The Directors Chair Label Manager interview 106 with John Johnson
ICONYC, Hydrogen and NYLO label boss John Johnson has been working in the music business for nearly 2 decades and achieved great success with his production and remix work in the international dance music scene. He amassed over 350 productions and remixes over the span of nearly 20 years. His remixes have graced official releases from the likes of U2, Jennifer Lopez, Lenny Kravitz, Kylie Minogue, John Digweed to Underworld.
After remixing such prevalent artists as John Digweed’s Bedrock and Underworld he furthered his production presence with solo projects. IDJ (a sub-company of Ministry of Sound, London) won that bid and signed John in May 1999. His first single, “Impact”, was released in June 2000 to critical acclaim from the likes of Sasha, Armin van Burren, Carl Cox and Radio 1 master Pete Tong who also supported his former production guise Power Dove.
Like many artists and producers, John moved into the areas of label production and management.
Although this is quite a common move for many artists it has to be said that not all artists make good label directors and managers. In John’s case this transition was not only smooth but also one that’s been accomplished with style, integrity and professionalism.
He was the motivation, direction and cohesion behind the former progressive master stable 238W and still runs its partnering label Hydrogen. He’s now the focal point of the ever-progressing ICONYC, NYLO Music and continues to manage these imprints at a fast-paced level whilst still retaining quality throughout.
His label outputs are continually a focus on favored download stores and also very well supported by key industry DJ / figures. You will find an impressive artist list under his label works that include the likes of Khen, Ziger, BluSoul, Dousk, Inkfish, Kosmas, Van Did, Li-Polymer, Stas Drive, Rico Puestel, Andre Sobota, Dust Yard, Robert R Hardy, Blue Amazon, Tim Penner, DaGeneral, Paul Hazendonk, Silinder, Pole Folder, Barry Jamieson, Phraktal, Huminal, Alex O’Rion, BP, Steve Slight, Roger Martinez, Cid Inc. Dmitry Molosh, Zak Gee, as well as a few productions from himself.
We managed to catch up with John Johnson for further insight into the world of his label outputs and motivations.
1. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us John it’s a pleasure. I want to start by asking you about the different imprints ICONYC, Hydrogen & NYLO and what are the motivations, direction and focus behind the three different imprints?
Hi guys, thanks for inviting me to your director’s chair series. My three labels are defined by the sound we put out on each of them. ICONYC evolved into our main label due to the artists we tend to feature there. Releases on ICONYC are mostly from well-known, established artists with a great reputation and excellent track record. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be a known entity to be on the label, as we have plenty of newcomers on the label as well. The music style ranges from progressive house to tech-house with some melodic techno thrown in for good measure!
Hydrogen follows the same strategy sound wise as ICONYC. The initial idea was to use Hydrogen as a springboard for young, exciting talent to give them a platform to evolve, grow and become a member of our label family, without the pressure of having to perform. Over time Hydrogen turned into a carbon copy of ICONYC due to the increasing demands and requests from artist’s who wanted to work with us, but we couldn’t manage to accommodate on ICONYC due to schedule constraints. Nonetheless it is very important to me that we don’t lose focus of why we started Hydrogen in the first place and keep nurturing and bringing up young talent on the label. A lot of now established artists first made their mark on Hydrogen, which makes me very proud.
NYLO was born out of my love for house music. It was something that I wanted to do for myself but was never intended to grow into something as big as it did. My initial idea was to release one record a month just something for me to stay connected to that style of music, but for some reason it just kept growing and growing. Let’s just say it exceeded my personal ambition tenfold.
- All your label outputs either current or prior have a very defined visual look. How important is this in the modern era and does it make a difference?
For me personally, it is very important, how my labels look visually. I always had the belief that the visuals are as important as the music. Good design with a strong identification value is very important with regard to brand recognition not just for the label but also for the artist. I also feel that good design shows appreciation towards the artist who spends a lot of time refining his work and going through the creative process of making a record. But in saying that, it is just my personal view. Everyone has a different opinion. At the end of the day it comes down to personal taste and preferences really. As the saying goes ‘In matters of taste, there can be no disputes!’ It implies that taste is a matter of opinion in which there is no right or wrong, thus it’s not subject to be debated.
- The quality and consistency of your labels are always very good. How difficult is it to maintain this at such a fast pace and is there an importance of releasing music so frequently?
We looked at it from both sides and we asked ourselves the same question. Do we keep going with the weekly schedule or do we cut back and go more exclusive with one or two releases per month? After quite a few discussion’s we have come to the conclusion that in our case the weekly schedule is the way to go, due to the constant high demand of artists wanting to work with us and also to stay relevant. There is so much new music every week that I felt cutting down to one or two releases a month would’ve made it increasingly difficult to stay relevant and at the forefront of what we do and worked very hard to build. It was quite difficult to find a concept that would allow us to keep evolving, but at the same time enabling us to deliver high quality week in, week out without compromising the core beliefs and demands we set ourselves.
- ICONYC has very much taken center stage and really blossomed in the progressive / house domain. Is the concept much different or changed from what you did previously in this area?
For me, it’s always been about the hard work and respect for one another. I always treat everybody the same way, no matter the name or status. I didn’t change my approach, strategy, work ethic or attitude towards people or the way we work, but I did learn a thing or two about the dark side of this very fickle industry. With success comes envy, which in a way is a big compliment, but when it gets to the point that people who don’t even know you try to make your life difficult, regardless of the facts or the things they think they know, you ask yourself if it is really worth it? It’s something that nobody should ever have to deal with, but you learn that it comes with the territory, you just have to process, understand it and move on. You discover how to eradicate and distance yourself from people like that, evaluate and more importantly refocus on what’s important: the music and the relationships you built with some really great people! And exactly those relationships and focus formed what the labels are today.
5. It’s quite well documented the difficulties that many labels face in the digital age whilst being amongst the sear mass of music released each week or month. Does this impact on how you run your labels, change your motivation or future objectives for running labels?
It is something we think about on a daily basis. How can we stand out, how can we make things better, how can we improve the quality, how can we reach a wider audience, how can we move on from here? All these questions are always in the back of your mind, but I truly believe that with quality, hard work and a bit of luck you will always have a chance to stand out or make a mark. I think what defines successful labels from maybe not so successful labels besides the obvious, is how you deal with the constant battles that are part of daily label life, like rejection of artists you wanted to work with, declining sales, meeting deadlines, accommodating artist requests, the increasing pressure of delivering big projects on a regular basis and how you move on from those issues, as well as having a good sense of what’s actually happening in the world of music. Running a label successfully is about long-term planning and not a short fix, a concept that some people don’t seem to understand. As I previously mentioned my motivation or work ethic has never changed and will never change, but at the same time we’re all dependent a little on the end consumer / music connoisseur who in reality, is the one that defines if you are successful or not.
6. You seem to have an ear for picking up quality artists that haven’t been too exposed. Is this a focus of the labels and are you actively searching for them / checking new artist demos for the next hot thing?
I believe, that one of our strength is finding that new talent that hasn’t been discovered or overly exposed yet. We put a lot of effort and care in finding that one new name that will get everybody talking. I am not ashamed to admit to being proud to have helped a lot of new guys become a known entity within our little community. We are of course dependent like everybody else on having those essential well-known names that help you grow as a brand and define what you want to be and will become. I will listen to every demo that we receive and I make a point of replying to everyone who sends us a demo, good or bad! Some guys can be utterly frustrating and don’t seem to care much or make a big effort, but even those guys get a reply, it might not be a long reply, but they get one.
Managing three labels and its expectations must be a time demanding task. Do you have additional team members to help run the labels or practices / experience from other areas that help you with this?
It takes quite a few people to run three labels successfully. It starts with the people who are behind the day-to-day running (give yourselves a pat on the back Grey and Natasha), to the distribution company in our case AMPSuite (big thanks to Keith & Neil for putting up with us), the design genius (big up to the one and only Ben Tauber), the people who have been very supportive and helped a lot with putting the label on the map (special thanks to Mitch Alexander at Release Promo and Elef at Handle with Care) our mastering masters Ri Za at Just Hear Audio and Henri Hurtig aka Cid Inc., the people who help us run our radio shows (big thanks to Johan Lecander & Vladimir Kuznetsov at DI.FM and Sergio Auguero at DNA FM Radio) and of course every single artist who deems us worthy of releasing their music. Apologies to all of you I have forgotten to mention!
- Lots of labels have dedicated radio shows each month. Is this also an activity for your imprints?
This is one area where we are very active with four radio shows across the three labels. We have the bimonthly ICONYC 212 Sessions (every second Friday of the month) and the monthly ICONYC Essentials (once every second Friday a month) exclusively on DI.FM. We also run a monthly ICONYC 212 show (every first Thursday of the month) on Argentinian DNA FM Radio and a weekly NYLO show called Welcome to the Weekend also on DI.FM, which runs every Thursday of the week.
- You feature quite a lot of remixes on your label releases. How important is this and is it hard to attract remixes plus a potential financial risk doing this?
When we sign a track that needs remixes we figure that in from the word go. We look at what we have and what we would like to do with it and chose the remixes/artists accordingly. Some artists are very particular about how they want to have their tracks remixed and they do normally communicate those wishes. Generally, though I think we have a pretty good track record on picking the right guys for the projects, probably a reason why most guys trust us with the choices we make. I like to have a little variation on our releases to make them a little more interesting. Therefore, you can always find one remix that sort of is a complete departure from the original without going astray. I learned over time that it is not always the biggest name that is the right fit, sometimes you find that little gem that no one ever heard of, who delivers that one remix that defines that particular release.
I am truly grateful that the label is self-sufficient, non-the less if you aspire to a certain standard you will need to invest quite a bit of money to make it worth for everyone involved, otherwise it would just be a lot of work with no end result. It is impossible to run a label successfully nowadays without investing a certain amount. But at the same time, I have become extremely mindful of the amounts we spent and whom they are spent on. My personal opinion and outlook has changed quite a lot over the years. We live in an age where music has become this all-accessible and fast living commodity, it’s here one day and gone the next. The amount of music being released also makes it harder to maintain paying huge sums to artists for small indie labels like us, but at the same time it is a necessity to a certain extent if you want to keep growing your profile and fan base.
10 You have previously released featured artist albums and DJ mix albums on your labels.
Will this continue to be a focus in the future?
Yes, indeed. DJ Mix albums like the just released ICONYC Elements Ibiza mixed by Ibiza resident and circle. Ibiza head honcho Pete Bidwell, are a great way to give people an insight of what you’re about. On these compilations, we tend to have an array of exclusive tracks of up and coming talent that we combine, with what we think are essential ICONYC releases of the past 6 months to create a unique sound retrospective. I feel it is a great way for people who haven’t been familiar with the label to get a crash course of who we are, plus those DJ mixes are a great way to listen to the work you have done in a fantastic compressed form.
- Finally we would love to hear about any of your future or immediate plans for the labels and activities / releases coming this year.
The more known you are, the busier and more frantic things tend to get. The need to evolve is also something that is constantly present. We have quite a few interesting projects that we’re working on at the moment. I think the most exciting project, besides or music releases, is the redesign of ICONYC, which I felt was long overdue. I was able to acquire the services of design maestro extraordinaire Ben Tauber, famous for work his on Einmusika and Hydrogen, to give us a new look, which I can’t wait to share with everyone. Another interesting project we’re currently working on is the ICONYC label tour, which will feature artists that are affiliated with the label. Dates, cities and venues to be confirmed soon. Last but not least, I am very excited to hopefully be able to share our new website with online store soon, which will feature a lot of really cool stuff, like limited edition DJ box sets, limited Vinyl releases from the label and great looking merchandise.