Deckstar Management's Matt Colon & Lawrence Vavra on Dance Music's Rise and Industry Outlook
Lawrence Vavra and Matt Colon founded Deckstar Management alongside the late DJ AM in 2006; the boutique management company is now a veritable force in the music industry, managing acts from dance music demigods Steve Aoki and Porter Robinson to underground mainstays Lee Foss and Hot Natured.
How has your strategy evolved? A decade ago you started with two acts, and now you have a full roster spanning a number of genres.
Matt Colon: Well interestingly, when we first started, the sort of mash up thing was much bigger. The original two DJs were Steve Aoki and DJ AM, and I would say about 80% of the roster for the first few years were primarily those kind of DJs, so we had Jazzy Jeff and Grandmaster Flash and Kid Capri and a million other guys from that genre but with Steve -- and I'm specifically Steve's manager -- we had developed a small kind of indie side of the roster, which at the time consisted of Classixx, a rapper girl named Uffie who was more of the kind of Ed Banger dance genre, and a few other guys in that world. And I think over about three or so years we started seeing that side of the roster grow exponentially, and for lack of a better term mash up or open format guys, their abilities were diminishing as EDM became much more powerful. Specifically, I think the ability to DJ became much more common and it become more about songwriting and production than it did about specifically just mixing one record into the next and song selection. That became one factor out of many.
Lawrence Vavra: So we made a decision at that point, rather than focus on short term artists that were making more money, we started focusing on artists that were creating music and good music that we hoped we could kind of facilitate to get to the next level in their career and have a much longer career. So it was probably the most important pivot in the entire company's history.
As far as strategy, and you're probably more specifically talking about more in the EDM space, about 2010 there was a lot of talent up for grabs so a lot of new managers were getting into the business and they were seeing some immediate success because literally, it was literally like the Wild Wild West where someone with semi talent could have one track and they're touring for the next three years. What we've really really focused on is...we compare to hip-hop was in the 90's where there were the Dr. Dres of the world, the Eminems coming up, but then you also had guys like Chingy who were selling millions of records. So what we really, really focused on is not spending the time working with an artist that might be making quick revenue now, but that we know won't be in several years. We would rather play the long game so the artists we're representing are guys that we feel like will be around our entire career.
The core theme is if we feel like an artist has staying power no matter what genre, we want to work with him, and if we feel like it's just a money grab, it's probably not worth our time and investment of resources.
So longevity and uniqueness over what may seem like an amazing short term investment.
Matt: Exactly. There have been a lot of artists that have come our way, managers as well -- they often come paired together, that you don't feel a long term career. You can make a quick buck. But the thing about management is it's easy to sign an artist sometimes, it's hard, if you're a nice guy, it's hard to lose an artist, you become their lifeline to the world. They rely on you for everything. So severing ties with a management artist can be really difficult. It's different than a publicist or an agent.
LV: Yeah for better or for worse, we sometimes invest too much of ourselves in the client. So that's the other reason why you don't want to invest yourself -- it's almost like dating, you don't want to invest yourself too much in something that may not be around for a long time.
You two are very close with Steve. Does your friendship complicate the job of managing him? How do you keep the two separate? Does it get tricky too often?
Matt: He was my very, very first client. Last year was our tenth year working together. It's a tough question. You're right. Interestingly, I will say when we have certain conversations, I'll specifically, or he will say, "I'm asking you as a friend. What would you do in this situation?" Because I've been with him for so long and probably at least professionally in his life I've dealt with him longer than anybody else. I handle things that maybe some mangers don't handle, personal stuff. Anything from helping him move, to dealing with relationships or dogs, or "What do you want to do in ten years?" It is just a very different relationship. So we will usually preface our conversations on what perspective it's coming from.
LV: What I overhear the two of them talking a lot is, "Steve, as your manager, of course I want you to do these ten shows in five days, but as your friend, you need to take some time off."
Matt: That's a perfect example because he is -- and it's no secret -- he is the "more is more" guy. If I let him, he'll do 350 shows a year, he'll tour every day of the year. So sometimes, and Steve is a great example but just in general, as a manager you gotta save the artists from themselves, and that can mean a million different things. For Steve, he'll overwork himself to death. For other artists, they'll go off cycle for three years if you let them. You gotta kinda help them balance life and professional interests equally.
So it's also a personal investment.
Matt: With Steve 100%, but I would say with other artists, in this last year I've had two artists that have huge anxiety issues. One regarding traveling, another with just professional commitments. So that, you take your manager hat off and as a friend like, "How do we get through a psychological issue?"
LV: When Matt and I started, we had Steve Aoki and DJ AM. The four of us were very close and when he passed away, it was hard separating being the manager and being his friend. I mean, it really affected all of us. So it's one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't, because in order to do the best job, you kind of have to be really close to the client. But on the flip side, it hurts that much more when something negative happens.
I read about the recent documentary on his life [As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM.] Have either of you seen it?
Matt: I haven't seen it yet, but a good friend of ours Kevin Scott made it, so I'm looking forward to seeing it. AM was kind of the heart and soul of the company. When he passed in '09, we spent about a year as a company trying to find ourselves, even as individuals. Both Steve and I would've said if you asked us who was our best friend, we would've said AM. And you probably could probably ask about 25 people in the country that and they would've said AM was their best friend. So he was a really really giving, generous guy. Funny enough, I was looking at my Facebook history and one of them was like AM saying, "You guys coming over to watch True Blood tonight?" We watched Laker Games at his house.
LV: The four of us set out on this journey together and then literally, to lose one of us three, four years in, that was tough.
Matt: But to be honest, that happens regardless. We had another client that became a big drug addict and his career went down. I've had another client that I was with for a while; her career just didn't pan out the way she hoped for. So the issue when he talks about "you're in it for the long haul," you ride those waves, up and down. And it can be just as frustrating and you can get just as distraught as the artist when things aren't going their way. It's hard for you to just say "Sorry, we're not gonna work together because your career isn't as hot as it once was."
As much as you want it to be a transaction, it can't help but be personal.
Matt: Absolutely. The role of a manager and in my pitch, when I'm talking to artists is that in an ideal world, the artist talks to nobody except for the manager. It never works out that way -- don't get me wrong -- but the way it's meant to be is that an artist has maybe ten people in their life, their publicists, their label, their publisher, there's label execs there's recording engineers and studio people, there's a million people who need information or who need access. An artist wouldn't be able to be an artist if they had to deal with those people so they hire a manager to manage the influx of communication and be a gateway for it all. So as a result, we have the closest relationship. We're the ones talking to everybody, and then relaying that information to the artist and vice versa. There's some artists you might go weeks without speaking to 'cause they're on a break, and there's some artists you might talk to ten times a day. I woke up at 7:30 this morning and immediately had three texts with Steve and two texts with another artist from the moment I woke up 'til I got in the office. It's a 24 hour a day job. There is no off switch. I sometimes go to Staples and I'm jealous of the guy who goes home at 8 and is done for the day and doesn't think about work until he shows up the next day. But it's a full time 24 hours a day. If your phone rings at 3 in the morning, then you pick it up at 3 in the morning. And we had a day to day who had to hop on a flight to Europe to deliver glue. For one day, deliver the glue because it couldn't be purchased in Europe and get back on a plane and fly right back.
LV: It was Travis Barker when Blink 182 was on tour. His thumbs have these horrible blisters that open up, so he has a certain surgical glue he uses and if he doesn't get that, he's in so much pain. So literally one of our day to day managers got on the plane, flew overnight to Manchester, literally handed them the glue minutes before they got on stage. [Travis] got on stage for 20,000 people, [and the manager] got back on a plane the next morning and came home.
Now that is efficient management.
Matt: Steve's old assistant who now actually now works at Deckstar…I remember, we're in Vegas, it's maybe 2 in the morning and [Steve] has a flight to Canada the next day. This is early on in his career, and he's like, "Hey, you don't need a passport to go to Canada right?" I'm like, "Yeah, of course you need it, it's another country." And he's like, "Well, I didn't bring it". But he says, "Don't worry about it." He gets on the phone, calls his assistant at two in the morning and says, "Hey, my flight's at seven, I need you to go to my house, get my passport from my top drawer, drive to Vegas, meet me by 5." This poor kid got up, got in the car, drove straight to Vegas from 2 in the morning to 5 in the morning or whatever it was, handed him the passport right at the airport, [Steve] got on the airplane and left, got back in the car and drove back to LA. These things are far and few between, but those are the extreme ones. But Saturday nights, Friday nights, Sunday nights, there's no sleep. That's the worst part especially on holidays, when you're an artist touring the world, what's Memorial Day in the US? You're in Bangladesh.
LV: In Matt's experience, he happens to manage probably the artist in any genre who probably works more than any artist. Steve is probably top five most hours working a year for an artist.
Matt: Guinness Book of World Records, I have it in my office -- we have an award for the most miles flown in a single calendar year for any musician in history.
LV: So Matt's perspective is a little warped.
Matt: But just to be fair, if you're on the road, there is no weekends or weekdays. You're just on the road. And if you need something, it doesn't matter that it's Saturday, you have a show tonight, you're working. In the dance music industry in particular, our artists tend to work on weekends. So when you're tempted to tune out, that's when our artists are starting to tune in and start having needs.
I'd say about ten years ago, 2006, 2007, people only knew maybe one Daft Punk song and Cascada's "Everytime We Touch," and everything was called techno. Now you have acts like Calvin Harris and The Chainsmokers scaling the charts. What have you seen shift in the last decade that has allowed dance and electronic music to become a radio mainstay?
LV: The whole entire genre of music kind of shifted not in a bad way, but it became parent-friendly, I call it. You went from calling these big events raves, which had a negative connotation to it, and started calling them dance festivals, and parents started accepting this genre of music. A lot of the music became a lot more pop-friendly, so in general, it shifted from being an underground genre of music to being a really mainstream part of society and culture, and it's great and it's bad, 'cause on one side, that's the reason artists are making $250,000 to $500,000 a show in some cases, but it's also the reason these guys have this essence of "it doesn't feel like it used to feel."
Matt: I've been in the dance music industry since the late '90s, and this is sort of the second boom that's happened -- there's really been three booms. There's one in the early '90s which pre-dates me, when dance music first became popular in Europe and came over here very underground. And then what happened in the late '90s with Prodigy and Moby and Oakenfold, and that time it crashed, a few different things happened. One, it was still a fringe thing, you know, it was still a cool hipster thing, it really wasn't popular or part of popular culture other than a few outliers. But also, with the exception of Paul Oakenfold, the DJs traditionally weren't making music. This second or third go-around, depending on how you look at it, the difference is that being a DJ has become such an easy-to-produce commodity, it doesn't really mean anything anymore. The industry's really shifted to focus on producers. As far as like, sort of the rise of the genre in popularity, one thing that I will take some credit for, and it's probably not the most popular answer, is that Steve was doing a party in LA called Dim Mak Tuesdays for ten plus years. It was where every big act broke, from M.I.A. to Kid Cudi to Afrojack -- anybody, Lady Gaga, everyone's first show if you were in the cool world was at his show. We did a spin-off party, which was all DJ focused with DJ AM and Steve called Banana Split. will.i.am came every single week. Like, religiously. And when I say he was taking notes, like he was literally writing things down and he just became a good friend of ours, and we just thought he was supporting the music, we even threw his birthday party there. And then lo and behold, he drops this album with "Boom Boom Pow," and it's essentially an electronic album with all pop hooks. And he had David Guetta come in and co-produce it. Then he cosigned LMFAO, who essentially did, again, electronic music -- you know, albeit somewhat cheesy or corny or however you wanna look at it -- but what it did is it made radio listeners get used to hearing electronic drops on songs. Oh, look, now an electronic instrumental wasn't so weird, which at the time, if you had written -- if you were an electronic artist and you delivered a song to your label, they'd say "Get rid of that" -- what we call the drop, the long electronic break -- you'd get rid of that first thing, and just make it a pop song. Once Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO did it -- there's another band that came along, 3OH3! that did it, all of these electronic hybrid pop acts made it socially acceptable on radio to play drops, and out of that, David Guetta became hugely famous, that led to a million other things, and from there, all of a sudden it was okay for Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex and a million other acts that came in the wake of that to [be played] -- Calvin, you know, obviously being the biggest hit from the genre. And no one really talks about it, but it never would have worked in the US if weirdly, Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO had not made it socially acceptable at radio.
I mean, think of it. There was never anything dance on before that, and those two guys -- remember at the time LMFAO? They had, like, five songs on the radio, only one of which was theirs, the other three were remixes. They did Kanye West and Katy Perry -- like, three or four songs that they did dance remixes of.
LV: And that's the other thing, and then Kanye samples all the Daft Punk stuff for his big album. These big mainstream artists starting using electronic influences in their music.
Matt: And that's not to take away from what the Swedes or Calvin or Zedd or Chainsmokers or any of them did, it's just that on their own, you know, it may or may not have been possible without a handful of main pop acts telling radio this is okay.
Right, laying the foundation ahead of them.
Matt: Yeah. Working in the industry, you hear it a lot where there are certain rules that you have to follow, particularly for radio, and those rules are made to be broken. I can't say how many times I tell an artist, "We can't do this," and they'll pull up five examples of a dance artist that did.
LV: Well, think about it. A major label that already has success with Black Eyed Peas or Kanye West, they're gonna spend the money working any song they put out to radio where they probably wouldn't when, you know, Calvin Harris in 2009, they wouldn't work that kind of money for one of his songs. When you have a tried, true, and tested artist like Kanye or will.i.am, it's a much easier gamble. Then all of a sudden radio took to this, so the floodgates opened.
Matt: Calvin did have some huge radio stuff. He had huge hits in the UK that never crossed over here.
Acceptable in the 80's and I'm Not Alone weren't as American radio friendly.
Matt: But now Calvin is the Black Eyed Peas or Kanye of today. Calvin did that "How Deep Is Your Love" which is essentially a deep house track -- that's not something you would have heard on radio.
It's the underground coming to the forefront.
Matt: I mean, I think that's happening across all music -- if you told me three years ago that two of the biggest acts would be essentially trip hop acts like Flume and Odesza who are doing five, ten, 20,000 tickets a city, that was obscure like almost IDM. That intelligent dance music that nobody listened to except for old school. Now the deep house acts like Disclosure, Flume and Odesza are three of the biggest acts in dance music and they are the most sort of underground heavy stuff that kids are listening to. Then you look at hip hop and like Kendrick Lamar, who ten years ago would be considered obscure and underground. Just in general kids are going towards...kids are way cooler, and they're going towards more minimal sounds.
And a lot of it also has to do the rise of online services that are helping people discover all this music.
Matt: 100 percent absolutely. It's also probably something of a backlash towards pop. Like the same thing happened in mid 2000s when the indie explosion happened with all the bands that started with The, The Killers...you know, but that was a response to overprocessed rock and pop. All the kids wanted to be cool again. Now we kind of have that in dance music.
Speaking more to online radio services, I read about your work with Pandora on Steve Aoki's exclusive and how it went places you couldn't imagine. How have your methods shifted over the years with the rise of Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music?
Matt: It's shifted hugely. I mean our probably...one of our biggest, one of our most important employees -- what is it, six months ago now, we hired a head of digital streaming and digital sales. It's a role that would typically be held at a record label, and even some labels don't have that role. But we ended up bringing it in-house almost to do double duty. It was essentially to have better control, not just put out a song and hope that the record label does its job. Music income used to be 50 percent or more of an artist career. Now it's less than ten; for a big artist it's less than five.
LV: So our strategy there is it's really again -- it's really dependent on the artist, so someone like Steve for example who makes 99.9 percent of his money through touring, to Matt and Steve and us, it's more important to get as many new people to hear Steve 'cause his fans are going to find his music wherever it is. So doing something like putting it on Pandora, you know, where it's passive listening for the most part where people are just...you have the station on and they hear it, it actually moved the needle because there's all these people who maybe heard Steve Aoki's name but didn't really go and search for who he was and all of sudden heard his music.
Matt: Spotify as you know, if you do your job you can do...it isn't just crossing your fingers and rolling the dice. With Spotify with all the playlisting, you can work hard and it can make a difference. Before you would put out a bunch of stuff just to retail and you would hope people would go to stores, seek it out and buy it. Whereas now you can put out a song and you can work with individual playlisters, you can work with if you're at a major label with Topsify or Filter, or you can even work directly with Spotify with their own in-house playlist. You can help build a record from the ground up and engage listeners versus the old model of just print it and hope people go to the store and buy it. Best you could do was lobby for placement and it wouldn't get buried on a rack.
LV: And then the other I think key thing about the streaming services or the online providers that people take for granted is it provides us with such great metadata about who's listening to the music, what part of the world it's coming from, even what time of the day in some cases and that allows Matt and I to really put much more comprehensive plans together. 'Cause once we're able to know our core customer and how that kind of core gets bigger and bigger and bigger, we're able to really, you know, whether it's how we spend our marketing money or where we even just kind of make sure our artist is focusing on. It really helps us move the needle and get an artist's career from point A to point B.
Have you noticed any unique trends in terms of who's listening and where they're listening?
Matt: One of the bigger trends is Mexico. Mexico City on Spotify is a huge...usually your top two or top three, even if you're not big in Mexico City, same on Facebook. There's a large music listening audience there.
LV: We had no idea Mexico was this huge market for Steve. Matt figures it out, he starts building a tour for Steve in Mexico, and next thing you know, he's getting half a million bucks a show in Mexico. We would have never known that without the data.
Matt: Our first indicator was we were working with a company that does his YouTube channel, and they had noticed that across through social media, about half his audience was Spanish-speaking, whether that be Spain or Colombia or Mexico. So what we did at the time, and this is maybe three or four years ago, we created a show on YouTube called Esteban Aoki, and literally all it was was outtakes from his on-the-road docs that we would do every week, we just took shots that didn't make it or scenes that didn't make it, we dubbed them over in Spanish, changed what they were saying to try to match what their mouths were saying -- so basically Spanish gibberish. I think we did four or five of them. From the first one, I think we had a 10 or 20% Spanish language viewership. By the last one, we were up to 90%. It was just knowing that there was a Spanish speaking audience there, and then directly engaging with them. So some of our biggest posts will just say "Viva Mexico" or "Me llamo Mexico," that blows the roof off, because you're addressing the audience directly. When we do stuff in Germany or in Tokyo, we'll often do it in the native language. We'll use colloquial things, local sayings. You have to recognize these artists are global artists, and just throwing the fan a bone, even if it's in English and you just say hello in the local language, the fans lose their minds. They love that personal touch. But also knowing where those fans are, and Facebook has the huge benefit of being able to geotarget messages, so we're able to put out some similar messaging in different languages and really tap into the consumers directly.
You know, we're able to target the audience, segment the audience, figure out who's clicked on things, who hasn't clicked on things, how old they are. There's so much data that if anything, the biggest struggle is sifting through all the data and knowing which data to [focus on.] On Spotify, well honestly, a big one is that all the data you get is always skewed based on the platform, so Spotify is only in certain countries, so it's misleading when you see you're huge in the US -- well, [Spotify has] a huge audience in the US, that's their biggest audience, so that's always gonna be a top market, you know what I mean? Like, "How come I'm not getting any play in Russia?" It's not accessible in Russia. Or Facebook -- you always see Jakarta, Sao Paolo, but apparently they have huge audiences and audiences with a lot of robots, like bots in those cities. So you have to learn how to interpret the data. But again, all that comes back to us recently hiring this head of digital streaming, and he'll come in and say, "Yeah, it doesn't really quite look that great, because you got these three big playlists and you should be getting more streams than you really are, so that's actually not a great sign." Actually having someone here who understands the data and who understands the nature of streaming and the nature of playlisting had really shifted how we view music.
LV: And it also helps a lot in our own in-house A&R work. We sign records now, but we also sign artists and we develop artists and sometimes you'll look at an artist and go, "Oh my God, this kid put out a track by himself and it has five million spins." But then our in-house guy who is a bit of a data geek as well will sift through the data and say, "Well, it's really just on this one playlist where this one artist kind of gave him a shout out, and that's where it's all coming from, so maybe we need to dig a little deeper than just think that this guy's the second coming of whatever."
Going back to your management approach, how does your approach differ when it comes to DJs and electronic producers versus rock artists or rappers?
Matt: We're structured differently than every other management company that I'm aware of, partially by necessity. We always bootstrapped it, so whatever money came in is how we paid for things, and as a result, we couldn't afford in our earlier days, we couldn't afford to have every manager get his own dedicated day-to-day person, his own dedicated assistant, his own dedicated team, and that's, if you go to any management company, the set up's essentially like silos, so you'll have his manager and his team, this manager and his team, and so on and so forth. Our way of doing things, mostly by necessity, was that everybody had to share this day-to-day manager, and this assistant and this social media person. What we found as a result, though, and now we do it institutionally even though we can afford more, what institutionally makes sense for us is that by the kid that does social media working on Steve also doing social media for Blink-182, he might walk in and say, "Hey, we just did a Facebook Live stream on Blink's page, it was huge, it's doing well," or he might say, "Rancid did a limited edition vinyl pressing, we never do vinyl pressings, we should do that!" You think you look like a genius because no one in dance music world does that, or we can stick to the Blink side, where they riff off the dance ideas all day long, because we're all sharing the same people.
LV: When it comes to a rock act versus a DJ, a rock act is much more traditional where they go away, they write an album, and then they have an album cycle which allows them to tour, versus a DJ who's constantly active and the strategy's different, where with a DJ who's touring a lot, you want them to have new music to promote and new things to always be talking about. So that's kind of like the basic difference between the two of them, but to Matt's point, what we starting realizing is by working with these different genres and not just Matt and I working with them, but like literally our entire staff of 60 kind of has their foot in all these different genres, we start borrowing things that are working.
Matt: I think even the way Blink's releasing the content, a constant stream of content...
LV: A lot of that's borrowed from the EDM world.
Matt: The whole Blink team also works on dance acts, so they're constantly pulling ideas that work with dance acts. So whenever I talk to people about Steve, how do you build what Forbes says is like a $25 million a year business and never have a radio hit? It's relatively unheard of, even in the dance world. The other guys who are in the top four or five along Steve are all big radio acts. Steve's built an entire business around fan engagement, whether that be a constant stream of content on social media, meet and greets at every show, going down to the front row and touching every fan's hand, playing as many shows in as many cities as possible, that kind of stuff, it has spread throughout the company. We've seen it sustain our artists' careers in a million different ways. It's not just me and two other managers sitting in a room with three assistants pitching ideas back and forth or going online and seeing what everyone else is doing. For better or worse, there's no divide [between the genres.] Our company is generally an open-door policy, so at any given moment, you can walk into any manager's office, there's usually some other manager in that office, and they're talking about an artist that one of those two managers doesn't work on. It's very common, like, "Hey, I got this Deorro release, what do you think of this?" 'Cause everybody wants to bounce ideas off each other. I've literally walked around the office to see who's here because I have an idea and I wanna see what they think.
LV: The flow of information and the flow of ideas is probably what we pride ourselves on in this company.