This week marks 10 years of our company This Is Distorted.
We celebrated in the office on Monday with pizza and cake, and it felt a bit strange because I still often think of us as a start up, but somehow a decade has flown by and we’re in the lucky position of still going strong, growing and most importantly loving it.
20% of new businesses don’t make it to the first 2 years, and a massive 70% of companies fail within 10 years. At a guess, I’d say that figure probably looks even worse for those in the music and media industry. That’s an awful lot of people’s dreams, sacrifices, late nights and hard work down the drain, and we’re no stranger to failure ourselves. Myself and Nick Riley had actually run various projects and companies under the Distorted name since we first met in the DJ booth at Gatecrasher back in 2002 - including a DJ agency, production company and club nights.. all of which never really flew. They were all side-projects while we paid the bills by making music, presenting radio shows and DJing.. which is almost certainly why they never really panned out.
For anyone interested, here’s a little back story to how and why Distorted came about, and how 3 like-minded but inexperienced idiots have grown it into a successful audio agency, podcast production house, and one of the world’s biggest independent producers of music radio programmes.
We were incredibly lucky to have an amazing career in music, and got to play all over the world - from disused military sea forts off the coast of St Petersburg, to beaches in Kuala Lumpur and legendary main rooms at places like Cream, Gatecrasher, Godskitchen and Ministry of Sound. We released over 130 tracks and remixes, and I presented flagship dance shows for Galaxy, Capital and Kiss (with Nick as producer in later years).
We never made it to the top echelons of the scene - I think the highest we made it in the DJ Mag Poll was 101.. which technically isn’t in it at all, but we got to live some of that life and form lifelong friendships with some of the very biggest names. It gave us a unique understanding of what it’s like for the lucky few people at the top of industry - the stresses, the politics, the travelling, the loneliness, the hard work, and the sacrifices artists have to make. Stresses and strains that were only becoming worse in the modern music industry.
After both starting families we realised that we couldn’t just jump on a plane and disappear off to Ibiza for 4 days of the week anymore. We decided it was time to try something new, so we took a monumentally silly gamble and quit our relatively well paid and high-profile jobs at Capital. Literally just walked out the door one Wednesday afternoon.
(I should stop for a second to give a big shout to Andy Barker and Scott Myers who also took a massive gamble by leaving Capital and starting the company with us. Also Scott’s dad - the late John Myers was an important early sounding board. Their skills and passions lay in other areas though, and they left to set up their own thing after a year)
We were very naive at the start - we thought we could carry on paying the bills with some music and DJ work while we got things off the ground, but it turns out not as many clubs and festivals want to book you if you’re not on national radio. Same for record labels dishing out lucrative remixes. The money ran out fast and we soon had to sell our cars and move to budget baked beans to feed the growing families.
In 2013 the world of media and broadcast was changing fast. People’s listening habits were beginning to move towards digital, streaming and on-demand. Podcasts were growing, and it was the start of the social media revolution.. and it really was a revolution for music artists and brands. They could now build their own communities and fanbases through social media, and become the broadcaster, label or publisher themselves. They no longer had to wait to be signed to a major label or have a national broadcaster come knocking at the door. It’s what is pretentiously called the “democratisation” of media, and it was the Wild West - which we found very exciting.
I guess our only bit of “clever” foresight was being able to see this playing out, what the potential might be, and having a contact book of creative and adventurous people we could call to try and sell the dream to. We were very much in the right place at the right time, which is probably part of the story behind any successful business. We’ve also always lived by the mantra of “don’t be a d*ckhead” so I’d like to think we had a good reputation of being decent and trustworthy people that others would take a leap of faith to work with.
Our initial offering was a fairly simple proposition: Radio (in all of it’s new exciting forms - from podcasts to syndication and streaming platforms) was becoming a fantastic way to build a fanbase for DJs and artists.. but these people by the nature of their work had very little time. They didn’t have the experience or hours in the day to sit down and mix music, write scripts, send to radio stations and upload to all the platforms. We would do all of that for them. We would create, manage, produce and distribute a show that could be broadcast on multiple radio stations around the world, be podcasted, be on YouTube, Mixcloud, Soundcloud, airlines and so on. The most the artist would need to do was create the vision, and spend 15mins a week recording their voice links.
We secured the lease on an office on the outskirts of Leeds in a not-exactly-nice but not terrible area. The building had once been a stables and pig sty and was hidden away behind a big mill, next to a storage unit for medical supplies. Not exactly The Shard but we could fit 5 people in and afford the rent.
There was a lot of backlash at the time against artists and DJs using “ghost producers” to make their records, so a lot of our potential clients would have been wary about using a company or external team to make their shows. We had to try and change the mindset and build Distorted into a brand that people would want to be associated with. It needed to be the audio equivalent of having the HBO logo on the end of Game of Thrones - nobody got mad at Jon Snow for not working his own cameras or writing the script, so why should radio be any different?
That’s the foundation we started Distorted on, and we began knocking on doors. We’d get the train from Leeds to London a couple of times a month and spend the days pounding the streets meeting management companies, agents, labels and artists. Most people seemed interested but their question was always “who else have you got on board?” Nobody wanted to be first.
It was a slow slog over 18 months, but our first big clients were trance legends Paul van Dyk and Chicane who we’d worked on music with over the years, and BCM - a famous club in Mallorca we’d had a residency at. They were followed by Don Diablo, Sister Bliss, EDX and Defected - the latter of which we only got because another production company (shout out the brilliant team at We Are Grape) passed on to us as they weren’t doing syndication work. Working with Defected turned out to be one of our most rewarding and long-running relationships and it continues to be a joy and a privilege 8 years on.
I’ve personally formed deep friendships with people like Don and Chicane who are still with us and still growing, but it’s what happens without the direct input of the founders of a company that really makes it into a viable and scalable business, so before long we found ourselves in the position of needing to hire our first team members. Oli, Suzanne and James were first, and they continue to be part of the family. James Medina is now executive producer - heading up the whole production team and looking after some of the worlds biggest dance music radio shows.
By 2015 the music side of the business was running as a (relatively) well-oiled machine and turning over enough money that we could start to think about hiring the one person we’d wanted to bring with us from day one. Alex Jungius was a friend and colleague from Galaxy and then Capital, who’d worked his way up from producing jingles to being Programme Director of Capital Yorkshire. He was essentially our boss when we’d left but had always had an entrepreneurial streak and we got on well.
We knew that the biggest growth area in the audio industry was going to be speech. Podcasts had been around for ages, and were seen by some as a fad that had already passed, but we could see that they were only just getting going. If Distorted was going to grow into anything other than a very specialist music company, we’d have to be part of that movement.
I met Alex in the food court of a local Shopping Centre and chatted over Maccy Ds cheeseburgers. I explained what we were up to, where we wanted to go and that we would love to hire him. Except that we couldn’t afford to match anywhere near his wage, there would be no company cars or perks of a big corporation, and that he’d be starting something completely from scratch. A tough sell. Fortunately for us, he said yes, and within a few months we realised it was going to be a game changer. He became a joint owner and director of Distorted and completely changed the energy, direction and dynamic of the team. Despite being a couple of years younger than myself and Nick, Alex is the grown up in the room and turned Distorted into a “proper” company. We were also joined for a time by the former MD of Capital Roger Cutsforth who helped us navigate a very scary period of cashflow problems. We soon realised the old cliché of “cashflow kills companies” is a very real thing, and it does’t matter how much you’re owed if you can’t pay everyone’s wages that month.
In 2016 we’d outgrown the old pig sty, and made a big move into our current home at Crown House - a lovely old building that was originally part of Leeds Forge, then the head quarters of Crown Paints, and apparently even an Italian prisoner of war camp in the 1940s. Our office was formally let by French Connection, who left some lovely wallpaper and terrible motivational posters.
Alex launched our speech and podcast side of the business and had to go through the exact same process as we had with music - knocking down doors, cold calling companies and potential clients, and I guess it took a similar amount of time. Within a couple of years we were able to hire in full time staff to work specifically on speech content, and welcome our friend Becky as Head of Marketing.
We’ve gone on to produce large projects for the NHS, German tech company Blinkest, documentaries for radio networks like Heart, Virgin and Kiss, had articles written about us in the Financial Times, been nominated for 8 industry awards. We currently average between 8 and 10 million downloads of our podcasts each month. We currently look after 70 of the worlds biggest dance music artists and represent over 10% of the DJ Mag Top 100.
This year we’ve begun working on personal branding projects with CEOs, launching wellness podcasts, and opened our own visual podcast studio alongside Alex H - our full time studio manager.
Our major transition in the last 12 months has been to create a proper management team - a group of people in Nick E, James and Becky who shape the future of the business and have the power and confidence to make big decisions and move things forward.
It’s also allowed me more time to do what I love and present our Dance Music Archive radio show on Kisstory whilst growing our own IP.
In terms of our plans for the future.. we’re currently working with a film company to pitch a huge documentary to the TV streaming platforms, expanding our reach out to live events, and this month we launch a project with Youth Music to help mentor and give employment to young people. Other than that it’s business as usual - we like to keep our heads down, work hard, and make brilliant stuff.
We also need to be more diverse. Not because it’s “woke” or even simply because it’s the right thing to do - but because with more people from different backgrounds we grow into a more rounded team, tap into new ideas and communities, reach new audiences, and put more good back into the world.
One of our most important lessons was changing our mindset of who we are and what we do. We started as a simple gun-for-hire. Not got the time or expertise? We’ll make this thing for you! Nowadays we come from a place of service - in that we work super-closely with all of our clients - from A List superstar DJs, to wellness practitioners, company CEOs or global organisations. We become an extension of their team, and help them to achieve their goals by building communities, customers and fans through the power of audio. It has to make a difference.
..and I guess our single most important lesson has been in getting the right people. At the risk of going a bit David Brent, Distorted is a family. Big ups to Ryan, Sian, Freddie and Rosie. They are a joy to be around, and every day that we’re in the office I’m so proud of the creative, energetic and positive people we’re surrounded by. Here’s to the next 10 years!