Robbins: In Step With Dance

Cory Robbins is the founder and president of 7-year-old New York based label Robbins Entertainment. With a staff of eight, including Robbins himself, the label has enjoyed numerous crossover hits, including DJ Sammy & Yanou Featuring Do's "Heaven." At the same time, Robbins has launched such successful compilation series as Trance Party and Dance Party (Like It's...).
On May 20, Robbins Entertainment will introduce its newest series, QuickMix, a mini-album featuring five current dance hits mixed by the Happy Boys (aka Robbins and label A&R director John Parker). It will have a suggested list price of $9.98.

When you founded Robbins Entertainment in 1996, what was your main goal? How, if at all has it changed?
I thought it would be more like my previous label, Profile [which Robbins co-founded in 1981 and sold in 1994]. At Profile, we released dance, rap, reggae, heavy metal, and rock. But because half of Profile's output was rap - the majority of our sales - it became known as a rap label.
I thought Robbins would be similar, in that we would focus on many genres of music. And we did - at first. Our second single release, "Jellyhead" by Crush, was our first big record, and it was a dance song. We followed this with two more dance tracks, "I Fell in Love" by Rockell and "Passion" by K5. These three records proved to be big dance records for us. In this way, from the beginning, we were always in the dance business but also trying to do other genres.
In 2000, John [Parker] had this idea to do a trance compilation. He licensed 15 international tracks for a total costs of less than $20,000. We called the compilation Best of Trance. We thought we could sell maybe 20,000 units and create some nice billing for the label. It has since scanned well over 100,000 copies. Since the end of 2000, we have concentrated on nothing but dance music, and our business has improved tremendously. From 2000 to 2001, business tripled; from 2001 to 2002, the label grew another 50%. Last year, with strictly dance music, we did nearly $11 million in gross billing.

Other labels focus on dance music, too. Yet they are not as successful. What is the key to your success?
We're not that hip. A lot of dance labels are incredibly underground and lifestyle-oriented. They don't care about radio, they concentrate only on vinyl releases, and they may not service record pools or promote to club and mix-show DJs. Robbins is the exact opposite. We care about commercial dance music, especially the kind that can cross over.

Much of Robbins' repertoire has its roots in Europe, meaning you license much of your product from international labels. Any chance we might see more stateside signings?
I hope so. Unfortunately, American producers of dance music are way behind the rest of the world. But there are exceptions: Reina, Renee Stakey, John Kano, and Rockell, among others, are all American signings. That said, most of our hits do come from Europe, where dance music is pop music. Because these songs are frequently in the top 10 - and often No.1 - they attract the best singers and best producers. It would be great if we had more American signings, especially because we would own [the recordings] for the world.

How do you and John Parker find the music that Robbins release?
First and foremost, we sign records that we like. And we always have our ears open. We look for records that have a buzz. We study DJ charts and radio station playlists - both here and abroad. But a lot of international records we have signed were not hits in their original country.

Is radio a healthy environment for dance music right now?
It can always be better, but 2002 was much better than 2001. Artists like Kylie Minogue, Dirty Vegas, DJ Sammy, and Daniel Bedingfield made it a little easier for other dance acts to get heard, particularly on stations that maybe would have never considered playing dance music a couple years ago. Still, I don't think stations go looking for dance records.

Many in the industry view the Internet as the big, bad devil. How do you see it?
it's a problem, but there are other reasons why sales are down. There aren't enough superstar releases. A few years ago, there was a run of multimillion-selling acts: Backstreet Boys, Shania Twain, Britney Spears, and Santana. These types of records got people into stores, and once they were in the stores, they usually bought more than what they went in for. When there is a hot, new record, like 50 Cent, people go to stores, and you see sales increase across the board from the previous week.
Also, the economy is not good right now. It's a lot to spend $20 for one CD. The person must really want to own something for that money. But that's always been the case. Even before the Internet, you could hear a song for free on the radio. If radio plays your favorite song every couple of hours, why would you need to buy it? Because you can't get enough of it. Similarly, if you can download everything off the Internet for free, which you basically can, why does anybody buy anything?
MICHAEL PAOLETTA

CORY ROBBINS Owner/President,
Robbins Entertainment

This week, as we delve into the topic of Dance and its viability as a full-blown format, we feature an individual who heads one of dance music’s most important labels, Cory Robbins, head of Robbins Entertainment. Robbins was also the co-founder of Profile Records, home to such artists as Run-DMC, DJ Quik, Rob Base and many more. Getting into the business: “I started trying to write songs and took them around to labels when I was about 16. I met Bob Reno, President of Midland Records. He didn’t like the songs, but we developed a friendship, and he gave me a summer job when I was 17. That was my first job. Midland Records had Silver Convention, Carol Douglas and John Travolta. That was in ’75.

“I went to college for a year, then left to go back to Midland. I worked there about nine months, then went to MCA Music Publishing. I was also an independent producer at that time, producing disco records and selling them to different labels, and I was a club DJ. I worked at MCA for about four years, and, in ’81, me and another guy started Profile Records. I sold my half in ’94. We were the biggest rap label for years.”

Founding Robbins Entertainment: “I decided to start a new label in ’96. I wanted major distribution, so I met with several of the major companies and wound up making a deal with BMG. BMG is my partner and distributor. It didn’t start out to be a dance label; it was going to be more like Profile. We were going to do rock artists, which we did, and hip-hop, dance and R&B. We had all that, but the stuff that kept doing the best was the dance stuff. About two years ago we decided to become a pure dance label.”

Defining dance music: “It’s a broad category, but it’s something that would fit on WKTU/New York, WPYM/ Miami, WPYO/Orlando or WKIE/Chicago. They play some hip-hop on those stations too. We tend to do more commercial dance. We know it when we hear it. I don’t know how you define dance music exactly. We do trance, house — there are many kinds: Euro, techno, progressive house. Any of that is something we would do. It all falls into the category of dance.”

How radio fits with dance: “We put out commercial songs, and we want them to become hits. There are about 12 or 13 stations in the country that are either Dance or dance-friendly stations. Those are the ones we go after first, and we service them very diligently. They really want to hear our records right away. If you look at the playlists of some of those stations, you’ll see three to five of our records at any given time. Those are our bread-and-butter stations that we go to first to build a story. If it gets big enough, we can, hopefully, get other, more mainstream Pop stations. When we have a big WKTU hit, we tend to get WHTZ (Z100)/New York. That can work in other markets too.”

What he looks for in artists: “We just look for something that we think is great. I love a good record, and when one comes along, we jump at it. About twothirds of our records come from overseas. You really can’t do any research. Recently, there were a couple of records on a lot of Dance stations that were still unsigned. We didn’t sign them, either, because I just don’t think they’re great. They’ve been offered to us, but I just don’t feel it. It’s weird: That never used to happen. If you got major airplay, you’d have 10 labels trying to sign it. Now, you could have none.

“I do A&R, and I have two other people and a consultant. We have an A&R meeting every Monday night. We play all the records we’ve come across that week that we think we should play for one another, then we talk about them. If one of us really loves a record, we’ll sign it.”

Biggest challenges: “Coming up with billing every month; that’s always the thing. My job is to keep the company successful and maintain and increase billing. We do a lot of compilations, and when we’re extremely lucky, we catch a record like ‘Heaven’ that just sweeps the country. That’s a bonus.”

State of radio: “I like that more Dance stations are signing on lately. That’s been the most positive change for me. But I still see a couple of holes. Los Angeles should have one. Miami’s only had one for about eight months, and look how good it’s doing. If you had a commercial Dance station in L.A., you’d get a tremendous audience for it. A lot of the best stations we work with are relatively new. It’s good for dance labels. And there aren’t a lot of good dance labels either. That’s another thing. The competition in dance is not tremendous. There are only a few other labels that I would consider to be real competitors.”

The reason for the scarcity of dance labels: “I don’t think the majors know how to make money with dance music. The main way you do it is from compilations, and the majors can’t accept the fact that you need to license your brand-new records to third-party compilations. You can’t wait till they’re 6 months old; they want them when they’re fresh. These records are so immediate, in six months there’s a whole new crop of records.

“You have to accept that these records have to be licensed from the day you own them. Sometimes before you even release them, you have to put them on compilations. That’s where you really make your money. If you get a song on 15 compilations and the average one sells 50,000-75,000 copies, you’ve sold a lot of units. It’s not the same as if you sold them all yourself, but it’s the way to do it.

“The majors can’t accept that they’re going to give their hot new record to a third-party label when it’s brand-new. You can’t sell enough singles to make your money back, and, in most cases, you can’t sell enough copies of an artist’s album to make your money unless you get a big hit, like a Daniel Bedingfield or Dirty Vegas. The only way you make money is with compilations, and you have to create compilation brands of your own and be very open to licensing your new product to third parties.”

Something about his company that might surprise our readers: “We have eight employees. I think we’re one of the smallest companies to have a top 10 record. We do all our own marketing, promotion — everything. We do use independents, and BMG does our distribution and manufacturing, but that’s really it. I think it’s cool that a label this small can have a top 10 record.”

Career highlight: “Having Run-D.M.C. was a great thrill. They were the biggest artists I’ve had in my career.

We had a triple-Platinum album with them, which, at that point, was by far the biggest rap album there had ever been. But I’m starting to like this just as much, having this little company and doing it again. I like keeping it small but being able to have big hits every now and then.”

Career disappointment: “This company put out some great rock records that nobody paid attention to. We had two great rock artists, Meg Henches and H2SO4, who made what I thought were really great albums, and we were not able to break them. That was part of the reason we decided to become a dance label. We’re not going to get better artists than them, and if we can’t break them, we shouldn’t be in that business. In a bigger company some of those artists would have been more successful, but I learned the hard way. I’m glad I was involved with making those rock records, but if we had become a dance label from the beginning, we’d be that much bigger now.”

Most influential individual: “Bob Reno, my first real boss. He died a couple of years ago. He was the owner of Midland Records. There are A&R executives I really admire, especially Clive Davis. I’ve met him a couple times, but I don’t know him. My best friends have always been people who have companies similar to mine. We tend to hang out together, and we have a lot to talk about. Even though we compete, it’s very friendly.”

Favorite radio format: “Top 40 and Dance.”

Favorite television show: “I try to see David Letterman every day. The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Friends.”

Favorite movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life, That Thing You Do and Almost Famous.”

Favorite song: “‘Let’s Get It On’ by Marvin Gaye.”

Favorite artist: “Jimmy Buffett, Randy Newman, Barry White and Ray Charles.”

Favorite book: “Joel Woodburn’s Top Pop is probably my favorite book. I’ve probably looked at it every day since I was 16.”

Favorite restaurant: “In New York, El Teddy’s in Tribeca.”

Beverage of choice: “Diet Coke and margaritas.”

Hobbies: “I like to watch TV and go to the gym sometimes. I collect jukeboxes, but it’s not an active hobby. I also have a large record collection.”

E-mail address: “crobbins@robbinsent.com.”

Advice for radio: “Play my records. I admire programmers who are willing to be first and early on a record, and I wish there were more people like that. The best programmers are the ones with a passion for new records who aren’t afraid to play them and to be wrong sometimes.”

Advice for the record industry: “The business as a whole should figure out a way to give the people what they want. If people want to be able to download and make their own CDs of any music they want, you have to do that. That’s the only way it’s going to work. Otherwise, they’re going to continue to find a way to get it for free. The position that we want people to buy CDs is wrong. Sure, I’d like people to buy CDs, but if that’s not what they want to buy, we have to figure out how to give them what they want.

“It’s letting the tail wag the dog. People have said what they want, and the record business is fighting them. You can’t change their mind. There is now a more convenient way to get your music. I’m not against downloading; there are a lot of good things about it. I’m sure I lose some sales, but I’m sure I gain some sales too. I throw this out for discussion: Will a child born today ever buy a CD? I think, probably, no.”

Copyright 2002 Radio & Records Inc. Reprinted by permission.