The mighty Positiva Records are proudly celebrating their 25th year in the business with a weekend of party shenanigans at Ministry of Sound in London on the 4th and 5th May. Ahead of what promises to be a riotous weekend, we caught up with Positiva A&R Director Jason Ellis to chat about 25 years of releasing seriously big tunes.
Positiva Records have released some of the most successful and best-loved dance tunes of the last quarter century, and any Positiva ‘Best Of’ collection reads like a who’s who of dance music. The label has released music from Kenny Dope, David Guetta, Spiller, Binary Finary, Shapeshifters, Barbara Tucker, Ferry Corsten, Room 5, Axwell, Chocolate Puma, BBE, Adam F, Shy FX, Armin Van Buuren, Nicky Romero, Martin Garrix, Deep Dish - the list goes on. It’s a roster that is as varied as it is bursting with big hits, and Positiva’s continued success over the last quarter-century show that in a world of one-hit wonders, paid-for-fans and sound-alike sample-pack house, they’re clearly doing something right.
We spoke with A&R director Jason Ellis, a music industry veteran who joined Positiva as A&R Manager in 1999, was promoted to run the label two years later and has been the custodian ever since. Following a restructure in 2009, Ellis’s remit expanded to include Virgin Records too, where he went on to sign Swedish House Mafia, Deadmau5, Eric Prydz and Tensnake. Jason’s obviously got an ear for a big record, something you could always say about Positiva, who have a long history of breaking underground tracks and turning them into mainstream hits. With so many successful tunes over the years, we wondered what the secret was?
"Not sure there is one to be honest!" laughs Jason; "Obviously having a good ear for a track/artist that can cross-over to a wider audience is critical. Success breeds success of course, and I’d like to think that we’re always at least part of the conversation regarding any potential big record that starts to show signs of life beyond its core audience."
25 years in this industry is a substantial achievement, and there have been huge upheavals in the industry during this period, including the near-death of vinyl and CDs, digital piracy, new streaming services - not to mention the rise of the superstar DJ in the 90s and then the EDM explosion. Through all of this, Positiva has stayed in the game - how?
"Passion, commitment, tenacity, respect. We’re no bandwagon jumpers and have always lived and breathed the electronic music world, even when it may not be fashionable to do so. How you behave and are perceived as a label during the tougher times / leaner years can pay dividends when things pick up again. Not being pigeonholed to one sub-genre certainly helps move with the changing tastes of the public too."
Which brings us neatly to Positiva’s sprawling back catalogue, which ranges from vocal house to trance to drum & bass and beyond. Do you have any personal favourites?
"So many to choose from! 'Groovejet’ by Spiller & Sophie Ellis-Bextor is right up there for various reasons. It was one of the first records I signed, it made the treacherous task of putting a vocal on a popular instrumental look easy, and the ensuing chart battle with Dane Bowers and Posh Spice was an extraordinary experience to live and work through. Axwell ‘I Found U’ is another – the mid-noughties was a lean time for the label and commercial dance music in general, and this helped turn the corner in 2007. Paved the way for what would follow with Swedish House Mafia too."
"Groovejet", a track that can still slay a dance floor when dropped at the right time, perhaps best sums up the Positiva success story: take an underground record from the clubs to the top of the charts, and give the masses a little taste of just how good things are in clubland. The label had a number of other landmark releases over the years too, including their breakout hit from Reel 2 Reel "I Like To Move It" from 1994 and in ’97 dropped one of the defining tracks of the era, BBE’s "Seven Days And One Week".
Aside from house and trance, Positiva also released some superb drum & bass including Adam F’s pristine Circles album, and Shy FX & T-Power’s "Shake UR Body" - which was the biggest ever drum & bass hit at the time. And Positiva were right there at the birth of the EDM movement too with David Guetta’s "When Love Takes Over" in 2009. Countless clubbers over the years, countless hours of hedonism on dance floors world wide, soundtracked by the anthems of Positiva - that’s the heart of this story.
"Ultimately, the record has to make people move and want to dance" says Jason; "it has to provoke a reaction – whether that was heading to their local record store, or tagging it on Shazam – or repeat listens on a streaming service. The feeling that comes from a big record bringing people together in unison at a club or a festival is still something I strive for."
Never an outfit to rest on their laurels, Positiva are also hosting a Panel at this year's International Music Summit in Ibiza, with Ellis and other Positiva A&Rs Nick Halkes and Dave Lambert. Taking the opportunity to ask for insights in person, I ask Jason what are the big issues facing labels like Positiva in the current climate, and what plans they've got for the future?
"Getting people’s attention – that is the biggest challenge for sure. Consumers have never had it so good, and ensuring it’s one of our tracks at the top of their chosen playlist or the song that Alexa recommends for them is crucial moving forward" says Jason.
"The 25th-anniversary campaign is giving us a great opportunity to shout about past glories, but we’re looking forward as much as back. Jack Pates has joined the A&R team giving a fresh perspective and ideas, and two of his artists (Moon Willis and Jay Pryor) will form the backbone of the roster over the coming months. Martin Solveig and Jonas Blue will both be delivering albums this year, so we have a nice balance between established and developing artists."
"We’ve just launched a vinyl club via the website, which will see us releasing new remixes of classic tracks over the coming months. There’s also a deluxe compilation due in September and a series of mini-documentaries detailing the rich history of the label dropping later in the year. Check out the label history timeline rolling out on our Instagram too."
And finally, will we be seeing Jason at Ministry this weekend?
"Oh yes – both nights"
On Friday 25th May, Jason will be joined by former head of A&R Dave Lambert and Positiva founder, Nick Halkes for an interview with Pete Tong for 25 Years of Positiva Records - The Changing Face of A&R at International Music Summit. Learn more about IMS here.
The Gallery: POSITIVA XXV at Ministry of Sound, London. Friday 4th May, tickets & info.
Together Presents: POSITIVA XXV at Ministry of Sound, Saturday 5th May, tickets & info.