“We’ve been able to dodge a lot of the bullets.”
Steve Aoki explains how his company–one that he says wasn’t even really meant to be a business at the onset–has survived what this year marks as a 20-year success story. It’s humble, actually. Anyone who’s ever spent any time talking to the trailblazer knows that all the bullets dodged don’t discredit his work ethic. A brand in and of himself, his interests and active participations span across more platforms than most probably even know. And even still, when we press on to learn more about the double-decade growth of Dim Mak (that’s the company’s name) he credits people. “You know, it’s about people. There are passionate people who drive the culture forward and that’s what shapes it; it’s about how many people really care about it. And we have diehards and I feel blessed.”
This of course is not to say that those proverbial bullets didn’t exist. No matter how organic the growth was, the fact of the matter is that they were always up against the power of the major labels and the financial institutions that were backing them. On that side of the fence it’s not about the feeling; it’s about numbers and bottom line. Now, it’s not like Aoki and his team are a band of creatives that don’t know how to run a business, it’s just that they understand the importance of having a balance between the passion and the love of the idea or the song and the sense to build it. He admits that the structure was lacking in the beginning, but the balance was eventually acquired over time–and as they honed in on what they wanted to be. At the onset what that was was an indie label that started with a punk rock ideology and philosophy and community. A good 8 years later, they started to put out bands that had huge growth potential; always keeping focus on how to extend that [growth] but not have to compromise what they wanted. Easier said than done at times, Aoki recalls the first really big major label dealing that he encountered with English indie rock band, Bloc Party: “We did a deal with Vice and Atlantic for ‘Silent Alarm’ that sold over 350,000 physical copies. But I know that had the album come out just through Dim Mak it wouldn’t have done the same; the funding wasn’t there, there was no pocket-book papering the company.” They went the major label route for the sake of the band but the sacrifice, the compromise rather, was power. “In 2004,” he says “the deal made total sense. I wouldn’t do that deal now.”
Now, as is customary in most success stories, they have a different infrastructure in place. Or, as he puts it, they “understand the landscape but not necessarily at the same scale as the majors.” Perhaps a better way to say it is that the approach is different. The large labels have huge funding for radio promotions and the like, but factually, Dim Mak doesn’t touch that stuff. He gives us a particularly great example in American duo, The Chainsmokers: “It was a situation entirely driven by our indie machine. We barely spent any money to get ‘Selfie’ off the ground and it was the first single by a brand new artist that nobody knew about.” We sure knew about it when he was done with them; across the world people were quoting ‘Selfie’ lyrics in the way Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’ is always an ass reference. The record quickly reached some 300 million views on YouTube and over 12 million downloads in less than 6 months. The video cost them 2 thousand dollars. It was huge and it was thanks to the Dim Mak machine and their belief in the artists.
“I’ve seen so many artists get cut off from a label because they weren’t believed in,” he explains. “That’s why in the past decade so many artists have created their own labels; it’s about building cultures, collaborating and working together. It’s fun and exciting and artists become part of these families–it’s like our own ecosystem.” This ecosystem shares the same mantra on which Dim Mak was built, “By Any Means Necessary,” it seems as Aoki explains that if need be, some heavy-duty fishing line will be used to get their stuff out there. “It’s about the grind, the edginess and the history–it’s about the story behind the music that all has to come from an authentic place.”
None of this comes easily of course and this is where the people come back in to play. “It’s a lot of work and you’re constantly nurturing,” he explains.
“You can’t leave it alone and let it just grow; you have to work at it and have the right people.”
His stand-by-your-man attitude is really refreshing and he credits his teams with much of his accomplishments, noting all the while that it’s about the right team of people, the ones who really believe and already understand the culture and how to make it grow in a way that’s not forced for fear it might capsize. And it’s difficult to find according to Aoki who says he’s “been super lucky that the people he has with him at Dim Mak are fucking incredible.” His team doesn’t just need a finely tuned understanding of indie music or EDM, Dim Mak is a multi-prong business that delves deep into the culture by way of music and lifestyle. Take their fashion brand which is currently in its third season, for example. The consumer, Aoki has no doubt, will be the same kind of person who loves his music if for no other reason that they have a strong sense of identity and an appreciation for quality. The line, which is manufactured in Japan by the same facilities as Yoji Yamamoto focuses on that desired quality while implementing forward thinking approaches to design in the same way as everything Aoki and Dim Mak. The technical materials incorporated in the luxury menswear line of street wear aesthetic are not otherwise seen in clothing. In fact some of them are used in the manufacturing of tents or for Judo, but that’s what so cool about it. Especially in Japan where it’s currently being sold exclusively. Why? Aoki has reason for his slow but steady approach to market entry:
“We wanted to almost incubate it in a controlled market that the people working on it daily really understand. The interesting thing about shopping in Japan and [about] Japanese menswear in general, is the attention to detail and to the story being told–it’s like the musical cultures that we’ve been a part of; the attention being paid is so important, it’s not just about looking cool.”
As a result, things like brand history and wearer culture play a huge role in the designs and apparently have taken a similar front seat in how well the brand is doing. In fact, he’s gearing up to bring it stateside this summer. The Dim Mak collection will debut, freestanding in a pop-up shop in Los Angeles this August and will follow with an e-commerce release that will be made available to buy in the United States. The selection, he explains, will be edited to meet the desires of his American clients. The slow seep into the market is intention as it’s not about making money for Aoki but instead about creating wearable pieces of art that he realizes aren’t necessarily “for everyone.”
Simultaneously, the musician at heart continues working on his tunes, focusing on the third part of the existing Steve Aoki studio albums, Neon Future I and II. In Neon Future III we can expect something much different, musically. He likens the change to having “thrown out his palette of colors and paint brushes and picking up new tools.” He explains how the first two installments are really EDM albums with artist from outside genres jumping on songs that are very EDM. Neon Future III, on the other hand, is more about him jumping out of his own skin and designing the right songs with no specific interest in them being EDM. “It doesn’t have to be this drop, it doesn’t have to build, it doesn’t have to be how I would DJ it;” he says, “this is how can I make this the best song possible from the different worlds im working in.” Confirmed artist on the album include Blink 182, Wale, 2 Chainz and Mike Posner, among others. The diversity includes rock bands and rappers, alike. And Aoki is not just working in Dim Mak studios, he’s venturing out and gaining different influences.
“I’m also producing a lot now for other artists so the way I’m looking at music now it not like: ‘How can I make this a Steve Aoki club record; it’s more like how can I make a good song that stands the test of time?’.”
The changes is already coming in hot as he already has the first two singles entitled, ‘Can’t Go Home,’ featuring Adam Lambert, and ‘Back 2 You,’ featuring Walk The Moon. ‘Can’t Go Home’ he specifically describes as a huge departure from the traditional Steve Aoki kind of festival drop; instead he likens it to something that people who stream music on Spotify, in their cars, would be interested in. “I’m just becoming more interested in expanding my reach;” he tells us, “‘Back 2 You’ is my fastest streaming song in history reaching 1 million streams in six days and 2 million in ten days with no radio support at all. It’s entirely on Spotify. With song monitoring technology, Spotify can study which songs are being skipped or forwarded through and it seems as though Aoki is getting his fair share of listen-time from what might be a new cross-section of supporters for him, people who are enjoying something they haven’t heard from him before. And as always, he appreciates the people.
Did you know:
Despite his fashion sense, love of Corum watches and hoards of screaming fans, Aoki is a tech guy and gadgets are his favorite. Heavy excitement surrounds the availability of a USB stick a full terabyte in size as well as his Samsung telephone which he claims with certainty “owns the camera” in the mobile phone space. And apparently out of it as well as he cites his new Samsung Gear 360 camera as a new gadget of choice for its ability to seamlessly capture footage at all angles. As for unique to Aoki tricks of the trade, he’s taped his USB stick, a USB port, a Nexus key and another plug-in that he uses to produce all to the back of studio computer so he can produce from anywhere–a particularly handy rig given how much time he spends on the road. Have no fear, he uses clear tape as to not alarm TSA–it’s not a bomb!