Deadmau5 Ditches Universal, Goes Indie: Exclusive
The mercurial electronic artist has long raged against the major-label machine. Now he's betting his brand's future on Kobalt.
Despite the popularity of electronic music in recent years, the major labels’ track record with the genre has been hit and miss — the chart success of a Daft Punk is a rare exception to the reality that dance music moves tickets but relatively few albums.
“The label does what’s good for the label. Always,” says Deadmau5, aka Joel Zimmerman, who has sold 1.2 million albums and 4.2 million tracks in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. “It’s instilled in the industry that that’s the only way to do it. Well, not anymore.”
The masked Canadian producer, who rode the EDM boom up to the ranks of its top earners — reportedly commanding upward of $500,000 per show and raking in an estimated $15 million in 2014 — is bringing his recordings, publishing and Mau5trap label to Kobalt, the upstart independent publishing and music-rights platform that counts Trent Reznor, Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney and Skrillex among its clients.
Deadmau5, an outspoken 34-year-old who has long trumpeted his independence, previously had been signed to leading dance label Ultra Records (alongside Kaskade, Steve Aoki and Calvin Harris) for North America and Universal for the rest of the world. After an acrimonious split with Ultra in 2013, he joined Universal’s North American system through Capitol’s Astralwerks imprint, which released the 2014 double-album while(1<2).
However, the major soon drew the musician’s ire for what he describes as a lack of transparency, and for including his music on compilations with overtly commercial titles like Now That’s What I Call EDM.
“I am very strict on what products I want to associate myself with, and I felt that some things were just to make a buck,” says Deadmau5. “Then, we’d only get a little trickle, and I’d be like, ‘Wait, I look this stupid for only that much? Why am I looking stupid in the first place?’ ” (Capitol reps did not respond to requests for comment.)
Enter: Kobalt — introduced to Zimmerman by his manager, Three Six Zero Group’s Dean Wilson — which promises a near-real-time review of publishing income and claims to collect 20 to 30 percent more revenue than the majors.
“I'm not saying I'm never gonna get f—ed again,” says Zimmerman. “But I do like the freedom that, if I do f— up, it's my fault rather than the fault of someone who bought that responsibility from me.”
Wilson reveals that Zimmerman’s Kobalt deal contains no hefty artist advance like the reported $5 million Lenny Kravitz got in 2014; rather, advances are budgeted on a release-by-release basis. Kobalt president Richard Sanders calls his company’s services “a replication” of what a major would offer “in terms of creating a worldwide, full-service budget to release his music on a global scale.”
Zimmerman’s Mau5trap imprint – which has helped develop the likes of Skrillex, Madeon and new signee ATTLAS – will also utilize Kobalt's label services for releases and artist development at his team’s discretion. Mau5trap has already begun hiring to bolster its 12-person staff, with further expansion expected.
His attorney Dina LaPolt stresses the deal’s scope and unique cross-platform flexibility as being key for the tech-savvy Zimmerman, who recently struck partnerships with video-streaming sites Twitch and Maestro to replace his website with a live portal to broadcast his studio sessions in real-time.
“Majors don’t understand technology,” says LaPolt. “They think they do but they don’t. They have so many corporate policies, and they’re up their own asses, that they lose opportunities 24/7.”
Sanders stresses, “The deal was focused mainly around flexibility and affording him the opportunity to release his music in any way shape or form he'd like. How it’s monetized will be up to his direction and his control.”
While Wilson claims Zimmerman’s existing record and publishing deals were up, LaPolt hints that some people may have been moved out of the picture.
“Joel has a plan and he has professionals to get it done,” she says. “If, at the end of the day, some people couldn’t get it done, then you have to employ other methods to get those people out of the way.”
Deadmau5’s bargaining position was strengthened by the fact that most of his income isn’t directly tied to recordings. Wilson says the artist makes most of his revenue from touring — he headlined festivals like Glastonbury, Bonnaroo and Governors Ball during the past year — with merchandise second and sponsorships third.
But don’t tell Deadmau5 it doesn’t matter. The artist retains ownership of his back catalogue and will inherit full control from Ultra and Universal when their respective licenses expire in 2027 and 2029. “I don't think anyone's career is so big that they can't know where their major synchs are or where their publishing is going,” he says.
“I've got $130 million in the bank and a whiteboard full of cool ideas for emerging markets and technologies where we're gonna test the waters and see what happens,” he says. “And that's how you become the first — not by using the old traditional broken-ass model."
While a major step, this deal may just be the first for the partnership between Kobalt and Three Six Zero. Wilson says he “absolutely” sees himself bringing the agency’s other artists to the platform.
“I feel a little bit of guilt that we haven’t,” he says. “After looking at the back end and meeting everybody… my God it’s like somebody’s awakened the sleeping side of my brain. It’s like, actually, there’s a different way to put records out.”