Business Interviews Media

Q&A: Nick Sabine & Ryan Keeling, Resident Advisor

By | Published on Wednesday 9 April 2014

Nick Sabine & Ryan Keeling

Launched in Sydney in 2001 by Nick Sabine and Paul Clement, Resident Advisor‘s original focus was on the local dance music scene in Australia. But within two years the website had grown to cover the scene (or scenes) internationally, and later moved its HQ to London and now also has offices in Berlin, Ibiza and Tokyo.

As well as editorial content, including the growing RA Films video channel, the site has also become a go-to place for listing club nights, with the more recent ticketing side of the company accounting for a sizeable chunk of both its income and traffic, with over half a million events having now been listed in over 50 countries.

Earlier this year, as it reached its twelfth year in operation, Resident Advisor launched its first complete redesign since its original launch, overhauling the layout and functionality of the site to improve user experience and adapt to increased mobile access.

As that went live, CMU Editor Andy Malt spoke to RA co-founder Nick Sabine and editor Ryan Keeling about the website’s past, present and future.

AM: Nick, when and why did you set up Resident Advisor?
NS: We launched the site in 2001 to showcase and write about the artists and music we loved. Initially – because of our Sydney base – we provided news, event listings and general information catering specifically for the Australian dance music scene. By 2003 the site had outgrown this regional focus and had extended its reach to cover international electronic music.

AM: What was your background before that?
NS: Prior to site launch I studied at university in Sydney and for the first five years of RA’s lifespan I worked full-time for a digital advertising agency.

AM: How about you Ryan, when did you get involved?
RK: I joined in 2009. I had been working on Beatport’s editorial arm, which was then called Beatportal, and before that I worked briefly for a PR firm that looked after big UK acts like Paul Woolford and Danny Howells.

AM: What was your experience of the site before you worked there?
RK: I’d been a user for a number of years. I first heard about RA through people in my extended friend circle, who were active users of the site’s forums. The tone of the site felt completely different to the existing dance music press at the time. I didn’t really consider that people were discussing club music in more considered terms until then.

AM: Since you became editor last year, how have you developed the site editorially?
RK: There have been no major overhauls since I took over at the start of 2013, but as being an editor requires daily curatorial decisions, I think my stamp has naturally emerged through what we’ve covered. It’s been a busy year in RA Films, though, and we’ve started several new series in the past year, while trying to refine and improve our existing offerings.

AM: What would you say marks RA out from its competitors?
RK: We put an enormous amount of time and thought into our feature content. We still very much believe in the power of long-form, and pair this wherever possible with bespoke photography. We realise that what we do often stands in opposition to general internet trends, where easily digestible content – lists, downloads etc – tends to rule, but this approach feels most true to what we’re about. We also tend to bide our time with covering artists, which hopefully means that everyone we write about is truly worthy of our readers’ time.

AM: Compared to when it originally launched, how has the site changed?
NS: The ethos of why the site exists remains the same since the beginning – we write about artists and music that excites us. Obviously with audience growth comes some changes and we’ve internationalised the operation to provide us with a network of journalists that allows us to have a global view.

Outgrowing the bedroom in Australia, our head office is now in London and we’ve opened offices in Berlin, Ibiza and Tokyo with additional staff also based across the USA, Canada and Australia. We’re wholly self-funded and organically grown.

A few of our key milestones for the business to-date include, passing the milestone of 2.3 unique monthly users in October 2013, experiencing 30-35% annual growth in users since launch, having our ‘end of year’ music and artists polls read by more than a million people within a month of being published, and, in August 2011, launching a full Japanese language version of the site.

AM: How has the ticketing side of the business grown, and how important is it to RA overall?
NS: The ticketing industry isn’t transparent for customers. It’s full of hidden charges, extra card and P&H fees that inflate the ticket price. We felt it didn’t need to be that way, so we built an international solution – specifically for electronic music events – that improved ticketing across the industry and kept cost as low as possible for the customer.

Alongside the ease of use and low costs our approach has been received well by promoters and venue owners because the system integrates seamlessly into RA’s listings and gives them a shop window to the biggest community in electronic music.

It is an important part of the site. In 2013, for example, we ticketed events in over 50 countries, but we see RA as an ecosystem of services of which ticketing is one.

AM: What prompted the recent redesign?
NS: We’ve been up and running for more than twelve years now, and the last time significant changes were made was over seven years ago. A lot has changed in the way people use and access information on the internet, and with that in mind it was accessibility for mobile and tablet devices that was the primary reason for the change.

The redesign was the culmination of over two years of internal development, evolution and refinement, to bring to the forefront what we believe are the most important aspects of RA to our users, as well as to introduce a number of new features that will enhance their experience.

This is all contained within a visual realignment focussed on ease of use, high-quality imagery and natural, instinctive navigation.

AM: In more practical terms, how has this changed the site?
NS: We’ve updated the site to be multi-device friendly through responsive design. Essentially the site adapts to function in a slick and clean fashion on any device you’re using, be it your smartphone, tablet or computer.

We also now order and prioritise our content based on user preferences. For example, Editorial, Events and Music channels prioritise content based on your favourite artists and labels. So alongside the discovery of new music, we highlight things we know you are interested in.

And by mapping user behaviours and working closely with a user-experience expert we’ve redesigned the layout and global navigation to reflect our readers preferred way of navigating their way throughout the site. The primary navigation is also more concise, and the user has a more manageable notification panel for updates, messages, invites and requests.

AM: There’s a lot of focus on the ‘EDM’ industry at the moment, what sort of state is dance music in?
NS: Overall, it is in a good place. That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges on the horizon for everyone, from large scale festival promoters dealing with the rising costs of artists in a saturated marketplace, to small independent labels adapting to new technologies and new ways of doing business. But overall it feels like the spotlight is firmly on electronic music at the moment and it is enjoying its time centre stage. The most important thing is that electronic music doesn’t lose its soul.

RK: I suppose it depends which dance music you’re talking about. Obviously things are blowing up in the US, and that’s having a positive knock-on effect on the global mainstream market. More specifically thinking about the world RA inhabits, I think we’re in a healthy place. No major trend has swept the scene for a couple of years, but on a personal level I’m enjoying the influence that hip hop and its related forms are having on club music.

AM: How do you see dance music developing in the next few years?
RK: It’s feeling more and more difficult for a group of artists to coalesce and form a solid enough pool of ideas for a major new scene or sound to emerge. Most new musical mutations are immediately presented to world through the internet, so there is no longer the requisite gestation period, where thoughts and patterns can develop away from the gaze and scrutiny of the wider world. Some of the most exciting club music I’ve heard in recent years has been of African origin, so it would be nice to see some of this rhythmically thrilling music gain a stable footing outside of the continent.

AM: Dance music is far more fractured into smaller scenes than most other genres of music. Are there any underground scenes that we should be keeping an eye on?
RK: London is always ripe with micro movements, and I think the recent wave of grime coming out of the UK capital has been pretty interesting. Beyond that, I wrote an extended piece on the Afro-Portuguese club music scene in Lisbon recently, which centres on a label called Príncipe. They work with artists from all over the greater Lisbon area, many of whom are producing incredible new forms of African-influenced music such as kuduro, tarrachinha and kizomba.

AM: And finally, with the new site up and running, how do you see Resident Advisor developing from here?
RK: There won’t be any fundamental changes over the next five years, but the goal will be to remain wise and alive to all of the developments in what is probably the most fast-paced music movement ever conceived.

NS: With full-time staff in Australia and the USA, it’s likely we’ll open a Sydney office, as well as either a New York or Los Angeles office in 2014. So with growth and new foreign offices comes team expansion. We’ve always taken our hiring process very seriously in order to find brilliant people that fit our company ethos, so this is something that we’ll do slowly and when required.

Since 2001, we’ve generally experienced a 30-35% annual growth in users so we’ll be looking to continue growing this audience month on month. A growing readership is hopefully a by-product of people enjoying our editorial approach and finding the services we provide useful.

In the end we want to continue innovating and building our ecosystem of editorial and services that helps support this industry and showcases music, events and the artists we believe in.