Label of the Month: Armada Music

As Armada Music celebrates its 20th anniversary, its founders – trance pioneer Armin van Buuren and his friend and business partner Maykel Piron – reflect on the label’s past, present and future.

16 min
Armada Music Label of the Month
Jan 8, 2024
Ben Jolley

The way trance pioneer Armin van Buuren tells it, he and Maykel Piron were on the balcony of Ibiza’s Coastline Café, in 2002, when they decided to start their own record label. Armin had been releasing on the label United Recordings and had recently started his now-legendary A State Of Trance (ASOT) radio show. “I was getting all these incredible demos that I wanted to release, but United wasn’t feeling the music and it wasn’t really their thing,” Armin says. “Their passion was not with trance music.”

Taking matters into his own hands and having played many of these tracks on his ASOT show (and in his Radio 1 Essential Mix), Armin showed the demos to Maykel. Impressed with what he heard, Maykel suggested the pair start a label. The only problem was that they didn’t know how to turn their dream into a reality. “We were just excited,” Armin recalls, adding that he was on the White Isle to play Godskitchen, his residency at Club Eden.

Although the idea came out of the blue, the pair had been friends for six years by this point – ever since 19-year-old Maykel started working in the industry while Armin was still living with his parents. “I always loved Maykel’s energy,” Armin enthuses, adding that they would regularly bump into each other at parties. “If he’s excited about a track, you get excited too, because Maykel has a very good ear for music… I think even better than me! He spots a hit way before others,” Armin confirms. “Out of 100 tracks, he can tell you which one or two will do best.”

Check out Armada Music’s ‘Label of the Month’ chart on Beatport.
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This is something that Armin has always admired, but he says Maykel’s talents extend beyond being a “top” A&R. “Not many people know, but he’s also an incredibly skilled DJ. I saw his radio shows and was blown away by his enthusiasm and mixing skills, but he decided to focus mainly on A&R.” In fact, while working at Warner Music, Maykel reached out to Armin to commission several remixes; he also released a project under his GAIA alias on Warner sub-label Captivating Sounds.

Going from releasing on an indie to a major label resulted in the pair working together in a professional capacity – especially after Maykel told Warner he would be gone after three years as he planned to set something up for himself. As time went on, he realised it would be a “great opportunity” to work with Armin as he was already travelling the world, being sent a lot of demos and trance music was the number one genre in the dance world. “It clicked,” Maykel recalls, taking Beatportal back to the aforementioned moment in Ibiza. “We decided, ‘ok, let’s go’!”

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Describing the birth of the label as like a pregnancy, Armada Music was a registered company nine months later. “We had a flying start,” Armin says, recalling that the label sold 18,000 physical copies of Motorcycle’s 2005 hit “As The Rush Comes.” Business-minded Maykel says limiting expenditure in the early days helped and that reinvesting any money they made enabled Armada’s workforce to grow; two decades down the line, the label has a workforce of 120 spread across offices in London, New York and two in the Netherlands.

Maykel has even been able to employ some former colleagues: “it’s always about the people on the team,” he says; one recent example is Jason Ellis, who originally signed Swedish House Mafia and Eric Prydz. “It’s amazing to have people like him joining Armada, and in some ways it still feels like we just started, because we are so energised and pumped up to create even more possibilities,” Maykel enthuses. “It feels like we still have a long way to go.”

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While Armada is showing no signs of slowing down, neither is the ongoing upsurge in popularity of trance music (which the label has long been known for). “It’s normal,” Maykel suggests, “because with every dance music genre, it comes full circle. But Armin, in particular, is very good at staying true to that sound, because he is trance! And now it’s back and trendy.” Over the last year or so, Maykel says he has noticed that trance tracks are being played by a wider variety of DJs. “Now, it’s a word you can use again and you see many underground DJs playing it too.” This shift has been great for Armada, he considers: “some tunes we signed were not being played by too many other DJs and now it’s getting broader, which is amazing.”

“I love it,” Armin agrees. “I think it’s bringing back a lot of energy and a love for trance music. I hate to pat myself on the back, but I can say we just never left.” Having started the Armada sub-label Who’s Afraid of 138?! in 2013, Armin has the evidence to support this claim. “It was my protest because, around 2010/2011, all the BPMs went lower. All of a sudden, trance was only cool when it was 128/129BPM. So I started the label to support the faster sound,” he recalls. “Now, all those tracks are becoming more popular again because everybody’s playing that sound again,” he says, agreeing with Maykel about the cyclical nature of dance music.

As a pioneer of the genre, Armin thinks the Covid ignited the trance revival. “During the pandemic, you saw the progressive and chill-out sounds,” he says. “And I think the rise of melodic techno was already a first sign that trance was coming back.” Moreover, Armin feels that trance’s resurgence is due to a new generation of ravers going clubbing “who never heard those fast records.”

Armin cites his recent back-to-back with hard trance artist KI/KI at Amsterdam Dance Event as a great example. “Everyone was raving about it, but for me, it was really funny because – even though it was such a big hype and all the blogs wrote about it – it was like going back to Gatecrasher in 2002,” he says. Their 145BPM trance set included original versions of DJ Misjah and DJ Tim’s 1995 acid earworm “Access,” Mark Norman’s 2009 eerie trance bleeper “Phantom Manor,” and some Randy Katana classics. “Of course, we also played some new tracks that fit in but, musically, it wasn’t any different from what I used to play,” Armin reflects.

He goes on to suggest the current love for trance is “almost an exact copy of what happened when house music was popular in the early ‘90s and then, around 1995/96, trance music came up. We’re in that era again right now,” Armin says, adding that he has never felt negative about people’s changing opinions about trance. “It’s normal; people like a certain sound, then they fall in love and out of love again. But for us, it’s heaven.”

Take Binary Finary’s “1998“: the “massive classic” that Maykel signed was recently remixed by Victor Ruiz after a commission by Armada’s A&R team. “It was number one on Beatport’s trance chart for a month,” Armin says. “And it’s been played by lots of techno DJs as well as trance DJs,” he adds. “Everybody’s playing that track, so it really shows you the love for classics, and that is a timeless record,” Armin says; “I think, in 50 years, there’ll be another bunch of remixes.”

What’s happened with that specific track, Armin suggests, is emblematic of “the power of Armada. We’re not just sitting on the master. We’re trying to get appreciation for it by bringing the track to a new generation,” he says. “Victor did an incredible job in translating the emotion to the 2023 sound”. This is something that Armin and Maykel are keen to do with all the music they sign, including acquisitions for Armada’s new music investment portfolio BEAT Music Fund, whose first signings include New York label King Street (which has 3,000 titles, including music from Kerri Chandler and Dennis Ferrer), and the catalogues of Chocolate Puma, and Solardo’s imprint Sola. “We’ve done several deals already and have many things going on,” Maykel teases. “It’s not just a business for us, it’s something that we do because we love this music. We have a connection with it.” This is the most important thing for Armin and Maykel. “We feel the music and we live it,” Maykel says.

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Of course, the pair remain equally excited about the music that’s being made by the new generation of trance artists. “Maykel and I can still be on the phone for hours talking about different tracks,” Armin says. “That should always be the motivation.” Pinpointing some specific Armada favorites, Maykel says: “We are big fans of Ben Hemsley and Matt Guy.” He also thinks, “the UK seems to be having a real moment… there’s lots of great music coming from the UK, and it’s amazing to see because, for a while, it was a bit slower. Now there’s a big boom of a lot of talented artists there.”

Armin adds that prolific hard house producer BK is “totally back; we just signed a few tracks with him, and “You Are The Master” and “XTC Nation” are doing really well. That’s the sound that the guys like Marlon Hoffstadt and Patrick Topping are now championing,” Armin says; “it’s not really classic trance, it’s more a mix between the good sounds from techno and the good sounds from trance. I think it’s incredible.”

While the Armada release schedule is never quiet, Maykel and Armin regularly turn down demos. “Signing music just because you love it isn’t really working anymore,” Maykel suggests, adding that it has become “way more difficult” than even a decade ago when “radio was really powerful.” He also thinks the definition of a hit has totally changed. “Back then, we could say, ‘this is an amazing track’, and if we felt like we could make it a hit, then we were making it a hit.” Nowadays, Maykel feels “it’s really hard” – especially since the arrival of streaming and TikTok, and even more so if an artist has no social media presence. Consequently, while Armada does still sign and develop new artists, Maykel says it’s much less frequent. “We tend to only sign people who really want to work, do interviews and are touring acts,” he says.

It was partly for this reason that he and Armin created Armada University. “There’s so much talent out there and we think it’s nice to give feedback to the young artists and producers,” Maykel explains, adding that the team also hosts workshops during Amsterdam Dance Event where artists can get feedback from Armin, Maxim Lany and many label-affiliate DJs. It’s working, too, as the label is receiving an influx of demos. “We try to educate and give back to the community in order to let them grow,” Maykel says. “They learn it’s difficult to get a career in this industry but that everything is possible – as long as you work hard for it.”

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Looking to the future of Armada Music and its label operations, Maykel and Armin are equally enthusiastic – especially having recently bought a building in the UK. “We are going to structure what we have in the Netherlands,” Maykel says, describing the plans as a smaller copy of their Amsterdam headquarters. “We will build studios too, and there will be a small club inside where we can do live streams and people can record radio shows.” They aim to grow the UK team, too, “because we see lots of talented people in the industry there.”

More generally, Maykel says, “We will continue doing what we have been doing for years: working on great tunes that we can push to a global level.” A new Armin van Buuren album – his ninth, titled Breathe In – is imminent: a mix of festival-sized EDM, vocal-led new-gen trance (the pumping “Lose This Feeling” and Fred Again-style “God Is In The Soundwaves“) and techno (the melodic “Motive” and the punchy “Make It Count“), it’s Armin at his very best. A 20-year-anniversary remix album has also arrived, Armin gleams, adding that he’s keen to celebrate reaching such a milestone.

“Not many labels are still so relevant after 20 years,” Armin summarises. “I’m also really proud to say Maykel is still my partner after such a long time, because I think that’s very rare in this industry.” With their shared passion for music continuing to drive things forward, it’s easy to see why Armada Music (much like trance itself) is standing the test of time.