Work Hard, Play Hard: In conversation with Pete Tong

With a career spanning over thirty-five years, PETE TONG is widely recognised as one of the most influential radio personalities in the UK and is an absolute legend in the world of dance music, bearing witness to its very beginnings. Tong’s affinity with DJing and zeal for the newly developing club scene eventually launched his residency at BBC Radio 1’s more than two decades ago, with his achievements as an ambassador for electronic dance music remain unparalleled.

Last year, Tong was invited to take part in the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London and bring a classical cut to some of dance’s biggest tracks through the decades, reworking classical songs while paying homage to 20 years of Radio 1’s annual pilgrimage to the White Isle in Ibiza. In the aftermath of the project’s infectious success, Tong has continued reworking this captivating and energetic take of club with the Heritage Orchestra, now bringing the 65-piece ensemble alongside singers and synths to perform live in Australia and North America.

Having been introduced to his radio program during my teens by my older brother, I was beyond stoked that Pete took the time to catch up with Purple Sneakers during his recent trip to Australia to chat more about Ibiza Classics and his wealth of experience, gifting us some invaluable insight into the electronic dance music industry and what its future might hold.

You’re quite a veteran in the dance music scene and a very influential and key figure in that scene as well with a pretty extensive career.  You first started DJing in the 1970s and you’ve been an ambassador in music basically ever since: can you give us a little more insight as to what the scene was like back then when you first started out?

I started DJing partly out of being a kind of frustrated musician: I was a drummer in a band at school and infatuated by music and collecting records, pouring over the sleeves for all the details of who was playing on them and what the artist had to say. Then I saw a DJ one day at a school disco and thought ,“Oh God, that’s so much better!” It aligned with my passions – it sounds better and it makes people dance, and then I kind of fell in love with DJing. But, DJing in the beginning… no one had a career being a club DJ, it took me a little while to graduate to what was effectively “underground DJing” of the day, specialising in a type of music that was sitting outside of the mainstream.

Once I moved into that direction it was really a case of, I didn’t really know what it was back then but looking back on it now, being as entrepreneurial as possible and just joining different aspects together that enabled me to make a living doing what I loved, which was being involved in  music. From DJing, well, how do you progress? No one made music then: it was impossible; so it was a case of breaking into radio. Radio had a huge influence and there were a couple of specialists on there that I followed closely and was a fan of, so then it was a case of ,“Well, how do I get myself into those positions?” So I started breaking into radio – working on local stations and pirate stations, and I started running my own events so that I could book the bigger DJs of the day and then they could kind of discover me. Eventually I needed a day job as well because that wasn’t enough [money], so I joined a magazine and started writing about the scene before joining a record company and rose through the ranks there, and then ended up having my own label. It was just whatever it took to make a living being in music. I mean, for a long time DJing was effectively a hobby of mine and I became well known being a DJ publicly, but I actually had a day job running a label and it wasn’t until the early 2000s when I stopped doing the label -much later in life – and I could effectively call myself a full time DJ.

That was the journey at the start: I think the only thing I didn’t do back then was make music, which is what everyone does now, because then you had to have a record deal and someone had to pay for you to go into a studio. There were a lot more barriers to entry that made it a lot more complicated.

Yeah, it was a different sort of business model which has almost been flipped on its head a little in recent times. Do you think the genre has changed a lot over the decades? It’s nearly gone full circle with the sounds that it grew from to then being a bit more abstract, and now honing back in on those purer sounds again.

Absolutely! It’s always ebbing and flowing and some stuff is circular and some stuff is fresh. It doesn’t really go away, we’re in a time of change at the moment which is pretty exciting too.

And Creamfields has recently had its 20th anniversary, which is something you’ve been a pretty big part of since its early days. How does it feel experiencing such a massive milestone like that, especially when you’ve worked so hard to create as well?

[Laughs] I think when you get to that stage, you don’t really want to remind people how long you’ve been doing it for! I think I have been involved with them more than anyone since the very beginning, so I almost count them like friends and family. They were quite low key about it to be honest, we probably had the best All Gone Pete Tong arena I’ve ever done with them.

The Cream family is so much a part of my story, right at the beginning the UK was very broken up and people didn’t really travel to the North. When I arrived on Radio 1 in 1991, that’s when I really started travelling around the country for the time out of the South East, where I was really well known as a DJ. CreamJames Barton and his brother, Scott, and Darren and a guy called Jim King – I worked with them from the very beginning before they even started Cream, which was a club they did before that, so it’s nice to see people still in the game like that delivering quality experiences for the audience. They’ve never rested on what they did, they’ve always challenged themselves and are setting a new standard.

So you’ve obviously got your radio show and your label, stemming back quite a bit now. How important do you find things like your radio show are for discovering new artists and gems when there’s just so much out there?

Fortunately, people still think it’s important. Obviously it’s a radically different environment to when I started – it was just one of handful of outlets for the music, maybe even less. I guess there was more focus and attention on that and now you’ve got to really fight for the attention because there’s millions and millions of distractions.

That’s the challenge of how radio cuts through all the noise in the present day: I’ve been doing it for so long in the same place at the same time, so that’s something that’s very rare and kind of adds a gravitas to what I do and makes it stand out a little bit more. That sort of consistency over time – money can’t buy that, you just have to keep doing it. That helps and that kicks back to why people still seek that endorsement of being played on the show.

Music discovery is very different now, you don’t have to have the first copy of everything ever made. I’m just as excited about discovering a track that might have been on Beatport or Soundcloud or streaming services for a year before it gets to a level where it can benefit from me playing it.  I think the roots to discovery have changed pretty radically, but ultimately it’s still about programming an entertaining, inspiring and entertaining listen for two or three hours every week.

So do you find that mediums like Beatport and Soundcloud and streaming have helped with discovering new artists?

I think it’s mint: nobody is a gatekeeper and that’s a great thing for an artist or a DJ trying to break through. There isn’t that excuse of “Well, I couldn’t get on this one show, I can’t get started.” There’s millions of ways of getting out there and getting attention for yourself, so that makes for a much more democratic and fair system. Millions of people have been discovered through platforms like Soundcloud, and things like Beatport are just really honest. You put music up there, and if it becomes popular then you start rising up the charts and that gets you another level of recognition. I just use those things as scouting sources now, they all ultimately help. You can’t go backwards: things are always changing and progressing, you’ve just got to look around you and make the best of it.

And you have some pretty insane shows for your Ibiza Classics project with The Heritage Orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as at the Hollywood Bowl and London’s O2 Arena shortly, which is pretty massive! We’re a talking 65-piece ensemble alongside singers, synths. What inspired you to want to create something like this, and what goes into pulling off something on this sort of scale?

[Laughs] Ah, working with a lot of talented people and I guess making the most of the opportunity. It started off as a one-off appointment: I got the opportunity in 2015 so it was partly making the most of that and it turned out being a happy accident that went really, really well. There was so demand and enthusiasm for what we’d done. It created a momentum that allowed us to do it again and that got us to the end of last year when we sold out the O2 for the first time, and then Manchester and Birmingham [arenas] as well. Then we made the album and that which in turn has given us the momentum to go into this year, to take the show out to festivals and down to Ibiza for the first time, and to the southern hemisphere to Australia and  debuting in America via the Hollywood Bowl. It’s mad!

Yeah wow! And the first show you mentioned was at the Royal Albert Hall with The Proms…?

Yeah. It couldn’t really have happened without that because The Proms is a very unique, institutionalised event that’s been going for 100 years and is revered in the classical, orchestral and symphonic worlds and it took something like that to actually enable us to get started in the first place. Best blind date ever!

Lastly, during your career so far you’ve played a vital role in shaping the dance music scene, which has ultimately seen you perform all over the world and also be appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to Broadcasting and Music. Do you have any outstanding aspirations that you want to achieve following on from this Ibiza Classics tour, or further in the future?

Well, I’d like to try to continue to develop the content  and take it to more iconic locations. That seems the appropriate path to take with this. I don’t necessarily see this as a touring entity with playing 40 dates in a country, it’s going to be more specific, unique environments to play. There’s a lot of talk of about us trying to do Sydney Opera House – that didn’t really come together this time, but it’d be a big ambition to take it to somewhere like that and then equivalent places around the world, like the Hollywood Bowl.

I think that’s a big focus of mine at the moment, we’ve learnt a lot between the making of the first and second album in terms of us going about this very much like an artist project: it’s like being in a band basically, which is something I’ve never done before. I’m really enjoying that process and just constantly using that as an inspiration; looking at new ways of doing things. I think one of the reasons it’s resonated so well with the show is the way the public have reacted with it when they’re actually in front of it and they see it – it becomes really, really infectious and I think that shows you that, although you think you’ve seen dance music and club culture and done it all in the course of 35 years or whatever, there’s still new things to be done.  

I think the live performance of electronic music is still relatively uncrowded, or uncluttered. We haven’t seen everything yet in that space and that’s why performing with an orchestra has resonated so well. People still crave to hear that music and participate in a big public space with like minded people, but you’ve got to come up with innovative ways of performing in front of them or giving them that.  

The Ibiza Classics album is set for release on December 1st via Universal Music Australia. Remaining tour dates can be found here.

Words by FREYA SIMMONS

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Ex-con(servatorium) music nerd sharing some cents.