Ministry of Sound keeps on dancing after 20 years

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Media captionWatch: Former nightlife editor at Time Out, David Swindells, shows how Ministry of Sound has gone from being an underground club to a worldwide brand

In 1991, the UK's thirst for dance music was getting stronger by the day. In the rural areas in the South and in reclaimed industrial sites in the North, illegal raves woke up a generation with fast, repetitive beats.

Inspired by New York's Paradise Garage, a derelict bus garage in South London was turned into the UK's first club dedicated to house music.

So how did the Ministry of Sound transform itself from an underground club to a multi-million pound brand?

The Ministry of Sound is now often dismissed as too commercial to be relevant to the dance music scene. But 20 years ago, the Ministry marketed itself as an underground club.

Made out of breeze blocks with very little styling, it was a far cry from the glitzy discos of the 70s and 80s and was the epitome of warehouse cool.

The founding DJ, Justin Berkman said his concept was "100% sound system first, lights second, design third''.

Image caption The Ministry's 20:20 exhibition charts the brand's growth over the last 20 years

It was the impressive sound system and cutting edge DJs such as Larry Levan that kept the clubbers coming back night after night.

To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the Ministry has launched a colourful exhibition of previously unseen photographs as well as old flyers and album covers.

An installation shows off the club's impressive sound and lighting system.

But the exhibition shows how, in the early days, the Ministry did not advertise their presence at all.

David Swindells was nightlife editor at Time Out at the time and remembers asking the owners if they wanted to be listed in the magazine.

"They didn't want to be. They just relied on plain flyers which they handed out after other club nights. Of course it's very different now," he says with a wry smile.

'Love of music'

Today, the Ministry of Sound is one of the world's most recognisable clubbing brands with a turnover approaching £100m.

Driving profits is the Ministry's own record label which it launched in 1995 with the release of The Annual, a compilation album of dance music tracks.

Image caption "There was no plan to dominate the world" say managing directors Duncan Collins and Iain Hagger

It is now the biggest independent record label in the world selling over five million singles and albums a year.

The joint group managing directors of the Ministry, Duncan Collins and Iain Hagger, insist that the record label was not part of a big corporate strategy.

"It was born out of a genuine love of dance music," explains Duncan Collins. "It was pure and authentic."

The label began by putting out dance records that were popular in the club next door.

"Everything kind of mushroomed from there, and there was an appetite to do more,'' says Mr Collins. "There wasn't an intention to be as big as we are 20 years on.''

The Ministry now generates its own talent by running a fully-fledged development programme.

New Ministry-backed artists such as Yasmin and Wretch 32 have had some recent chart success - proving that the record label is still growing.

Not content with owning a record label, the Ministry diversified further with the launch of its own radio station in 1996. This was followed two years later by a magazine.

Worldwide club nights publicised the brand across the globe and by New Year's Eve 2001 it was able to host its biggest ever event - filling the Millennium Dome in London with 55,000 clubbers. "It was one of our greatest achievements," says Duncan Collins.

In 2006 the Ministry acquired the Hed Kandi record label which also sells fragrances, clothing and owns a chain of bars around the world.

There are Ministry club nights in Sydney, Ibiza and Kuala Lumpur as well as exercise DVDs and even branded vodka. In short, the Ministry now sells an entire lifestyle to a global audience.

Death of the superclub

Dance music is cyclical by nature and by the beginning of the naughties the original clubbers were getting too old to be on the dance floor until three in the morning every weekend.

Reports of the death of clubbing may have been exaggerated, but they were not entirely without foundation.

David Swindells believes that by the Millennium eve night, people no longer wanted to pay up to £100 "just to go to a party'' and the cult of the superstar DJs such as Sasha and Paul Oakenfold began to decline.

The superclub Gatecrasher downsized its operations in the West Midlands and Cream in Liverpool stopped holding weekly events as a new generation of teenagers flocked to smaller venues with less of a business-minded agenda.

Mike Monypenny, digital editor at Mixmag magazine, says the way dance music is produced means it is constantly changing. "It is always pushing forwards," he says.

Some have argued that part of the reason Cream failed was that it simply could not keep up.

Image caption 'People will always want to come and listen to the best music,' says Hagger

By turning itself into a huge commercial entity, the Ministry has also faced accusations from dance music fans that it is no longer cutting edge.

Mike Monypenny disagrees: "Ministry straddles the boundary between the underground and mainstream dance scenes," he says.

"Whilst many of Ministry's Saturday night punters are tourists who flock to the club because they own a couple of the CDs, some of the leading lights of the underground scene play there."

Managing director Duncan Collins agrees: "We are the granddad of the industry, but we're not just booking the same old DJ's, we are making things relevant for young people."

Staff perks

So how does a 20-year-old big beast of the industry keep up with the cool kids?

Duncan Collins believes it is all down to their staff. Indeed, the Ministry offices in South London seem to be entirely staffed by the under 30s.

"The average age is 24," confirms Collins. "Our staff consume our product and keep us at the cutting edge of dance music."

Image caption Rapper Example has been successful since signing to the Ministry of Sound's Data Records

The Ministry has proved that by employing people who are passionate about the dance music industry they are able to stay on top of new trends and up-and-coming DJs.

It is this pioneering attitude which Mike Monypenny believes has kept the Ministry of Sound relevant - and therefore still commercially viable.

"It's not setting any trends but Ministry is still pivotal to the music industry," he says.

By introducing people to dance music, Mike Monypenny believes the Ministry helps to bring money into the rest of the industry - be it smaller clubs or up-and-coming artists.

The money and backing that the Ministry brand can give an artist can catapult them to fame.

Take, for instance, the rapper Example. He had modest success with singles like Vile and What We Made, signed to Mike Skinner's label Beat.

But, it was not until 2008 when he signed to the Ministry's Data Records that he made his breakthrough into the mainstream charts.

'Invested in the experience'

The Ministry of Sound was launched as the UK entered a long period of recession.

Twenty years on, as the country is still suffering from the effects of another downturn, will young people struggling to find jobs, still be willing to pay about £15 to get into the club.

Image caption 'The club is the beating heart of our operation,' says Duncan Collins

Managing director Iain Hagger stresses that the club is just as popular now as it has ever been.

"People still want to escape a pretty tough time and we are fortunate that we are a business that does well both in a recession and outside a recession."

Hagger believes people keep coming back to the club and the brand because the Ministry has ''invested in the experience" by upgrading the soundsystem several times and booking the best acts.

Both he and Duncan Collins say the club is the ''beating heart'' of the entire Ministry of Sound operation and hope it will continue to be the figurehead of the brand for the next 20 years.

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