When Pharrell Williams picked Patrick Moxey up at Virginia Beach airport, the exec thought he knew what to expect.
“I knew Pharrell as a hip-hop producer,” says Moxey, who at the time was SVP of A&R at Virgin Records, where he’d signed Williams’ NERD collective.
“So I got in his car expecting to hear the latest hip-hop records. But the first record on is America’s A Horse With No Name, and the next is Earth Wind & Fire’s September. As we drive to the studio, I realise that he’s studying and subconsciously channelling all the ideas that are floating around.
“That’s why I saw him write three No.1 records in five minutes each,” Moxey smiles. “He was easily the most talented person I’ve ever worked with.”
Throughout his remarkable career, Patrick Moxey has often found himself adjacent to such talents as they conjure up their most memorable musical moments.
He started out in Chicago in the ‘80s as a DJ and music journalist, before moving to New York in 1987 and throwing legendarily wild warehouse parties.
That put him in contact with New York’s music industry elite and soon he was working for Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen at Rush Artist management (“Rick Rubin was living upstairs and he’d painted all his walls black,” remembers Moxey. “He had this whole Satanic heavy metal thing going on at the time…”).
He moved onto Polygram and Virgin before launching his own indie labels; Payday Records for hiphop in 1992 and Ultra Records for dance music three years later.
Payday gave early breaks to the likes of Jay-Z, Mos Def, DJ Premier and Jeru The Damaja, while Ultra became a dance music behemoth across records, events and publishing, at various times featuring the likes of Steve Aoki, Kygo, Deadmau5, Calvin Harris and David Guetta.
In 2013, Ultra formed a ‘global strategic relationship’ with Sony Music, and the major bought out Moxey’s remaining stake in the label at the start of this year.
So the Moxey that MBW meets today has returned to his roots, both physical – based in the UK since 2021, he’s at Helix/Ultra’s office in Tileyard, just down the road from Kentish Town, where Moxey was born and where his mother still lives – and spiritual, as the head of a wholly independent music business.
And he still believes in what he calls dance music’s ultimate “moment of truth”: when a record is played at a club or a festival and either erupts or clears the dancefloor.
The signs are already good that Helix will feature a lot more of the former than the latter. He’s signed a deal with Warner Music that will see Payday and Helix go through ADA for global distribution.
It allows Helix, Payday and non-US Warner Music territories to reciprocally license music to each other, and for creative collaborations between Helix and other Warner artists.
Ultra Music Publishing also has an alliance with Warner Chappell.
Helix has already signed the likes of Snakehips, AR/CO and Marshall Jefferson, while it has a breakout Latin EDM hit with Willy William’s Trompeta.
“We’re hitting the ground running because that’s what we like to do,” grins Moxey. “I thought about going to a beach after the sale, but what would I do there? It’s too much fun making things happen…”
And, indeed, Moxey fizzes with enthusiasm and ideas for his new business, constantly reeling off impressive Dutch streaming stats and significant Canadian radio adds (“People make fun of me for it, but I love a good stat!”).
It’s the sort of thing founders and CEOs usually refer you to other people for, but that’s not due to any lack of staff or resources.
“There should be more options, especially indie ones, that stand outside the big three.”
His music group has three offices (LA, New York, London), each with dedicated sync teams, 38 staff across the world and studios everywhere from Stockholm to Atlanta to Liverpool.
(To a degree, however, it’s also a family affair: Moxey’s wife, Bernadette Cruz, is Director at Ultra Publishing and works across HR and operations for both Helix and Ultra Publishing.)
This growing indie empire is built to compete with the biggest music companies on earth, yet instilled with the nimbleness of the small, independent businesses that drive dance and hip-hop’s relentless innovation.
That’s why Moxey is in the office bright and early on the day after his 56th birthday (“I gave partying a rest for about 20 years,” he shrugs), ready to make the case to MBUK that his next music industry act will be every bit as successful as his previous ones, as he looks to unearth the next Pharrell.
“I’m still a young man,” says Moxey. “I’m energised and motivated right now, more so than ever. Three weeks in and we’re already flying…”
How are you finding life outside of Sony?
I’m super-excited to be back to my roots and be 100% independent. We’ve had a great response from managers and artists that want to get pushed.
If the majors are putting out 3,000 records a week and to some extent turning into aggregators, we’re able to focus people on four or five records a week. We’re [distributing] direct to Spotify and Apple, and Apple and Spotify are very responsive to good new music.
The Sony-Ultra partnership looked successful. So why leave?
It was about wanting to have flexibility over how we can best represent the artist with the digital outlets and how we can best get their message across at radio.
If you’re in the top group of artists at a major, it’s exciting. But even as good as the reps at the majors are, they can push, what, 10 records in a week? Maybe 20.
Are you saying your artists were not in that priority group?
The wholly owned labels are always going to be at the top of the queue, so it was always a struggle. Was that frustrating? Yes, but it’s all good, no regrets. It’s onwards and upwards.
Is there anything you miss about Sony?
I haven’t found it yet.
Were Sony Music sad to see you go?
Well, let’s just say that I did very well for them.
They never had to put a dollar into the business and I generated great profits. But now it’s time to do this in a new way.
Is it strange to see Ultra being run by someone else?
It’s logical. It’s similar to when Chris Blackwell was at Island or Clive Calder was running Jive and Zomba. Oftentimes, the majors close those labels down within a couple of years [of the founder leaving], that’s just what they do.
But look, I can’t predict the future. I can only think about Helix.
Why go straight into another collaboration with a major with the Warner deal?
Well, this time I’m 100% independent, so it’s more like we’re working with Warner where it makes sense for Helix’s artists. It’s a bit different; Sony was an investor in Ultra Records.
Of all the three majors, Warner to me are the right people to be aligned with. I love the leadership currently at Warner.”
You originally set up Ultra as an indie. How different is it doing the same thing with Helix nearly 30 years later?
It’s easier to start an independent label right now, because things are very consolidated in the record business.
There’s a real need and desire for an independent that can work records across multiple territories at the same time. When I started in the business there were five majors and now we’re down to three, and the economics have changed completely.
“It’s easier to start an independent label right now, because things are very consolidated in the record business.”
It came down to three when the business was contracting and losing 10% a year.
Now the business is probably doing the reverse, increasing by 10% a year, so it’s obvious to me there should be more options, especially independent ones, that stand outside of the big three.
Realistically, can you compete with the majors though?
Absolutely, but I will say it’s all in the music.
When you have a great record, you get behind that thing and it just goes.
I always say our job is to get something heard – on TikTok, or on a specialist show on the radio, or on a playlist at Spotify and Apple.
But, after that, a strange thing has to happen: somebody has to like it. Music comes first and commerce follows the music.
What characterises a Helix signing?
Sound and charisma. Hopefully there are some artists out there who aren’t just data crunchers and have the charisma and the certain touch to connect things.
A guy like Bru-C, who we publish, is absolutely taking over, precisely because he’s out there playing the festivals and the clubs, bringing the music to the people.
“When I talk to friends who are doing A&R at the majors, they say that, when they pick up a TikTok artist, a lot of the time they don’t get a trained athlete, they just get someone who got lucky from their bedroom.”
That’s worth a zillion things on TikTok. When I talk to friends who are doing A&R at the majors, they say that, when they pick up a TikTok artist, a lot of the time they don’t get a trained athlete, they just get someone who got lucky from their bedroom.
They’re not getting someone who’s got stagecraft, charisma and the discipline to do session after session to get the right records.
They’re just getting somebody random.
Can you do things with Helix you couldn’t do with Ultra?
Absolutely. With Helix, there are no restrictions. I can work with any artist to achieve anything they want.
My job is to be a problem solver for artists, to get their music to DSPs and radio and to be flexible about how we can sell the experiences around the artists and their music.
You’ve said Helix will be involved with NFTs. What will that look like?
We have to do it on a practical basis. There’s so much hype around the space, but we have to look at it like, ‘Music is valuable, how do we create an experience connecting the artist to fans in a fun and exciting way?’.
You’ve got all sorts of ways to do this right now, from something where it’s a simple record release with different artwork, or it’s more of a collector’s piece, or it’s a gated community experience, similar to what Steve Aoki or Deadmau5 are bringing to the market.
We’ll be working with our artists to build them up in all these sectors, wherever it makes sense.
One thing [to make it more accessible] would be price point.
There’s a great value in inexpensive things you could buy for your avatar or NFT experience that don’t have to be such monolithic, expensive pieces.
How important is the UK to Helix?
UK dance music is amazing.
I’ve always been involved with it, going back to Sasha & Digweed.
I was bringing people like Little Louie Vega, Roger Sanchez and Moby to London for the first time, when I was managing those guys.
Seeing those first raves, the Sunrise 5000 – I was carrying Louie’s record crates through the muddy fields towards the aircraft hangar!
So I have a lot of respect for UK dance music.
Can dance music get back to the commercial peaks of the ‘90s and ‘00s?
Yes. The great thing about dance music is, it’s international music.
A dance record can sound just as good in Indonesia as it can in Doncaster. It travels. Whereas hip-hop, which I also love, tends to be very country-by-country.
You have French hip-hop, German Hip-hop, UK hip-hop, US hiphop…
You might see more hip-hop records in any one particular market, but you won’t see those hip-hop records in other markets, while you will see the dance records.
The UK sound right now will do well in the US, Canada, Australia and Holland.
You’ve said you want Helix to be bigger than Ultra in five years’ time: how will you achieve that?
Artist-by-artist, record-by-record, playlist by playlist, radio-add-by-radio-add.
It’s about building up momentum and layers, learning how to be flexible with the times and pushing artists as hard as possible.
It’s not just that I have this vision that it’s going to be bigger in five years; I’ve got groundswell.
It’s already happening. Do I want to be tied with a major or be an independent, when the independent market share is growing by 1% a year?
So can Helix be as big as a major?
I can only say that somebody should, whether it’s me or somebody else. It’s time.
There were five [majors] when I started and now we’re down to three.
Let’s get that number back up.
What happens if a major comes along with a chequebook and makes you an offer you can’t refuse?
It’s funny – I’ve already had one approach, which I declined.
Because this time, I want to enjoy this. I want to be a great choice for artists outside of the three.
If you could change one thing about today’s industry what would it be and why?
I just want everyone to realise that the power is in their hands to get the job done. Because the job that needs to be done sits somewhere in between the artists, the managers, the labels and the publishers.
Music has to get made, it has to get presented and packaged and pushed. It has to be cool, artistic collaborations need to be co-ordinated and it really can be done by anyone.
What’s more exciting now about this digital era is, there aren’t gatekeepers as there were in the past. It used to cost you $2,000 just to put one song down on two inch tape. Those days are over, anyone can record anything, anywhere.
But that same spirit of independence, where you could make it, promote it, market it and do it [yourself]… that’s what I’m hoping more and more people will continue to realise.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be the next Patrick Moxey?
I would tell them that they’re going to represent their music better than anyone else and they should carry that message as far as they can and work with like-minded independent people.
This is a real chance for independence to shine.
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