Howard Corner & team ADA on the next phase of the UK dance boom

Howard Corner & team ADA on the next phase of the UK dance boom

ADA managing director Howard Corner has revealed the secrets of the company's success in dance music in a new interview with Music Week.

The Warner Music services firm, which will defend its Label/Artist Services Company Of The Year crown at next month's Music Week Awards, has struck recent artist deals with the likes of Camelphat (whose biggest hit Cola, with Elderbrook, has 1,444,044 UK sales according to the Official Charts Company), Claptone, James Hype (whose Ferrari has 564,757 sales), Meduza, Weiss, Hedex, Shiftk3y and Kanine. Its existing agreements include Sonny Fodera, Artbat, Frankey Wah, Silky and Tom Zanetti.

It has also landed label deals with Crucast and Drumcode, plus BBC Radio 1 DJ Jaguar’s Utopia label, alongside established partners such as Defected, Good Company, Helix, Realm, Material, Solotoko, Heldeep and He.

Commercial success stories have included Vibe Chemistry (Balling has 309,585 sales) and Dimension, with priority projects in the works from Shy FX, Camelphat, Sonny Fodera, Hedex, Hybrid Minds, Dimension and Goddard.

"There is a need for expertise in this genre and we have very strong relationships with the DSPs," said Corner. "And I can't be too specific, but we have also worked closely with Beatport and SoundCloud on one-off innovations in the space for the benefit of our partners."

Here, Corner is joined by head of streaming and digital UK Priya Jaspal and senior marketing manager Jordan Frost-Hodson to discuss exactly what ADA brings to the table, the ascendance of drum & bass and where the booming dance music sector goes next...

Drum & bass is the epitome of indie, because it's not a hits space, it's totally community-based

Howard Corner, ADA

ADA was working with various dance acts before the dance boom of 2022, but you've been stepping up the signings of late. Why? 

Howard Corner: “ADA has worked with Defected for 15 years now and I've been involved in the dance industry for quite a while, so I have a lot of relationships, experience and expertise in that space. But I don't think we've been ‘stepping up’ signings of late, we've just been continuing to build the business. It’s been a natural thing as we have evolved more into a streaming and digital-first business; it's not because it's hot right now. Our growth in that area has been more around finding people who are a fit for us and our strategy and helping them build their businesses, as opposed to we want to sign some dance records because dance is hot.”

Priya Jaspal: “I think that the reason it's phrased as a boom is because the culture has become bigger but, like Howard said, we were already in that world. As a team, we know how to connect to the communities. Everything is evolving between niche genres in dance in particular and people are definitely becoming more receptive to it, which is great for us because it grows our business and means that artists don't have to stay in one subgenre anymore. They can create opportunities in different worlds – in techno or in drum & bass, for example – within it. It feels like it's opened up massively in that sense.”

When did you first detect drum & bass starting to cross over?

HC: “Drum & bass is du jour, but that is something we've been involved in for a while. We've been working with Shy FX for five or six years and we've quietly built probably the best roster in the industry. We're talking Shy FX, Dimension, Hybrid Minds, High Contrast, Camo & Krooked, Ram Records, Wilkinson, Drum & Bass All Stars. It's the best of the best. We're very active in that space.

"I've been involved in drum & bass on and off for 25 years. We were already in it, but I could see it starting to pick up in the autumn of '21, which was before labels were onto it. And we got a bit more deeply involved because drum & bass is classic independent label business. It’s the epitome of indie in a way because it's not a hits space, it's totally community-based. It's all about being credible, moving with the times and putting great records out, but it's a genre that quite often shies away from the mainstream. It's a scene for aficionados who build amazing businesses. We've been in that space a while and we're having some good success globally.” 

Everything is evolving between niche genres in dance and people are more receptive to it

Priya Jaspal

What can ADA do that a frontline label can't?

HC: “I don't really want to draw a competitive comparison – what we're doing is very different. We see ourselves as a very partnership-oriented business, not necessarily a hits business. A key aspect is that all our parts are independent. In my experience working at and with independent labels and artists for 30 years, they are not necessarily hits businesses, they are community and culture businesses that are usually started by an afficionado of a scene who wants to put records out by people they like in that space. And sometimes those records or artists reach a lot of people and become commercially successful.

"We've had some big, successful records, but we’re careful to pick people we think are a good fit for our approach. As a couple of examples, at the end of last year we did deals with Drumcode and Crucast, who are probably the world's number one techno label and bass label [respectively], but they're not necessarily hits businesses. It's just a very different approach to a frontline label, you shouldn't even compare them.”

Jordan Frost-Hodson: “We don't work with just anyone; the people we choose are incredible at what they do. They're amazing at A&R and they know their communities. Our business model is to hone in on the best of the best and elevate what they do and go further, or highlight something that we think is going to be the best of the best and work together because we believe in them and elevate that to a point where they do become the best of the best.”

What can ADA do to boost acts such as Camelphat, James Hype and Meduza, who have already had hits, even further?

HC: “They're good examples of artists where we're doing some of the hype, but they're still signed to a label. It’s an evolution for more established artists to basically build their own businesses. They're quite happy to put hits out on whatever label they're with, but they don't want to necessarily be tied to that because having an independent outlet for them means they can flourish creatively and do things that are relevant to their community and their brand, and work in a different way from if you're delivering a hit for frontline level. They want to have that option and it's a business opportunity for them.”

PJ: “Commercially, in this environment – especially in streaming – consistency and constant engagement is key. Hit records may take months, whereas what we offer them is to continuously engage and grow their catalogue and business, while still engaging with their fans and reach new people with their releases. There's definitely a creative side but it makes sense commercially as well for them to be releasing consistently.” 

HC: “We're a small and focused team at ADA and we all work across everything. I tie it back to what I said initially: the key thing for us is to partner with people to help them develop their businesses, their records and reach more people. Dance music touches the entire business.”

Our business model is to hone in on the best of the best and elevate what they do and go further

Jordan Frost-Hodson

What does it take to work dance music well? How do you cut through and break records?

JFH: “There are so many variables. It depends if it's a specialist record, a crossover record, or the level the artist is at in a sense. It's important to set expectations early and understand what this track, EP, or project should do or will do. Will it be a one-off single? Is there the expectation for one million streams, one playlist, or one radio spin? Again, we work so collaboratively – both with the label, but also internally – on how we're going to achieve those goals. In the dance market, it's usually singles-based deals and we sometimes work with the same artist across multiple labels and see that progression.

"Going back to what makes a good campaign, it’s identifying what their audience is – whether that's a small UK audience or whether that’s international – and really honing in on that. The marketing is how you create that demand and then the commercial success will flow off the back of that. Whether that's from a traditional radio or press point of view, the social media age of Instagram and YouTube, or the even newer age of TikTok and Peloton, we use all of these avenues to both reach the key demographic, but also throw it outside of dance so it gets more eyeballs. But again, it varies from artist to artist and project to project, label to label. We kind of do everything because we’re experienced and we're music lovers as well. At the end of the day, we market to ourselves because we're fans of the genre.”

HC: “Because we view everyone as label partners, we're very commercially-oriented. And by that, I don't mean, ‘Let's have hits,’ we're looking to optimise revenue for everyone. Sure, when you put records out, you're looking at playlisting and driving streams, etc. But we work with people to help them optimise their revenue on YouTube, SoundCloud, Peloton, TikTok. I'm not going to name names, but there's a label that joined us about 15 months ago and we've helped them grow seven/eightfold in a year, just by optimising the revenue opportunities around their business.

"Another person we did a deal with recently is Jaguar, the Radio 1 DJ. She's a scene leader in her space and it's the same principle – Drumcode are the leaders in their space, Defected are the leaders in their space – and it enables her to be creative and make great moves with that community and the artists that she believes in, with the records that she believes in. We back her to build a business, we're not sat there going, ‘Where's your hits?’ It's a different approach.”

PJ: "That approach makes it more enjoyable as well – to be able to enjoy the music without the pressures of, 'You have to make this one a hit.' It's good to be able to watch what's happening and react to the market, rather than trying to force something. Again, it allows us to take a step back from the pressures probably felt elsewhere and enjoy what we're doing and enjoy the music. It creates a stronger bond and partnership between us and the DJs, the labels and everybody else that we are fanatics of music, just as much as they are."

Lastly, where do you sense dance music is going next? 

HC: “Electronic music is always very healthy in terms of new sounds and scenes emerging from a street and club level. They're nearly always independent and we will be active in those spaces. We've just put the Interplanetary Criminal compilation out in the resurgent UK garage space and we will continue to support emerging independent partners who need help to grow their businesses.”

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