven-minute club mix and editing it down. It has completely flipped the process of how a lot of these records are made.”
#15 Dance is the new pop and has rewritten the rules for songwriting collaborations
“Historically, with the records and the artist we were working with, the scene was very self-sufficient. It would be a guy in the studio in Holland or Germany making the music and he might get a vocalist in to sing the hook, but it was pretty much self-contained.
When it really changed was when David Guetta had the vision in the late 2000s to marry what he was doing in terms of production with those big American featured artists, going out to America and knocking on Ester Dean’s door and saying, ‘I want one of your songs. Don’t give it to Britney Spears. This is what I can offer.’ That opened the door to a very different collaborative process in making dance records.
In the last eight to 10 years, dance music has become very pop. With an act like Marshmello now, the reach he has is very appealing to those big writers and those big featured artists because they are tapping into a word that they can’t necessarily get into on their own. That has been a very big shift in recent years.”
#16 Dance music’s timing with multiple-rights deals was impeccable
“The deadmau5 deal [with EMI in 2009] set the template. That was actually a proposal that came from management. They had the vision of what they wanted to do and what they wanted to achieve – and they were looking for someone to partner with. So it was a JV effectively.
If a deal was competitive, EMI/Virgin was never going to win it because no one knew what was going to happen to the company [under the ownership of Terra Firma]. So we had to look elsewhere and think slightly outside of the box.
The one thing that Terra Firma was very good at was analysing numbers – taking the emotion and the creativity out of it. You’d have managers like Dean Wilson [of Three Six Zero Group] and Amy Thomson [ATM Management] who had incredible vision and ambition about what they wanted to do, but who didn’t have the infrastructure or, at that time, the financial clout to make it happen.
That was very appealing to us. The one thing that no one could have foreseen was just how quickly America would fall to EDM. That changed and it caught everyone off guard.”
#17 The labels pioneered those deals but the live industry has taken them to the next level
EMI got so much stick for [the deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia] deals at the time. They were very good deals for EMI, but no one else was willing to take the risk – giving unknown electronic acts seven-figure sums for a share of their business was unheard of at the time. Looking back, we did very well out of it as a company and I am still very proud of what we help to those guys achieve in their careers.
Those deals were a moment in time because Live Nation and AEG, for example, were not prepared to invest that level of money into their roster in the electronic space at that time. But that quickly changed.”
#18 The label is no longer at the centre of the deal – but that’s OK
“Those deals still exist, but the record company isn’t at the centre of them anymore. Effectively it is the management company that is at the centre of them now. The management companies have become the ones that control the 360 rather than the record company. The money from the live side is so huge now that they don’t need the record label to be at the centre of it. But we still play a big part in the overall picture.”
#19 The US initially followed Europe’s lead but quickly created its own superstar formula
“There was a period why it didn’t change it at all because they were lapping up what we knew would work. But of course America will want to create its own superstars and that is how acts like Marshmello and Skrillex [have come through].”
#20 The barometer of success today is about longevity rather than spikes
“It has definitely changed. The singles chart in the UK to me has always been the barometer of success – and getting a record in the top five or even #1 brought a real sense of achievement. Now the trajectory of a hit record is very different.
You tend to look back at a campaign over a longer period of time and look at the total revenue as well as the total number of streams [to assess the success]; but you don’t necessarily get that spike at any one point when you think you have really made an achievement here.
Getting a record on Radio 1, Capital and Kiss is still very much a marker of success. But, for example, a record like Martin Solveig’s ‘Places’ – which we worked for probably 10 months – never went higher than #27 in the Official Charts; but it is now a platinum record and perceived as a job well done for the artist and from our end. The barometer of success has definitely changed over the years.”
#21 New Music Friday is no longer the be all and end all
“There was a period of time where everyone would stay up until after midnight on Thursday to check New Music Friday [Spotify’s playlist] when it refreshed to make sure they were in there. What we’re finding now is the New Music Friday obsession is waning a little bit. It is more about the first two weeks rather than that first day.
Sometimes it can even be a bit of a false economy if you get New Music Friday. You are almost better off having a bigger spread of playlist adds across the first two weeks than that initial burst.
If we don’t get New Music Friday now, we are not overly concerned – whereas maybe a year ago it was, ‘Oh no! No one likes the record!’ That’s not the case now. As a label and as a company, we are getting better at working records and understanding the trajectory of the records.”
#22 Niche playlists are the new regional club hits
“It is all about timing and when to push for those additions. Aligning everything in the campaign over a period of weeks and months is the toughest part. But there are a whole host of big third-party playlists on Spotify which can collectively help move the numbers and prove to the editors at Spotify that there is something going on with this record.
Keeping those records alive and showing a steady growth over six-to-eight weeks is definitely one of the biggest challenges for a dance record.”
#23 Remixes used to be the secret weapon but today they can’t be allowed to dilute the impact of the main version
“There was a point about 18 months ago where it felt like the mandatory marketing request was for an acoustic version to tick the boxes. That has fizzled out a little bit. Anybody in my position would probably say we have engineered a few hits over the years with a bit of smoke and mirrors and clever marketing – and had a top 10 hit when maybe something shouldn’t necessarily have been at that level. But now, ultimately, you will get found out.
The public will decide and your definitive version that you put out has to be the best it can be. If a record is special and they like it, they will keep coming back. You don’t want to dilute the focus away from the main version. So you need to do things off platform.
Remixes definitely help in terms of spreading the support with different types of DJs, different types of clubs and different radio shows – but you wouldn’t necessarily release those remixes straight away onto streaming platforms. You would like to try and keep the focus on the main version.”
#24 Dance acts still want to make albums – but they are the conclusion, not the initial focus, of a campaign now
“It’s a tough conversation with any artist as far as an album or no album is concerned. Ultimately for many artists the album is still the format they have in their head about how to best represent their work. For them to know that the majority of consumers out there don’t buy into that is a difficult conversation to have.
With Jonas Blue, at the moment, has had five singles, three of them absolutely huge and we will be putting an album out in September. That will effectively bookend the first phase of his career. Speaking to acts like Wilkinson and Gorgon City, they want to do an album as a little bit of a statement, but they appreciate that you can’t be working three singles off the album once it is out – it is just not going to happen. The album is literally the final point of the campaign and then you start again with something fresh.”
#25 Extra content can give a good track extra legs – but not if the track is terrible to begin with
“What we are doing at the start of the process is that we are taking time, effort and energy to make the best record we can. If it’s not a good record then people won’t come back. The effort, care and attention to detail that you put in at the start of the process is what will pay dividends at the end.
Video and visual content, which has always been important, is going to become more and more important over the next couple of years.
Creating assets and content around a brilliant song and having a campaign over two or three months – quite often where you are constantly drip feeding exciting content around the release and the artist – is definitely something we will be looking to prolong the campaign.”
(Note: this interview was conducted before the sad passing of Avicii, one of the label’s biggest artists, and we removed any comments about him as a mark of respect.)