Pete Tong reflects on four decades of A&R at London Records, Warner, WME, Three Six Zero and Sony

Pete Tong reflects on four decades of A&R at London Records, Warner, WME, Three Six Zero and Sony

Pete Tong will be honoured tonight (November 1) with the Music Industry Trusts (MITS) Award, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the music and broadcast industries.

The gala ceremony is held in aid of the BRIT Trust and Nordoff Robbins in The Great Room, Grosvenor House Hotel. It will feature performances from acts associated with Pete Tong, including New Order and Becky Hill, who has become a member of the band with Tong’s Ibiza Classics shows.

The evening also marks 30 years of the MITS. Previous recipients include Harry Magee and Richard Griffiths of Modest! Management, Emma Banks, Rob Stringer, Sir Lucian Grainge, Ahmet Ertegun, Michael Eavis and Roger Daltrey.

Although Tong is best known as a DJ, arena-selling artist and BBC Radio 1 broadcaster, he has a long history as an A&R and label boss. He joined London Records in 1983 and established dance label FFRR, with releases from Frankie Knuckles, Goldie, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and more.

In 2008, he co-founded WME’s electronic music division alongside Joel Zimmerman, creating one of the first dedicated dance music booking agencies. 

Tong returned to the label business in 2019, as president of Three Six Zero recordings, a joint venture between the management firm and Sony Music.

Here, Pete Tong looks back on his career working with acts including New Order and legendary execs, and reveals his ambitions for Three Six Zero...

Are you looking forward to the ceremony, do you know what’s in store?

“I’ve never been. But I have been to plenty of music business dinners and events at the Grosvenor House, so I kind of know what to expect.”

And the charity element is important...

“Totally, that’s what it’s all about.”

Do you think it’s good for dance music as a sector to get this recognition?

“Very much so. I feel I’m going to be standing there representing the community, for sure. Dance Music, historically, has had a bit of a chip on its shoulder about getting taken seriously, all the way back to the days of disco. I guess dance music’s impact started to change from the late ’80s with the rave era. Clearly, it was there for all to see, the impact it had culturally. But the mainstream music business, whilst they embraced it from a business point of view, they didn't really celebrate it from an artistic standpoint. We had the dance categories in the BRITs and things like that, although they’ve disappeared now, but it was always a little bit of a sideshow to the main event.

“It has started to change, that was my main motivation with the Ibiza Classics show and working with Jules Buckley, it was to just add gravitas and celebrate how important these compositions were. In my mind, they’re just as relevant and successful and amazing as a lot of music that gets celebrated in rock and roll, punk, urban, other genres, and you can see the effect it has on people. It’s a genre that tends to be made by people behind masks. I don’t mean that quite literally, although some of them are behind masks. They’re creating in studios, not necessarily always like Ed Sheeran upfront on stage. And there’s no better example of that than Daft Punk.”

The award is actually for your contribution to both broadcasting and the music industry. How was it juggling both roles? 

“When I first started, I never planned to be talking to you today about my career in this way. But when I think about the consistent thing, it has been about loving music since I was a kid. I tried to play music as a drummer in a school band. But the minute I discovered DJing, that was my ‘a-ha’ moment. The idea of selecting music and playing it to other people in that way. And that's always been the core DNA of the whole idea: I found this record, I think it's cool, I want to play it to you and turn you on to it. At the very beginning it was mobile disco, then it was pub DJ, club DJ. 

“The only outlet back in the day was magazines, so I worked for a magazine and wrote about music. I wanted to be on the radio, and I was super lucky through being a journalist at Blues & Soul that I got called up to Radio 1. It was through a guy I was working with called Froggy, who was the sound system guy for Radio 1. He was also one of the Soul Mafia DJs and one of the first guys to go to New York and see DJs mixing two records together. So he had a big influence on me. He had this slot on Peter Powell’s show, it was just taking three records up a week and talking about them. But he got too busy and he kept asking me for help, and they started calling me to go up every other week. So my first experience of radio pretty much was being on Radio 1 at drive time on a station that then had no competition and a huge reach. I thought, ‘This is amazing, give me my own show!’ But it took me 10 years to get back there. I had to go off and do pirate radio, I did local radio in Kent at Invicta. I did BBC Radio London, then I ended up arriving at Capital just as the rave scene started in 1987. Then I went on to Radio 1 in 1991. But again, it was the same core thing, it was literally I’ve got these records and I want to play them to people.”

Dance Music, historically, has had a bit of a chip on its shoulder about getting taken seriously

Pete Tong

How did you end up in the recorded music industry?

“Concurrently with that, I got invited to join a record company, again through being a journalist. By being at that magazine and writing about music, the head of press at London Records [Colin Bell, later general manager and MD] asked me if I wanted to go and do A&R, and that’s how I started in the record business. Back then, DJing didn't pay enough for it to be considered a job, it was a hobby. Very early on, I identified that I wanted to only play the music I liked on the radio. If you're on the breakfast show on the radio, that's about being a personality and other people pick the records you play. As soon as I found out that to be on the radio and play your own [choice of] records you had to be a specialist, that was what I wanted to be. That only paid 50 quid a week or something, so I always had to have another job, which was the day job at the magazine. Then my day job became the record company.”

How were the early days at London, as the label was revived and expanded with dance imprint FFRR?

“Colin was actually the head of press at Phonogram, Roger Ames was an A&R guy at Phonogram. Roger has signed Soft Cell, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and he started signing one-off dance records. Walking On Sunshine [1982] by Rockers Revenge was on London before London even opened. Roger was going to relaunch London. Tracy Bennett was at [parent company] Decca, he signed Adam And The Ants and Bananarama. They both came together and started London, and Colin joined them. He knew me, so he asked me if I wanted to join. We all came together in 1983, and the first day I ever went to work they already had a No.1 with Candy Girl by New Edition. All those records had come from Arthur Baker. That's how I started doing A&R, because it was always about going to America and licensing records that no one else knew about.”

How was it taking on New Order in the early ’90s after they emerged from the chaos of Factory Records?

“Roger Ames was always very keen on conversations with Alan McGee, conversations with Daniel Miller, he was very tight with Daniel. We were always like, ‘We want to be with you guys, we want to do something with you guys’. Factory, with Tony [Wilson], I got to know him more through In The City, the conference. Also, through Paul Oakenfold and through Steve Osborne working with the Happy Mondays, and [Andrew] Weatherall working with them as well - and we were involved with Weatherall. With Factory it was like, they’re up north, we’re down south. ‘You southern bastards!’

“As they got into more difficulties, we started to help them out a bit more. The first thing we did was that we were Happy Mondays’ label internationally. Then we started doing more Factory Records [acts] internationally. And then when the shit hit the fan, we bought Factory, famously - 24 Hour Party People. Tony was still involved but then I was put on point to do New Order. And I was in awe of them, not just for Joy Division but everything they had done up to that point. It was the Regret album, which was really my first, hands-on experience with them, which was incredible. Working with the band, going to the studio with the band, I got a really tight working relationship with Bernard [Sumner] in particular. I had a good understanding with him, and with Stephen [Morris] and Gillian [Gilbert]. They were always so curious about [dance music] before we came along, from working with Arthur Baker back in the day. Yeah, it was always in their DNA and they were always curious about what was next.”

How significant was the role of radio in building the dance music business?

“I arrived at Radio 1 in 1991 and, culturally, it was the start of the whole dance movement movement in the UK, in terms of the legalisation of dance music. Between 1991 and 1992, you had Ministry Of Sound open, all those illegal parties around the M25 morphed into more legal situations. By 1992/93, every city in the country had a famous dance club, a brand, every town almost. That was the change. From 1987 to 1991, I would say that the events were the stars, the raves, the M25 parties, Shoom and Spectrum. But from the ’90s onwards, and certainly by the time you got to the mid-’90s, the DJs became the stars. They went around the country appearing at all these clubs, Cream, Gatecrasher, God's kitchen, Venus in Nottingham, Ministry of Sound obviously. 

“Being on the radio at that time, the ’90s was when a whole industry was built around dance music in this country. The magazines exploded - Mixmag, DJ magazine, Musik magazine, which Ben Turner edited. Yeah, I think the business of dance music really exploded in the ’90s. All the labels jumped in and obviously FFRR was just one of them. But it was hugely competitive between us and 4th & Broadway and Cooltempo at the beginning, and then really Positiva and Deconstruction were our friends but deadly rivals.”

Electronic music divisions are now the norm, but did it seem a bold move when you helped to launch one at WME in the noughties?

“I had drifted out of the day-to-day of the record business by the mid-2000s. I had a break from that and I was concentrating more on being an artist, making records for the first time. WME launched in London, in around 2008, and it was really formed by the coming together of David Levy, who was the first agent who really represented a DJ on a serious level - he represented Paul Oakenfold. Solomon Parker was also there from day one, he had the Prodigy.

“So you had these two powerhouse agents come together as WME London. WME globally, out of LA, was being run and put together by Marc Geiger. Marc Geiger was a real visionary agent, who had left the agency business to start a streaming service. He used to work with Rick Rubin, he was my agent for New Order when I looked after New Order at London Records. He was like, ‘This DJ business is going to blow up, I want to be the first agency to have an electronic department inside the music department’. I was never an agent, but I joined as a client and then he gave me this opportunity to come together with another guy, Joel Zimmerman, who was coming in at the same time in New York. That’s how it started with David Levy and Sam Kirby, who's now over at UTA - she had been my agent for [London/FFRR/Junior Boys Own acts] Orbital and the Chemical Brothers. And, no disrespect, but CAA, Wasserman, they've all got specialist dance departments now.”

This is an award for dance music and dance culture

Pete Tong

You’re back at a label again with Three Six Zero. What are your ambitions for the label in partnership with Three Six Zero management and Sony Music?

“I'd started consulting again for my old label, FFRR, when that was relaunched, because they didn't do a lot with FFRR after I left. Warner had bought it, then the London logo and the label had gone back to Universal. But Warner had the heritage and the name [under licence]. So Christian Tattersfield, who used to work with us at London, when he was CEO of Warner, he asked me to come and take a look at it again. I did some stuff with them, signed Hot Natured. Miles [Leonard] came in with Parlophone, and FFRR was very much moved into the Parlophone lane. I got on really really well with those guys, with Miles and Elias [Christidis] in particular. We had a good couple of years where I was consulting with them. But then I moved to America, and it never really clicked so much with the team over in the US.

Mark Gillespie, obviously an English guy, we're all sitting there in LA doing business together. Calvin [Harris] and a lot of Three Six Zero’s management clients were with WME. I go way back with [Gillespie] to God's Kitchen days in Birmingham, and we were always talking about doing something together. He’d launched a label before via Warner and then stopped it. All his key relationships were with Sony. Sony was the one organisation I'd never worked with before. I had great admiration for Rob Stringer, and the Sony family just welcomed us in. Everyone I'd kind of been competitors with my whole career, suddenly we're all on the same side. We launched it just before the pandemic. It’s just a place where quality artists can do their thing and we can support them. Electronic and dance music will be a strong core of it, but it’s like I was with London. We signed 1010 Benja SL, which I'm super excited about, and he's definitely not dance. I would like to think we'll do a few more of those in time. So it’s that blend between my experience and [Gillespie’s] experience as a manager, and trying to offer a different conversation for artists when they’re looking for people to help with their music.”

Finally, how do you feel being in the MITS club, which is reserved for such high-profile executives and industry figures?

“I think this is an award for dance music and dance culture, and everybody involved in that world. I'm proud to be an ambassador for that. I know the MITS are very excited about giving it to me. I thought it was a mistake at the beginning, I literally did. But they think they've really taken a risk by going outside the norm. It’s pretty stellar company to be with Rob [Stringer] and Elton John. I'm the first DJ, although they had Alan “Fluff” Freeman, who I guess got it because he was the original chart guy. He was the presenter of the Top 40 [Pick Of The Pops] in its most iconic time in the ’60s and ’70s. So I believe I’m the first DJ since then. Jools Holland and Jonathan Ross got it as curators. But in terms of dance culture, it's a breakthrough. It’s a great acknowledgement for the whole movement.”


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