‘If I like This Record, I want To Tell You About It’: Q’s With 2021 MITS Recipient Pete Tong

Looking sharp:
Courtesy of Anglo Management.
– Looking sharp:
Pete Tong is the recipient of this year’s Music Industry Trust Award.

DJ and dance music pioneer Pete Tong is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Music Industry Trust Award (MITS). The gala ceremony in support of the charities BRIT Trust and Nordoff-Robbins, will be held Nov. 1 in The Great Room of London’s Grosvenor House Hotel.  Tong is honored for his outstanding contribution to the music and broadcasting industries over a 30-plus-year career.

He joins a list of legendary music figures, who received the award in its 30-year history,  including Glastonbury’s Michael Eavis, The Who’s Roger Daltrey, CAA’s Emma Banks, Modest Management founders Richard Griffiths and Harry Magee, and many more.
Pete Tong, who received a MBE in 2014 for his contributions to dance music and broadcasting, is revered as an arena-selling artist, DJ, music producer, A&R, and the voice of BBC Radio 1’s dance program, where he began sharing his favorite music with the world in 1991. His shows, Essential Selection and Essential Mix, have become two of BBC Radio 1’s longest running music programs, and Tong continues to be instrumental in shaping the broadcaster’s dance music coverage.
He launched the Classics project in 2016, which sees Tong, conductor Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra, reworking iconic dance tunes with a full 50-person orchestra. The project has proven popular, with album releases topping the UK chart, live shows selling out arenas, and being invited to perform at the legendary Hollywood Bowl in LA. The next album, Pete Tong + Friends: Ibiza Classics, is due for release Dec. 3 with the live show 
“Pete Tong Presents Ibiza Classics” visiting The O2, London, Dec. 3-4.
Tong’s an established A&R, who’s nurturing of talent began in 1983, when he began working for London Records, quickly signing Run DMC in a career-defining move. He established FFRR Records as a subsidiary of London Records, with seminal releases from icons like Frankie Knuckles, Goldie, Salt n Pepa and more. He returned to the label business in 2019, as President of Three Six Zero recordings, working with established stars like Paul Kalkbrenner, as well as emerging talent Gerry Read and Franky Wah.
In 2008, he co-founded WME’s electronic music division alongside Joel Zimmerman, creating one of the first dedicated dance music booking agencies within the storied William Morris agency. Tong continues to sit on WME’s board. 
He co-founded The International Music Summit, a three-day dance music conference held in Ibiza, Los Angeles and Singapore that has been running for over a decade and has become one of the most important industry gatherings for the electronic music community.
Hollywood has brought Tong on board as a musical supervisor to oversee films such as The Beach, Human Traffic, 24 Hour Party People, XOXO and of course the cult classic, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, were he was also executive producer. Outside of music, he is a frequent supporter of children’s cancer charity, Pablove, having previously taken part in a 532-mile bike ride journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco to raise money and awareness. 
Pollstar spoke to Tong about his career, why DJs make great A&Rs, how the pandemic influenced his mindset, and much more.

Pete Tong performs onstage during Weekend one of the 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella
– Pete Tong performs onstage during Weekend one of the 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.
Tong told Pollstar that he can’t wait to perform in the States again.

Pollstar: Do you care about awards?

Pete Tong: I try not to lose sleep over not getting them. When I was younger, it hung on you more. But later in life, if I’m lucky enough to receive one then, yeah, I’m kind of grateful. I’m humbled by this one in particular. Looking at the list of previous recipients is pretty mind blowing, I thought they made a mistake when they asked me. Now I realize they meant it, it’s a great honor.
I’m very proud that I’m receiving it almost on behalf of dance music and dance culture, as well as the dance and electronic music industry in the UK and beyond. I think it is symbolic of that. The MITS picked curators before, whether it’s Jools Holland or Jonathan Ross, there was even a DJ right at the beginning with Alan Freeman, who was the first ever DJ that used to read out the top 40 in the UK. 
It’s also an amazing event because it’s actually a fundraiser for two very important institutions, the BRIT Trust, which funds the BRIT School, an incredible place, and the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy, who do amazing work and don’t have any government funding.
I was lucky enough to visit the BRIT School a couple of weeks ago, meet the headmaster and get a tour by the students. It’s actually a state school, but obviously with a huge focus not just on the performing arts but all aspects of the creative business when it comes to music and theatre. You can go there and learn music production, theatre production, costume design, building stages and stuff like that. Because it’s so ambitious with the program, its government funding doesn’t go anywhere close to what they need. So the BRIT Trust tops up the rest. The talent that’s coming out of that school on a consistent basis is incredible. 
And then there’s Music Therapy. I went [to the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Center] and met an Afghan refugee, who was separated from his family in Kabul. He had been in this country about six months, he was very isolated and very lonely. Music Therapy had created a singing group for refugees, to just try and reach out and offer them some kind of hope and connectivity. This guy was suicidal when he first got here and it’s really saved him. He spoke to us about how important their work had been. We sat there learning some of the songs that he’d brought into the school as well, it was very moving.

Pete Tong, The Heritage Orchestra and Jules Buckley during rehearsals ahead of their global Dec. 19 live stream at The O2 Arena, London, Dec. 8, 2020.
Ollie Ma’ via Getty Images
– Pete Tong, The Heritage Orchestra and Jules Buckley during rehearsals ahead of their global Dec. 19 live stream at The O2 Arena, London, Dec. 8, 2020.
“The O2 is a really special place for us to perform, I still pinch myself every time we get to play there,” he said.

The MITS selecting a dance music icon is considered quite radical by some. Does that surprise you after all these years of championing dance music, and also seeing how far it has come, the worldwide phenomenon it is, arguably the most popular music genre right now? Does is surprise you that your nomination would still be considered radical at this point in time?

A little bit. The lack of recognition for dance music [stems from] traditional award shows, which is the Grammys, the BRITs etc. The Mercury Music Prize is different, they started pretty radical selecting Screamadelica by Primal Scream as the first winner. In general, dance music has got a pretty rough ride from the mainstream because there’s always someone bigger that would take the award. 
Over the years, those kind of shows added the dance music categories, or dance music itself has had to do its own polls, like DJ Magazine or Mixmag. They are celebrating the genre within the genre, but this wider recognition doesn’t come along very often. 
To get this now makes me proud, not just for me, but for our business. I’m very proud of the UK, the labels in the 1980s and 1990s, the BBC supporting me, and before that Capital Radio in London, just as the rave scene started, and house and techno arrived. These people that took chances on me and art and dance culture and our music deserve the recognition. 
Radio’s contribution to dance music is huge. I’ve been there for 30 years, I was the first one, but I grew out of a whole platform of shows around me, all the DJs back in the day like Judge Jules and Danny Rampling, and [later] obviously Seb Fontane, and Annie Mac, they’ve been consistently supporting the genre. The impact that’s had on the UK but also the world has been phenomenal. I still think the BBC punches really hard, people still check for what’s getting played, what the DJs are doing, the Essential Mix. Despite the growth of all the other distractions, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, the BBC still makes a massive contribution to dance and electronic music. 

Queen Elizabeth II meets DJ Pete Tong, Humphrey Lyttelton and Jamie Cullum at the
Fiona Hanson/Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images
– Queen Elizabeth II meets DJ Pete Tong, Humphrey Lyttelton and Jamie Cullum at the “Music Day At The Palace” event at Buckingham Palace, March 1, 2005 in London, England.
The Royal reception was held to recognize the excellence of British music and the contribution it makes to the culture and economy of the UK.

What are the reasons these services cannot replace radio?

Ultimately there’ll always be a place for personal curation, there’ll always be room for somebody to come along and gain people’s trust in such a way that they want to keep going back to them. People like consistency, it’s almost subliminal. People gravitate to a consistent opinion, they might not agree with it all the time.
When I was just starting out, way before the internet or anything like that, you found the columnist in the magazine on a week-to-week basis, and those journalists built up a trust with the readers. One guy I used to follow religiously was a guy called James Hamilton, he used to write for Record Mirror. He was the first journalist that put the BPM of a record into his review. Half the time I didn’t necessarily agree with the records he said were great, but he was consistent. Over five to 10 years or whatever he built up a reputation as the man that could almost break a record if he wrote about it because he was consistently doing it on a weekly basis.
John Peel on the radio had that same aura, and a guy called Robbie Vincent on Radio London, they really informed and influenced me in the beginning. I’ve tried to be a consistent guide, a lighthouse, Pied Piper as I used to say. 
To be consistent on the radio you’ve got to have the support of the station. We moved time slots a few times, but the fact that I’ve been consistent over 30 years on the BBC, you can’t buy that. You’ve got a relationship with the audience, new and old, that is pretty unique. That’s why radio is so important. Playlists with my name on are different, compared to a great radio show with a great presenter and the way they put the music together.

How far dance music has come.
Thiago Bernardes/LatinContent via Getty Images
– How far dance music has come.
From left: Dj David Guetta, Pete Tong and Armin van Buuren pose for a photograph in the Skol sound truck in the Barra-Ondina street carnival track on Feb. 24, 2009, in Salvador, Brazil.

Was there a moment in your life when you knew you wanted to host radio shows?

All my life, if I liked this record I wanted to tell you about it. Being a DJ, I could play other people’s records. It was the mid 1970s, I was just starting out DJing, there wasn’t really a club scene. I was listening to a few radio shows then that would specialize in in dance music, a Radio Luxembourg guy called Tony Prince, Robbie Vincent, Greg Edwards. These guys were pioneering on the radio, and I thought I want to be like that. I had to be on radio because that was gonna get me a bigger audience to to turn people on to the music I was into.
I never wanted to be a DJ who went on the radio and let other people pick the records.  I didn’t want to read the weather or talk about the traffic and play music that was selected by some central playlist, a computer or something else. I found out really early, that if you’re on the Breakfast Show you don’t get to pick the records, but if you’re on a specialist show you get to pick the records and it’s about you.
Did you see people flocking more towards radio again to stay in touch with artists they love since the first lockdowns?
Radio did get a bounce, people did check in, it was the natural way of staying in touch. I think Radio 1 in particular did a brilliant job of trying to keep people smiling and positive and support the artists, who suddenly couldn’t get their music played in clubs, couldn’t necessarily finish records in the way they wanted, couldn’t get that kind of feedback loop going with the audience. They were streaming as well, obviously, but radio was a big part of it. When there’s a disaster, people turn on the news or they turn on the radio, they want to check in.

Pete Tong and Quincy Jones in conversation during IMS Engage at the W Hollywood, April 15, 2015 in Hollywood, CA.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for W Hotels Worldwide
– Pete Tong and Quincy Jones in conversation during IMS Engage at the W Hollywood, April 15, 2015 in Hollywood, CA.
Tong is a co-founder of the International Music Summit (IMS), which is held in Ibiza, Los Angeles and Singapore.

The live streams also made it clear that they are maybe an add on but in no way a replacement for for the actual live thing.

100% agree. It was a kind of support system it wasn’t a replacement. I think the best thing that will come out of it is that some of the innovation in streaming will live on and complement live events. If you want to see Tomorrowland, but you don’t want to go there, then you have that option. I can see that becoming more popular. A lot of lessons were learned during the pandemic as to how to execute that.
Dance music was already way ahead of the curve on that before the pandemic. For years we’ve had Boiler Room, Cercle or Be At TV. Dance, electronic music and club culture was very familiar with cameras capturing events. During the pandemic, [people started asking], ‘how do we make money out of it? How do we pay for this? How do we create new revenue streams for the promoters, artists, music makers and DJs, and I think that’s a good thing. 
What’s your state of mind after these challenging one-and-a-half years?
Obviously there was a lot of time to contemplate and maybe reassess values and priorities. I, personally, at this stage in my career and taking away the financial impact for a second, I was quite happy for the break. We were all like mice on some giant wheel. There’s exceptions, but a broad generalization among DJs is that the gigs come and you keep taking them. It doesn’t often operate like a live band scenario, where you take a year to make an album, then you put the album out and then you go on tour for six months, or if you’re a superstar band, a year or two.
Pete Tong presents 'Ibiza Classics' at Cardiff Castle, July 28, 2018 in Cardiff, Wales.
Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns
– Pete Tong presents ‘Ibiza Classics’ at Cardiff Castle, July 28, 2018 in Cardiff, Wales.

DJs generally don’t do that. The bookings keep coming and you just never stop. The vast majority, not the top one or two percent, don’t have the financial security to say ‘no’. It’s been a good break for me because I don’t want to go back to doing that kind of [business]. I can’t anyway, I’m in a slightly different stage of life, but I wouldn’t want to go back to just relentlessly doing weekly shows. 

[It’s easy] to get back at it for a few weeks, doing a few shows, and suddenly you’ve done 10 and it’s like the pandemic never happened. I’ve watched myself with that. My personal touring cycle hopefully will be less shows. 
If you’re 18, 19, 20, 30, if you’re making it and breaking it, and all those opportunities are coming to you, then that’s amazing too. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that will grab as much as they can take, but hopefully the break will have had a positive influence on those people as well. 
And, obviously, different parts of the world are coming back on stream in at different times. So, we’re not back yet by any means, because all the countries are different. We effectively had no season in Ibiza for the second year running which was devastating for the businesses there.

Pete Tong poses with his medal after he was invested by the Prince William as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to broadcasting and music.
– Pete Tong poses with his medal after he was invested by the Prince William as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to broadcasting and music.
The ceremony at Buckingham Palace in central London took place, March 4, 2014.

You’re going on tour with Ibiza Classics. Is there a venue that you are particularly looking forward to returning to now that things are opening back up?

I’m really looking forward to bringing the Classics show back to The O2. All the arenas are fun, Manchester Arena is amazing. But the O2 is a really special place for us to perform, we’ve got two shows there, Dec. 3-4. I’m super excited about that, I still pinch myself every time we get to play there. 
Having lived in America for seven years, and then come back during the pandemic, I’m quite looking forward to play back over there, because it will have been a long time. I was actually meant to be there this week, and couldn’t get a visa. I’m looking forward to going back to Brooklyn or play space in Miami.
Do you have a philosophy you live by?
Be true, be honest about your choices, and when it comes to music. I’ve been in the music business pretty much my whole life, and there’s definitely been times where I made decisions because I thought they would win the game kind of thing. Back what you really like. 
When you’re running labels, you’re running staff, it’s easy to get knocked off track, but everything in my life comes back to DJing. DJing is a form of A&R. People often ask me,  ‘how do I become a DJ?’ And I say, ‘what do you want to play?’ And they say, ‘I don’t know’, and I say, ‘well, then you’re not going to be a very good DJ.’ 
It’s not about just learning how to use the equipment, it’s about knowing what to play. And I think knowing what to play or having an opinion about what to play is the same as having an opinion about what’s playing on the radio or having an opinion about who to sign to a label? 
If you sign something, because you think it’s going to be some kind of commercial success, but you don’t really love it, you normally come unstuck pretty quickly, because when everyone else tells you they don’t like it you’ll say to yourself, ‘well I didn’t like it either.’ 
Sometimes the music you love, it doesn’t resonate straight away, but often it does resonate over time, so you’ve got to be brave and patient with it. That’s probably where I’ve sat in my career the longest, in that kind of slightly uncomfortable place of being not ahead of the game – that would make me sound like I’m bigging myself up – but of seeing things coming.  I’m not always necessarily the benefactor immediately of those things, but they come in time. There’s a lot of music I signed to FFRR that wasn’t that successful at the time, but it’s revered as being seminal 20 years later. So, I think the philosophy is just be honest.
And work-life balance is important. I’m definitely getting better at that. I don’t want to be just churning out content. You want time to pause and come back refreshed, to make better content, whatever that might be.