July 10, 2012
Items for your consideration: Last week Nielsen reported that the fastest growing genre in total album sales in the first six months of 2012 was electronic music, which increased by 65%. Secondly, on August 3rd and 4th in Los Angeles, up to 35,000 electronic music fans will swarm over the L.A. Historical Park on each of the two nights of the HARD Summer festival., which will feature the likes of Skrillex, Bloc Party, Bootsy Collins, Nero, Miike Snow and Boys Noize on four stages. Most of these acts are hardly household names ... yet ... but if Gary Richards has his way, they will be sooner than later. The owner of HARD Events, Richards, son of radio icon Barry Richards, recently sold his company to Live Nation to help bring electronic music to the masses -- or vice versa. Here's how he's done it so far.
Considering your father is a well-known radio figure, did you ever want to follow in his footsteps, or did you always want to chart your own path?
At one time, I was on the radio; my dad had a station in Fresno in the late '80s. He was on 3-7p, my brother did 7p-midnight, and I did midnight-6a. I had to do the overnight shift mainly because I was the youngest. However, one night I fell asleep on the air ... and that was the end of it.
With that said, I've always loved electronic music. My dad played Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express and a lot of hip-hop ("Rappers Delight," etc. that used electronic beats when I was young). I was around a lot of that in the early '90s, when I went to warehouse parties in downtown L.A. That got me hooked.
When did you decide to personally get involved with that scene?
I started out DJ'ing and producing my own shows in the early '90s. The first event I did was called "The Sermon." I realized I couldn't compete against the big events on Saturday night, so I started mine early Sunday morning at 6a as an after-hours club. I was going to CSUN at the time, and I would end up leaving the club Sunday mornings with a couple grand in hand. At the same time I was delivering pizzas to make ends meet with kids who already got their degrees. That convinced me that finishing school was not the best option in my case.
So I set up more electronic music/dance concerts in Los Angeles, such as "Midnight Mass" and "The Holy Water Adventure." Each adventure for me turned into a whole bigger thing. Then in 1992, Rick Rubin started coming to a few of my events and saw the scene. He told me it reminded him of when he was in college at NYU. He dug the energy and believed that this style of music would soon become the big thing. He asked me to help him sign some electronic groups. So I quit doing shows and went into the record business, where I signed a bunch of electronic acts that didn't sell records because no one cared about electronic music yet. We were too early on it.
Even so, from 1993-2006, I worked at different labels and managed some groups. By 2006, though, I realized that trying to sell records to people was like trying to sell oxygen to people ... when it's free. I realized that I wasn't going to be the one to figure out the problem of getting paid from selling recorded music, so I returned to the skills I used to do - DJ'ing and producing my own shows. My first event was New Year's Eve, 2007, under the name HARD NYE.
Had the electronic and dance club scene changed much in the years you were at the labels?
The whole time when I was working at the labels, I continued to do events -- not serious business, but as more of a fun hobby to keep my head in the game. The difference for me in 2007, as opposed in 1991, comes down to experience. Back then, I was a 21-year-old kid in college. This time I approached it as a legitimate business from day one, using what I learned in the music business. I had matured, so I approached it as proper business, trying to produce a proper concert.
I also went into it knowing this type of music had lot of stigma around it, from all the bad press from the raves, with tales of drug-taking and underage kids. This time I was going to come in and show people how to do a proper electronic concert. I also believe that people who like rock and hip-hop could also enjoy this type of electronic music.
Can you pinpoint a tipping point of sorts, when you could tell that electronic music was not only going to blow up, but stay popular?
Not really. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit inside of me; I never really looked at this as a job or as part of a business. I was just putting my ideas into trying to do concerts. But I approached the records I played at my events and the DJs I booked as groups on a label, where I marketed them all as artists. It was my way of trying to get this music out there, to educate people on it, but instead of selling records, I was selling concert tickets. I had no idea it would turn into what it did.
In fact, the whole electronic music thing has already blown up -- and gone away -- a couple of times, which told me that something was missing in how we presented electronic music concerts. I latched onto something different than what everyone else was doing.
At one time, people in L.A. were mostly booking trance artists, and they kept bringing out the same type of music. I went out and looked for other types of electronic music ... artists such as Major Lazer and Justice. There's a whole kind of left-of-center electronic thing that can appeal to people who like rock music -- and I still believe that lot of artists not getting booked elsewhere deserve attention, so I'm still looking for and booking acts that no one has heard of in America.
It's important for me to help bring the likes of Justice, Deadmau5, Crystal Castles, Soulwax, Mstrkrft and A-trak to the mainstream. It was important for me to be one of the first concert promoters to bring them here. And they all exploded to the point where they're selling lots of concert tickets. Thing is, when I first booked Deadmau5, he was unknown to the masses at the time. I was just booking what I liked.
I just got a subscription to Pollstar about three months ago; I never had to look to see who was doing what business elsewhere. But when I first heard a track by Crookers, I wondered just who they were, and like I did with Deadmau5, I kept getting tracks from them that I liked, so I booked them and eventually they turned out to be massive.
Just like in the past with artists like The Prodigy, Underworld and Chemical Brothers.
The whole way through, my dad wanted me to book artists who people knew and were played on the radio. Why mess with acts who no one knows and who don't sell? But I stuck to my guns. Then all of a sudden, my dad started telling me that Deadmau5 and Major Lazer were coming out on major labels; now I was the one pushing things up to the mainstream the opposite way!
Are sponsors starting to recognize the number of people who'll show up at this year's HARD Summer 2012 concerts August 3rd-4th in L.A.?
We've been approached by a lot of people, but as of now, we've picked one major sponsor, Red Bull -- and the Red Bull Music Academy -- who are at most of our events. We ask artists to participate in it and they usually say yes. We record their sets at the show, and then Red Bull plays it back through its music academy online radio channels. You can hear different sets from HARD events over the years. Other than that, there aren't too many major sponsors right now. But now that we're working with Live Nation, we just had our first meeting with the sponsorship department on generating more action. What we'll also like to do is have HARD work with brands that fit, so we can integrate in a smooth fashion.
You mentioned HARD's new deal with Live Nation. At the same time, Bob Sillerman, who founded SFX and helped turn it into a concert power, is also aggressively going after electronic music concert promoters. Did you also meet with him as well?
I met with him, as well as a couple others. Bob's a really charismatic guy who was definitely cool to me. The reasons I went with Live Nation are twofold: While Bob is still in the process of trying to put together a whole big thing, our biggest event of the year happens in 30 days ... and I want to hit the ground running. Since Live Nation has already produced over 22,000 concerts in the last year, they are in full swing now. They've got systems already in place to make this year's HARD Summer music festival even better. What's more, they brought in James Barton, who owned Creamfields, which holds huge electronic music fests in England, South America and Australia. He'll oversee a global electronic music strategy. I've always wanted to work with him; we've been chatting for sometime on working together and now we can work together on a global level.
Was it at all tough for you to sell your own company?
Not really. After five years of being independent and doing every single thing at my events, I realized that I had kind of pushed the limit on how far I can go. It was time to find the right partner to take it to the next level - and I know we made the right decision.
Are you at all concerned about radio's general reluctance to give this music significant exposure?
Radio should play more of this music, but it's tough these days. When I walk into a station today, I see what used to be whole departments and now there's hardly anyone there. There's one guy who's overseeing a slew of stations ... I mean, what the hell happened? It's a shame that people love this music and you can't hear it on the radio for the most part.
What about satellite radio or the Net?
I've met with a few Sirius people and we talked about programming here or there. They seemed to want just a show or to record one festival, but I think HARD really needs its own channel because sooner or later, this is going to really happen. Remember, this could start anywhere and take off. When I did my first show, it was in the middle of a street, after which I moved into a parking lots, then arenas and state parks ... and it really started to catch on after that.
Have you considered doing some version of a specialty show for electronic music?
We had HARD Fest Radio on in a few markets, but it really should have its own channel. When I grew up in L.A., KROQ was truly an Alternative station that would play "weird" music from bands like Depeche Mode and New Order. Today they're playing Offspring, Sublime and Social Distortion ... and a lot of current bands that sound just like them. There's certainly nothing wrong with those bands, but what's "alternative" about that? My concerts feature today's real "alternative" music; why shouldn't stations like KROQ play that?
Have you talked with KROQ or any other station about doing something with your music?
I've had a good relationship with Kevin, Gene and Lisa over the years. I've met with them and they got excited about certain events I booked. They were happy to see acts such as Bloc Party and Miike Snow on the bill. They've given us bit of promo and thought about us doing some kind of mix show, but nothing has really come together on it. It seems like they want to do something, but we haven't been able to form a solid way to work together.
Would creating and hosting an electronic music show on a radio station be something you'd be interested in?
I DJ all the time, all over the place, and I learned from working with my dad in radio that putting a solid radio show together takes a lot of time and hard work to get it right. I'd love to be involved in some way, but I only have so much time in the day. If I can work with some good people, I know that such a show would work. Right now my primary focus is producing concerts/festivals.
Are there enough quality hit-making electronic and dance acts around to support a full-fledged format, even if it's a Sirius channel or an Internet radio station?
If it's an around-the-clock station as opposed to a weekend mix show, for instance, I would definitely have to pick the hits of this genre - and there are certain songs that can be played in a high rotation or, as you call it, power rotation. I don't know about the whole research game; that has always confused me. I just know this music ... and there are many great songs from my world that never see the light of day on the radio. I'd like to believe that somewhere, in some market, there's a frequency that may not be doing well that's being programmed by someone who'd be willing to take a chance on it.
I know that there are enough key songs in this genre that can break on the radio - if they play them often enough. For instance, how often do stations play Daft Punk? Maybe once in a blue moon. Daft Punk is the Beatles of dance music. It's simple to see what the hits are. Just go to a club and put on a record; either people get on the dance floor or get off. And there are a ton of records that get people on the dance floors - this could also work on the radio ... if they're presented and edited the right way.
Disco dominated the radio in the '70s. Why hasn't electronic dance music been able to get even a fraction of that airplay?
Probably because the labels and radio were burned by one-hit electronic acts before. Remember when Prodigy had "Firestarter?" I was at a label back then, and when MTV and KROQ started playing it, people thought that music was going to take over the world. Never happened.
But the circumstances are different today. Today instead of wanting to be in a band, you've got 15-year-olds with computers, programming their own music and doing mash-ups. What we have to do is get more musicians involved with that programming. In an ideal world, we'd promote the best electronic artists, who follow the paths laid down by groups like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, incorporate the best elements of music with melody in songs, using the new technology and sounds to push it to the front. We need more 18-20-year-old kids to come out and do more than just cut and paste samples, because at the end of day, we still need music people to make music.
Another challenge for me is to convince people that this music's image need not be drug-related and be relegated to under-aged raves. You didn't need to take LSD to enjoy Led Zeppelin; it's same thing today with all these electronic artists. Many of these acts make amazing electronic music. I'm going to do all I can to make sure more people realize the positive power of electronic music - and the growing audience who wants to hear it on the radio and see it live in concert.