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The Worlds Biggest DJs Are Making Mixes For Airlines Now

It's really corporate, and kind of weird, but is this a logical next step for commercial dance music?

by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy
Apr 23 2014, 6:00pm

An airplane cabin, suspended a few thousand feet in the sky, is not where I expect to hear Jermaine Dupri's voice demanding that we "report to the dance floor."

A number of voices from around the world excitedly send their greetings, and then Judge Jules appears, acting as global ambassador for dance music. Unlike Dupri, Judge Jules recognises that I am in a box in the stratosphere, and delivers a customised drop for "musical takeoff" in his usual blaring style: "Sit back, fasten your headphones securely, and set yourself tightly in the dance position—as we aim higher than the clouds outside the window!"

Even at his most irrepressible, Jules and the neon-filled trance build he ramps up are unceremoniously cut off by a safety video. I look around the cabin and find only sleeping passengers, many of them slunk into a set of huge headphones like myself. None of them are sitting tightly in the protective dance position.

One of my oddest listening experiences as of late was listening to Jules' Global Warm Up in an edition exclusive to British Airways. As I toggled through the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, I noticed that alongside Global Warm Up were selections from Paul Oakenfold, Roger Sanchez and Carl Cox. None of these seem like cut-and-paste jobs, either. Each mix was obviously crafted with a great degree of care. Sanchez, offering a sample of a recent nine-hour set at Miami's Space nightclub, takes time out to drawl to the passenger, "I'll see you in the sky…"

By the time I land at Heathrow, I'm fascinated by how such big names are convinced into crafting exclusive mixes for an airline's entertainment. What brings these artists to the attention of such a huge company? And how do the artists feel about being considered for that same company's exclusive content?

Originally a distributor of car parts in 1930s Bath, Spafax is now the company responsible for supplying multiple international airlines with in-flight content (as well as publishing magazines and guides for Lollapalooza and Mercedes-Benz). The company's Philippa Starns deals hands-on with British Airways' in-flight audio content —and has a dance background herself, having worked for KISS 100 FM from 1990 to 1995. 

"Since the early 90s, British Airways have featured an element of dance," she says, sharing that both Oakenfold and Cox were early adapters to the format offering "bespoke mixes" to the company. "The artists we work with are keen to have their music on board, and we are delighted to be working with them." And the artists collaborating with the airline are a varied bunch. Alongside the aforementioned DJs are headliners like John Digweed and Boy George; upcoming contributors to the unofficial series of BA mixes include Steve Aoki; Calvin Harris and Disclosure.

Exactly how these artists become involved with Spafax is something of a mystery, with different answers for each artist. Danny Howard—host of BBC Radio 1's Dance Anthems—recently crafted two upcoming mixes for Spafax to use on summer flights, but was unsure of where and who the mixes are going to. "If I gave you an answer I would actually be lying," he tells me with a laugh. "I'm not sure who handles all those type of things."

Over e-mail, Markus Schultz disclosed that British Airways got in touch with his office team early in 2014 about making personalised sets for them. Less established DJs and artists like Cambridge act The Beat Thiefs found their way in by old-fashioned hustle. "I set about sending emails and trying to find the appropriate contact," the house duo's Henry Hacking tells. "As with everything, I just got lucky with a reply and managed to build it from there."

Howard's two mixes for British Airways will end up on board in June, and the new medium has offered its challenges. Dance music thrives on the rush of the immediate and its social element, both of which are taken away with a three-month turnaround, and the closed-off atmosphere of air travel. "With BBC Radio 1, you can get a tune in your inbox that week and put it on in time for the weekend," he explains. "Sometimes you get a tune and play it the same day. But [with the BA mixes], you always have to take into considerations what people listen to. It has to sound as fresh as possible, but there's only so far you can go into the future." 

According to British Airways' Richard D'Cruze, while there are unspecified "editorial pressures," each artist is given "a lot of [creative] freedom." Despite creative control being granted, artists are wary of misrepresenting their brand to an unfamiliar audience. "I think you have to be a little more conservative supplying to airlines," confesses Hacking. On the other hand, Schultz generally presents what he calls a "best of" set to airlines—drawing together his own productions, recent releases from his Coldharbour label, and hits from his Global DJ Broadcast radio show.

"If you are a fan and know who I am, then it's a good snapshot of what I'm playing over the time span of a month," he explains. On the other hand, this approach leaves an accessible route to "showcase yourself to someone who may not have heard your previous work". For bigger artists, a brand is waiting to be represented. For younger artists, the airline's brand must be satisfied.

For each artist however, there seems to be a shared curiosity regarding the fairly young format of making exclusive content for airlines, and the opportunities it could open up. This comes despite a lack of any financial rewards from dealing with Spafax, a multinational agency that is owned by the world's biggest marketing company, WPP plc.

For some artists, financial rewards are beside the point when the potential stands to reach a large global audience. "The leading airlines have thirty odd million travellers every year who are a captive audience," Hacking reasoned, mentioning that his group also supplies monthly mixes to Qatar Airways and Emirates. "Even if only 1% tunes in, this still results in a huge listenership of existing and new fans."

The question remains what airlines have to gain from having such a cadre of dance music headliners burrowing away at exclusive content for long-haul travellers. The IFE industry is currently worth $2.9 billion, and has been predicted to increase to $7.4 billion within the next decade. This will not only be the result of airlines frequently investing in IFE technology, but also through new strains of on-board advertising and advancements in aviation technology. These injections of the modern and the novel will surely keep the IFE industry gaining capital. 

For big business, dance music is still an indicator of popular culture and an incredibly profitable indicator at that. We live in an era where Afrojack can show up at the NASDAQ stock exchange as publicity for the EDM acquisition company SFX. Danny Howard explains that the increase in dance mixes for IFE businesses is a matter of economic supply and demand. "If people want it", he shares, "then obviously it's going to generate more business in the dance music economy. I suppose we've got the American market to thank for a large portion of that because that's what it specializes in—the commercial-ness of everything".

Another factor is the recent upswing in music tourism, with more and more people travelling to festivals around the world. D'Cruze says that there is a noticeable uplift in air traffic around festival season: "Music tourism has really taken off, with people flying all over the world to attend —from Coachella in LA, to the Miami Winter music conference." 

Markus Schultz describes the shift as explosive, pointing to American dance festivals like Tomorrowland and Electric Daisy Carnival that have exploded over the past five years. "I have noticed it too a lot in my own sets, particularly when I am playing one of my open-to-close solo sets where I'll be DJing for anything up to twelve hours," he admitted. "So during one of my solo nights at Ministry of Sound, you'll have UK fans, along with people travelling from Germany, Netherlands, Poland, the US, Canada—and so much more. It embodies the aspect of a worldwide family."

This "worldwide family" effectively functions as the airline industry's mission statement. When I asked Schultz if he ever felt pressured to co-opt such industries for commissioning his mixes, he assured me that is strictly not the case. However, he does note that using live sets recorded at venues like Prague's Transmission, or Pacha NYC, can function as impetus for further travel, benefiting the airline as much as it can the dance music industry.

Times have certainly changed in dance music: to the point that stock exchanges can recognise the genre's impressive economic domination, and representatives of a once-pilloried youth culture are given MBEs to commemorate their influence on British life. Even with the culture's online focus these days—where acts are broken through streaming services, and DJs strengthen their brand identity through podcasting—the recent strain of dance acquisitions by the IFE industry still seems unusual. It is a radio broadcast without the live immediacy, a podcast without any necessary online connections, an exclusive display of content from a musical culture based on easily accessible social interaction. It remains a niche outlet for dance music but, for the moment, the opportunity appears to be enough of an interest for artists and DJs.

"You take a bigger percentage of the pie in terms of what people are going to listen to", Danny Howard tells me of the chance that someone will listen to a mix onboard, diplomatically explaining the probable long-lasting benefits. "But at the same time, it should never be taking away from the music and I think that's the basis of it all growing to where it is now. It's all good exposure. If it helps lots more young producers coming through, that's new music. So be it."

You can follow Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on Twitter here: @danielmondon