Interview: John Norman
After quite some time we touch based again with Canadian producer and UNT records label owner John Norman. It’s always a pleasure talking to him about music and how he thinks about the industry. Back in the days we talked about the Canadian music scene and his own sound. Now it came to our attention that John has an idea about extending shelve live of records that are being produced on a large scale nowadays. How does one keep up with the amount of releases on a weekly basis? So we thought it was time for another interview.
We had an extensive talk and we must admit this man is passionate about music! So please sit down, press play on the music you can find in the interview and take the time for this talk we had. We say it’s a must read to get a better understanding of what John wants to accomplish!
“If we just focus on releasing music for the sale of music, and not for its real purpose, which is to be listened to, we are doing a disservice to the music and the artists who create it.”
John Norman about his idea to extend shelf life
John, it’s been from December 2014 since our last interview. What’s changed in the year and a half since then?
When we last spoke I had just bought UNT records and was preparing for the re-launch of the label. We’ve had a good number of exciting releases since then, and had the chance to work with some fantastic new artists like Marco Cardoza from Calgary, Canada, and Megan from Kosovo, among others. I’m spending a lot of time in the center of Canada’s music scene in Toronto now, using the city’s international status as a hub to continue to grow my own reach. I’ve also started a new workshop project called Feedback Loop which is aimed at getting candid production feedback to producers from industry professionals to help them continue to refine their sound. Basically, it is a workshop to provide the raw in the moment feedback I had to seek out on my own in my early days developing as a producer.
You have not been quiet at all. Your weekly show An Obsession With sound seems to go strong. You are at the brink of a celebration. Edition 100 is coming up. How do you manage this great thing you have here?
Yeah it is really great to see the support the show gets each week. Managing it along with all the other things I’m doing can be hectic, but it is such a pleasure to share guest mixes from many of my friends, and help spread the word about the great techno artists doing their thing all around the world. It takes a lot of organizing to ensure guests are lined up, but it is also a great reason to reach out to my friends and colleagues in the industry. It has also forced me to be more systematic in the way I approach work, becoming more compartmentalized and respectful of the time I spend on each task.
Does it affect the time you put in own production work?
It does, because I need to dedicate one day a week to putting together the podcast, and that is a day I can’t write music. It then means I need to approach making music in a way that is mindful of that, keep myself on schedule. It is a good thing, though, I think, in the long run. In a way it can be refreshing, because it allows me to take a day away from a track I am writing and then when I return to it I am able to hear it in a new way. It helps to refine the sound of what I am writing and keep me from literally getting stuck in a loop.
If we are correct, you’ll have a new release coming up, right? What can we expect? And will it be released on your own imprint UNT records?
I have a couple releases coming up. One is the remixes of my track Republic which was released last summer on my UNT records. The remixes are from Exhale and Antwon Faulkner, both of whom are from Detroit originally. They each provide a distinct remix that I feel represent a unique vision of techno, and both are excellent pieces of remix work.
I do also have a few more tracks coming along. I have remixed Dimi Mechero’s track “Blindspot” for Funk’n Deep Records, and also have remixed a track of Antwon Faulkner’s called “Mission Mars” for his label Hijacked Records Detroit that you can look for in July. There are a few more in the pipes as well, so stay tuned to my social media for news.
It came to our attention that you have an idea about extending shelf life of music. Can you tell us about it?
The dance music business is based around what the traditional music business would view as a Single. A lot of people in dance music stay so heavily focused on what’s next that they very quickly loose interest in what is happening right now. This creates a scenario where artists feel they need to be releasing 2-3 tracks a week to stay relevant. As a result, it doesn’t stay around very long and there isn’t time for a track to gain a following, or to gain any recognition.
I believe that this has led to two things. First, the creativity in the writing has declined; there is a focus on pumping out tracks in order to stay relevant rather than on writing something new and interesting. Second, the value of a piece of work has declined, because people know that there will be another one in a couple of days anyway. There used to be a physical barrier in pressing plants and shipping LPs, and with them not being available everywhere which helped stop us from releasing too much too quickly — you had to have quality control because of the cost of releasing a vinyl EP.
So what we are doing at UNT is releasing no more than 1-2 EP per month, and only a maximum of 4 tracks per EP. This barrier is in place to artificially re-create that physical barrier that becomes quality control. It demands that what gets released is as good as it can be, and that it gets the attention it deserves. We will pre-release the music to streaming sites like Apple Music and Spotify two weeks before the official worldwide release much in the way that the much bigger labels in the traditional music business would do a radio release of a single off an upcoming album. This is then followed by 2-3 weeks of the track being the only thing focused on from the label. The goal in all of this is to make sure that it extends the life span of that particular song, giving it the ability to go beyond being the best track that day or week, and become something that sticks in people’s memories.
So, in comparison with many other labels you like releasing EP’s with only originals and some time after a new release with remixes. Does it really work?
There are a lot of labels out there that very rarely release remixes choosing also to focus on original releases. I think this works very well. For us I like to try to focus on the artist and the release as kind of like a mini-album so to speak, and really focus on that one single artist instead of dividing the energy over two or three artists for a single release. I think it is better for the artist, especially if it is their first work with the label, and for the record label. It doesn’t put the artist in a position to be judged in relationship to a remix work, but rather lets the work stand on its own and pass or fail on its own merits.
That’s not to say that will happen every time; we do sometimes release a remix at the same time as the release. For example Spanish artist Rafa Ortega’s track “DGT” will be released later this year with a remix attached to it.
And with streaming the music 2 weeks in advance on Spotify & Apple Music you give fans the same opportunity as DJ’s have with promo pools. Why do you think this is going to work?
We need to remember that not everyone is a DJ – if we just focus on releasing music for the sale of music, and not for its real purpose, which is to be listened to, we are doing a disservice to the music and the artists who create it. By pre-release streaming we are giving those club goers the chance to hear it and love it, and then recognize it on the dance floor. We hope that this gives them the chance to re-connect with music on a personal level, as music lovers and not just as DJs who want to play it. There are two subsets of people, and dance music has had a habit in recent years of only catering to the DJ set. It is really no different giving someone the opportunity to stream it two weeks before it is released than someone hearing a big DJ play it in a live set or podcast as a promo. I feel like dance music holds itself back in this way, by trying to be different seemingly for the sake of it. At the end of the day, we create something that we want people to listen to and enjoy.
Aren’t you afraid this is going to have the same effect as releasing music with a Beatport exclusive deal and some time after in many or all online stores?
No, because Spotify for instance isn’t only a paid service — anyone can create a free account. Everything is available to everyone to stream at the same time, and can be purchased at the same time. The only exclusivity is for the artists on the promo lists who get a full copy that two weeks earlier, and that is just more chance for music lovers to hear the music. This will hopefully transpire into having the DJs play it live and the crowd recognizing the song before it’s official date of release for sales.
Why do you think it’s hard to sell music now that the price of a track or even an EP is less than one pint of beer? Do you feel that people think music has become common good or a commodity? It feels like people have less respect for the artist.
Yes, I do feel people have less respect for the artist. When an industry is more concerned with and pay more attention to the people playing the music than the people making it, we have to admit we have a problem. Which leads right into your first question. It is harder to sell music because we don’t hold the creation of music in such high regard as we once did. We have devalued music to the point where people think it’s ok to steal the music instead of paying for it. But it’s not just stealing music that is the problem, music is so easily accessible which is great. This has made it possible for me to be where I am today, and I am very thankful for that but, it has also made it much more competitive. And with most competition in a market, it becomes a race to the bottom. Now that there there is so much that people can choose from it is very hard get someone to pay for your music what the creation of it is actually worth. Thankfully there is more to earning money as an artist than just selling the music, and this is a key element in what separates the successful artists from the less successful artists. If you only focus on selling tracks for which you get pennies, then yeah, you aren’t going to get anywhere, but if you maximize the ownership of your creation by managing the publishing, looking for other opportunities in extending your musical reach as an artist, there are a lot of places where music does still hold value.
Thinking about this, people do not tend to pay 30 €’s for a party with 3 or 4 dj’s playing at party that lasts 8 hours but are willing to pay 40 €’s to see a band play for 1,5 hours. What’s your thought?
To be honest, I think the dance music community did this to itself. This goes back to what I was saying about frequency, availability, and devaluation of the music. Essentially we are talking about supply and demand. With dance music exploding in tandem with the age of the internet, there was a lot of opportunity for individual DJs that wasn’t there before for multi-member bands. A band still has to get together, write the music, record a demo properly, etc. get it to a publisher, have it signed to a label, re-record it in a better studio with a proper engineer and then get it released and do a tour to support the album. In the time that took for a band to do all that, a dance music artist can write and release six tracks and have them played all around the world by other artists and not just themselves as would be the case with a band. The whole logistics side of things are completely different. So DJs were able to exploit these lack of barriers and get to places more frequently, increasing supply and lower demand. A band coming from around the world to play a monthly residency isn’t really a thing. Bands may come through your town once every year, in some cases not for years at a time. This makes bands more of a rarity, so absolutely people will pay 40€’s to see a band play for 1.5hrs.
At a concert people are going to see a particular band perform and here their music, where most of the time people are paying to a DJ perform music that individual crowd member may like, and at least some of it could be heard by any other DJ playing. So a lot of this also comes down to the performance itself — how many times do you see a band standing on stage, looking at their computers, mixing from track a to track b and back again, completely disengaged with the crowd that payed all that money to see them? Bands that don’t engage with their crowd don’t make it very far. DJs however, can get away with it for years without anyone taking notice. And I hate to say it, there is also a greater amount of musicianship and electricity that occurs in a great bands performance, that the vast majority of DJs just can’t produce. You do still see it, but it is considerably less frequent. However, I do think people should spend money going do dance music shows, because there are things that a DJ can do on stage that a band can’t do, innovate on the fly — creating moments on a whim that will never be created again. A band is doing a live performance of a set made up of recordings you can hear on their album, that doesn’t tend to stray too much from the original composition. So when a DJ plays well, and is able to innovate during their performance and elevate it past just mixing 2 tracks together, this can become something very special to witness.
I could be wrong, but I also don’t think there is a Be-At TV for rock bands; where not going to a show is an option because you have the option to just sit at home and watch the show later. Perhaps we have embraced technology too much in some ways.
Last question. What makes you happy?
My family and our good health, and their support to continue to do the things I am lucky enough to do.
Thank you so much, John!
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