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House music all life long: 25 Years Of Defected

World-class house label Defected Records is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Carl Loben corners CEO  Wez Saunders for some insights about its inner workings, and asks a selection of associated artists what the secret is to the brand’s lasting success

Almost a quarter of a century ago, DJ Mag popped over to Defected HQ in Soho for an article that was ostensibly crowning the fresh new imprint Label Of The Year. Defected Records had shot out of its starting blocks with a peerless run of singles by the likes of Soulsearcher (‘I Can’t Get Enough’), Masters At Work (‘To Be In Love’), OnePhatDeeva (‘In & Out Of My Life’), Paul Johnson (‘Get Get Down’) and Bob Sinclar (‘I Feel For You’), all of which smashed into the UK Top 40. It was an initial run assisted considerably by CEO Simon Dunmore’s ten years experience working for other people at Cooltempo and then AM:PM, before starting his own label with his business partner at the time, Janet Bell.

During that interview, Dunmore and Bell spoke about the freedom that being an independent label gave them, and the importance of astute A&Ring, before new Defected promotions man Seamus Haji “strides in purposefully” to the office, having recently mixed the CD that would appear on the covermount of that edition of DJ Mag. The Defected press shot  that accompanied the piece included the three aforementioned characters plus DJ Paulette, who was doing PR for the label at the time.

The label soon started running a night in Ibiza at the small, glamorous El Divino club by the harbour in Ibiza Town, and  went on to have No.1 hit singles with Roger Sanchez's ‘Another Chance’ and Kings Of Tomorrow featuring Julie McKnight's ‘Finally’, and other huge records such as Shakedown’s evergreen ‘At Night’.

Photo of Wez Saunders on a black background with a yellow name label

“For us, it’s about trying to preserve [house music’s] legacy, recognising the cultural importance of house and ensuring that the history, the pioneers, the struggles that birthed it are not forgotten...” – Wez Saunders

Despite this explosive start, Defected nearly went out of business in the mid-noughties when illegal file-sharing sent record sales tumbling through the floor, only reportedly being saved by Bob Sinclar’s ‘Love Generation’ and then ‘World Hold On’, which became global hits. The landscape continued to be difficult for labels adapting to the digital era but, for Defected, the hits kept coming — Fish Go Deep’s ‘The Cure & The Cause’, Storm Queen’s slick ‘Look Right Through’, Âme’s impeccable ‘Rej’, Dennis Ferrer’s infectious ‘Hey Hey’ and so on. Under the stewardship of Dunmore, the good ship Defected gradually became the most successful UK house label of all time, absorbing other labels in its slipstream such as Azuli and Slip N Slide, then Strictly Rhythm and Classic Music Company when their back catalogues came up for grabs.

In 2014 a young house head named Wez Saunders joined the company. He’d been a budding DJ in his teens before giving it all up when he was 22 after his wife became pregnant. He got a job with Deutsche Bank in investment banking, where he was consistently promoted over 12 years. However, after losing his brother to leukaemia, he realised that there was an itch in his musical side that he hadn’t properly scratched. Soon, he went back to hustling a living within dance music.

After a chat with Simon Dunmore in 2014, Saunders was offered a job at Defected as Club Promotions Manager, and quickly rose to become Executive Producer of the Defected In The House radio show. Soon he was taking care of plugging, label managing and marketing roles “all at the same time — we now have about ten people doing all those jobs”. When the MD said he was leaving in 2016, Dunmore asked Saunders if he wanted to run the company. “The first thing I did was took out an insurance policy in case I got fired!” he admits now, sitting in his office in a corner of Defected’s Shoreditch HQ, a quarter of a century since the label began.

Saunders oversaw a huge upturn in streaming, utilised the growth of social media to grow their online numbers tenfold, and in 2017 signed a tune called ‘Cola’ by a relatively unknown Liverpudlian duo named CamelPhat, which became another global hit. Defected had started their brightly-coloured disco party Glitterbox in 2014, and in 2017 they took over Eden in Ibiza for weekly Defected nights. The club nights were firing, but then in 2020 the pandemic struck — all events everywhere were abruptly cancelled. Defected immediately pivoted to ‘virtual festival’ live streams, broadcasting every single week for the next six months when lockdowns began.

Unwittingly, this online visibility put them in a shop window, and they had an enquiry from a major label to buy the business. “And then we had an enquiry from a venture capitalist-led events company in Ibiza to buy the business,” Saunders continues. “Neither of those felt right, and Simon and I started talking about his options.” They arranged a meeting with lawyers, and Dunmore said a management buyout would be his preferred route.

Photos of Rio Tashan & Kitty Amor on a black background with yellow name labels

"Defected has always stayed ahead of the rest through the advanced ability to nurture upcoming talent and treat those artists no differently to the more established names." – Kitty Amor

The industry rumour mill was abuzz in 2022 with talk of the sale of Defected. When it was revealed that Saunders had tapped up one of his old banking associates to help complete the management buyout in July 2022, there was widespread relief that the house music institution would continue pretty much unchanged. “Since then I’ve been CEO and co-owner, and I’m hoping to continue the journey that Simon has been on for 25 years,” says Saunders, adding that  Dunmore’s parting words to him — although he still has an honorary consultancy role within the company — were the following: “Don’t fuck it up!”

Heading up Defected is quite a mantle to take on, but Saunders seems to be taking it all in his stride, seemingly on top of all aspects of the business. Plus, he talks a good game. Defected has 90 employees now – how does he keep a handle on all the departments? He looks out from his small glass office at the end of an open-plan floor of Defected employees before launching into a spiel, scarcely pausing for breath.

“I have regular meetings with my directors,” Saunders explains. “The way that the business is structured is that we have our A&R department, which is about ten people — some of those also have responsibility in our publishing department, which is run separately. We have our events team — we put on 400 events a year across three main touring brands: Defected, Glitterbox and D4 D4nce. We also do some events with Classic Music Company, 4 To The Floor, Faith and a few others. Then we have our digital marketing team that takes care of all our social media management, digital marketing output, all of our content creation, videography, photography — all the stuff you see online. Our operations and marketing department looks after all of the delivery of our releases, pressing to vinyl, but also our marketing campaigns for record releases. We have our in-house PR and promotions team, who take care of our radio and club promotions, all of our servicing in that sense...”

He looks again out of his office window to remind himself of all the various departments. “Defected Broadcasting House broadcasts 24/7 on Youtube, but that team also takes care of our Defected and Glitterbox radio shows. Then we have the administration roles of business affairs and accounts, and so on. We also have a commercial brand partnership team, which has now developed into a cultural marketing team because it’s important that our brand partnerships are culturally important as well — it’s not just a financial objective. And we have our store.”


Photo of Alex Mills on a black background with a yellow name label

“In my opinion, the secret to Defected’s continued success is its commitment to quality and preserving the sanctity of house music. They understand that it’s more than just a genre, it’s a culture...” – Alex Mills

Saunders has weekly or bi-weekly meetings with all of the department heads, many of whom have risen up the company ranks together with him. “We make sure we set our objectives and create a vision and strategy so that everybody knows and understands what’s expected of them in the business,” he says. Record sales and streaming being what they are, most labels have had to diversify — and Defected is no different. “About 45% of our revenue comes from recordings and publishing, and about 45% from the events and the agency,” he explains.

“The remaining 10% is a variation of commercial revenue — our store and auxiliary income, shall we say. But the lion’s share of the business is pretty much split in half between our events and agency, and our music and publishing income.” Different departments have grown at different rates over the years, Saunders explains. When he started, there were four people in events — there are now 16, and they partner up with different promoters globally. Since the management buyout they’ve invested heavily in the publishing department to capitalise on having 20% of the Elton John & Dua Lipa ‘Cold Heart’ record, and 50% of two songs on Beyonce’s last album. Their publishing staff have therefore expanded from three to seven.

“Community and music have always been front and centre of what we do,” Saunders continues, “but Defected is no longer a record label — in 2019, we started to call ourselves a ‘new era music company’ or a ‘new era media company’. We are a record label, a publisher, an events business, an agency, a digital marketing agency, and we have 26 active record labels here. Our PR and promotions team and our agency take care of all of our club promotions, radio plugging, and marketing strategies for all of the releases.”

He makes the point that Glitterbox, conversely, was a club night that went into releasing records as a derivative, rather than vice versa, before outlining exactly how the main labels vary. “Defected as a label releases a lot more vocal house music, original as much as we can,” he says. “In the club space it’s more underground. Glitterbox is contemporary house and disco, and the D4 D4nce brand is a more commercial pop-dance element of what we do, without pushing ourselves into the realms of pop music. Popular house music, shall we say. So we have an outlet for everything — from the far left of disco through to the commercial end of house music.”

Todd Terry olive F

“Defected is always mixing the old with the new, it keeps them aware of every angle. That’s the key to success — to never not know what’s going on, being on top of that is not that easy. Keep rocking.” – Todd Terry

The broad church is exemplified by the 80 different DJs playing Ushuaïa Ibiza this summer, from Detroit legend Carl Craig to global garage phenomenon Sammy Virji and many others in between. Saunders is also keen to shine a light on sounds that have been coming from South Africa in recent years, and to imbue the label with an Afro-house sensibility across the board where appropriate. When the acquisition happened, they employed Allan Nicoll, aka Kid Fonque, founder of South Africa’s biggest independent electronic label Stay True Sounds to become Defected's director of A&R.  At their Croatia festival, they’ve hosted stages by their 4 To The Floor brand and also Sondela, the Afro-house label set up by Louie Dunmore under the auspices of Defected, amongst others.

In keeping with Dunmore’s wishes, Saunders has also been trying to ensure that community remains a strong part of the Defected ethos. “With culture, house music has its roots in the Black and Latino communities of Chicago, and the genre was ultimately a response to the social, political and economic conditions, as well as a way for marginalised communities to express themselves,” he says. “When you think about it, it’s still happening today."

“House music has always been about bringing people together — the culture emphasises unity, acceptance, a shared love for the music. You find your best friends, your partners, your lovers on the dancefloor. That sense of community enabled house music to thrive, evolve, and become what it has done over the decades. It’s absorbed influences from other genres and regions, as different cultures have put their own unique stamp on it.”

He lists subgenres of house like Afro-house, Balearic, Latin and so forth. “Historically, house music and the clubs provided safer havens for marginalised communities, especially the LGBTQ+ communities, and the culture of acceptance and freedoms in those spaces allowed individuals to express themselves without judgement,” Saunders continues.

“For us, it’s about trying to preserve that legacy, recognising the cultural importance of house and ensuring that the history, the pioneers, the struggles that birthed it are not forgotten, and recognising that the future generations understand the roots and significance of the music that they love. That’s kind of why we do what we do.”

Other modern innovations include their Head Of Inclusion staff member. “The music industry hasn’t been as inclusive as it might have been. Women, people of colour and those from LGBTQ+ communities have been mistreated in many instances, and even though as a company we do a job that I’m fairly satisfied with, we can always do better,” he says. “We monitor our output and our events and our recordings, and we try to introduce more diverse talent, and try to be welcoming to all people. We try to make sure our events are safer spaces; we brief the security and the venues with the expectations we have and what to expect from our crowd, whether it’s Defected or Glitterbox. And from our recruitment perspective, we try to tackle some of the issues that have existed within the music industry for a long time.”

Photos of DJ Paulette and Shapeshifters on a black background with yellow name labels

“The music. The people. Quality control and evolving with an ever changing public, but without sacrificing its core values.” – DJ Paulette

Saunders talks the talk, and it’s undeniable that Defected’s efforts to keep the roots and origins of house music foregrounded are a crucial part of their continuing success. They’ve got a huge legacy over 25 years, with many of the old guard of US house legends often seeing Defected HQ as their home base when in London. “I’m surprised nobody has dropped in yet during this interview,” Saunders says with a smirk.

At that very moment, Seamus Haji strides in purposefully, like a flashback to 25 years ago. Haji left Defected for some years but is now back as the A&R Manager, looking after labels like Glitterbox, his own Big Love, Soulfuric, 4TTF, Nu Groove and Faith under the parent umbrella. His trajectory is typical of many of the movers and shakers in house music. For instance, DJ Paulette had a full circle moment at the recent NTIA conference in Manchester, when she was interviewed by Saunders as a successful international DJ, having finally received her flowers in recent years.

It’s near the end of our allotted time, but Saunders wants to talk about the future. In particular he names three acts who he thinks house music fans should keep a particular eye on — Rio Tashan, Dunmore Brothers and Olive F. “Dunmore Brothers have it in their blood,” he says. “They’re paying their dues by releasing on various labels and working harder than everyone else, as they have to prove they’re not just getting a shoe-in. Those boys are really talented, they’ve got some good records coming.

“Rio Tashan just has a natural love for almost jackin’ house,” he continues. “Him and Olive F really just understand it, we don’t have to give them much direction when they’re playing our events. They know how to warm up, they know how to get more energised, they’ve got super charisma and energy behind the decks. We really want to invest a lot more into those three acts over the next two or three years.”

Many memorable house music moments have passed in the world of Defected over the last quarter of a century, and the future is looking bright. Here’s to the next 25.

Read on below to find out what 10 artists had to say when we asked: what is the secret to Defected's success?


What is the secret to Defected's success?

THE SHAPESHIFTERS: “Great A&R from day one has been key. A passionate office populated with real music and club culture fans, a true love for the dancefloor, and not allowing popularity contests to dictate its contribution to house music.”

DJ PAULETTE: “The music. The people. Quality control and evolving with an ever changing public, but without sacrificing its core values.”

TODD TERRY: “Defected is always mixing the old with the new, it keeps them aware of every angle. That’s the key to success — to never not know what’s going on, being on top of that is not that easy. Keep rocking.”

OLIVE F: “I truly believe the reason behind Defected’s success is their ability to be so inclusive and diverse.”

ALEX MILLS: “In my opinion, the secret to Defected’s continued success is its commitment to quality and preserving the sanctity of house music. They understand that it’s more than just a genre, it’s a culture. One that needs protecting while being allowed and encouraged to grow roots in new fertile ground.”

GROOVE ARMADA: “The secret to Defected's success is community. Of party-goers, artists, music lovers... of house! All brought together by an amazing behind the scenes team, itself a tribute to the power of community.”

KITTY AMOR: “Defected has displayed the authenticity of the brand through the music it has put out over the last 25 years. The label has been fundamental to the root of understanding house music. This shows through the ‘House Masters’ series, where pioneering names showcase the evolution of house music in all its sub-genres. Defected has always stayed ahead of the rest through the advanced ability to nurture upcoming talent and treat those artists no differently to the more established names. The personable marketing approach of Defected releases has always helped the music connect to consumers. Defected is clever to have a consumer appetite with an innovator/supplier strategy. Defected is a fan of Defected — that’s what I define as its success.”

RIO TASHAN: “Defected is synonymous with great house music, the label has always stuck to what it believes in rather than being trend-focused. Instead of just jumping on what is hot in the moment, Defected has always made nurturing talent a priority, on both the production and DJ fronts. By being there from the very start of artists’ careers and at the roots of someone’s journey, they see that genuine potential is what has led to long-lasting and meaningful careers. The evidence can be seen by the level artists have reached with Defected backing their early careers.”

SAM DIVINE: “I would argue that it isn't so much of a secret and more about Defected's long-standing ability to A&R records that stand the test of time over decades, and not just weeks or months. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Defected family for over 10 years and there are records that are over two decades old that still tear up a dancefloor in my sets today. Add to that, a burgeoning global event series that has been in the making for the last 20 years and beyond, and it's a recipe to become the biggest and most respected house music brand on the planet.”

RIMARKABLE: “The secret to Defected’s enduring success in house music is having the best staff in the world. Defected employs some of the most generous, relentlessly hardworking, committed, and creative visionaries in the game. Any company would be hard pressed to find a better crew.”

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s report from Defected’s Eden Ibiza season finale here

Carl Loben is DJ Mag's editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter @CarlLoben