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‘We’re always on the edge’: Spinnin’ Records execs talk new talent and future of dance music

Last month, legendary dance label Spinnin’ Records announced that it had become the first record label to reach 30 million subscribers at the 2023 edition of the International Music Summit (IMS) in Ibiza. Headliner boarded a plane to the home of dance to sit down with the company’s VP of marketing Susanne Hazendonk, and commercial director Steven De Graaf, for a chat about the state of the dance sector, their commitment to discovering new talent, and how the label’s acquisition by Warner Music Group five years ago has impacted the business.

Ever since it was founded in the Netherlands back in 1999 by Eelko van Kooten and Roger de Graaf (brother of Steven), Spinnin’ Records has been revered as one of the dance world’s most iconic and influential labels. Its partnerships down the years with the likes of Tiësto, David Guetta, Sam Feldt, KSHMR, Lucas & Steve, LUM!X, Alok, and many others established it as a home for both giants of the industry, as well as new and emerging talent.

Its efforts on both fronts have been upped significantly since being acquired by Warner Music Group, a move that the company says has “moved the needle” with regards to its global reach and ability to attract the most exciting talent in the market; the IMS announcement of its record-breaking YouTube performance being one such example of its continued success.

Susanne Hazendonk and Steven De Graaf, who coincidentally started their careers at Spinnin’ on the same day back in 2015, have overseen, and indeed spearheaded, much of the label’s recent success, driving its expansion into new territories and transforming its YouTube channel into what Hazendonk describes as “the MTV of YouTube for the dance community”. 

The label's success was also hailed by Max Lousada, CEO of recorded music at Warner Music Group, during a keynote interview with dance legend Pete Tong, in which the pair discussed everything from A&R in 2023 to the role of AI, TikTok, and other social platforms in today's industry. You can read all the highlights from the interview here

Headliner joined Hazendonk and de Graaf at IMS for an in-depth conversation about all things Spinnin’ Records, the power a label still harnesses for artists in today’s industry, and what the future holds for the dance music genre…

You both joined Spinnin’ Records on the same day back in 2015 and the label has grown significantly since then. What has driven its performance during that time?

Steven: The growth of dance music as a whole; the whole festival scene and the explosion of big room and EDM. That has really accelerated everything. Dance music and DJs, if you compare them to international pop acts coming from the US and the UK, were the new thing that connected the world. The Netherlands is a breeding ground when it comes to international DJs, and that accelerated all the business we did as it became more mainstream than specialised.

Is the Netherlands still a major talent hub for dance music and DJs?

Steven: Yeah, we grow them in the ground [laughs]! The infrastructure in the Netherlands is extremely good. We have a really small country but a great infrastructure when it comes to media, especially radio. It’s a good breeding ground to test out what works and what doesn’t. And off the back of the globalisation of dance music it can really accelerate things to a global stage.

A hit can happen in a heartbeat. But we have to deliver sustainable careers. Susanne Hazendonk, VP marketing, Spinnin' Records

Susanne: And that coincides with our YouTube channel, which has played a huge part in our success. We launched the channel in 2005 and had our first hit on YouTube in 2009, and with the whole EDM explosion, before we knew it, we were at one million subscribers, then we doubled, then doubled again and again, and it just kept going. And we just hit 30 million subscribers.

Steven: We saw a lot of countries that had a lot of target audience join Spinnin’ because not everywhere in the world has a really good radio infrastructure, so people were searching for great music and they found us as a hub to listen to the newest dance music out there. Countries like Mexico and Brazil and India are still leading when it comes to our YouTube audience as they were missing out and they were trying to find it online. And we were there providing them with great music.

What have you been doing with YouTube to achieve this record-breaking audience?

Susanne: One of the most important things with that platform is that it was one of the first that gave us the opportunity to talk to our audience. We could respond to people through the comments so we could create this little dance community. We almost became the MTV of YouTube for the dance community. That and the fact that EDM was huge and we were at the forefront of it – we were such early adopters and saw it happening first.

Steven: Back in the day we had a large percentage of all the bigger acts and the great dance tracks that were coming out, so we had a lot of great content on the channel. And the content is still leading the way in everything we do. The tagline of Spinnin’ Records is ‘it all starts with good music’ and that’s exactly what it is. That’s still the number one reason for what we are doing on every channel.

Susanne: And now with the ability to upload short-form content, it gives artists the opportunity to connect with other audiences and that can introduce them to more long-form content. That’s something we are seeing happening. And it also gives them the opportunity to show their artistic vision. They can use 60 seconds to tease what’s coming instead of just uploading the video and that’s it. There are so many promotional ways you can capitalise on the platform. For us it is one of, if not the, biggest platform.

Steven: Radio has helped as well. We do a weekly radio show called Spinnin’ Sessions Radio with all the newest music, greatest hits, and special DJ mixes of our artists. It’s a great place to discover new music. People are still searching for great music and new music.

Susanne: And searching has become easier because of Shorts. And TikTok has a huge part to play in that, as do the other social media channels.

What is Spinnin’s strategy for discovering new talent?

Susanne: Well, I can’t speak for A&R, but our CEO is very much involved in signing new talent. Even though he is CEO that is still his main focus, and that shows how important new music is to the label.

Steven: We always want to be at the forefront of new genres that are popping up frequently within dance music, and then we jump on them as a company. We want to be there first and adopt that new genre, or even create that genre and really start pushing it. And within the new genres that are arising you see a lot of new great talent leading the way and our A&R team is very good at signing some of those leaders. That makes us innovative and always on the edge when it comes to dance music.

Susanne: And we are in a position where we don’t just have Spinnin’ Records. Obviously, that’s the main brand, but we have a lot of sub labels, so we have Spinnin’ Deep and we also have SPRS. This means we can have a hit anywhere, it doesn’t matter what label it is. We have that ability to reach new audiences. It doesn’t have to be in the same style or genre – we can be a house for everyone.

Steven: We have such a great infrastructure that fits all the genres underneath dance music.

We can take an artist out of their territory and take them international. Steven de Graaf, commercial director, Spinnin' Records

How did the acquisition by Warner change things for Spinnin’?

Steven: For me, looking from the outside in, as a company we were always dependent on our ability to go online and promote our music mainly ourselves. We had one office in the Netherlands, and we pushed music online and used local people going to radio, but only in the key countries. Now we have an infrastructure of 4,000 people that can all work our records, so that gives us boots on the ground in each territory. That makes it much easier when a record crosses over for local people in all those territories with their local networks to work that track. A major can really move the needle.

Susanne: The biggest advantage is scale, that’s what it’s about. It’s about the scale of digital accounts. In the beginning we were still able to deliver to a lot of portals, which was great, but now, for example, we are super active in the sports portals and channels, which is a huge revenue driver and something we may not have been able to grow without the help of Warner. A lot of Warner affiliates know us and work together with us on a lot of records. And having access to the data Warner can provide is a different ball game. It has taken the company to a different level.

What’s your strategy for expanding global reach? Are there any particular territories that are a key focus for you?

Susanne: We now have international teams; we hired Spinnin’ people in the US, UK and China, so those are definitely key territories. But we see dance music being super popular in Asia, and other territories are still opening up after Covid. Asia is a huge, huge, huge growth market, but it’s important not to look at Asia as just one territory. It’s about the local cultures and getting to know them. We shouldn’t think that because we live in the Netherlands we know dance music - that doesn’t make sense. It’s about understanding those local cultures, and Warner brings a lot to that.

Steven: There are a lot of exciting markets out there that we are still discovering. India is a market that has huge potential and recently came online with all the different portals. And it’s an area where they love dance music. We see that especially when it comes to an artist like KSHMR who has his local footprint there. That’s a hero by itself in that territory. It’s similar for Brazil where we have invested a lot of attention from the start and have a local artist like Alok, who now has 30 million Instagram followers, and he’s a god in South America. That gives us local value and local authority when it comes to building our brand. We can take such an artist out of their territory and take them international.

Susanne: And our vision is not just focused on gaining Spotify numbers. Obviously that’s super important, I get that, but we are totally fine with having a hit on social media. We’ve seen that with the RANDALL record which totally went off on Reels and YouTube. There’s not much translation to the traditional DSPs but that doesn’t matter.

Steven: And from a marketing perspective and from a fan community perspective, we have from the start not only focused on building artists’ careers but also building our own brand. And right now we provide an infrastructure for new talent with a multimillion audience we can reach online, which is quite unique in the music scene – for a label to have so many followers and so much recognition.

At a time when more and more artists are considering independent routes without label backing, does having such a strong brand identity help encourage artists to sing with Spinnin’?

Steven: Yes. And it’s not just because of our reach, but also our knowledge. We have some of the smartest people in the industry, so we can really provide a lot of value on how to break a record, how to pitch to Spotify, how to work the system. If you are a new artist, I would always say you should work together and not do everything yourself. It’s really hard to accomplish a career on your own. And it’s getting more difficult every day.

What are the biggest challenges for Spinnin’ in today’s market?

Susanne: For everyone, the biggest challenge is cutting through the noise. A hit can happen in a heartbeat, but we have to make sure that we can deliver sustainable careers and not just throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

Steven: The opportunity is that the world used to be very big but is becoming more accessible every day; new markets are popping up on the radar. So, the challenge is to cut through the noise, but if you are able to do that then the audience you can reach amplifies and grows bigger every day. We have an amazing brand and an amazing network to accomplish that. There is huge talent out there that can really move the needle. So I’m very positive about the future of dance music.