Interview: digging deeper with John Norman
John Norman with lots of tips for musicians. We mean lots.
Here is an artist we always love talking to. Canadian John Norman is a down to earth person with a clear view, his view, on the music industry and how to approach this business. It’s not a straight path to follow but it feels more like a rollercoaster ride when starting out there in the big world of electronic music. We had a very long talk and touched topics like promotion making money, being yourself and skills. So please grab a cup of coffee, or a beer if you like, and sit down to read this interview.
After 2 interviews already and some chats in person, we are meeting again in Amsterdam forr Amsterdam Dance Event 2017. For those of you attending this yearly gathering with industry finest, we strongly advise to come over to our good friends from My Cup of Tech’s networking event. John Norman will be there. Get over there and let’s have achat about all thing music related.
Glad ADE is becoming a yearly appointment for us. It’s going to be nice seeing you again. How are things?
It does seem as though it is becoming a yearly appointment for us. I must say that I quite enjoy our conversations at ADE. I’m sure this interview will give us plenty more to discuss over our time there. Before we go forward though, you are asking me how I am. A very typical answer would be to say, “Things are going very well!”. The fact of the matter is that they are not. For me sure, things are great, but I’m in a very fortunate and privileged position to say that. However, there is a lot of pain in the world right now from recent events that have, and are still taking place. I would like to take this opportunity to send my well wishes to any of your readers around the world who have been affected by any of the events that have taken place over the world in the last while which have left people injured (physically or mentally), have lost a friend, family, or loved one.
I was forced to finish this one in order to seize an opportunity that was presented to me, so I had to risk a little more personally on this one.
You’ve just released a track on Todd Terry’s freshly launched Terminator imprint. Driving tech sound with a solid pounding bass. Tell us about the track.
It’s a pretty straight up, four on the floor techno banger really. It’s definitely a track that will shake the pants and shirts off anyone standing near a speaker when someone plays it. There really isn’t a whole lot to it, though. It’s probably one of the most raw and least produced tracks I think I’ve written in a while. I’m always worried a bit when there aren’t a lot of elements in a track. I fear it risks being a bit boring. I was forced to finish this one in order to seize an opportunity that was presented to me, so I had to risk a little more personally on this one. I suppose there is some beauty in that though. And I’ve been getting some great feedback so far, so I guess it worked!
How did you get to collaborate with Todd Terry?
You know when you see someone somewhere, and then you see them everywhere? That happened with Todd and myself. I was coming home from Ibiza a couple years ago, and I ran into him in the security line waiting to put our bags full of gear on to trays to go through the scanners. I had never met him before, but thought to myself that this guy standing right in front of me looked an awful lot like Todd Terry, so I worked up the courage and let out the ever so awkward introduction of “hey man, you look really familiar. What’s your name?” I immediately thought to myself – who says things like this!? I apparently do. I’m such an awkward person at times, and I have never really perfected the introduction. Anyhow, we talked and commiserated about the ridiculousness of putting our gear through these machines, and the inevitable torture we get from staff when they see a bag come through full of electronics, wires, chips, plugs, buttons… We got through the line and went our separate ways. A month later in Amsterdam at ADE I ran into him again, and we talked some more. But it wasn’t until Todd Terry started up Terminator that the opportunity to collaborate with him came up. My wife and manager was chatting with Alexander Technique, the A&R at Terminator and someone I’ve known for some time now, and he mentioned he was sitting down with Todd listening to some new demos that came through and mentioned I should send one over. I finished the track pretty quickly after that and sent it over. Todd heard it, loved it, and the rest is as they say, history.
This must be a great step for you to work with an artist like this? What do you expect from it?
Absolutely, it is a great step. But, I don’t know that there is much I expect to get from it really. I mean, sure there is always hope that it will foster new opportunities for me with Terminator, bring some more recognition and validation to the work I do as an artist, as well as draw some awareness of my own label UNT Records. But I’m honestly just very humbled to have an artist like Todd Terry to see the value in my music and want to put it on his label, especially one which is fairly new. I mean he could put any major artist on his label instead, but I was chosen. To see the track break into the Top 50 of the Traxsource Techno Top 100 was a very nice. So a big thank you to everyone out there who picked up a copy!
Let’s go back to a previous interview. You mentioned you had plans in extending the shelf life of music. How’s that plan going?
Do you have a few extra pages of column space? (laughing) Man, I could talk about this for hours and hours. It’s a struggle, but I’ve been pushing that message pretty hard for a while now. In the past few months I have heard a few artists and labels starting to take the same less-is-more approach to releasing music. I think is a huge step in the right direction in fighting a terribly saturated market.
About making music, releasing and promoting it. And money.
Still we see artists, young and old, releasing music as their life depends on it. Some tracks are good, some are bad as it goes. Do you think that the more an artist releases, the more rumour it gets the more top of mind he becomes or remains?
Absolutely. But is that a good thing? We have created a culture in music where it’s no longer about what we have right now, it’s about what we’ve done, and what’s next. Which inevitably means things don’t stick around very long anymore. That’s where I talked about the shelf life of music before. This is a counter-intuitive approach. Not to mention the flawed logic of throwing a bunch of shit on the wall to see what sticks. This is why artists feel this pressure to release so much material so quickly, They fear they’ll drop out of the spotlight.
Make good music and people will always look to the next track regardless of whether it’s next week, or next month!
Being bombarded by so much new music from the same artists much like being hit with ads in social media and webpages that track my internet whereabouts telling me I should buy this or that, read this or that, it’s overwhelming, and it sucks. It has the tendency to push me away from those platforms more often and look to alternative places where I can control my environment.
People can only consume so much. Look at how people are always saying “I’m taking a break from Facebook!”. It’s become too much for people. Life itself has become saturated. And the quality of the stories on social media, the quality of the music is paying for it too. If you’re releasing that much music, that often, how different is each song? Is it just the same story over and over? Where’s the feeling in it? It all lacks a lot of feeling most of the time. It’s likely all template too. Really listen hard to that artists music and you’ll hear it. If an artist releases 1 track a month and the tunes are good, I might buy every single one. And the more and more they keep doing that, it might actually come to a point where I don’t need to even listen to the track to know it’ll be good and immediately put it in my cart, or put it in rotation. But more importantly I look at this more deeply. When artists I like start releasing too much music that is possible for me to buy or consume, I start to get selective. I get to a point where I start to make the decision to not buy some great tracks because there is just too much.
So where does one go to legally listen to music from artists and not need to purchase all their music in full … streaming. And we all know how much that pays the artist. Instead of them getting my $0.50 per sale and their mechanicals, they are now getting $0.0007 per play. When that starts to happen more and more, those tracks get played less and less and that means less for the artist. Then the artists start to second guess themselves why their music doesn’t sell so well.
So to be completely honest with you, the best model is to release less, spend more time letting people know about it, promoting it, working the record/release and giving it enough shelf life to work for you for years to come.
You mentioned it before, ADE is the place to be for young talents to get in touch with the industry. As this is an event that takes place once a year, what other advise do you have for young talents?
I recently had a conversation with a friend about advice for young talents, and one of my conclusions was to listen to as many different genres of music, not just dance music though.
Listen to as many different genres of music as you possibly can. Even try to re-create it in your DAW. Your music will be better for it, and you will be better a better artist for it.
Also, the industry doesn’t need another Artist X. They get booked for all the shows you want to play already. You’ll have to wait your whole career to replace them, and you’ll still be giving your audience nothing different. Be yourself, build your own following. The reality of the situation for a lot of artists is that they might never achieve their dream of being a well known artist in the genre that they love. But if your love is making music and you can’t live without it, then just like love knows know boundaries, music should be no different.
There are many different areas of the music business that you might work well in. You don’t all have to be a DJ or an artist even. I know of many would-be solo artists that didn’t make it, but have gone on to break some of the worlds best talent. Just give it your best, and don’t be afraid to walk away from it all if it doesn’t work out.
Last year we sat down for a beer and a cozy chat and we talked about ways on how to make some money with music. You had many thoughts about that, some easy to accomplish some harder. But money should not be the main goal, quality music should be the primary goal. What do you think?
I get asked this question a lot actually. I don’t think it’s so black and white like that. But in short, money shouldn’t be the main driver. Artists who do that seek to cut corners, climb those ladders and do anything they can, giving up a bit of self-respect just to be on this or that festival main stage. Fame, and ultimately money, is usually their main driver there. Should we shame them though? Maybe they are just using a skill they have to ensure a financially secure future for them. I know many artists that have done such a thing, and are now still working in music doing what they love again. So who knows? Who are we to judge really?
When I talk about making money from music, I’m not thinking of it as a main goal, however there comes a point in every successful artist’s career that they will need to worry about money. When it becomes their only source of income, you need to worry about the pennies. Those are what pays for your house, your car, your kids sports team fees, your kids education. Find me a successful artist and I’ll find you someone that wishes they knew a bit more about the business side of things earlier on in their career. It’s just about every artist’s dream to live off music full time. And how can you do that if you don’t worry about where the money is coming from? Do people work day jobs for free? No. So why should artists? I’m so tired of people like myself getting shamed for talking so much about making money from music. We’re often being told that’s all that must matter to us.
It upsets me when we get shunned in some way like we have no soul and we are just in it for the money.
This is so far from the truth. Take for example your question to me. I know that you don’t think that it’s only about the money for me because we’ve had many conversations that would prove otherwise. But the very fact you asked this question implies that you would like me to clarify for people that quality is more important than money. And my direct answer to that is, it depends. Money should never be the main driver, but it can be pretty important. Eventually, every successful artist will come to a point when they need to either deal with the business side of things, or pass the work off to someone they trust. If they don’t, and they are not prepared to deal with the business, they’ll end up getting torn apart, disheartened, chewed up and spit out. Some will just up and quit. They quit telling the world what they think. They stopped telling people their story. They stop the ability for people to relate to them through their emotions, and feelings, and views of life.
So, to help protect that an artist needs to ask themselves do they just want to write music, or do they want to write music and deal with the business side of their own career? At the end of the day, if you’re not making money from music, then you’re working a day job. There is no harm in that, I know many respected artists who work day jobs. I even work a day job right now, but I do eventually want to live off of music full time, whether it’s with my labels, in publishing, or just something in the music business. I realized early on that the chances of me making a real living off making Techno was unlikely, so I started to seek out other ways to make money in music.
But more to your question, should quality be at the forefront of their mind though when creating music? Kind of, not really. Who decides what is quality? When I think of any artist we look at today as being great, we can look back and say they are quality. However, they didn’t just sit down and write their best music focusing on making quality, they found a way to effectively capture their thoughts and emotions in music, and tell their story. Finding the best way of effectively translating one’s thoughts and emotions into music should be any artists primary goal.
As a young artist there are many skills you require. We think perseverance is one that should be on top of the list. What else?
Perseverance is a huge one. As a new artist you are likely to be bombarded with obstacles and you can’t just give up at the first sign of resistance. If you can’t make that one work, you should probably pick a different career path right now. If you have perseverance in your skill set, then please read on.
Some other skills I think are very important is the ability to innovate. To all the readers out there, ask yourself this one question right now: “What artist do you want to be like?”. I wouldn’t blame you at all if you answered with another artists name. There are very few that will answer “Me!”. Why? We are constantly groomed in life to be just like someone else, even though we are told to always “be yourself”. Instead of asking how can you be the next whatever or whoever, why don’t we ask ourselves, what are we doing to change the business we work in? What are you wanting to do to change music? The best advice a friend and mentor of mine, Mark Kane, ever gave me was, “you don’t need to reinvent the wheel”. Find the flaws, fix them, build something from it and don’t take so much stock in the things other people are doing. A lack of innovation is killing the music business right now. Take a look at the cover art or some of these smaller up and coming labels. Listen to the music they are releasing; it’s just a cheaper, regurgitated version from more profound leading artists and labels. Just do your own thing. Be a leader. Innovate.
There are many more skills I could list off, but another would be one I already touched upon earlier and that is the ability to effectively translate what they are saying or feeling into music. Some of the best songs we have ever heard, the ones we connect most with, are the ones where the artist was able to effectively translate and put into music how they felt.
Finally, talk less and listen more.
Some tips you gave us last year. Spend enough time in your own marketing but spend it well. Want to explain it a little more?
Sure. What I mean by spending enough time on your own marketing but spending it well is that it is so very easy to fall down the rabbit whole of promoting yourself as an artist that you lose sight of the creative aspect. You end up making creative decisions driven by marketing. You can’t put a time limit on creativity, sometimes it comes quick, others it takes weeks to finish something. If I had a dollar for every new artist I hear say “I need a logo” before they’ve even released their first song I’d seriously be rich. At the end of the day, no one gives a shit about your logo. If you don’t have a product to sell, in any business what is the point in having a website, a logo, merchandise? This idea of making music to sell your “brand” is crap. It’s the same thing we talked about earlier with money being the driver in the creative process. I mean if that’s your goal then great, all the power to you. But I don’t subscribe to that.
What would be your alternative channels to promote music when Soundcloud fails to continue its services?
Streaming services. Spotify, Apple Music, etc. are a good place to start. Treat them like traditional terrestrial radio — stations there to play your music to the masses with the hope that there will be people that like it so much they are wanting to support you directly through purchasing your music and merchandise. Simply put, just look to where there is the highest population of listeners and work your way back. That mixed with having your music played on a platform where there is a highly concentrated selection of people who listen to the kind of music you make. Additionally, music has value in many other industries that will help to promote your music simply because its played along with their product.
Getting feedback sometimes is hard. Especially when people already know you. Submitting a track under another name might get you better feedback. Any experience with this?
You mean getting honest feedback? Yeah, sometimes getting honest feedback is very hard. There is a reason why I never put too much stock into what my friends say about my music. When people know you they are much less likely to tell you something you made is crap. Submitting a track under another name might get you better feedback, but are you prepared to stick with releasing under that name? What if that name takes off, are you prepared to give up your previous name, or work under many different aliases. If you really want honest feedback though, I think the best way is to just to put it out there in the public.
Also, ask people who know what they are talking about. Personally, I’m not making music for people to like it. But if I like it, chances are that someone else does too. And if others do like it, great. If they lie about it being great and they really think it’s crap, then that’s their problem for being a dishonest person, and I have no use for their feedback.
There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. My barometer is the crowd.
If people like it, they’ll stay, if they don’t, they’ll start looking around and looking bored. It’s important to remember though that not every track you write is going to best track you’ve ever written. I see a lot of artists and labels saying that about their own tunes on Facebook and social media. For the most part, it’s marketing… and they kind of have to say that. But it’s mostly bullshit, and as an artist it’s so easy to be caught up in all the glory that falseness brings. At the end of the day, if you are really intent on getting honest feedback, tell someone you are looking for feedback on it and play it to people have no investment in your music.
Stop using sample loops, create your own music!
A little more about making a buck or 2. There is enough money in the industry for artists as long as you follow the right procedures: labels needs to make sure all tracks are submitted to the right instances, make sure artists/promoters submit their playlists to the right instances. What else can a young artist do?
Getting your tracks into well followed curated playlists is absolutely huge. But I think it’s very important to focus on protecting what is yours in the first place. To do that, the first step is to stop using sample loops. Create your own music. It’s ok to use them as a template for creating your own thing, but make sure the end result is yours and no one else’s. Especially when we are referring to the melody of your music. If your melody is a Royalty Free loop, there is nothing stopping everyone else from using it, and that takes away any uniqueness to your music. Also, if another artist goes on to use that same melody in their #1 hit, you cannot claim copyright infringement and take a piece of their earnings from ripping you off. They are absolutely free to rip you off. Ethical? No. Legal, that’s for the courts to decide, but ultimately not really worth your time. You’d be surprised to hear the stories I hear of labels rejecting artists music then turning around and using the melody from it in their own productions. If it’s not yours, it’s everyone’s.
Getting your tracks into well followed curated playlists is absolutely huge.
After the creation process, when you are ready to start releasing your music the next step is register yourself as a songwriter with a Performing Rights Organization or PRO, for short. Examples are GEMA (Germany), SOCAN (Canada), ASCAP, BMI, SESAC (United States), etc. and register your music there before you ever play it or release it anywhere. These organizations are there to collect money from any public performance of your work. If your track is played by Adam Beyer at Timewarp … you are owed money from GEMA, through your local PRO. This is why KUVO boxes in clubs are such an important step forward. They may not be the most effective yet, but it’s a step. And if the set was recorded and put on YouTube you can monetize that, played on be-at.tv, you should be able to collect money from that too.
After you’ve registered yourself and your music, play as much of your own music in your performances as possible. You should then make sure you find a way to write down every track you play during your sets. No matter where it is that you played those tracks, submit that list your performance list to your local PRO. This will ensure that you and other artists get paid for the public performance of your/their music. The next, and one of the most important things you can do is get your music into the hands of the people that like to talk to people about what they are listening to at the moment. Another way to make money off music is to diversify, don’t just write dance music. Explore your musical surroundings and make soundscapes, write ambient music, write music and pitch it to theatre companies. There are so many more avenues for an artist to make money than just dance music. If you like making music and making people feel different, then there is no shame in creating something other than club/festival bangers.
Back to you. What are you expecting from this year’s ADE edition?
Picking up some cheese! Seriously, every year I go to Amsterdam for ADE I come home with a mountain of Cheese from this little shop on Runstraat called De Kaaskamer. Last year I grabbed this cheese that was aged with Austrian mountain fungus … AMAZING stuff! But we were talking about ADE, right? Well, as always I look forward to ADE every year as a way to reset and reconnect with European culture.
I expect to return to Canada with a more clear view of the future.
Musically, I know full well that I’m a product of my environment and my music is a direct reflection of me and my state of mind. ADE is a time for me to return inspired. Another expectation is to grab a few meetings and sort out a few things business-wise. Bring my ideas to ADE and seeing where they line up against others in the business of music, and see where others think this ship is headed. Conference-wise, I’ll be packing in as many talks and presentations as possible this year, and finally, I will, of course, hit up a few shows this year over the weekend, but planning on keeping it more conference focused this year. And of course, I’m excited for my set at My Cup of Tech’s networking event on October 20th at John Doe club – if you are in Amsterdam please join us!
How is the rest of 2017 and 2018 looking for you as an artist?
2017 has been a tough year for me. I have been dealing with a lot of personal things this year so that’s taken a lot out of me artistically. But things have started to take a positive turn and the release of my track “Withdrawal” on Terminator Records is just the start. There are a couple things I’ve been working towards in 2018, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
What about UNT records? Any surprise for us in the pipeline?
No real surprises, but we’ve got a lot of great tunes coming up. You can expect to see a couple new artists on the label, Taylor from London UK will be making his debut release along with a follow-up release from newcomer Noah Southard, and music from tech-house producer Daniel Brooks’ new techno alias Faded Void.
Tell us a secret.
Tupac is alive.
Thank you very much for your time.