23 Sep Facing The Music
It’s 5:12 am in this peaceful, remote area on the far reaches of Los Angeles. Inside a sprawling, lit-up residence, record label owner Michael Jones types furiously at his laptop while assistants are already buzzing about.
Since 2012, the residence, nicknamed the Kompound, has functioned as a retreat for artists on his dGenerate Records label and KounterKulture Mgmt roster. Danish pop singer Francis Bowie recently spent a month there writing a new album, and the house has been the location for three music videos in recent months.
This morning, instead of listening to music, Jones is facing it. Two young men pack boxes nearby while Jones fires off emails about the Kompound’s impending closure. “While we’re saddened by its closure, we’re also freed,” Jones writes. But the expression on his face tells a different story. “I know it’s Pollyanna-like, but it’s true. At least that’s what I keep telling myself, ” Jones says.
Keeping his chin up has, at times, been difficult for the music entrepreneur whose efforts to build a full-scale, state-of-the-art recording studio fell apart when investment capital dried up. “There just hasn’t been a lot of willingness out there to invest in a project like this and I knew that from the start,” Jones explained. “But I’ve never been afraid of a challenge. I also haven’t lost many of them, so this one has been tough to accept.”
Indeed, the guy who started out as a freelance music journalist in Los Angeles has built and sold a string of success stories- management, promotions, media and technology-over the last 25 years. I spoke with Jones that early September morning, just after his 50th birthday, to learn how he’s turning this loss into a victory.
First, happy birthday!
(Chuckles.) Thank you! It’s so nice to be 29!
You don’t look a day over it, either. That’s remarkable considering the pressure you’re under.
Well, even under pressure I take care of myself. Granted, I have an odd lifestyle. I work 20-30 hours in one “workday” sleep a bit then get up and start again. It’s just the merging of my hyperactive nature and my drive.
Let’s start off with this place, the Kompound. What happened?
The Kompound was one of my pet projects. I owned a couple of properties on the outskirts of LA and thought this one would be a natural. So in 2012 we started the project, restructuring the interior to accommodate a world class recording studio on the first floor. Then the complications ensued. We came up significantly short due to overruns and the investment well was dry. Residential studios are a high-risk proposition in the first place as the business and production of music has changed. But I held tight and gave it my best shot. But the capital wasn’t there to continue and the Kompound couldn’t generate enough revenue to stay afloat without the new studio. Siphoning money off from my other businesses just didn’t make sense. We tried negotiating the loan terms with the bank and that fell apart because there’s sufficient revenue overall. They didn’t seem to understand a lot of things about what we were doing. By the end of July, it was over. We had to cut our losses.
That leads us to your new project, “Stand Your Ground.” How did that come about?
Dealing with the bank helped me understand what people nationwide have been dealing with in the housing crisis here. I had three attorneys working with me and it was a mess. I imagined what folks who haven’t got those resources must go through. In our case, for instance, the bank would cite revenue numbers that were foreign to us. I still haven’t a clue where they got their information. At bottom, it was clear they didn’t want to deal with any of this. It’s insane. Of course, we’ve all read the horror stories of the banks’ bad behavior in the foreclosure crisis, but seeing how they dealt with us helped me understand how the system just eats up middle-class and working-class people. I’m not angry that I have to give up a pet project; that’s just a business idea that -didn’t fly. I’m criticizing the system.
Then one morning around 4 am I was writing the script for a music video when the concept of “Stand Your Ground” just hit me. I jumped up and told my assistant to get every artist we work with online for an emergency meeting. Mind you, I hadn’t even sent word about the Kompound’s closure. So I held a series of meetings and in the end, every artist signed on to “Stand Your Ground.” The support has been gratifying.
The full title is “Stand Your Ground: Music from the New Resistance,” is defiant. Are you encouraging people to fight back?
I’ll always encourage anyone to fight back, but it’s about being able to maintain happiness and hope in the midst of a crisis. “Stand Your Ground” is really about standing up for yourself against any adversity by refusing to be consumed by it.
Were you consumed by your standoff with the bank?
For a cool minute, I was. Luckily I have so many projects underway that I simply can’t spend much time wallowing in my anger or sadness. Plus I’m very fortunate to have people around me, including my two sons, who were a huge source of support in my darker moments. But as with everything, it’s all grist for the mill. Out of that struggle came an album. Who knows what other good things will come from it.
That’s a positive outlook.
I really do believe that everything, even our so-called tragedies, are the foundation for something that will benefit us.
What do you hope to accomplish with “Stand Your Ground”?
That people will hear the underlying message: you can choose to transform the obstacles or losses in your life into something good, or you can let them drag you down.
Who has signed onto the project?
Right now, Francis Bowie is re-recording “Robin Hood” for the project. It’s a cool protest song which really spoke to the Occupy movement. In fact, Occupy Netherlands was posting it on their site. Vegamoore and Ze have contributed the sexy dance track “Take You Down.”
Are you working with Ze now?
She’s not signed with dGenerate yet, but we’re working on that. Are you reading this Ze? (Chuckles.) She’s collaborating with Vegamoore and we’re sending them on a European tour together soon.
At the outset I thought about a compilation mixing a few major artists with performers like Bowie. I thought I’d make these emerging artists the stars of the project, particularly since they used the Kompound the most. I also recognize star power and the benefits it could offer newer artists.
So are you going to include any superstars?
I’ll leave that unanswered. We might have a surprise or two, or three, in store. I’ll let you know. (Grins.)
Fair enough. You have another project in the works, a compilation early next year?
Early 2015 or late 2014 we’ll be releasing the first in a series of compilations called “dGenerations.” Very edgy, underground stuff.
You’ve worked with major label as well as independent, breakthrough artists. Who would you prefer working with?
First, I’d point out that today’s indie artist may be tomorrow’s superstar; that’s my job as manager. But do I prefer them as a manager or label owner?
Obviously, your revenue is much greater when your selling millions instead of thousands. If you extract money from the picture, it’s a draw. With an established artist you have a much more labor intensive client and problems like bad behavior onstage or off, stalkers, and, of course, the focus of the work is entirely different. It’s more exciting.
But working with a roster like I have at the moment is very rewarding. I love artist development, which is a lot of what we did at the Kompound. It’s demanding, but really cool.
The biggest challenge when working with new artists is helping them keep their faith in the process. Overnight sensations usually only happen after a lot of groundwork. Nothing just happens like that.
While we’re on the subject, do you have any management advice for the unsigned artist?
One rule of thumb is that you only sign artists as management clients when they’ve been approached by a label. Then they definitely need representation. Prior to that, it’s up to the artist and what they need. Some have very little understanding of the music business and need guidance. Do they need management? Absolutely. They need to learn all the ropes of branding, image, publicity. Just learning how to speak with the press is a skill you need to learn. Meanwhile, others have a five-year plan out of the gate, but no deals on the table yet. Do they need a manager? Probably not.
You left all business behind several years ago and went off on a spiritual journey. You once described a female spirit guiding you. Can you talk about that?
I’ve had this strong feminine presence near me my entire life. I’ve only encountered her a few times in my life, but it’s life-altering every time.
Much like MGMT’s “Electric Girl”?
(Laughs.) Similar, but not as sexy at that time. I’ve got a better understanding of her now. It probably sounds weird to a lot of people. But yes, this feminine presence has been over my shoulder for years. And she is a sexy energy.
Afterwards you walked away from everything and went to graduate school.
That’s what I felt I needed to do. I got a masters in psychology and worked in it for a few years. I learned what I needed to and then I was finished with it.
How does that impact you as a manager today?
It’s made me a far stronger artist manager. A huge portion of that role is being therapist to the artist.
You’ve recently started blogging at thatmichaelj.com. It’s surprisingly personal.
It’s very personal, mainly so it holds my interest. I get bored easily and writing about the industry would, to me, be drudgery. I’m a writer at heart, but I can’t envision writing about the business every week. Besides, unless I have something original to contribute to the dialogue about the industry, I’d rather not be another hack shooting his mouth off. When I have something to say, I do speak out.
I also think it’s a good platform for me to play with narrative and experiment. Writing about personal issues is wasn’t easy for me at first, but it’s liberating.
You have quotes on your office wall. One of them is from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: “Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”
Yes, that’s pretty much the energy level I function at for 20 or so hours a day. I’m constantly moving knocking over lamps, drinks, you name it.
You also include the lyrics to Foster the People’s “Helena Beat.”
(Chuckles.) Yeah, but I prefer Mark Foster’s original title, “Hell In A Beat.” I included lyrics from a few songs that have some special meaning to me. “Helena Beat” is such a personal song for me. I’ve lived that song a thousand times, especially when I was that industry guy blowing through a couple thousand dollars’ worth of coke every week. At bottom, it’s a song about redemption and I can relate to it.
You talk and write about drug use openly. What has your experience with drugs been like?
Usually pretty good! (Laughing.) In all seriousness, drugs are what they are. I know that people around me would describe me as a partyboy of sorts. I work really hard and I do play really hard. I encourage people to be responsible partiers. Don’t lose sight of what’s important. I’ve abused drugs like crazy in the past, but never believed I needed them. To me, they were for fun or for some creative exercises. My real addictions are nicotine and caffeine.
I do think certain drugs are useful, really. I think all the psychedelics are good for creativity, but it takes discipline.
You’ve certainly had your share of adversity as well as success. What wisdom would you pass on to readers?
My “wisdom,” I’m afraid, isn’t very original. A few things do jump to mind. One is, “This, too, shall pass.” Everything, including your problems, is temporary. If you look down the road a year or two, you might imagine pissing yourself with laughter over today’s catastrophe. All you can do now is your best and let the universe take care of it.
Another lesson I’ve learned is to mind your own business. Don’t try fixing others or their lives unless you’re asked to help; stay focused on doing you. Everyone has a path they have to walk, to learn the lessons they need. If you interfere, you cheat them out of the lesson and you’ve gone off your path. So, give everyone the freedom to do what they need to do. I think that’s been the overarching theme of my entire life, really – freedom.