Nicole Parnis July 14, 2017
8 Things I Learned From IMS College About Succeeding In The Music Industry
I don’t “get” electronic music. My grasp of it tailed off somewhere around the release of ‘Groovejet’. Tune.
I was a kid in the 90s but even then I could appreciate the feelgood sounds of ‘Till I Come’ and ‘Sandstorm’. It was a good couple or years for the ‘Now’ compilation albums.
Then there was that music video that one summer, with the aliens playing electric guitars with the voices like what happens when you speak into a fan….
But as the nineties faded away and the noughties rolled on, by the time ‘Seven Nation Army’ came out you’d lost me to the other side. I was to pick up on my electronic music knowledge and get acquainted with Frankie Knuckles and Giorgio Moroder at a later date. I’m a big fan of disco and anything synth… But today’s big names? I have to admit I’m kind of clueless.
So when I was gearing up to attend last weekend’s blockbuster conference I was slightly apprehensive. I’d be a fish out of water, and a sober one.
On closer inspection of the two-day program for this electronic summer school extravaganza I began to realise that if I was ever going to get my crash course diploma in Techno Studies, this was my chance. Who knows, there might even be some transferable skills.
The International Music Summit turned out to be the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the scene I know so little about. On arrival I recognised just about every hot DJ off every event poster I’ve seen locally, who’d descended on the conference room of The Westin Dragonara to learn more about their craft, as well as a whole load of new names and faces who had flown over to Malta especially for the occasion.
“Ok, this is kind of a big deal”, I thought to myself when an audience member from New York stood up to introduce himself over the mic in a Q&A session.
The speakers carefully selected to share their knowledge were simply fantastic, just bursting with experience – from record label directors to producers to DJs – or in the case of Sven Väth…all of the above. The masterclasses and workshops that took place really succeeded in extracting absolute gems of advice through a lineup of captivating interviews.
Turns out I was right about the transferable skills, as some of the stellar advice rings true for absolutely all genres trying to break into the music industry, whether you’re an electronic music producer or a singer songwriter. Here’s a recap of the wealth of knowledge the big guns so kindly shared. Listen up!
1. Location is important
Malta is a great base, particularly for electronic music. We’ve got parties coming out of our ears and the chance to get involved in the club scene like never before. In fact, when explaining why Malta was chosen to host this IMS event, the legendary Pete Tong explained that “for the last four of five years it’s steadily been gaining a bigger footprint, in terms of a location for more and more events that are starting to matter. More of the bigger DJs are starting to come through here now”- Great stuff! This means that loads of foreign electronic music lovers and aspiring DJs and producers are making their way to our shores every year, some even choosing to relocate to Malta to be in on a slice of the action. So there’s definitely a special scene evolving ‘Right Here, Right Now’.
On more than one occasion, various speakers made a point of how important their location is regarding progressing in the music industry – being in the right city at the right time – referring to places like Berlin, Paris and London. But what they were getting at isn’t just the amount of parties, venues and chances to perform, it’s also about being surrounded by all sorts of interesting people from different creative backgrounds- contemporary artists, writers, filmmakers… Being in places full of new pioneering ideas makes things happen faster. Being inspired is so important when it comes to creating new work, so taking any opportunity you can to travel and visit big cities would be of immeasurable value.
2. Build up your network and represent yourself well
“A young artist should try to be responsible for himself for as long as possible. Let the label find you” was just some of the wisdom shared by Mobilee Records owner Ralf Kollmann. “New talent is mostly brought to us by artists we’re already working with. We trust their recommendations” he continued. In other words, good news travels fast, and the bigger your network, the more likely it is that your music’s going to fall into the right hands. This isn’t to say everything should be left to fate, as a network has to be built, it doesn’t come automatically. “Set up events, festivals…even if they’re illegal. If you create a network, you are automatically stronger. It’s not only you promoting your product if there’s 6 or 7 of you.”
The label owner went on to say that record labels don’t just look at Facebook likes and SoundCloud hits as a measure of how good you are, they’re capable of looking past that. “The music is the first thing that gets my attention. Young talent.” They’re looking for quality and “the next big thing”, musically speaking. However, they do look at other factors when checking out an artist’s Facebook profile- “How does this person represent himself?”- having the “full package” is the jackpot they’re after in terms of signing new artists.
3. The internet is your biggest ally, get in contact
We’re less restricted by geographical location that ever before, and it’s never been easier to get noticed. But if “letting the label find you” isn’t going quite to plan, making the leap and getting in contact with record labels is just a few clicks away with the help of email, SoundCloud and Facebook. And when it comes to collaborations, don’t be put off when it comes to approaching “higher profile” producers and artists, says DJ and producer UNER. Although it’s very difficult to listen to everything he gets sent, he said he actually spends one full day a week listening to new artists who’ve inboxed him. He even messages people he comes across on the internet himself, and spoke about the time he found a classical Turkish violinist on YouTube who he contacted online and ended up collaborating with on a track!
When it comes to approaching record labels, make sure to do your research before sending out your mixes, and go for one that really suits what you do. “When sending out demos choose wisely” said record label owner Ralf Kollmann. “We get a load of demos at the label every week. Don’t copy in 15 labels. The worst thing you can do is tailor your sound to fit the label” he continued. With this in mind, there’s really nothing stopping you from contacting overseas music promoters or venues either with intent to set up a gig, if you think your style would fit in perfectly. Travelling with music equipment can be tricky if you’re in a band, but most good venues would be able to provide some of the equipment, and perhaps even a sofa to crash on if you hit it off with the promoters. Who knows, maybe you could organise a Malta exchange!
4. Play what you love and be true to your style
This might sound like the cheesiest, most obvious piece of advice ever, but coming from the likes of Sven Väth, it’s worth letting it sink in. In the Q&A session, when asked about if and how a DJ or producer should categorise their music by genre if they’re into mixing up a whole range of different styles, the underground pioneer replied that you should “Have the balls to play what you really like.” He went on to say that as a music lover, he listens to all sorts of stuff. “I like music in general. I like Jazz, I like Bossa Nova…” He relayed a story in which he owned up to dedicating a whole after-hours to playing African Jazz mixed with Techno and House, because he was really into it at the time. It worked, (of course…) despite some funny looks at first. Authenticity is really important in the arts, as it’s easy to get sucked in and go with whatever’s “in” at the time to suit what you think the crowd wants. Having the guts to test out your own personal tastes and to make or play music that you really like will set you apart from the rest in the long run. If it’s good, people will “get it”.
When asked why he’s chosen and stuck to vinyl over the whole full circle, from the days where it was the only thing available to nowadays when it’s seen as “coming back in”, Sven Väth replied in a very straightforward way- “It’s very simple, it’s just my instrument; two turntables and a mixer.” With this in mind, go with whatever method of making music you’ve fallen in love with, you’re probably best off perfecting that. “I never saw a reason to change my style” he said.
5. Produce as much as possible
“I can’t have any day without making music. I try to motivate myself to do something everyday” said Electronic music composer Agoria in his on-stage interview with Point Blank’s Carly Hordern. “You never sleep. You don’t sleep so much,” he continued. Relatable for anyone who’s ever got carried away on the runaway train that is the creative process!
But of course, you’re not always going to be in the mood for creating… “I know when I wake up in the morning whether I’m going to make music or not” said UNER in his insightful interview session on creativity and songwriting. You have to push yourself to create new work- just like a great painter should be making art everyday, a great producer should attempt to make music everyday. “Everyone talks about inspiration ‘striking’, I don’t believe in that. You have to keep working” he said, interestingly. He spoke about how, just after his father passed away, he spent 12 hours a day in the studio for three months, resulting in really sad music that he never released- he didn’t want to make the listener sad. Even if what you’re producing is never going to see the light of day, it’s important to keep creating, it’s part of the process that needs to play out before you’re on to something good.
6. “You can’t polish a turd”
When Point Blank Creative Director JC Concato presented his workshop on mastering a track for the club, the technicalities about ideal volumes, plug-ins and “dynamic range” were lost on me. But what really made sense was the fact that if something needs constant improvement and tweaking, over and over again, it probably wasn’t that good to begin with. In his own words, “You can’t polish a turd”, and when mastering, you should be aiming to “make something great into something fantastic.” If it’s not working even then, you might have to go back to the drawing board. Electronic music composer Agoria had said the same thing in his interview session, “I really like to work fast. If you have to rework something too much, most of the time it means it wasn’t the best.”
There’s no use flogging a dead horse, and the same rings true for any track from any genre. If you’re really stuck, it might be worth shelving it until a later date and beginning a new project. It’s no secret that often the simplest ideas that come very spontaneously and require the least amount of effort are the best. Going back to ‘Seven Nation Army’ which I mentioned earlier on, it’s worth noting that that iconic riff was actually composed offhand during a gig soundcheck. Nice.
7. “The money” is out there…
Having said this, making money isn’t the aim of the game, you should make music because that’s simply what you do, anything else is a bonus. “There are so many DJs out there who never made it out of their bedroom. Not all DJs need to become a superstar. That’s fine. Enjoy it.” were the reassuring words of record label owner Ralf Kollmann.
But there is money to be made, of course, and surprise surprise- it’s not in music sales. “Nowadays the money is spent not on the music but in the clubs. This money is not getting back to the producer or the label. Producers need to become DJs, they need to perform.” – some more words of wisdom from Ralf Kollmann. This makes a lot of sense. Back in the day, if you were a huge Led Zeppelin fan living in Malta, the closest you were going to get to your idols was having all of their albums and a couple of posters. Nowadays, we’re able to follow our favourite musicians around the globe when they tour. Cheap flights and festival culture has helped reclaim a lot of the money lost on the decline of physical album sales. We love going out and listening to music, the industry is worth billions, but it’s all about the live experience nowadays- events are the main bulk of your musical income. You have to get yourself out there if you want a return on the time spent producing or songwriting. Apart from making music to be performed, there’s also huge potential when it comes to making music for TV and Film, as explained by Agoria in his music composition masterclass. “Today Hollywood and the cinema industry in general are really looking for electronic music” – Good to know!
8. Let the world take its course
“We are living in a world where everything needs to be controlled…” said Renaat Vandepapeliere, the founder of R&S Records, when speaking highly of the importance of “natural collaborations” and letting things play out as they happen organically. You can sometimes, to an extent, count on The Universe to work its magic in terms of human encounters, especially if you put yourself in a position where serendipity is more likely to happen. You never know who you’re going to come across, who might turn out to be a great collaborator or any other sort of positive influence on your life or career in the music industry.
“Everyone (you meet) has specific ‘food’ to give you” were the words of Agoria, referring to these encounters, specifically talking about being surrounded by new people in his hometown of Paris. “The money will come as soon as you get good at what you’re doing” he continued. Succeeding starts from making great music, or being a talented DJ, singer or musician. After that comes practice, motivation, and the determination to get the ball rolling and get yourself out there. And, to quote DJ Luck & MC Neat, “With a little bit of luck, you can make it”(through the night). Classic advice.