3LAU Is Takin’ Care Of Biz

From his dorm room to clubs to music festivals and beyond, electronic music artist 3LAU has been the boss of his music career every step of the way. During his Q&A with Pollstar, the former business major talked about the music he loves to make as well as the business of making music.

3LAU’s career path took a major turn while attending Washington University in St. Louis.  A student on a full scholarship, the man born Justin Blau was locally making a name for himself through his mashups and bootlegs combining pop vocals with dance music.  His 2014 track “How You Love Me” was on nearly every dance chart in the known universe and was SiriusXM BPM’s most played record of 2014.

3LAU didn’t leave the world of balance sheets and bottom lines completely behind as he transitioned from mashups to creating his own music.  Answering our questions via phone while he was in his Las Vegas studio, 3LAU painted a picture of an indie artist who is very aware of the cost of doing business in today’s music environment.

And 3LAU’S business is booming.  He released the track “Alive Again” a couple of months ago on Armada and collaborated with Bright Lights on the new song “Runaway,” released on Dim Mak.

Photo: Drew Ressler/Rukes.com

The music press likes to categorize and define artists by genres.  Have there been descriptions applied to your music that you totally disagree with?

I’m sure it has come up over time. But it’s not very frequent and certainly not frequent enough for me to remember.  However … because I started my career doing one thing and I’ve kind of completely transitioned away from it, there was a period of my career where people didn’t know I was making my own music and they still thought I was making mashups.  So everybody would be like, “Oh, he’s just a mashup artist,” without knowing I had original content out there. Of course, the biggest thing I’ve done was completely original content, which was my song “How You Love Me.” That could definitely be a way that I’ve disagreed with how my music or career has been described.

Do you think the overall audience still has a lot to learn about electronic music?

I think a lot of people within the industry perceive dance music reaching a plateau.  I completely disagree in the sense that there are older fans who are getting into dance music, and there are younger fans getting turned on to dance music.  The new fans are coming from lots of different directions because it’s such a new scene.  Whereas, country has been around forever.  You either like it or you don’t. Dance music … people are still being educated about it.  They don’t even know what their own tastes are within dance music yet.  People are developing those tastes slowly over time.  I feel like we won’t see any kind of plateau for another five years.

Do you see any relationship between today’s dance music and the 1970s disco craze?

I’m 24 so I didn’t quite live through it. But from what I know, the music of “partying” hasn’t always been dance music.  It’s changed over time.  From disco to now, it kind of completed this full cycle. It went from disco to people dancing to pop/rock music and going to venues and clubs and partying to [that music].  Then it went to hip hop in the ’90s, and that was the music of clubs.  Then it came back around to dance music.  I say “true” dance music … just by the nature of how fast it is and the elements being used in the style of music, in terms of synthesis, dance drums and what not.  I think, like everything else, people’s tastes change in cycles.

The biggest difference now, compared to any other kind of club experience in the past, is the technology enables an artist to connect with the crowd on a different level.  Both through visuals and production, and through the quality level of the sound output.  Back in the ’70s when people were going to discos, they weren’t getting their ears blown off by bass speakers.  A lot of times now fans will go to these shows just to feel the intense level of loudness of their favorite songs by their favorite artists.  I don’t think it was like that back then.  Back then it was more of a social thing.  Now it’s a lot more focused on the artist.  At least from my knowledge.  I wasn’t into that scene so I don’t know enough to give you an educated answer. But to me the biggest difference was instigated by the technological changes in production, sound design and social media, even.  People are going to see their favorite artists as opposed to just going out to the club to dance.

When creating music, where does that first spark of inspiration come from?

I have background in guitar and vocal training.  I’m classically trained on the piano.  Every creative idea, for me, actually starts with me messing around at the piano.  Most of the time I will pull influences from my favorite songs that I’m listening to in those moments.  I’ll never pull riffs.  I’ll actually pull song design ideas more than music ideas.  So if there’s a sound I like in a song I’ll be like, “I want something like that in this part of what I’m going to do.”  Or if there are drums I like in a rock song that I think will fit into a dance song, I’m like, “Lemme see how I can get a snare like this to work in this song.” 

When inspired by those sound designs in other songs, are you ever blown away, or, for that matter, disappointed by the original production?

It’s sometimes sad how critical I am of certain things because I can always hear how something could be better. Whether or not that means I could make it better is a separate question. … My experience might not make that piece of the song better.  I guess my reference point [is] I have my favorite producers – just the level of cleanliness and technicality in how they make their music.  When I hear something that could be that good but isn’t, I get really disappointed.  Then there are other times where I’m like, “Oh, my God!  The way this sounds is revolutionary.”  I think that’s something that’s unique to a producer because a lot of times people don’t really care about that stuff. It doesn’t necessarily affect the emotion of the song.  But it does affect how the song feels a lot of the time.  Whether something feels like it was made in a dorm room on a laptop or it feels like it was actually performed – it’s in the music.  You can hear whether the piano was written on a piano or if it was keyed in.  You can feel that.  I think it’s an unexplainable feeling for most people. For me, when I’m listening to a song, I want to feel every part of it independently.  I want to feel the drums independently.  I want to be able to hear the lead synth, the bass, all separately and together at the same time.  To me that makes an amazing production.  A lot of the times things get muddy and there’s a sound that’s only popping some of the time.  It’s a longer technical conversation but my favorite music is, generally, the music that feels most glued together, but also the most clean in the sense that you can hear all the different elements happening that makes the song unique.

What electronic device can you not live without?

Definitely my phone more than anything else.  But I could probably live without my phone if I didn’t need to be doing business things all the time.  If I wasn’t doing business things all the time, the electronic device I couldn’t live without would probably be a laptop, because a laptop is so powerful that you can do so much with it musically these days.  I couldn’t make music the same way if I didn’t have my laptop.  And that’s my favorite thing in the world.

You’re flying to San Diego today. If I was sitting in the seat next to you, would I see someone frantically working on his laptop putting together tonight’s show?

100 percent.  Sometimes it’s tonight’s show, sometimes it’s an idea, but most of the time when I’m on airplanes I’m on my laptop.  Or sleeping.

Do you think the portability of technology, such as laptops, contributed to rise of today’s dance music?

I think it’s that.  It’s the easy access to the technology.  Whereas, 10 years ago you couldn’t get the quality out of a laptop that you can now.  You can get a higher quality out of a laptop than you can get out of hardware in certain occasions.  That’s revolutionary because for a kid that doesn’t have a lot of money, and wants to get involved, it [just] requires buying a MacBook.  10 years ago you needed an engineer, you needed hardware compressors, microphones, all these different things, the hardware synthesizers.  Now, there’s stuff in the box that sounds better than out of the box.  I still have a lot of hardware, but I had to invest in that hardware over time.  When I first started doing this I couldn’t afford it.  My microphone setup is at least $3,000.  When I was in college I couldn’t spend $3,000 on a microphone.  The easy access and the low cost of the technology is definitely a reason the scene has become more popular.

The other reason why the scene has become more popular, I think, is that being a producer is a very individual thing. When you’re in a band there are a lot of different moving parts.  You’re the producer of the project, you have the guitarists, the singer, the drummer.  There are a lot of different variables that could go wrong.  That’s why bands often break up.  When you’re a DJ, most of the time there’s a duo, there are sometimes, vary rarely a trio, but it’s a pretty individual activity.  I think a big factor [as to] why a lot of kids want to be DJs these days instead of rock stars [is because] they can control more of the situation.

Photo: Ultra Music Festival

What kinds of software do you use?

There’s five or six pieces of software that are pretty standard.  I use a combination of Ableton and Logic [Pro]. My synthesizers of choice are a new one called Spire and an older one that’s kind of a workhorse staple called Nexus.  I am proud to say I bought all my software.  When I first started I could not buy all my software, I stole it all. …  As I began to afford it I bought it.  I own Ableton, I own Logic, I own my plug-ins … all that stuff.  Those are the tools that I’m using.

On the hardware side, I have an API compressor, I have a Neve preamp for my mic. … I have a Neumann mic and I have a bunch of guitars and a keyboard.  That’s my equipment list.  I can do pretty much anything I want to do with that stuff and probably get a sound that could be better than coming out of a million-dollar studio, assuming my engineering skills are good enough.  Sometimes I can. And I have done that.  I’ve been in studios recording vocalists on microphones that are $12,000. Then sometimes I come back to my studio, because I’m comfortable here, and get something better out of it.  It’s really not the tools that you use, it’s how you use them.  I think that’s true with anything creative and it’s even truer now because technology has become so powerful.

You went from being a business major in college to making music.  If you could take a step back from your career and view it through the eyes of a Wall Street investor, how would you size it up?

I would explain it as a venture capital experience where I am a small startup.  3LAU, as a company, is a small startup that has a lot of potential to grow.  You look at Calvin Harris and he’s making $66 million yearly and I’m like, “That’s a damn good investment.” If you invested in Calvin Harris 10 years ago, he probably wasn’t making even a $1 million a year.

When I look at myself, I look at my career as though it’s an amazing investment that I have personal control over.  Instead of investing money, of course, I’m investing time, because it’s my company.  I operate my business as though it’s a startup.  I have three employees.  I manage my costs with my employees.  I run it just like I would if I was running a website that did something cool with music.  It’s the same kind of process.  The only difference is that I’m an artist.

Do you have investors?

I don’t.  I am lucky enough to have made enough money in the first years of my career that I’ve reinvested every dollar I’ve made. It started off with a couple of hundred dollars per show and progressed to where it is now. Everything has been 100 percent me.  There have been moments where I’ve thought if I want to take big financial risks, maybe I need to take out a loan or find someone to invest money in me.  But I prefer being in total control  That’s the way I go.

On the other hand, a record label is in many ways, a venture capital firm.  A record label will give an artist an advance before they have their music ready.  And then the artist will take that advance and spend that money on development.  Then the labels earn a percentage of that artist’s [profits], and that’s how the label makes money in the long term.  So I view all labels as venture capital firms investing in artists.  It’s pretty much the same thing a venture capital firm would do, from a broader perspective.

I treat myself that way. I’m not signed on purpose because I like owning a lot of my own company. I’m pretty abnormal, I think, in the sense that I own 86 percent of my company.  Most artists probably own less than 50 [percent].  That gives me a lot of control.  That does make it harder at times because all the pressure is on me.  But I don’t mind it.  I work really hard and I enjoy the thrill of it.

What do your three employees do?

I have David [Carlson], who is my full-time manager, who basically manages everything from my touring strategy to my release strategy, to my marketing to reminding me about this [interview].  He has to think and feel everything I do and act on my behalf.  I have to trust in him that he will do that effectively, which he does.

Then I have my day-to-day manager and tour manager, Nick [Carroll], who organizes all the logistics for my touring operations.  He also works on merchandising, even though we haven’t launched that yet. It’s a big project that he’s working on now.  He also manages my promos. Any DJs that are sending me tracks, he’ll filter through the bad stuff and send me the good stuff. He’ll organize fan meet-&-greets and giveaways.  While I’m on tour he’ll make sure I get everything done that I need to that’s coming from David.  So David, my main manager, communicates with [Nick], who’s with me all of the time.

The third employee is Kevin [Edelson], who co-manages my social media with me.  I actually manage my own social media because I feel that it’s very important for me to be the contact for my fans.  I don’t want others speaking on my behalf, I want to be the one speaking to my fans.  Kevin helps me organize my thoughts and helps me schedule things in advance.  If I’m going to be on a flight, I’ll be like, “This is what I want to write.  Can you schedule it for me?” and he’ll take care of it.  But it’s all in my voice.  He’s there to guide the process along on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat and every other social media dimension that exists in this world.  It’s good to have a second person to manage your voice to your fans.

Those are my three employees.  On top of that I have my lawyer.  Then I have my agent Hunter Williams, who is with CAA. … Hunter has been representing me from the beginning.  He found me when I was nobody.

How did Hunter find you?

[He] booked me for a show in Nashville. For $500 I played a bar.  I went to lunch with him, I showed him my stuff and he was like, “I believe in this kid.” At the time I think neither of us knew how big it would get.  But he took it on pretty quickly.  It was very, very exciting for me at the time because that was the moment I was like, “Damn!  I’m going to have a future in this. It isn’t just a hobby.”

Were you the music lover among your friends while in high school?

Yes. I’ve always been a crazy fan of music.  Never actually dance music, ironically, until college. I was an avid reader of Pitchfork.  I’m a huge Radiohead fan.  I’ve seen Thom Yorke three times in my life.  I really like post-rock music. I really like everything.  The one kind of music that I don’t understand is country.  That’s not to diss it because I do like [some of] it.  The pop country stuff, I can’t even actually listen to it.  I have to turn it off.  But I really like folksy country.  I like bluegrass, I have a lot of that stuff. 

In college I listened to a lot of indie rock. A lot of experimental hip hop [like] Flying Lotus … My taste is all over the place, which is great because I can pull influences from a lot of different places.

Was there a lot of music in your house while growing up?

Both my parents loved music.  My mom was very much into Broadway because she was a choreographer and a dancer.  So I was exposed to Broadway stuff, thought it’s certainly not my favorite.  My dad was a huge classic rock buff [and] introduced me to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, kind of my earliest influences in music.

The coolest story is my grandfather, who was Jimi Hendrix’s front engineer with Eddie Kramer in Electric Ladyland studios in New York City.  Kind of in my blood a little bit to be doing this.  While not music, but my entire family is in entertainment.  My dad started out as a magician and began running a party experience planning company for private parties.  They would do corporate events and design 200-300 person party experiences.  Which is kind of funny because that is what I’m doing now to an extent. … My little brother is a magician.  He’s amazing. He makes up his own tricks and sells them online. 

While performing, what do you see when you look at the audience?

It depends on the show, but the short answer is … I never do the same thing twice but I’m happiest when I see people with their eyes closed. … When the vocals are playing and the chords are playing in the breakdown, and I see someone in the front row with their eyes closed, really feeling it, those are the best moments for me, as an artist.

Do you dance?

Not really.  I’m not incapable but I’m certainly not a dancer. Aside from jumping up and down, mini-shuffling up on stage, I cannot dance.  It is something I would like to learn.  I would like to learn how to shuffle one day if I had the time.

Photo: Joseph D’Oria/josephdoria.com

3LAU’s upcoming shows:

Oct. 30 – Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Mario Morales Coliseum
Oct. 31 – Tucson, Ariz., Congress Street Halloween Block Party
Nov. 5 – Denver, Colo., Beta
Nov. 6 – Las Vegas, Nev., Drai’s BeachClub & Nightclub
Nov. 7 – San Antonio, Texas, Expo Hall (Life In Color)
Nov. 13 – London, Ontario, Mustang Lounge
Nov. 14 – Montreal, Quebec, New City Gas
Nov. 19 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Diesel Club Lounge
Nov. 20 – Boston, Mass., Royale Nightclub Boston
Nov. 21 – Philadelphia, Pa., Soundgarden Hall
Nov. 25 – San Jose, Calif., City National Civic        
Nov. 28 – Portland, Ore., Roseland Theater
Dec. 3 – Bloomington, Ind., The Dunkirk
Dec. 4 – Minneapolis, Minn., Rev Ultra Lounge
Dec. 5 – Washington, D.C., Echostage
Dec. 18 – Albuquerque, N.M., The Historic El Rey Theater
Dec. 26 – Vancouver, British Columbia, BC Place (Contact Winter Music Festival)
Jan. 16 – Miami Gardens, Fla., Sun Life Stadium (Life In Color)
Feb. 19 – Miami, Fla., Norwegian Cruise Line – Norwegian Pearl (Gronk’s Party Ship)
Feb. 20-22 – Miami, Fla., Norwegian Cruise Line – Norwegian Pearl (Gronk’s Party Ship)

For more information, please visit 3LAU’s website, Beatport home, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram HQ, and YouTube channel.