john johnson

With Fernando Olaya’s ‘West Waves’ out this week on ICONYC we caught up with label owner John Johnson for the latest installment of Ask The Label Manager.

john johnson

1. Thanks for joining us and giving us some insight into your life and daily label manager duties. So let’s start with the obvious, what label or labels do you manage and where are you based?

Many thanks for the invitation to participate and share a few thoughts about our labels, who we are and what we do. We’re honoured and grateful for the opportunity. We currently run 3 labels in ICONYC, Hydrogen Inc. and NYLO. ICONYC was formerly known as 238W Inc. and was founded in September of 2014. The label has had a combined output of 87 releases so far. Our sister label Hydrogen saw the light of day in October of 2015 and will celebrate its milestone 50th release on October 10th, 2016. NYLO was founded on the back of me leaving my old Media Blackout venture in May of 2016 and just saw it’s 12th release hit stores. The team consists of 4 people who participate and contribute to what we do. There is Grey aka Gergo Nemeth who is based in Budapest in Hungary, Alex is from Crete in Greece, Harris is from Athens also in Greece and myself who is based in New York. We have known each other for a very long time and manage to run things thru the power of modern technology. Each of us takes up a different role within the organisation, with the main aim to release great music that people will hopefully enjoy.

2. Where does the name from your label(s) comes from? Is there a story behind how it/they came to be?

When Grey and myself started discussing the idea of starting a label I wanted to come up with names that are simple, easy to remember but at the same time had some sort of relevance or connection to us. ICONYC is pretty much self-explanatory and clever I thought. It was hard to come up with something that was going to be as memorable as 238W was but I believe we managed to do that with ICONYC. Hydrogen was quite interesting, as I put a lot of thought into coming up with that name. Hydrogen is the lightest element on the periodic table and has the atomic number 1, therefore I thought it would make a perfect companion for ICONYC in the sense of being light and number 1, translating into being the 1st light version of ICONYC, plus I liked the simplicity of the name. NYLO on the other hand was quite simple for those of you who know me and spent time with me personally, as it combines my 2 favourite cities in the world in New York and London (NY & LO = NYLO) and therefore means a lot to me for obvious reasons.

3. Does your label(s) have a distinct sound? How would describe the labels vision and sound?

ICONYC & Hydrogen are primarily known for the progressive house sound we put out, but once in a while we receive some really interesting techno and tech house tracks that fit in with the general concept of what we do here and like to release those as well. It makes for a nice a change and keeps things fresh and interesting. On NYLO it is all about indie dance, nu & deep house. Anything from down tempo cool chill, beach house to clubby deep house. The spectrum is wide ranging within the genre. At the end of the day it all comes down to quality and vision really. It isn’t so much about the genre, as it is about the fact that if it is good it is good.

4. We would guess you probably receive a lot of demos, how many would say you receive in any given week and what percentage would you actually consider releasable and do you reply to every submission?

The amount of demos varies from week to week. Some weeks we can receive up to a 120 demos across all 3 labels and sometimes it is just half of that, on average I would say between 40-50 a week which is quite intensive, considering that we only been around a few years. When I think back on how it was when we started it makes me quite proud that so many great artist want to work with us and entrust us with their heart and soul. That is why I reply to every artist that submits a demo to us, good or bad as I feel as a label you should respect and treat every artist the same way and take the time. Of course some guys can be quite infuriating in the way they submit their demos but non-the less I make a point of it to reply. As an artist it can be quite stressful waiting around to hear back from a label and by replying I can hopefully take away a little of that anxiety. We all know how it felt when got started and where waiting to hear back.

In regards of how many tracks we actually sign depends again on the quality but generally speaking the quality of demos we receive now a day is quite impressive. Regardless how good some tracks are, I am only interested in signing tracks that are made exclusively for us. Meaning that if I receive a demo that was sent to 30 other labels at the same time I am not going to be interested regardless of how great that track is. We spent so much time working, promoting and planning our releases that signing a track that has been sent and heard by the majority of labels out there doesn’t correlate to who we are and what we do. I want to work with artists that want to be part of the ICONYC / Hydrogen & NYLO family and believe in what we do and represent. It is about building relationships, maintain and nurturing them to built something together.

5. How long is the wait from when you sign a project to when it will actually get released?

That comes down to a lot of factors, is it a ready to go EP or is it a single that will need remixes? If it needs remixes you start brainstorming on who would be a great fit for that particular record. You than go and try to get that person to remix said track and depending who you end up getting it can take anything from 4-8 month for the release to come out, factoring promotion, mastering, etc. in. An EP would generally be released within 3-5 month from signing to actually hitting the store. I also believe that it comes down to how popular you are and how many people want to work with you. The more people want to release with you the more congested your schedule becomes, which in return means longer release lead times from the day they sign till the record actually hits the store. I always communicate clearly what and when the artist can expect to see his record released with us, as our schedules are always planned and executed 6 month in advance. It helps clear up a lot of frustration right from the word go and makes life easier for everyone involved. Another major factor is how much emphasise you put on working your releases, as that alone can take up quite a bit of time prolonging the process. I always tell our artists to wait a few weeks longer rather than to rush it and see their release disappear as fast as it arrived. Most guys really understand the need for good promo but there is always a couple of exceptions, that don’t see the bigger picture.

6. Who would you say are your core label artists? And do you think it’s important for a label to build a roster around a few key artists and develop a distinct sound in the process.

I think every label has a few guys that tend to release their music more with them for various reasons. In our case we’re truly grateful to have a core of guys that helped us define our sound, people like Dust Yard, Robert R Hardy, Sonderzug, Terje Saether, Audioglider, Jesse Oliver, David R Maddocks, Soulfinder, Plus Thirty, Lucefora, Emi Galvan, Tuxedo, Ewan Rill, Spacebeat, the list goes on and I do apologise to any of you I might have forgotten to mention. Everyone we ever worked with has always been very supportive from day one; something I never imagined would be possible. At the end of the day it all comes down to the personal relationship with said artists, I always say to the guys when you talk to artists treat them the way you want to be treated. It is a simple but very effective concept. It doesn’t cost a cent to be nice to people and they will always pay you back with loyalty. Respect is the magic word.

7. What is your thought process behind remixer selection on a given project and how many is too many in your opinion?

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, that delivers that one remix that defines that particular release.

8. Do you sell merchandise and if so what do you sell, where is it available? and do you think it’s important to have merchandise?

Yes, we do sell merchandise starting from December 1st, 2016 thru our own website, Facebook and various 3rd party partners we connected with around the world, to give access to as many people possible who follow and support us around the world. Our merchandise will be available online, as well as in selected stores and boutiques. A list of retailers and partners will be up on our official Facebook soon. Items available are t-shirts, (classic and limited editions), hoodies, baseball caps and stickers. CD’s of upcoming artists album will be available as well. Merchandise is important to create a brand association with your artists and fan base. I believe if people genuinely like your product they want to support it and show it by wearing the shirt, buying the release or even just supporting you on social media.

9. Where would you say the majority of your fans are based? And does that correlate to where the majority of your sales come from?

Sales wise the majority are based in the USA followed by the UK, Japan, Russia, Germany, Australia and Israel. Generally cash rich countries, which doesn’t necessarily translate to our actual main fan base of people who follow us actively. If I take our social media followers as example for exposure than most of our fans are based in South America especially Argentina, Mexico & Brazil followed by the USA, UK, Australia, Russia and Israel. If you look at it closely you come to realise that mentioned countries are the ones that always had a long affiliation and history with progressive house music.

10. What has been the most successful track or release on the label? Both from a sales perspective but also support or live / radio play form established DJs?

Without a question Dousk & Jorgio Kioris – One Man (Khen & Pole Folder Remixes) and Plus Thirty & George Ledakis – Serendipity (Dmitry Molosh Remix) those two have been played and supported by most of the well known and established DJ’s around the world. We received huge support from the likes of Sasha, Digweed, Hernan Cattaneo, Nick Warren, Guy J, etc. Sales wise it has so be my own Impact single with remixes from Cid Inc. & Jamie Stevens. On Hydrogen support and sales wise it was Persya – Castalia EP and Sonderzug’s Fake Existence. On NYLO, Medsound’s artist album Electric Dreams.

11. What artists would you love to have on the label?

Very hard question to answer as there are so many outstanding and marvellous artists around that I would love tot work with. If the sky were the limit than I would love to have Solomun, Maceo Plex, the 2 Guy’s Mantzur and J that is, H.O.S.H, Brian Cid, Habischman, Victor Ruiz, Edu Imbernon, Super Flu and Pan-Pot. Time to come back to earth I think. Would make for one crazy release line up though, just saying.

12. Where do you see the label in 5 years? And are you pleased with where the label is now since its inception?

It is difficult to say. I would like to think that we would have established ourselves within a very competitive sector and that people would see us, as one of a few go to entities where artists know they will be taken care off. In regards to growth and recognition I couldn’t be happier and grateful since we started the labels. It exceeded all my expectations and projections and than some.

13. Living off the earning of a small digital imprint is unlikely, how do you supplement your income? Do you have a job outside of electronic music?

We run the labels for the love of the music and don’t see it as an income source but at the same time we’re grateful to run the labels with the income we generate. We don’t lose and money which was always my main goal. Grey is a journalist by trade, Alex is civil engineer for the Greek Navy, Harris is an engineer for freezing units and I am a managing director for a company in the business sector.

14. Do you pay advances or remix fees? And is it reasonable to do so in your situation?

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, its here on 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.

15. Who is your distributor?

We distribute all our releases exclusively thru AMPSuite in the UK. I am very content and grateful for the relationship we have with them. Keith at AMPSuite has been a great asset to us, very supportive and unbelievably professional from day one. At the end of the day it comes down to professional courtesy and personal relationships when choosing your distributor, in our case I wanted to work with someone who actually cares on a personal level and where we were not just another name on a long list. Exclusivity, professionalism and a personal bond was the key and AMPSuite hit all the right buttons.

16. Are you or have you done label nights and if so how have they contributed to the label’s growth?

Yes, we have done a few label nights and are currently planning and working on our next label tour for spring of 2017. The nights are a great asset and help a lot in regards to growth, social media and brand exposure. It will become even more important in the future to help positioning the labels in a crowded market.

17. What’s your favourite thing about running a label?

There are so many great things about running a label; it would be hard to pinpoint just one thing. The obvious choice would be the personal relationships you built with a lot of the guys; to the point you actually consider them friends. The music of course, as it connects so many of us in ways only music can, the excitement you share with your artist when a release does well, the bond, the support and respect you receive is something to appreciate and be grateful for. I met so many great people during my tenure as label boss that I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world, but the one thing that stands above all is when you listen to that one completed release that you know is going to smash it. Astonishing and heart warming!

18. What advice would you give to anyone trying to get a release on the label? How do you suggest they approach the demo submission process?

3 things are very important to me. First, make sure that if you send us a demo, it is intended for us only and has not been distributed to 30 other labels at the same time. Take the time to actually research what and who we are and what we do, don’t just send random tracks that don’t fit our sound profile (hello to all the EDM guys out there). Secondly, make sure that you are happy with the product you send, everything from the mix down, sound quality, arrangement, don’t rush things, take your time and most important don’t keep sending us the same track multiple times, when we said no the first time we’re not going to change our mind the second or third time. We prefer when people send us streaming links (private Soundcloud streams with a download option for example). All submissions should be unreleased and original tracks. We do listen to everything that comes in and if we like the demo and want to speak to you further about it you will be the first to know. And last but not least, be nice and courteous! Don’t send us your track and in the same breath tell us how to do our jobs. We’re all humans and try to the best we can but we also like to do so with a smile on our faces. Life is too short to waste it on rude people.

19. What if a demo is good but needs refining? Do you have time to help the artist and give them some tips?

If it is needed we always try and help. If we receive a track that has a lot of great elements and potential but needs some tweaking in the arrangement or mix down department, we will do our best to help where we can, but that goes for everyone on the label. It is part and parcel of running a label successfully by helping and being supportive. If that means taking the time to help a guy getting the track from 90% to 100% than we will do that. Sometimes it is difficult, as no one likes to be told that they need to change or tweak a track that they worked on for days, weeks and or even month, but it is your job as label manager to make sure the end result is right one and doing so by conveying it in a respectful way. Artists are sensitive creatures that need to be nurtured but you need to do so without ever losing sight of the main goal.

20. Who does the labels mastering? and do you ever have tracks mixed down by an engineer for better results?

We use 3 guys depending on the sound of the release and the their schedules. We sort of established a great working relationship with Richard Zagiba (Ri Za), Henri (Cid Inc.) and the Pobla guys in Spain who master all the Suara and Maceo Plex releases. All 3 have a unique quality sound that we really like and appreciate. But in saying that even they can’t turn a toad into a diamond, therefore it is important that the basic structure is there, otherwise even the best sound engineer will not be able to help. A fact, we always try to emphasise.

21. This is tough but if you had to pick your five favourite releases or tracks on the label what would they be?

Ufff very hard indeed but these ones stuck with me for various personal reasons. So here it goes:

ICONYC / 238W
Plus Thirty – Dream Echoes (BP & Terje Saether Remixes)
Dousk & Jorgio Kioris – One Man (Khen & Pole Folder Remixes)
Phraktal – Hangin Around Corners (Barry Jamieson Remix)
Andre Sobota – Futurammer (Tim Penner Remix)
Jesse Oliver – All Is (Stas Drive Remix)

HYDROGEN
Simos Tagias – The Flame
Tuxedo – Broken Flower (Alex Vidal Remix)
Contribute Translation – Fax (Danny Glover Remix)
Ilya Gerus – Sleipnir’s Adventures (Emi Galvan Remix)
Rogier – Breathe (Juan Pablo Torrez Remix)

NYLO
Medsound – Electric Dreams Album
Deeperise, Mr. Nu & Tolgah – Just To Me (Alex Hook Remix)
FDF (Italy) – Sensation EP
Jason Bay – The Mothaship EP
Medsound & Maria Estrella – Bittersweet Romance

22. Lastly, what advice do you have for someone just starting a label?

It all comes down to what you want to archive or what your aim is. To run or build a successful label you need, a lot of time (say good bye to your free time), patience, money and stamina. Things are not going to happen over night. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes (something that will happen if you want it or not). You should have a clear vision of what sound you would like to push, the design you are going to implement (very important for visual recognition), a lot of people underestimate the importance of good design (artwork, logo). We live in a world where visual stimulation is as import as the music itself. Next the strategy you want to follow, weekly releases, monthly releases, etc. think quality over quantity. Plan and finalise 5-6 releases in advance before you start. A big aspect and something that helped us a lot was promotion, we spent a lot of time and money on doing the right promotion, as that is the only way you will get recognised. A lot of labels have great artists and music that never gets heard because nobody knows they exist. With the amount of labels already in existence it is very hard to stand out but with the right attitude, work ethic and quality music it is possible to make a mark, without ever forgetting to enjoy yourself, after all music is supposed to be fun and not rocket science. Once you outlined the core principles you should take a step back and look at it with an open and clear mind. If you still feel it is something you want to pursue than you are obviously crazy enough and have the right mindset.

Fernando Olaya’s ‘West Waves’ is out now, you can purchase the release: here

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  • Mitch Alexander
    Mitch Alexander

    WRITER @ C-U

    Mitch Alexander is the owner of microCastle | Beatport "One of the most influential, tastemaker labels out there and also part of our genre committee."