Before chucking my old laptop away I did a final sweep of the documents folder for anything that missed getting transferred to Dropbox. Deep in my ludicrous filing system I came across some interview transcripts full of nuggets of musical advice that I’m very happy I found and wanted to share.
I while back, I had a long chat with Jono Grant, one third of Above & Beyond that are arguably one of the most well-loved electronic music acts and owners of A-list electronic music record labels Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep. Not ones to rest on their electronic laurels, the trio have been touring the world in 2016 performing a live acoustic show with a host of vocalists and musicians.
I was researching for project on how modern music producers had turned themselves into global phenomena, and how they reach beyond the music to connect with their audiences on multiple levels. We talked candidly for a while about the beginnings of Anjunabeats, about standing out, and about finding inspiration.
I’ve kept my thoughts to a minimum and let Jono do the talking (everything in italics or quotes). There’s honestly so much gold in this conversation, hopefully it will give music producers some insight from an electronic music industry veteran and a bloody decent bloke. Enjoy.
How did Anjunabeats get started?
At university I studied commercial music and met Paavo there. We were both doing the same sort of thing independently, making remixes, and he said he wanted to set up the label. It was something I wanted to do as well and we both had a big overlap in the kind of music we liked, not the same, but very similar. We were both really into the trance music style at the time so we decided to make a track in that style.
I got a load of my studio gear in a taxi,drove it round to Paavo’s place, and we plugged it all in. It was brilliant fun, we were so excited about having this mega studio. Back then it was all hardware and the more hardware you had the better you were, haha, that sort of mentality.
Paavo did the label as his major project at university so he did have a set of goals for that, for the academic side of it. The goals for us were (1) to start a label, (2) release our own music, and (3) look to start signing other artists once we released a few tracks. The original point was to release our own music and be in control of our own music, not send off demos and be at the will of another company, egos, and all other music industry bullshit.
When we did it I wasn’t thinking ‘I don’t care if I lose money putting this record out’. From day one there was definitely a bit of business in there. I was confident, maybe a little naively, but we did make our money back by using my student loan to press the vinyl; quite a big effort to do back in 2000! It sold pretty well, we made a couple hundred quid out of it. Then we did it again, and again. And again.
There’s a general feeling in music that you’ve got to do it for the love and not the money. I think the successful people do it for both. Check out this great podcast between Jacob Henry of Silk Music and Jaytech (a long-time Anjuna artist and owner of Positronic) where they discuss balancing business and music, among other things. Things have changed since the formation of Anjunabeats. Back then, DJs could easily listen to all the new releases from a genre during a weekly record store visit. Now there are over 300 releases and over 1200 tracks on Beatport in the “progressive house” genre alone. Getting above the noise takes staying true to the art and keeping your business head on too.
Self-releasing and crowdsourcing through places like BandCamp and IndieGoGo are viable routes to getting your music out while still retaining all the rights - one of Jono and Paavo’s reasons for starting Anjunabeats. However, unless you already have thousands of followers (or the right contacts) this won’t reach as many listeners as releasing on established labels… but it’s certainly cheaper and less risky than blowing your student loan on a pressing of vinyl!
With the sea of music out there, how can a new artist or label really stand out?
Dance music has always been a style in which people borrow ideas of each other. The problem is that you end up with a lot of tracks that sound very similar and a lot of artists that don’t have any identity. It’s maybe a subconscious goal, but I think is really important to have a really strong identity and not to be just like everybody else. This can be a subtle thing as well, even though you need a strong identity it needn’t be anything complicated like having the mousehead - that’s an amazing identity but it needn’t even be as good as that.
It’s also really important to have a strong brand identity so that people know what they’re getting. We were hearing records that came along that we really liked that we didn’t feel were right for Anjunabeats, but we wanted to be involved in and have a home for. So [rather than dilute Anjunabeats] we decided to set up our sub-brand Anjunadeep and put those records out on there.
How do you balance making what you want and making what people want to hear?
It’s such an important question, this goes back to the identity thing. I personally believe important that when your in the studio you make music you love and love doing. I’m quite a scientific person as opposed to being religious, but even with that head on me I believe that people can tell if something wasn’t done sincerely. If you’re making music with sincerity it tends to be better music.
Don’t think too much about your audience while you write the music. I don’t think Pink Floyd sat in the studio and did Dark Side Of The Moon thinking ‘hmm, what would our listeners like to hear’?
Side note: Recently I listened to the great James Altucher podcast episode with guest Brian Koppelman, the creator of the Showtime series “Billions”. He reiterated this point even more strongly, saying that trying to figure out what the next big thing in the collective unconscious will be is insanely harmful to the creative process.
There’s a time to say ‘how can we make this sound more like one of our records?’ And that is once you’ve got the ideas down. You don’t what those kind of thoughts too much in the initial spawning of ideas.You cant work like that properly. Maybe some people can, but for us, we have an inspiration and then go and do it. Unfortunately, and this is where it gets interesting, because we have a close relationship with our fans where they may be disappointed because they don’t like something we do. There comes a point where you have to say ‘I’ve got to stick to what I believe in and make music that I believe in’ and that’s the most important thing.
Obviously you’ve got to develop skills, but if you stick to what you believe in and make sure it truly is what you believe in and enjoy doing, at some point something has got to give and there will be some success because there will be other people in the world that feel that way and will relate to your music.
Music is an expression of emotion, if you’re making a musical expression of that emotion well then someone else is going to understand that.
So you don’t think it is necessary to stick to a single genre?
There’s no need to worry about needing to fit in with other people because you can always start with a great original song or piece of music and then remix it into that new style. It’s another argument for being individual in EDM, the better bits of music are the ones that last longer because they’re not style based. If the style comes before the idea it affects the longevity of the song.
There are songs that you just know are going to be listened to in ten years time or longer, and then there are others that are big hits now but you know they wont be listened to next year — they’re next year’s fish and chip shop paper.
Real hardcore fans of a particular genre or artist sometimes get so blinkered into one style or artist and think that anything else is really bad. Take Skrillex for example. Quite a controversial figure in the scene, not personally the music I like, but hugely talented and I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy. I see on Twitter where people say ‘dubstep is shit’ etc. As a producer I don’t feel that way. If you speak to most music producers that are worth their salt they enjoy a variety of styles, they’re really quite inspired when someone comes along and does something new and different or in a different genre. There’s good and bad music in all genres. It’s important to be a musical sponge. Absorb as much of it as you can and then spit out all the good bits when making your music.
As a group, how do you decide on an idea for an Above & Beyond track?
When we were starting Anjunabeats, we were making other styles of music. We did a harder track called Dirt Devils — The Drill. That was our biggest track in the early days. We did it as a complete laugh, had a techno mix as the original mix and then a trance version that became the radio mix that everyone knew.
Now everything that I or anyone else comes up with in the band gets put forward for Above & Beyond because that’s what we do best. We like to collaborate on things. Sometimes I’ll come up with a core idea and that core idea ends up being removed but it will have provided a springboard for one of the other guys to come up with something. “Cant Sleep” is classic example of that. It was a housey track I’d written. The chords stayed the same roughly, but before I knew it Paavo had come up with a new remix that complete threw away the other stuff and at the time I was like, ‘oh…’ and was a bit gutted! But actually, it ended up being a really big track and we loved it.
Where do you feel that your inspiration comes from?
I think its so important to listen to really good music. There’s a danger if you listen to just dance music. I love it to bits, but it’s derivative, it’s not the source music, it’s important to listen to the stuff that inspired those dance records rather than inspiring yourself purely on dance music. For me, I was really inspired by a lot of 80’s stuff, Depeche Mode, New Order and all that came into our music in some way as well, Tony is inspired by a lot of new wave stuff and that’s definitely in there as well. There’s a risk if you just listen to dance radio shows and that’s your only starting point that you wont really understand music on a fundamental level. Not that you need to understand the scoring of music, but having that innate ability to write music. If you go back to the source of some of those records… look at Depeche Mode and take it a step back to disco and then go back again you can keep going and you can find great albums that are often quite raw music. That’s important, dance music isn’t quite that raw as it’s music made to dance to. Hopefully it has some of the raw bits in too, I guess that’s what we try to put into our artist albums. We try and make sure it is great music as well as stuff you can dance to.
One thing I’ve noticed about creativity is that the best ideas come when you’re not concentrating. When you’ve had a shit day, and not come up with anything, and you’re tinkling on the keyboard, and you’re mum calls you because she’s not heard from you for ages, and you just happen to stumble across a really nice little sound or riff or chord pattern or whatever it is. It’s when you’re kinda switched off. I’m sure there are whole books that have been written on creativity and I’d love to read them. Actually, maybe then you’d be concentrating too much on that state of mind!
How do you feel that social media has changed music and interaction with fans?
The internet has changed the communication and sharing on such a big scale, and changed how you get feedback. Small minorities can have a big voice on the internet, whether they do or don’t like things, so heroes and failures are created on the internet from people reading stuff about themselves. The audience has a big influence.
It is more important than ever to have your own goals and stick to them because there’s so much potential for influence and being swayed off your path.
I personally believe that the way to long term success in the music industry is to focus very much on what you want to do and the rest will follow on from that. Assuming you’ve got some kind of idea, talent or passion, at some point someone else will share that passion if you put enough of yourself into it.
How do you figure out which are the valid criticisms of the music?
I think timing is so important in the music industry, it is important to recognize that in order to keep your head together. You get people that are overconfident, the ego heads, and you get those very vulnerable about what is said about their music. You’ve got to keep a level head. With a track going out there and having its story and people’s opinions on it, you have to be a little disconnected from that so you don’t get too involved with that side. Sit back on the sofa and say ‘aaaah’, rather than getting too stuck in with ‘oh my god, people are saying this and that’. If people are saying nice things you can give your self a pat on the back, but it’s hard just to see the positives.
Have good people around you that don’t just tell you its great for the sake of it, people that will give constructive feedback and be honest.
You get jealous people in the music industry, A&R people in record companies jealous they didn’t make that record themselves and they’ll maybe put you down for it, I’ve seen it all really! As long as you’re happy with what you’ve done, that’s the most important thing.
There’s not much I can add to that sound advice. To paraphrase Jono: develop your skills, stick to what you believe in, and once you’re happy with what you’ve made, then it’s all good. One day your time will come. Or as my dad says: “you’ll be an overnight success in a decade”.
Thanks to Jono, and thanks for reading.
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