This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Maykel Piron, co-founder and CEO, Armada Music.
Already fronting the world’s most successful independent dance label, Maykel Piron might now confidently predict, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Headquartered in Amsterdam for the past 16 years, and with an office in London, Armada Music recently opened an office in Manhattan to push forward the label’s expansion in the U.S.
Armada Music represents some of the biggest players in the global electronic music world including Armin van Buuren, Lost Frequencies, Loud Luxury, Afrojack, Fedde Le Grand, Erick Morillo, Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano, Gareth Emery, Kevin Saunderson, Morgan Page, W&W, and others.
The label racks up over 500 million streams per month while holding down prime airplay slots on BBC Radio 1, and SiriusXM, and the top spots of the U.S. Mediabase Dance Airplay chart.
Piron, Armada’s primary driving force, got into dance music in the Netherlands at the age of 10. He collected vinyl and DJed at school parties. By 14, he was DJing at commercial venues.
At 19, Piron began working for a DJ promotion service which was followed by a three-year stint as label manager at Purple Eye Entertainment starting In 1999. Warner Music Benelux then recruited him to set up a dance division. He was the A&R manager of three Warner labels for three years. For his final year, he was responsible for Warner/Chappell Music in the Benelux.
In 2003, Piron, Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren, and booking agent David Lewis co-founded Armada Music.
The timing, despite a recording industry turndown worldwide, turned out to be perfect.
For decades it seemed that labels in international markets mainly existed to sell recorded music from the United States, and the United Kingdom.
America has long been the biggest exporter of music repertoire largely due to the global popularity of English-language repertoire, as well as the media internationally embracing American values and cultures.
With new types of online music outlets including: download stores; on-demand and cloud-based streaming services; video-sharing sites; and Internet radio, consumer choice was being revolutionized as music-based experiences were being more effectively delivered in an assortment of connected ways.
These factors, coupled with a unique ecosystem that helped build and nurture both creative and commercial opportunities across all areas of the industry, led to the rise in popularity of domestic music in individual markets, particularly in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and South Korea while pushing Armada Music to the very forefront of the ever-expanding global dance market.
How did the Netherlands become one of the leaders of EDM?
I think it is because we only have a population of 18 million people in the country. We always have had to ship (export) titles. We think internationally because it’s such a small country. So we have always thought about getting our music played, and distributed in the bigger territories in the world like Germany, the UK, and the USA. We think globally. Also, Dutch people, they speak the languages, and it’s in our DNA to travel the world.
(The Netherlands is the birthplace of such great house DJs as Armin van Buuren, Tiësto, Don Diablo, Martin Garrix, Oliver Heldens, Afrojack and many others. Also, The RoXY club in Amsterdam–founded in 1987 and which burned down in 1999—made an impact that reverberated early on throughout the global club culture.)
Armada Music has opened a Manhattan office but, being a global brand for years, you have long had a North American presence. So this is not really new.
No, it’s not new. We had a smaller office on 18th Street. The current office (at 7 W 26th St,), where we can have more staff, opened in January. We started working in America directly about 10 years ago. I set up a company called Napith Music which had different shareholders. At a certain point, it made more sense to really focus on the Armada brand.
Headed by (U.S. label rep/radio programmer) George Hess?
Yes. That was with George about three years ago. But my son got ill. So I decided not to spend too much time on making the structure bigger in America because I was in hospitals every day for two years, He’s good now so now I can spend more time here because I really want to do it myself. So we created a seed. We are now with 8 people in New York. I’m here every month. I’ve got an apartment. It’s something that I want to do because I feel that it makes sense after all of those years working the company in Amsterdam where we have 120 people. It’s flowing there so it’s not a big challenge anymore to work with the team there. I decided that I wanted to do something challenging which makes sense for the structure of the whole company, and that is running the American office now.
With the advent of global streaming services, and worldwide digital distribution, coupled with the virtual demise of localized music retail outlets, why does Armada need an American office?
I think because of that. We are working directly with all of those services. Most of them are based in New York; some of them are in L.A. We talk directly to those teams, and we sit down with them. If you do everything from Amsterdam, you will be able to see those people as well, but it is easier when you have a presence in what I think is one of the most important markets in the world. Also because America is a great A&R source. There is so much talent here.
That is what I was about to zero in on. That America is a tremendous A&R source.
Yeah, and we have worked already for years with a lot of talent from America. Most of them are based in L.A. Some of them are in New York. So far we got away with it when they were calling into the office in Amsterdam, and my staff were taking calls at 11 o’clock in the evening. But I feel that it makes sense for us, that if we want to do this for the rest of my life, for the next 30 years, it makes sense to have an American office; where people can call into, and the lines are a little bit shorter, and that they can talk to American people who know the culture in this country as well.
Armada has certainly done well with Loud Luxury, the Canadian production and DJ duo.
Yeah, they (Andrew Fedyk and Joe Depace) are mainly based in L.A. now. They are great. It is awesome working together with them. So yeah, it’s building here on what we have in Amsterdam. Where I know that it makes sense for a lot of American acts and managers to be able to call into the New York office.
What are the challenges in being in America for you?
We need to create a team. We have great people in the office, and now they need to get used to our system. They need to grow into it, and they need to communicate with our team in Amsterdam. What I like about what I am doing, what we are doing already for 16 years now, is that at a certain point you get into a flow. That means that everything is flowing in a smooth way. That is what I would like to establish as soon as possible in this office. To have the flow that we have in Amsterdam. That is just a matter of time. My challenge, for now, is to make sure that the people here are doing what we’d like them to do, and that they tell us what the opportunities are in America. That we grab those opportunities and work with the right talent out there. We already have a big breakthrough American artist (with Loud Luxury) but I think that we can find even more. So that is the challenge for now. You sign the right acts to create even more success for the DJs that we are working with in America
Which act are you excited about now?
We are super excited about Zack Martino from New York. We’ve just released “Mood” (with Dyson) and we have high expectations for this song and have even more great tracks from him coming up this year. We recently signed him exclusively for a longer period which means we can work a long-term artist career. So we are going first with him.
Loud Luxury recently unleashed a remix of “Body,” retitled “Body On My,” featuring Pitbull and Nicky Jam.
Loud Luxury’s “Body” (with Brando) is nearing 500 million streams. We released the second track (“Love No More”) but now we need to come up with some new music which is in the pipeline. I am super excited. It will be in the summer that we will release a new song. So yeah, we have so many different quality acts that we work on in America. Now I think it is up to us to make sure that we do even better for them. That’s my challenge. Make sure that we give 120% to the artists that we are working with.
Another challenge for Armada in America is building a distinct identity for itself. Within EDM and dance, Armada is certainly known, if not celebrated here, but many of the Armada artists are better known than the label.
Yeah, that’s true but, to me, it is all about the artist because without the artist we are nobody.
I’m talking about establishing an artist-driven label identity like Motown, Def Jam, Stax, Mute, Jive, or Metal Blade over the years.
Yeah. That has already happened in Europe. That kind of association, and indeed that is one of the challenges that we need to work on in America; that we get to a level like in Europe where people will say, “Oh, it’s electronic music. It should be on Armada.” It’s a challenge to create that same vibe that we have in Europe. But that is one of the reasons to be here, and to have a real presence here as well.
One drawback at most majors is often the lack of inter-company support with affiliates on new releases or artists. Despite its global popularity, EDM remains sort of the bastard child of the music industry. The majors neither have a strong footing in the genre nor are major label executives generally supportive of EDM signings outside of their own territories.
Dance music is a global language. You are totally right about that within major companies. This is what I’ve seen at majors, not only at Warners when I worked there, but I think it’s everywhere. What they do with the people with the knowledge about this kind of music is that they sign locally, but they also decide what to release from other affiliations. Sometimes that can be a conflict of interest because they will always focus on their own signings. But I love working with the majors. We still do so in specific territories in that we do licensing deals; but for me, it’s always been about the people. We do territory by territory deals. Territories like England and America, we do everything ourselves. In Canada, we work with Sony. In Scandinavia and France, we make licensing deals with majors because we don’t want to actively involve ourselves 100% in those territories. We work with people that we really like. It’s really good at major companies if you find the right people who believe in you, and your music, and you can make direct deals. Then it’s really working.
I had one of the leading American rock managers recently ask me, “When is the popularity of electronic dance music going to end?” I told him it isn’t, and that’s EDM has been around for nearly 30 years.
That’s America, but in all of the other territories, dance music has been there always. That’s so funny because the Americans don’t even know that sound of the music is from Detroit. The first house records came from Detroit and Chicago.
(House music is a style of electronic dance music that was influenced by early to mid-1970s dance music as spun by DJs in such hot spots as Chicago, Detroit, and New York, and eventually Europe; mixing in heavy electronic synthesizer bass lines, electronic drums, electronic effects, funk and pop samples, and reverb. The name itself comes from the Warehouse, the Chicago club while under its first musical director, the late DJ Frankie Knuckles.)
The 1988 Network compilation, “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit,” was groundbreaking. Arguably the first major compilation of the genre, it led to the global emergence of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, Anthony Shakir, and others.
Kevin Saunderson (considered to be one of the originators of techno), he’s with us. He came up with big tunes like “Big Fun” and “Good Life” by Inner City. These kinds of tracks really shaped the whole culture of dance music. Not a lot of people know those tunes now. Not a lot of kids, especially in America.
Still, people ask when will the popularity of dance music wane. Well, it can be widely heard in pop like English singer Dua Lipa working with Diplo and Mark Ronson’s collaborative duo, Silk City that pays homage to house music. Last year “Electricity” with Dua Lipa gave Silk City its Billboard Hot 100 breakthrough, and won as Best Dance Recording at the 61st Grammy Awards.
It (dance music) will never end. It will never end because with a lot of dance producers, if they produce a major act, then it is perceived as a pop act, and if they do their own thing, then it’s dance music. That’s so funny because a lot of pop acts today are being produced in a real electronic way anyway. So it will never go away. You are totally right.
Like Madonna continuing to work with Swiss-born French producer Mirwais (aka Mirwais Ahmadzaï) as well as with Diplo, and reggaeton singer Maluma on her upcoming album Madame X,” that will drop on June 14th.
Madonna was really good in all that. She worked with Mirwais years ago (on three studio albums, “Music” (2000), “American Life” (2003) and “Confessions on a Dance Floor” (2005) and other tracks). She’s always had a good knowledge of working with the best producers, and the most trendy producers. A lot of them have been dance producers.
While you are focusing on America, Armada’s COO Nadine van Bodegraven is trying to make inroads for the label in two new major dance markets, Asia and Latin America.
We are looking into so many different opportunities. My team is in Amsterdam, as I’m more focused now on North America, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t looking into opportunities in other territories. So Nadine is looking into doing things in a broader perspective in Asia. She has set up deals there like we did recently with NetEase (online service) which is one of the key companies to go through in China. So our catalog is fully officially available in China now.
Performance royalty collections in China remain in flux because the potentially lucrative channels of radio and TV there are owned and controlled by the state.
I will say that it’s still a little bit like the Wild Wild West in China because of the copyright situation, but it will become much better there. Spotify recently opened up in India so I expect us to have our own office in Asia in the near future. But it’s not up for me to open it up because I want to focus on America.
(Spotify clocked more than one million unique users in India across its free and premium tiers within a week of launching at the end of February with a free trial offering for 30 days, while a monthly subscription cost 119 Indian rupees per month, or approximately $1.68 US.)
In India, Goa has a big electronic scene that started two decades ago. EDM is also strong in such main Indian cities as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, and Hyderabad.
You made an interesting point in an interview about a decade ago that a challenge in dance was getting artists to grow. How do you transition DJs or EDM –based artists from thinking in terms of club gigs to focus on progressing as artists? That is a different step.
Yes, it’s a different step. So what we do is that we love to be enforcing (overseeing) the A&R. So, 15 or 20 years ago house music was on radio and a lot of instrumentals tracks were being played on the radio, especially in Europe. Now it is very difficult to get DJ tracks, which are being played on the dance floors, on the radio. One of the services that we offer is that we have studios in Amsterdam so we are actively involved in A&R, and we make sure that the artists that we are working with can also create radio hits. An artist or a DJ, in terms of becoming a real artist, needs to perform onstage, and always play the music that they really love; but on the other hand, they also need to produce music that is suitable for radio because otherwise, they don’t have the radio plays that they need to become an established artist.
Meanwhile, different mixes can be done of a track.
One of my favorite Armada tracks is “Sunny Days” by Armin van Buuren featuring producer Josh Cumbee from 2017.
What Armin does is that he produces a mix that he can play at the festivals, and a down tempo version which is on the radio he can play, maybe, as an encore some days. But most of the time, he’s playing the tempo mix during a DJ set. And that is really working for him. That principle is being used by other DJs as well.
The other Armada track I really like is “Repeat After Me” by Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike x Armin van Buuren x W&W that has racked up 6 million YouTube plays since January (2019).
That’s a nice gimmick, eh? “Repeat After Me” is typical of a record that is made for festivals. The sound is so hard that it is not easy to get it on radio, to be honest. But it is a hit in the sense that it’s a real festival club hit. That’s the good thing about dance music. If you are not on radio you can still have a hit. Then it’s a dance floor or a festival hit.
Armada has a total of 1.4 million followers across its biggest playlists which is quite impressive.
Yeah, and there’s still SiriusXM radio and all of those outlets and BPM is their dance channel which is really important if you like to break a dance record in the U.S. It is important for us because through those channels people get to know our music, and then it’s not about skip rates; it’s about the burn rate which is totally different than a skip rate, I believe.
You certainly ramped up Lost Frequencies’ (Belgian DJ & record producer Felix De Laet) streams on Spotify.
Yeah, this was an act that we found, and then we needed to build it, and we brought “Are You With Me” to Dutch radio four times, and they didn’t want to play it. And we were believing in this so much. Then all of a sudden something happened in his home country. I was talking to our partner in Belgium saying, “He’s from Belgium, what can we do?” In Belgium, “Are You With Me” was then working, and became a #1 hit song. From there it went to France. It was really radio that drove the record, and from there on we did incredible streaming numbers. We are far over a billion streams now with Lost Frequencies.
Well, while there is airplay of EDM on SiriusXM and elsewhere, BBC Radio 1 in the UK has long led the way in the genre with support by DJs like Jeff Young, Peter Tong, Rob da Bank, Diplo, Annie Mac, Scott Mills, and Mista Jam. I don’t think there’s an equivalent of BBC Radio 1 anywhere else in the world in its support of the genre.
No. I remember recording Pete Tong for three hours. It was like the weekend had landed 20 years ago on BBC 1 with his “Essential Selection” show. It’s an institution. They started playing dance music at 6 o’clock on Friday evening, and the whole night you were able to listen to dance music. That’s in the DNA of the British people, and especially at BBC Radio 1.
And it wasn’t buried on BBC Radio 4 but on BBC Radio 1.
They were so influential, and they still are. In the past, if you had three plays during “Essential Selection” then you knew that the licensing requests would be flying in. That was the power of radio. This kind of power doesn’t exist anymore I think because of the streaming world. For a very long time, this was the way to promote your music. Now it’s a bigger combination of things, but still, it’s very important to have radio. Annie Mac is a big supporter of Phil Fuldner’s “Take Me” that we just released, and the interest is getting there because she’s playing it.
Significantly, Armada was at the forefront of the music industry’s changeover to digital. You were one of the first to embrace digital when many in the industry were wary of illegal downloading. What’s great about the streaming services, and even YouTube, is that a music fan can skim through a lot of tracks quickly and discover great new music. In many ways, particularly with the various playlists, this mirrors listening to the transistor radio 25 years ago under your pillow at night. It’s the same thing.
It’s the same thing. It’s all about quality music. I must say that I am extremely excited about Spotify, and about Apple Music, and all of the DSPs (digital service providers). I think that they are treating the labels, and the artists really well. I think there are other services that are not that good like YouTube. For me, Spotify and Apple are making sure that the industry is healthy again. And I think that you are totally right about the way that music is being consumed; being different, but it’s still the same as 25 years ago. It’s all about quality music. As long as you release quality music, and you promote it in the best possible way, then the music will pop up in all of those services; and it will get in the right playlists, and it will get the plays so people will see that it is successful, and that it is quality music.
Spotify is where I discovered “Armada Miami 2019” with tracks by Armin van Buuren, Arty, Cedric Gervais, Chicane, Dirtcaps & DJ Afrojack, Fedde Le Grand, Lost Frequencies & Zonderling, Loud Luxury, Showtek & Moby. I didn’t know about that release before spotting it on Spotify.
That’s the good thing about Spotify. Everything is available. I do it myself (discovering tracks) as well. I scroll through it, and I can listen for hours to new music, and I find new artists. That is incredible. It’s not only me. I know a lot of people that are doing that.
While I believe the music industry is still transitioning, it is a fascinating time because music fans can either find the music they are looking for or easily discover new music. Under the old system, a label executive had to reach out to a product manager in another territory to release music he’d issued first domestically. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. Other major label affiliates and independent distributors tended to be very protective of their own markets.
In the past, if Mario (Forsyth) from Amato Distribution in the UK was not interested in buying your vinyl, then you knew that the British DJs were not going to play your music. So it was up to one person. Now you don’t have that wall anymore. The music is available, and we promote on a global scale. We have fans from all over the world. So we know now that when we push that button that we reach those people, and then it starts (developing). Normally, 20 years ago, we were first sending out the white labels, and building up a record sometimes for half a year. Now the release date is the air date; so the air date is the release date, and then we start promoting, and sometimes it takes a year before a track really gets through. You already mentioned Loud Luxury. That took us at least a half year to get the first real plays on that song.
Loud Luxury’s Brando-featured tune “Body” was released in late 2017, and crossed over from being a dance floor and festival hit to reaching #80 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart
It goes into 500 million Spotify streams soon. But it has taken a while to get there.
“Body” was released in October 2017.
Yes, and the first country where the track was really working was Germany, and from there it started building.
How many titles do you have directly under Armada?
We have over 15,000 titles in our catalog. We work with a lot of DJs who have their own label. It’s more than distribution because we have joint ventures with those labels. We distribute ourselves so we don’t go through distribution companies in the world. We have direct deals with all of the DSPs so if we deliver something to Apple and Spotify we do this through our own teams, and the label deals that we have in place are joint ventures with the DJs.
You are co-founder, and a member of the board of Cloud 9 Music which specializes in music publishing, compilations, and artist development.
We are the biggest independent publishing company in the Benelux. So we set up Armada Music 16 years ago, and I always wanted to have my own publishing company as well. My heart is really with masters and dance music, but I love publishing as well. I used to work at Warner/Chappell Music in the Netherlands. Then I found a great partner Raymond van Vliet who began running Cloud 9 two years after we set up Armada Music. I don’t have to worry about it too much because Raymond (as CEO and co-founder) runs Cloud 9. In this company we do a lot of different things. We sub-publish Elvis Presley’s songs in the Benelux (through a new sub-publishing deal with Raleigh Music Group that includes such songs as “Love Me Tender,” “It’s Now Or Never,” and “A Little Less Conversation.”). We publish a lot of catalogs in the Benelux, but we are also publishing acts like Hardwell, and also Armin, and Lost Frequencies on a global scale. And we do a lot of Dutch rap music in this company too. But my heart is really with dance music, and that is the reason why I focused 90% of my time on Armada.
(As a leading independent Benelux publisher, Cloud 9 Music represents Armin van Buuren, Lost Frequencies, Hardwell, Da Beatfreakz, Showtek, W&W, MOKSI, Nervo, Fedde Le Grand, Fatman Scoop, Josylvio, Rotterdam Airlines, Daniel Gibson (Within Temptation), Esko, Rollàn, Jairzinho, Green Velvet, Fais, Dirtcaps, Dannic and Sevn Alias.
It also represents the interests of such international publishers as Raleigh Music Group, Bucks Music, Dipiù Music, Roba Music, Downtown Music, Scorpio Music, Ultra Music, Just Isn’t Music (Ninja Tune), Pen Music and others in the Benelux. Additionally, Cloud 9 Music also has an interest in Downtown Music Benelux, Phrased Differently, and Touse Ensemble Publishing.
Finally, Cloud 9 Music also represents such labels as ROQ N Rolla Music, Equipe Music, Young Elephants, Hard With Style, Fonk Recordings, Masters of Hardcore, and the Pagara Music Group.)
Armada obviously tries to own or license master rights, but what about music publishing rights being tied in as part of a signing? And do 360-styled deals ever come into play?
We don’t really do 360 deals anymore. In the past, it was sometimes needed to make a bit of income on the live side, but I think that the industry is healthy enough right now to not do that kind of deal anymore.
Still publishing would be on the table during a negotiation?
If the publishing is available then we want to be there.
You’re dancing a bit. As an indie, you need control of both master and the publishing rights in a project, if only to streamline sync usage.
I don’t think so because, honestly, I do this because I love the music. So that means that if I am having a meeting, and I want to sign the act because I am excited about it—and it’s not only about me because we have 8 A&Rs—so this is what I always tell them: “If you really believe in something, and if the publishing isn’t available, and we can’t get it, then it is what it is.” I don’t want to be that old school guy saying, “I must have it.” People will see what we can add to the table, what we can bring to the table if they also can give us the publishing. If they are smart and it is available, and then they do sell, then they see what we do. If they don’t do it, then you’re right. If you want to make a sync license, and you own the publishing as well, it’s a one-stop shop.
As long as you own or administer both the master and publishing rights.
Yeah, exactly. You can see that the (the songs by the) most successful artists that we have on the sync level, that most are owned or administered by us in publishing because we can move very quickly. Sometimes the publishing is with someone elsewhere, and if we don’t get an answer in 48 hours, then we lose the opportunity for the sync. So I prefer to have it, but again it’s not like we put a knife on somebody’s throat and say, “Hey, we can only do the deal if we also have the publishing,” because I don’t like that attitude. I don’t think it’s even allowed (by the parties involved) anymore in all of the territories in the world to do those combined deals. So we treat it separately.
Do you have staff at Armada working with film, TV, and gaming contacts?
Absolutely, we have departments in our headquarters in the Netherlands, and I am thinking of opening up a smaller office in L.A. next year. But we can’t do everything at the same time. Our growth is very organic, and it has been in an easy way . So this is on my calendar to do for next year.
I understand that you have begun analyzing the massive flows of information coming into your office on a daily basis in order to develop dedicated marketing strategies.
We need to do this not only for ourselves but also for our acts because we need to play them in the right possible ways. So it means that we are administering, and analyzing millions of lines from so many different places. On YouTube alone, we really need to be able to administer those lines. What we’d like obviously is to see where are the challenges are in order to make our playlists better. If we see that we have a track which has a skip rate of 60% then it might not be good to have that track at the #1 position in our playlist. It’s simple, but it’s important stuff to collect in order to make better playlists; and also to understand why specific tracks might not work at streaming services.
I truly believe in A&R. If I believe in a song, then I will push it no matter what, but if the skip rate is high then you know that you have to push it in a different way. and that it will be very difficult to get the right playlist, and get the playlist support from the DSPs at that specific moment. Sometimes with music, you need to listen to specific tracks a couple of times before you really get it. So if I ‘m listening to the radio, and if a song is passing by a couple of times, then I might really get into it, and maybe without knowing that I am listening to that song. I think that the way of promoting music nowadays through the DSPs, it’s all about skip rates.
At age 10, you were collecting vinyl. At age 14, you were DJing in clubs. Where did you grow up in the Netherlands?
I grew up in Tilburg in the south, very close to the Belgium border. So I was at the age of 10 already DJing because I loved dance music so much. We had a very good environment to listen to mixes on radio. It was a very good thing. So a lot of kids got involved in mixes. I was pretty tall when I was 14 so I was able to sneak into the clubs and listen to electronic music. I was lucky that we had a club called Talk of the Town which started playing electronic music called New Beat. This is how I got introduced at a very young age to electronic music. Even before house music came up. House music really did not exist.
Where did you get your vinyl from in those days?
I was traveling to Amsterdam at a very early age to get my vinyl, but also in the south of the Netherlands, they had very good stores, and in Belgium, and also in Tilburg. On Thursdays, the imports were flying in. That was the day to go. It was what New Music Fridays are like now. It was Thursdays for the DJs. You would go to the stores, to those guys selling the vinyl, and they knew a little bit about the music that you were interested in, and they were keeping the limited versions for the ones (customers) spending the most. I loved that. I loved that because you went to the stores, and you were buying the vinyl. You’d go through one hundred vinyls, and you’d buy 8 or 10. And you were talking about music in those shops. It was a really great time.
I recall those little stores with clerks saying, “You have to hear this.” They were our A&R people for that time.
Yeah, for sure. I’ve had tips from guys from behind the counter saying, “You really need to check this out.” They were the A&Rs. I also know or a fact that a lot of DJs and a lot of A&Rs used to work for stores because they were buying the right vinyl to sell, and that is a form of A&R as well, for sure.
Does Armada release vinyl today?
We still do vinyl, but it is so limited. So today, no. Not really. We still sometimes do a special release. We celebrated 15 years of Armada last year, and we made a box of vinyl for our fans with all of the classic Armada tunes. So we still do vinyl because we love it, but it’s so limited that the possibilities to ship it are so limited these days. It doesn’t make sense to put vinyl out of all of the music that we are releasing. It’d really be a waste of time, and a waste of money too to do that. But if we have something special, we do it.
Did you attend university?
I never went to university because someone offered me a job when I was 18.
At Update magazine?
Yes, it was part of the DMC (Disco Mix Club) period in the Netherlands. The magazine was called Update, and part of the company was a DJ promotion service. So I started as a DJ promoter, and I was going to all of the labels, and it was my goal to create a network. At a certain point, I got offered a job to work for an independent company.
As a label manager at Purple Eye Entertainment?
It was Purple Eye, and I signed guys like (Dutch DJ) Ferry Corsten who did a track with Tiësto, and that’s how I got to know Tiësto. We had a lot of success. Those tunes were entering the UK singles chart, and I learned a lot.
You were also releasing records by Armin van Buuren.
Yeah, yeah. He did a remix for me. Back then there was no internet and because I want to network, and I wanted to know all of the DJs, I was riding to their houses and picking up the DATs when they finished mixes. That’s how I got to know Armin. He was still living at his parent’s house so I got to know his mom drinking tea, and that was the first time that we saw each other. Back then, he did a remix of “Dallas” theme from the “Dallas” TV series
Next, you became A&R manager at Warner Music Benelux from 1999 to 2003, and you connected with the English electronic music group Above & Beyond.
Tony (McGuinness) was working for Warners back then (as the marketing director & manager of Warner Music Group). He was the marketing director for R.E.M., Madonna and other acts in the UK (including Seal, Simply Red, and Mike Oldfield). He reached out to me asking for Ferry Corsten’s remix for William Orbit’s “Barber’s Adagio for Strings” when I was at the independent company. That’s how we got to know each other. Then when I started at Warners we stayed in touch. He was sending me music, and we started releasing tracks from him with his brother (Liam under the alias Nitromethane). Then we did the publishing deal for Above & Beyond, and OceanLab (the UK vocal trance group consisting of vocalist Justine Suissa, and the three members of Above & Beyond), and I released some tracks from the guys as OceanLab on Warners. It was a really cool time. Really good. But I always knew that I wanted to set up something for myself. When I started working at Warners I told the MD (managing director), “I’m here for three years. Then I will leave.”
(While working at Warner Music UK, Tony McGuinness was asked to remix Chakra’s “Home” by an A&R colleague. McGuinness approached Anjunabeats, (Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki) to work on the remix together. The result was their remix of “Home” which reached #1 in the UK club charts. The collaboration led to them teaming up as Above & Beyond. Their next most significant release was a remix of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl” in 2000. Above & Beyond then went on to become one of the most successful production and DJ groups in the world.)
How did Armada come about?
What happened was Armin knew that I wanted to set up something for myself while I was at Warners. He was signed at Warner/Chappell back then. So he knew that I was going away at a certain moment. So he said, “Take care of my publishing, and let’s do a tour.” He was playing in the UK, and from there we went to Ibiza. He was playing for Godskitchen at Eden (Club) there, and when we were sitting at the rooftop of an apartment, he said, “Hey, I might be interested in joining your idea. Why not set up a label together?” Armin also came up with the idea to have Dave Lewis as a partner because Armin was already with him..
He was Armin’s agent.
And he was the agent. Back then the music industry was really going down, and I was like, “Hey, maybe it makes sense to have a partner that really understands the live side as well because I don’t get that side too much.” I was so much more focused on releasing music that I wanted to have a partner that really understood the live end (of the business). We started the company and a big portion of my time back then was really managing Armin together with David. He was responsible for the live side, and I was responsible for all of the other stuff.
Are David and Armin still involved with the day to day of Armada?
No. David has his own company DLP (David Lewis Productions), and Armin is in studios and traveling the world.
How difficult was it in the beginning convincing artists that you could have your own label? You also had to find a banker to be able to open I would think.
No. We didn’t use any banking because we had saved a little bit of money ourselves. It was easy. We just did it
Vinyl was still in use for dance music then.
Yes, vinyl was one of the biggest forms of turnover back then. Try to imagine that. One of the first releases was Motorcycle’s “As The Rush Comes” (now with 3.9 million views on YouTube). I remember that we did 18,000 copies on vinyl on that song. It was amazing. What I learned was that if you want to set up a label, no matter what, do it. Before we started, I was pretty good at making sure that we had product to sell. We signed a lot of records before I actually started working 100% on Armada. So from day one, from when we had the office, we had content to sell. That was how we started. It was low cost. I went from having a pretty good salary at Warners to near nothing. “What am I doing?” If you don’t make too much money, you can’t give yourself a high salary. That’s how we really structured the company. Then I started hiring–quite lean–because I didn’t want to fill up a website myself or make label copies myself. In the beginning, I was really doing everything myself, and investing any money we made back into staff.
What did you learn from working at Warners that you brought into Armada? Either things you shouldn’t do because Warners did it wrong or things you should do because Warners got it right.
I learned how major companies think. I also know now that dance music, especially the underground tracks, the non-hits, the major are not really interested in. It is very difficult to set up a career for a DJ within a major label structure.
Plus a major tend to move too slowly for niche genres.
Exactly. I got the opportunity to act like an independent there because they gave me a lot of freedom which was super cool but because I also had the experience as an independent I saw some really cool things happening at Warners. I really loved the company. It was friendly people. Really professional. So Armada is really a combination of those years of experience at a major company, but also at the independent. I combined the best things out of those years for Armada.
Today, international hits can come from anywhere, and translate everywhere. Countries, not traditionally considered global A&R centers, are now producing worldwide hits and stars, brought about by streaming and social media. The majors, in particular, have been successful in “slingshotting” releases and artists from one territory to another territory, including Danish rock band Lukas Graham as well as Aussie artists, 5 Seconds Of Summer, Iggy Azalea, and Sia; all of whom eventually cracked the American market.
That is really interesting, but I think that is more relevant for pop music, and less relevant for dance music. It is so difficult to break acts abroad, especially from the smaller territories in Europe because the priorities are always from the UK and America in my opinion. Then, when you have major acts signed in the Netherlands, it can work really well in the Netherlands, but then who is going to listen to this big act from the Netherlands in America? That only happens a couple of times. So it’s not the easiest way. Pop music is very difficult to break out of its own territory. That is what I have always seen in Europe. But, by going from territory to territory, that makes sense for sure.
Practically every major music trend of the past 50 years began with an independent, not with a major. They usually turn up on Day 3.
It is the structure of the majors, and they want to go for sure shots. That’s what it is. I think that they are right to do it in that way because they have the structure to do so.
They can pick up artists or masters from indie sources at any time.
They think, “Okay, let’s buy it,” because they have the resources and the money.
You have been a DJ yourself. Do you miss that side of your life?
No. I was doing it more from an A&R point of view. DJing was my passion for sure, but I always felt that the other side of the business was more appealing to me. So when I got the chance to work in the industry, I began slowing down DJing. I knew that I couldn’t work 7 days a week, work with the DJs, and not be able to see those DJs because I was DJing myself on the weekend. That wasn’t a good combination. It was interesting to do, to sit also on the other side to understand what producers are going through, but I was more like the A&R telling people what to do. I was pretty successful (as a DJ), but I don’t miss it because it’s not really my thing. I want to work with people. I want to work with the artists. I want to connect people. I’m in my best element on this side of the spectrum.
You love what you are doing.
I don’t think that I can do anything else. It makes me smile every day. I wake up happy. We sign new acts and new songs. The most exciting thing for me to do is to release those songs, share them with the world, and make sure that as many people as possible are listening to our acts.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.