Ministry Of Sound Recordings has been a totem of the UK dance scene since the ’90s, but now the Sony-owned label is operating in another stratosphere. Music Week joins president Dipesh Parmar and GM Amy Wheatley in lockdown to talk No.1s, TikTok, and their mission to redefine popular culture...
Ministry Of Sound’s new era started with a whiteboard. Dipesh Parmar and Amy Wheatley were in a meeting room somewhere inside the vast expanse of Sony’s West London HQ, markers in hand, mapping out a shiny new future for the label, which was acquired by the major in 2016 after around 20 years of full-throttle independent success.
Steered by Lohan Presencer, Ministry’s label arm spawned from the South London club founded by James Palumbo and Justin Berkmann in 1991. Its initial Sound Of Ministry banner was replaced by a group of imprints and then rebranded as
Ministry Of Sound Recordings in 2009. Parmar turned up at Ministry’s rough and ready Elephant & Castle HQ as a music-obsessed raver and DJ in 1999, angling for a job at the in-house magazine.
After an internship ended, the HR department took a shine to the kid from the North East and he ended up getting a job mixing compilations alongside DJ Steve Canueto. He moved into A&R, and the rest is the stuff of music business dreams. Earlier this month, he was named president of the label he joined 20 years ago on work experience.
“It was all I knew,” Parmar begins, leaning back in his chair at home and getting ready to Zoom the morning away with Music Week. “Being at an indie, I’d been kind of institutionalised, so going into a major label, everything changed. Amy joined and we were finding our feet. We said, ‘What do we want this label to be? What is our focus? What do we want Ministry Of Sound to mean?’ We sat down with a whiteboard and went at it, which I’d never done before.”
Wheatley, once part of Columbia’s marketing team, joined from Three Six Zero to become general manager at Ministry in 2017. David Dollimore – now RCA president – had arrived with Parmar as part of the merger the previous year, but the baton would soon be handed over for Parmar and Wheatley to lead the label into its new chapter.
“I think I still have the notes from that first meeting somewhere,” says Wheatley, who had to sneak in and out when first interviewing for the role in the building she’d once worked in. “There was lots of scribbling, a lot about credibility vs commerciality, that was a huge part. We love the credibility side, but being in Sony, commerciality is such a huge part as well, it is in any business really. For us it’s about balance, having that independent feel was important.”
Parmar nods along, headphones on, silently waiting his turn – it’s classic Zoom protocol, and also gives him the look of a DJ playing a virtual set.
“We were probably leaning a little bit too commercial at the start with Sony, because we were trying to compete with everyone else within the label,” he says. “But, actually, our USP is that we’re a huge electronic dance brand first and foremost and we didn’t want to become commercial, we wanted to be credible and pay homage to our culture as well.”
With that in mind, Parmar – who credits his youthful Ministry DJing trips to Ibiza, Miami and beyond for his sense of what works in A&R – lined up a series of “key, credible signings” including KH (aka Four Tet), Maceo Plex and Solardo.
“That really helped position the label back into a conversation on the underground side, while we were having commercial success with Sigala, Riton and others,” says Parmar. “The balance had never really been struck properly before, we were known as more of a commercial brand and we felt that bringing it back made us even more relevant than we’d been a few years before, it was a purposeful thing.”
They hired Zeon Richards – who Parmar had worked with on Wretch 32 previously – as head of A&R in 2018. Parmar says his arrival reflected Ministry’s plan to diversify: “Zeon is so well-respected in the black community and has had lots of success, so it was an easy conversation, he brings a link to youth culture.”
Part of their plan included modernising their relationship with DSPs and moving away from physical releases for Ministry’s iconic compilations brand. A deal with Apple Music was struck in May last year, while YouTube and Spotify also house Ministry playlists, which are a key part of its operation.
It’s immediately clear that Parmar still operates with the same enthusiasm that was first sparked by a Rave Generation cassette he bought aged 13 and later led him to plaster a Ministry Of Sound poster on the door of his room in his first year at Luton University. You get the feeling he could talk about Ministry forever.
Parmar, Wheatley and their team seem to operate on a different level to their major label peers, too. There’s a freshness about Ministry Of Sound that you seldom find elsewhere.
Sony Music UK & Ireland chairman and CEO Jason Iley – who tried to hire Parmar on more than one occasion before the merger – tells Music Week the label has made a big impact.
“Ministry has always been ahead of the curve,” Iley says. “As an indie they were competing with the majors and that ambition is what appealed to me in 2016. Since joining Sony, that ambition has never wavered – the team have signed and scored a stream of huge hits, transformed their roster beyond a traditional dance label and retained their independent ethos. Their energy, dynamism and ethos permeate through the whole company.”
Ministry's energy, dynamism and ethos permeate through the whole company.
Jason Iley, Sony Music UK & Ireland
Iley’s mention of the hits brings us neatly to lockdown. Following a No.1 album for London Grammar in 2017, Ministry’s first No.1 single since the Sony deal just so happened to coincide with the UK going into lockdown. In the week that the wider business reacclimatised, Ministry was busy pushing Saint Jhn’s Roses. It finished at No.1 with 52,656 sales, according to the Official Charts Company. Now, that number has swelled to 943,179.
There’s been no let up since: Doja Cat’s Say So – another TikTok-powered lockdown smash – hit No.2 and has 622,759 sales to date. That and Roses – along with Regard’s Ride It, which Ministry signed from TikTok – are two of nine Platinum singles since 2016. But right now, in lockdown (during which Ministry has also staged a virtual Weekender and scored London Grammar a Normal People sync) the label is hitting a higher gear. An intuitive ability to stay ahead has always defined Ministry, and Parmar and Wheatley are leading a diverse team that is maximising those strengths at a time when being agile, reactive and quick to set trends are must-have qualities for record companies. Meanwhile, with Zeon Richards among the executives to have formed the Black Music Coalition, Ministry is at the forefront of the fight against racism in music.
Parmar and Wheatley believe that now is their time.
“I never would have thought I’d go from work experience 20 years ago to becoming president of the label,” Parmar says. “It’s a dream come true to be honest, I’ve grown up with the company and it feels like the label and the brand are more relevant than when we started, and it was pretty relevant then. We’re the epicentre of electronic music and it feels really good to be there. That’s credit to Amy, the team and the roster.”
“We’re more than just dance,” Wheatley says. “We’re multi-genre now and we’re having success.”
It’s time, then, to find out just how Ministry’s dynamic duo have masterminded that success and why things are only going to get bigger and better...
To start with, what’s your partnership like?
Amy Wheatley: “Working with Dipesh is incredible, he’s an A&R man in the truest sense, so working alongside that has been amazing. We work well together, we push and pull in the right way and that feeds back into the team too. It’s quite easy in that sense.”
Dipesh Parmar: “We were in an unknown world when Amy joined, and we share the same vision. There’s a reason why the label is having a good amount of success right now and it’s down to the strategy and focus that Amy and I implemented, the team and the projects we sign. Amy is brilliant at managing the team, allowing everyone to grow and me to be as creative as possible to sign and make the records we want to become hits. It works really well and she definitely puts me in my place when it’s needed [laughs].”
How do you characterise Ministry’s place in Sony?
DP: “We’ve always been the underdog, even when were independent. Now we’re within Sony, we can’t offer high digital royalty rates and short-term deals like we once did, we have to fall into line with Sony’s strategy and rightly so. At the start, we were pushing and pulling about whether we should be more pop or singer/songwriter, and I think we can be all things, but we had to get the centre of it just right.”
AW: “Ministry has a vibe, energy and focus that are just infectious and the artists we work with feel that too. That’s why I love working here and why I think the team enjoys it. And we are a team: for everyone from interns to heads of department, ideas are open, it’s a discussion. It’s important to nurture our team and bring them through from interns all the way up. It doesn’t always work out, but having that focus on growth and development is hugely important and I think that’s why people stay.”
My whole life is about dance music, ministry has been a dream come true
Dipesh Parmar, Ministry Of Sound
Has the label’s identity changed since the merger?
DP: “It was more aggressive previously because we always had a point to prove and we could afford to be aggressive and passionate about things we wanted to feel, I guess that came from the likes of Lohan Presencer and James Palumbo. But we had one licensing person, one international person... What Sony deliver is a global infrastructure and it adds weight to conversations with all our partners. It’s been very well documented how Ministry’s position was with certain platforms in the past due to compilations, which is fair enough, but once we got into the Sony building it was almost a weight off our shoulders. Jason Iley has been really supportive, as has the whole Sony team. I went round and talked to every single person in the company, no matter what level, and introduced myself, I wanted everyone to feel like we’re not just this dance label, there is personality here.”
How did you view Sony before?
DP: “It’s easy for me to say this now and it’s 100% true I guarantee. Sony is the one label I always felt I would go to if I ever went to a major, and I thought I’d want to because it would be wrong of me not to dip my toe into another world having been at Ministry for so long. And, actually, Jason Iley tried to hire me before acquiring the label and we had many great conversations. It happened to work out.”
Why does Ministry appeal so much?
DP: “My whole life is about dance music. My first day working at Ministry was to go into the studio and mix Trance Nation with Ferry Corsten; I was a massive trance head so it was a dream come true. It developed from there. I’d go into A&R meetings with Ben Cook and Dave Dollimore and flag records. I went to Ibiza, flagged a record that they didn’t sign that went on to become a big hit and that started giving me credibility, I started moving up the ladder and they wanted me to be more involved. Actually it was Lohan that one day turned around and said, ‘We’re moving you from compilations into A&R’. I said, ‘No, I’m good,’ but he said, ‘No, you’re doing it,’ and obviously I took his advice. I went into A&R and started signing records. When Ben left, Dave and I were running the label. We had nine No.1 singles in a row and we’d signed London Grammar and Wretch 32, then Sony bought us. The momentum’s been there at every stage in my career, the more success I was having with Ministry, the more people would come knocking on the door. People would say I was mad for not trying to go to a major and taking the money, but it felt like I could develop within a brand and a genre that I knew and loved. I guess it doesn’t happen that often.”
And now you’ve had your first No.1 single since the merger...
AW: “Yes! It took a couple of weeks for people to get comfortable and find their groove in lockdown and then Saint Jhn was the first No.1 of this period. It was there for two weeks and we had to chase that, it wasn’t a given. Things seem to be OK, obviously we miss each other and the human connection, but the day-to-day seems OK.”
DP: “Going into lockdown and having a No.1 focused everyone straight off the bat and that was so important for the label to achieve that position in the hardest time that any of us have faced. It gave everyone a sense of belonging.”
And you’ve been very busy since...
AW: “It’s about being that authoritative voice of dance and popular culture. On the curation and playlisting side, our content had to pivot quite heavily because our strategy was based on filming, being out and doing events. It took a month, and now it’s going from strength to strength. Within a couple of months, we’ve hit all our KPIs for followers across DSPs and socials that we set for the year, so it’s been fairly positive. And that drives more positivity and creativity, too. If people can see things are working it allows for more inspiration.”
DP: “A case in point is the Weekender we did, it really helped position us and we’ve seen exponential growth off the back of it. It shows how important playlisting is, especially when you think that Ministry largely was a compilations brand a few years ago. Now, we’re not doing any physical compilations, everything is channeled into the label, artists, releases and playlists.”
We’re more than just dance, we’re multi-genre now and we’re having success
Amy Wheatley, Ministry Of Sound
TikTok has been a huge driver for your releases, how have you had so much success from it?
DP: “It was always in the background, we knew it was growing. Regard really put us into the conversation with TikTok. That was the place we spotted Ride It, we signed it and we worked with TikTok to grow it. For us, it was great to work with them because it was a new way of marketing, and for them I think it was important to show they could grow a record from being a bootleg into a global hit.”
How big a deal is TikTok in hitmaking now, then?
AW: “All the platforms feed into each other, you can’t have a hit with just one. It definitely helps to ignite or support something, but you need to have all things soaring to make it work. A lot of our music is so feelgood and uplifting and that just works on those platforms and with that audience, it’s just a natural fit. TikTok works best when it’s genuine, when something comes from a TikToker or an artist on the platform who has an audience. If you try and recreate or force things then it rarely connects, the same as normal marketing principles. It’s a very young, engaged audience that, they want to recreate and be part of it.”
DP: “You can see the effect of TikTok on all platforms. It’s an additional marketing tool and it’s synonymous with music and youth culture and we’re very well positioned to hopefully deliver music that resonates.”
So, is there a wider secret to your singles success?
AW: “The whole life cycle of a single has completely changed, it’s more creative and is about more content, it’s about building the artist. For someone like Regard, it’s a very content-driven campaign, you’re taking more of an album strategy when you’re building singles now, and you need to. You need to keep the longevity going.”
DP: “Our hope is that a lot of our singles-focused artists turn into album acts. Sigala was signed pre-Sony on a two-single deal, we quickly turned it into an album deal and we released Brighter Days when we were acquired by Sony and it went Gold, after seven Top 10 singles. We had London Grammar in the midst of that. We’re also excited about a singer/songwriter, a YouTuber, Dodi, whose EP went Top 5 last year.”
Will we see more acts breaking from newer platforms?
AW: “They’re one and the same nowadays, if you’re growing an audience and releasing music, whether on YouTube or other platforms, you need to create content, keep the audience interested and feed it. So, more so than ever they’ve become synonymous with each other.”
We’re a diverse team and we’re coming up with ideas that other labels wouldn’t
Dipesh Parmar, Ministry Of Sound
How does Ministry represent youth culture?
AW: “That’s a big question. Every record and artist is different and it’s about having a diverse and creative team that can look at an act and make something bespoke that resonates. There’s never a cookie-cutter formula.”
DP: “Being in youth culture is about our team, people from all different backgrounds. We’re quite proud of the fact that 50% of our team are from BAME backgrounds and it just allows us to understand what’s going on.”
What do you want to happen with diversity in music?
DP: “It’s not just about doing Black Out Tuesday and then forgetting about it, we have a responsibility to continue the conversations and make things better by any means possible, whether that’s donations, giving back to the communities, charities... We’re talking a lot within Ministry about what we can do to focus energies and everyone’s got lots of ideas. We’re a diverse team and we’re coming up with things that maybe other labels wouldn’t. Ministry has a job to do to tell people where electronic music comes from. A lot of people probably wouldn’t know that techno, house and the 4/4 beat came from the black community. We hope education continues and helps diversify the industry and that people of black origin have more of a voice.”
AW: “It’s a little early to say how things will change, but just having open dialogue will help. Our team is very representative of our audience, that’s so important. It was never deliberate, but it’s the way it works and it’s very important that we continue to have diversity.”
Finally, what’s your vision for Ministry’s future?
DP: “We want to be a global leader across all genres, specifically dance. We want to continue to be a trusted authority and to be known for breaking global acts. With everything going on in the world, it’s important for us to educate and continue speaking to our audience about not only what is current and new, but also where dance music comes from. We’re not even touching the sides right now...”