Industry Profile: Ben Turner
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Ben Turner, dir., Graphite Media
Ben Turner’s world is the dance floor.
Turner is director (and owner) of Graphite Media in London, England. Formed in 2001, the company--with a staff of 5--acts as a broker between the music world and brands, working with such top-flight firms as Sony Ericsson, Singstar Playstation, Budweiser, Smirnoff, and Orange RockCorps.
The company also manages the internationally renowned DJs Rob da Bank, and Tom Middleton; and represents electronic pioneer Richie Hawtin for new business.
A former Melody Maker writer, Turner founded the highly-influential Muzik magazine in 1995 when he was just 21. Today, Graphite Media publishes the Pacha and the Soho House magazines. Turner has authored two books, “Cream X 10” and “Ibiza—Inspired Images From The Island of Dance.”
Turner has produced over 50 TV shows on dance music culture for ITV and Channel 4 in Britain.
Currently, he is a director of Bestival, one of the Britain’s leading music festivals, as well as a director for Sunday Best Recordings, and the under-18s brand, Let’s Go Crazy. He is also the founder and deputy chair of the Association of Independent Festivals in the U.K.
In 2008, Turner and BBC Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, launched the International Music Summit in Ibiza. IMS 2010 takes place from May 26th - May 28th at the Ibiza Gran Hotel.
The event brings together an invited selection of leading players in the global music scene. IMS invites not only the electronic music community but also advertising, radio and label representatives.
IMS 2010 will feature a keynote interview with producer Mark Ronson; a one-to-one interview with Alexandra Patsavas of Chop Shop Music Supervision; such speakers as Ted Cohen from TAG Strategic, and legendary producer Arthur Baker; as well as such leading music figures as David Guetta, Luciano, Annie Mac, Erick Morillo, DJ Skream, Pedro Winter / Busy P, and Robin Millar.
Today, the impact of electronic music—still referred to as dance music by many---is prevalent once more as the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Kelis, Taio Cruz, Jason Derulo and Iyaz rev up the RPMS with productions by such in-demand producers as David Guetta, Jacques Lu Cont, J.R. Rotem and RedOne.
In the late '80s, Britain’s dance scene exploded. While DJs became superstars in the U.K. and Europe, they rarely broke out in America until the late '90s, when American alternative radio embraced Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers, and Moby. But the genre quickly lost its mainstream popularity, particularly in America.
While the DJ culture remained a force internationally, the genre moved to an underground status in the U.S. The genre also remained off pop radio until recently.
Clearly, it has returned as an international force again.
A decade ago dance music started being branded as electronic music.
I have been very keen to use the word electronic because I found from meetings that I would attend post the start of the millennium that there was a real negativity toward the word dance. I think (the name change) was an important way to redefine the genre in the eyes of brand managers at big blue chip companies who had read in the newspaper that dance music was dead. Then it must be dead. Also everybody approached (dance music) in a different way. When dance music became so mainstream a lot of what came out, and was in that Billboard club play/Top 20 chart, I would say was not really dance music.
Having DJs Pete Tong and Rob da Bank on BBC Radio 1 provides a good platform for the genre in the UK, if not internationally.
To be honest, living in the UK, if Radio 1 didn’t exist, you’d sometimes wonder where electronic music would be. They haven’t let go. There was a time they wouldn’t put (electronic) stuff on their playlist but just the specialist output from 7 P.M. onwards is amazing. What’s happening now is that people all over the world are listening to Rob da Bank and Pete Tong, whether it is through the Internet or on Sirius or XM satellite in America.
Rob gets a lot of international attention because of his BBC Radio One show that is broadcast on the Internet. The Bestival (a three-day boutique music festival run by da Bank and held annually at Robin Hill country park on the Isle of Wight, England) has got a lot of interest from all corners of the world because it is such a high bench mark for how a festival should be presented and curated.
[Peter Tong is known worldwide by fans of electronic music for hosting such programs as “Essential Mix” and “Essential Selection” on the BBC radio service, which can be heard through Sirius/XM in the U.S. as well as via Internet radio streams. Rob da Bank (aka Robert Gorham) presents a Friday-night/Saturday-morning show, “Rob da Bank,” on BBC Radio 1 from 5am-7am, focused on promoting new music.]
Electronic music was probably the first musical genre to embrace the online world. The magazine world that I used to be in--the dance magazine market, it massively imploded as it has with most music magazines. (British DJ/producer) John Digweed used to say to me that as much as how we used to love Muzik magazine—the magazine I ran—that all his audience was now online. He told me, “I don’t need a magazine. I know my audience, and I interact with them. They live on online.”
We were the first genre of music to really live online. It was always a very global sound because of the very nature of it not being song-dictated, of not needing a vocal to make it work. I think that was then followed and mirrored by the global audience. Everywhere you go around the world, from Brazil to Los Angeles to China, you plug into a very similar industry and like-minded people.
America was one of the last markets to embrace electronic music. Now French house producer/ DJ David Guetta works with the Black Eyed Peas.
David Guetta has become a face that people associate with dance music. Whenever anyone thinks about his music what he’s done and the doors he’s opened, he’s amazing news for everybody.
I was involved in a show called “Dancestar.” I was the creative director on that show when it came across to America (as “Dancestar USA”). We had three amazing years. The first year it was on MTV. Then MTV 2. Then we went onto a cable channel. We tried too hard to get that onto network television. It fell short just because people in positions of power didn’t think that the genre was ready for it.
If that show, with the level of investment we put into it, appeared right now in the United States, it would be a very different proposition. What David Guetta has done is that he has put a face to the genre. (Previously), people thought it was a very anonymous genre even though to people like me these DJs are icons and superstars. Paul Oakenfold was the only name anybody had heard of at Fox or ABC (when we were pitching ‘Dancestar USA’).
This is a real testing time for electronic music, really.
When dance music exploded before, it spectacularly imploded. A large topic at the summit (International Music Summit 2010) is “Okay, guys we are back in this position where the spotlight is back on everybody. How are we going to sustain this, and not make the mistakes that everybody made 10 years ago?”
Isn’t it safer for the genre to be bubbling under the mainstream?
Dance music is most comfortable sitting just under the mainstream and every now and then popping its head into the mainstream but also sitting as a subculture. That is where I think it is most comfortable.
David Guetta is obviously projecting the scene back out there again. The spotlight is on us again. In a way, of course, that’s great. But people have still got to keep the principals of what this genre is about, and not sellout. Not take the mad money offers that are out there. All of the major record companies in the States are now trying to buy up UK dance labels or they are trying to have an English act (on the roster) or they have to have a dance act on their books. It is just like it was 10 years ago. It is quite funny to see. The difference this time is that all of the major players currently controlling dance music saw this 10 years ago. I would hope they would look very carefully at what moves that they do take, and what offers they do take because (labels) jump off of this stuff as quick as they jump on it.
The whole spirit at the conference year one (in 2008) was how we are an independent movement being run by independent principals and that we don’t need the majors. I remember Jason Ellis who works at EMI (as head of A&R for EMI dance imprint Positiva) coming up to me at the end of the conference and saying, “I think nobody wanted me to be here.” I said, “That’s not true. It is just is that (independence) is what this genre is about. It doesn’t need you (label) guys. It’s great when you guys come in, and you get it right. But it can exist without you.” That’s what this genre is all about. The spirit of independence.
By keeping the entrepreneurial spirit, you also have the ability to better create the music as well. That it doesn’t become something else.
I don’t think anybody ever wrote a great dance album by being told what to do by an A&R man. I don’t think it has ever happened. I just don’t think that’s what the music is about. Give me an example where an A&R man made a major label dance record that was great.
Graphite Media works as a broker between brands and music. Who have you worked with?
We have booked a load of talent for Sony Ericsson, Budweiser, and we have booked Smirnoff’s global talent for a couple of years. We currently do Orange RockCorps which is an amazing initiative in the U.K. The only way to get a ticket is to do four hours of volunteer work. We curate all of the musical lineups for that.
[RockCorps is a production company that promotes volunteering in exchange for concert tickets. RockCorps uses the slogan: “Give 4 Hours, Get 1 Ticket.” RockCorps’ funding comes from partnering with brands who are seeking to create marketing programs that have a theme of social change.]
You put Mark Ronson together with Duran Duran for a Smirnoff show.
I spent a year trying to make that happen. It was on, it was off and it was on again. I didn’t let it go. It was a truly genius partnership that has now resulted in Mark Ronson producing the Duran Duran album. That came off the back of the Smirnoff gig that we put together in Paris. We put Faithless together with a Russian Orchestra. We also did a Smirnoff show in China (Shanghai) where Tom (Middleton) and Hard-Fi worked with a Chinese drum orchestra which didn’t speak a word of English. Tom translated it into the most incredible performance.
[On July, 2 2008 in Paris, Mark Ronson performed a unique live set with Duran Duran for an exclusive, invitation-only performance. Together, they showcased specially re-worked versions of some of Duran Duran's classic hits that were created by Ronson, along with tracks from the band's album, “Red Carpet Massacre.” Ronson & the Version Players also performed songs from his album, "Version" with Simon LeBon as one of the featured vocalists.]
What are brands seeking when they come to you?
A lot of the brands think that they can step into the music industry and get this or that because they can wave a cheque book in front of them. It doesn’t work like that. We save brands a huge amount of time by knowing if a certain act will do something. We’ve got a very good feel. If a brand gives us a brief and says, “We’ve got X amount of money. This is what we want them to do. Here are the rights that are needed.” We can pretty much tell them instantly which acts will do it; tell them whether they will need more or less money; and tell them whether the rights they want to put through are achievable.
So many brands just ask for the world?
They’ll say, “Everything you’ve got.” We manage to cut through a lot of that. Part of our expertise is knowing how to curate the right musical lineup for a brand that gives off the right brand impression. Also knowing how to acquire the rights that they need as well as being able to deliver what the brand expects.
We did an amazing event for Sony Ericsson last year when they were launching three phones into the European market. They gave us a bit of a brief. We came straight back with an idea where, in front of a 700 media audience, we recreated Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in a contemporary, largely electronic form. We used people like Goldie, Sister Bliss from Faithless, Ms Dynamite, Kano, Layo & Bushwacka! All sorts of people. We used a film director (Andrea Arnold), and actors. We created this theatrical 30 minutes. Everything was done on the day. Nobody was allowed to do any work beforehand. They turned up and they had a day to rewrite “The Four Seasons.” They each did a season. Then we performed (the piece) on the spot for 30 minutes.
It was an amazing event where the artists were truly inspired. This act enabled these artists to do something of real musical value. That’s everything that we strive for with these brand deals. It just isn’t a budget exercise. Who would have ever given either Mark Ronson or Duran Duran the money to go and experiment and do what they did? Nobody would do that. So, actually these brands are serving a very good purpose if handled correctly.
[On October, 7 2009 at London's P3 warehouse, Sony Ericsson created a one-off music spectacular for the launch of its new Satio handset. The event gathered a collective of music producers--Goldie, Layo & Bushwacka!, Sister Bliss & Tom Middleton, teamed them with Kano, Scroobius Pip, Ms Dynamite & Booty Luv and challenged them to stage Vivaldi's “The Four Seasons” in 7 hours. Live support came from the Bays and the Heritage Orchestra, with visuals provided by DJ Yoda who mixed footage provided by Academy Award winning film director Andrea Arnold shot on the new Satio handset.]
How many people are expected for the conference this year?
If you include speakers and media, it’s about 700. It is about 450 paying delegates. It’s a nice number. Not too big, and not too small. I take my hat off to Sat Bisla and Musexpo. When I went to see Musexpo in Los Angeles in 2007, it was that size. It was that size that I loved about it. When you have a small gathering you get good people. It’s as simple as that. When you go too big, you lose people. They don’t want to be hassled.
That (size) comes with challenges. We have invested a lot of time and, at this stage, there’s been no return. But, we are very proud of what we have created. We are delivering something that is different from all of the other conferences that are out there.
A 1990 Channel 4 documentary was largely responsible for introducing you to the Balearic beat of Ibiza.
To this day, it’s the best documentary ever made about the island of Ibiza. I saw it and I had to go there. It was during a time that I was very into a label called Boy’s Own. The (documentary) was inspiring. So I went on holiday there, and begged this guy to go with me. After 7 nights in 14, he begged me to leave because he couldn’t handle it. Every night, we were hearing all these DJs on this paradise island. I was 17 then. I have been back (to Ibiza) every single year since. The least I’ve been back is four times in a year. Mostly about 15 times a year. I keep going back there. I keep finding new sources of inspiration. That turned into us doing a few events there. We also produce a lifestyle magazine for Pacha, the dominant club there. It puts DJs next to Hollywood stars next to big pop stars in a very cool way. It has become the Ibiza bible.
[Ibiza, the Spanish-owned Balearic island, located in the Mediterranean, has had a reputation as a party haven since ‘60s. Dance music arrived on the island in the late ‘80s, leading to more than a decade of booming business, during which many of the world's biggest clubs—including Privilege, Space, Eden and Amnesia—set up on the island.
In 2008, however, the local authority, the Consell Insular de Ibiza, passed laws aimed at curbing Ibiza's 24-hour party lifestyle. The new legislation forces discotheques to close between 6 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and made unlicensed villa parties illegal.]
Has the government restriction chilled down the scene in Ibiza?
It definitely has. It has put quite a few people off. I think the numbers (of tourists) have been hit as a result. I think that there are reasons why they did what they did that were sensible. We live in a different world and people should be responsible. I think certain elements of (the legislation) were right to do.
I have seen some terrible flashpoints. You’ve got 2,000 cars with people completely off their faces going one way; and then you have 400 cars with people taking their kids to school the other way. It is not a very pleasant mix.
But, equally, the villa part (of the legislation) is absurd with the extreme that (authorities) have taken it to. I do think that they are biting the hand that feeds. Surely, it is much better to have people in a nightclub between 6 A.M. and 10 A.M. than running off to all different parts of the island, and doing different things. People are going to still party. They are not going to go to bed when they are on holiday at 6 A.M. The island’s clubs don’t get busy until 3 A.M. The Spanish lifestyle of eating at 11 P.M. and going to a club at 2 A.M. well, fine but then don’t shut the doors on people four hours later.
The conference offers location, location, location.
I’d say content, content, content. I don’t get any content out of any of the other (electronic music) conferences, apart from ADA (the Amsterdam Dance Event), really. What we try to do is to present things in a slightly different way. Seven people sitting on a panel does not make for a good panel. We have tried to strip some of that back. We bring people from all over the world to talk. If you only give them three minutes to speak, it doesn’t make any sense. We just wanted to find new ways of presenting content. We also make sure that none of the panels overlap so there’s real focus. Not only that, we are making content on site. People create the IMS anthem of the conference in front of the audience. These are obvious things but nobody else is doing them.
It’s noteworthy that acclaimed American music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas of Chop Shop Music Supervision is being interviewed at the conference.
I am finding that increasingly that TV shows on the big networks in the U.S. want more cutting-edge music, and electronic music fits that bill. I have also been to quite a few conferences and Alex is clearly the number one (music supervisor) out there. The IMS is a lot broader than just being about electronic music. It is our general focus, but there is a lot that the people from the electronic world can learn from people who don’t work in electronic music and vice-versa. It’s good to have some people from outside so we can draw from everybody’s experiences in the wider music industry.
Graphite works closely with Rob da Bank, Tom Middleton and Richie Hawtin, Oxford-born Canadian passport.
We manage Rob da Bank, and Tom Middleton. We don’t manage Richie Hawtin but we represent him for new business opportunities. We are talking to various potential brand partners to be associated with his Plastikman tour. Rob da Bank’s career includes us being a director of his record label Sunday Best (which includes the acts Grand National and Kittie Daisy & Lewis) and the Bestival festival.
How did you hook up with Richie Hawtin?
My previous life was as a journalist. I worked for Melody Maker. We had a 4-page dance section there. We were fighting within against jaded rock hacks. It feels like we have been doing that ever since. I went out to interview Richie and see one of the projects he did in the Packard Plant building in Detroit. So we have had a very strong connection with him. We were a big part of pushing him in the UK through the rock press at the time which made him stand out from a lot of the DJs at that time. I just felt that this guy is a true icon. He’s a truly unique maverick and one of the smartest people in the music business, never mind the electronic business.
Tom Middleton has a long history in ambient and deep house.
Tom was around at a similar time as Ritchie. He was in an act called Global Communication with Tom Pritchard (in the ‘90s). People to this day will say they did some of the best chillout music ever made. Tom is one of the quickest and smartest producers. We do great stuff with him with a lot brands and a lot of TV and film. He’s just so talented. It was at that Shanghai gig for Smirnoff’ where I had a conversation with him saying that we wanted to manage him. Tom understands the brand world, and he’s a genius at the music thing. He is such an asset. He is so articulate. He can explain and convey what he he’s trying to do in a way that very few can.
How did you get involved with this music as a fan?
Listening to John Peel. His (BBC Radio 1) show was the audio version of reading the NME or the Melody Maker. The way he would drop in a track by 808 State or A Guy Called Gerald or LFO. I wasn’t old enough to be around the first wave of the raves. But when John Peel played that kind of music, it had an element of indie music slant to it. It wasn’t rave music. It was much more profound, really. So, it was listening to his show that really opened my eyes to a lot of music.
When I started going to London to work for Melody Maker, I started sampling a bit of nightlife, and that was it. I was completely down that path. I went to a few clubs in London that were hugely influential in my life, like Love Ranch and places like that. Coming from Oxford where nightclubs were about people getting drunk, having a fight and buying a burger at the end of the night, it was quite incredible to hear this music. I didn’t know anyone. I would stand in Love Ranch on my own for hours. I got in on the guest list, and I would just listen and dance and just absorb it. That was it. I just wanted to give up every possible moment of my weekends in those sorts of places listening to music.
[The Leicester Square Saturday club night The Ranch--as it was known--exploded the London club scene wide open as the first West End nightclub with a 6 A.M. license. It was also one of the first club nights to tour the U.K. in the early ‘90s.]
You were hired at Melody Maker at 16?
I was an intern working there for free for work experience. I was commuting into London from Oxford every day. I just want to be involved. By the end of that summer it was like, “My God I can’t go back to the real world.” I told my parents, who were both teachers, that as much as I admired what they had done, that this (music journalism) is what I wanted to do. I loved being a part of it. I was an obsessive NME, Melody Maker, Sounds reader. I just wanted to be in that world. Pushing and promoting music. I was at Melody Maker from 1989--when I was 16--to the late ‘90s.
Initially, I was hired to run the picture desk because they just wanted to find me a job. I had written a couple of quite lame articles. Once I was fully in there, whilst I was filing photographs and looking at very hot photos of (actress) Patsy Kensit in the picture file, I got to know certain people that would come in. Like Jeff Barrett who was running Heavenly Records, and the guys from Boy’s Own, an iconic label that I idolized. I was the only person in this rock paper that was knowledgeable and passionate about what they were doing. That just grew and grew. Eventually, (the editors) gave me a little column, and that column just grew each week. Then they gave me a section called Orbit. Within three months of launching it, (Melody Maker editor) editor Allan Jones said to me, “Look, I don’t understand what the hell you are doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it.” Alan is an amazing and legendary character, but he really didn’t get dance music.
The reason he said that was that R&S Records from Belgium had just booked 7 double page spread color adverts in the middle of Melody Maker. No major record company had done that for three years.
When did you launch Muzik magazine with IPC?
Melody Maker was owned by IPC (IPC Media). So I was already within the company. The launch of the magazine came in 1995. We then ran the Muzik Awards from 1996 to 1999. Then I set up Graphite in 2001.
You fought hard at Melody Maker for dance music before launching Muzik.
As much as being at Melody Maker was probably the most important part of my career, it quickly turned. The people who gave me the chance were suppressing dance music from the pages of the magazine. I was on a mission. Mixmag (also owned by IPC) was doing incredibly well at the time but I found Mixmag to be a very depressing read. I’d open up the magazine and there would be six pages of (DJ) Jeremy Healy fishing. I’d go, “What the hell does this say to me with what I’ve been listening to---Underworld or the Chemical Brothers or these really important acts making really important music?
I went to the top (IPC) brass upstairs kicking and screaming about how angry I was that I couldn’t get more than 4 pages a week in a 70 page newspaper (Melody Maker) and that Mixmag was doing the genre of music and the record industry a disservice. They did some research and the research came out massively in our favor. That Mixmag’s advertising was all clubs and what we wanted was a magazine where all of the advertising was from record labels. That was my background from having worked at Melody Maker.
(Muzik) was about treating this music with care and attention. People would say that we were too serious with the magazine. I’d say, “Well, I don’t care. This is a serious thing that we are doing. This is not about DJs going fishing.
[IPC Media closed down Muzik in 2003.]
When people release electronic product today, is it their intention to sell product or to promote personal appearances and other things?
Unfortunately, the way the record industry has changed what you have outlined is sadly ringing true. I don’t want to state the obvious but what everybody is saying is true. It used to be that the gig was to promote record sales. Now, it is completely the other way around. I don’t think any of us are happy with that but that’s the way it is. That was never what we set out for record labels to be there for.
Richie Hawtin is a great example of someone with this incredible brand and culture around him. He’s an artist but he’s also the agent and he’s also owns the publishing and the master usage. Suddenly, it all works. If the record sells 2,000 copies, well it’s still promoting his career in a massive way.
Something that we are trying to get into the minds of these DJ in this genre is that they need productions out there—like four or five a year, if not more just to keep their name in the market because the kids are moving on so quickly from one name to the other. They are not hanging around for a lot of people. You have to keep engaging with them.
That engagement is vital when the media generally does not cover the electronic genre.
I have been hugely pleased to see a great media reaction with Richie’s Plastikman project that is out there now. We haven’t aggressively gone after much media. That will come when product gets released. But the general media pickup is there. Richie’s first Plastikman live show was the Time Warp Festival with 30,000 people. His Coachella performance was amazing.
You are just seeing in the LA Times, LA Weekly, the general acceptance of this genre of music is there. It is accepted. I don’t feel the fight is quite what it was. I think that the challenges, as I said earlier, are not what places can we get it to that we are not already in, but it is how this genre going to sustain itself and not implode again.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.