Feature Stories

Why Did an Englishman Decide to Set Up His Record Label in Dallas?

Cliff Simms has some big ideas for the music industry. While that name might not yet ring a bell, his title might: co-founder and vice president of creative services for the British label DEFDISCO.

And that is a name that has been on our radar thanks to their signing of M83’s Kaela Sinclair and Kirk Thurmond, both North Texas-grown talents. In fact, Simms is such a fan of the Dallas music scene that he actually moved here.

As Simms puts it, Dallas is “the world’s best-kept secret, as far as creativity is concerned.” With a background in music publishing at EMI in London and Bucks Music Group, Simms’ first encounter with Dallas was on a work-related trip in 2008.

“I originally came to Dallas to do some consulting work for Maria Elaina Holly, Buddy Holly’s widow. So, I was spending some time working with her here and just hanging out in Dallas, just trying to find my way around, and caught on to the cool stuff going on here.” And that “cool stuff” helped prompt his permanent jump across the pond to become a Dallas resident in July of 2009.

It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Simms hooked up with production whiz Barry Gilbey and advertising and brand management gurus Paul Herron and Justin Williams to found DEFDISCO. The idea, Simms claims, was to create a 21st century record label that wasn’t reliant on record sales as its main revenue generator; but rather, focused its energy on branding and artist development.

“The way that we operate is that we’ll take a new artist and develop them as a brand as much as an artist, and partner them up with a brand,” Simms explains. “That way, we can leverage the power of the brand for exposure on the artist; the artist lends the brand credibility.”

Traditionally speaking, Simms says that labels would sign an artist, cut a few tracks and put them on what the industry called “toilet tours” around the country — hitting smaller venues where you're more likely to wipe your feet on the way out than on the way in. From there, hopefully, the artist’s fan base would gradually grow. Using DEFDISCO’s alternative approach, Simms says, “What used to take like five years to build organically — we can do in maybe a year.” 
Most important, after years of watching record labels destroy artists' creativity by trying to mold them into caricatures of their former selves, Simms aims to do the exact opposite. He stresses that all agreements between their label and artists include a creative freedom clause. “[The clause] specifically says that they retain full creative control over all their masters, what they want to release, how they want to release it, remixes, et cetera," he says. “We’ve never yet had a situation where we’ve gotten into an argument with an artist and we’ve said, ‘No, you fucking can’t.’"  

Simms admits that the agreement gives the label the right to object, but adds that should an artist be insistent upon a specific creative point, DEFDISCO will support them however they can. “We signed them for a reason and we want them to continue. ...We’ll succeed together or we’ll fail together. But it’s not going to be because we arm-forced you down. That’s the company mission statement, if you like.”

While DEFDISCO’s more visible office is located about in Sheffield, England, when the time came to select a location for their U.S. hub, Simms felt Dallas was the obvious choice. “For lack of better expression, it’s an untapped market,” Simms explains. “It’s already got a good supply of really good musicians and really good songwriters doing stuff that no one else is looking at. It’s a lot cheaper to run a business from here for tax reasons,” he laughs, “So, it just made sense for us.”

Shortly after officially setting up shop in Dallas, DEFDISCO signed their first DFW-based artist, Kaela Sinclair. That was last August and, since then, they’ve managed to pick up four more locals, including, as of a few days ago, electro-pop songstress LEV, who will be releasing her debut full-length album later this year. 
“As an '80s electro-pop artist, it’s always been a dream of mine to find a U.K. label that represents the U.S. as well," says LEV. "The U.K. is where synth pop was born, so to be involved with such a well-rounded label is humbling. DEFDISCO has recognized the music scene in the DFW area, and I'm so honored to be represented and to be a part of the movement happening here.”

Simms says that DEFDISCO has a completely full release schedule over the next six months, including a few upcoming brand partnership announcements. So, for the time being, new additions to the lineup may not be in the cards. “I think we’ll probably just close our doors and concentrate on who we’ve got,” he says. “That’s not to say that we won’t [add to the roster] if someone great comes over; then fuck yeah, it’s going to happen, period.”

Despite all his Texas love, Simms remains self-deprecating, swears like a sailor and pokes fun at himself with a certain English flair.

“I got into the business side of it because I wanted to work in music and I felt like I could do that side really well. ... It never crossed my mind to not do it. I was always going to do it, to my parent’s utter dismay,” Simms says. “So far it’s worked out. Which is just as well. I’m not qualified to do anything else. So, I’m completely, royally, fucked.”
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.