Talking with Matt Adell, Part One

A singular career in the new music industry

August 25, 2014

Former Chicagoan Matt Adell has had as unique a career in the new music industry as anyone I know, progressing from electronic dance music super-fan to fanzine editor, record store clerk, indie-record label employee turned label head, Internet radio and streaming audio pioneer, and finally executive at a top online music store.

The names of some of those companies alone chart the history of and the seismic changes in the industry during the last quarter-century: Wax Trax, Napster, Amazon, MusicNow, Beatport, SFX Entertainment.

Not only is Adell singularly poised to share the insights he’s gleaned while following his remarkable career path—part one of our conversation today—but he has a unique and deeply informed viewpoint on the current state of EDM, its massive popularity, and the changes wrought by corporatization (part two of our interview tomorrow).

J.D.: So, Matt, my recollection of our first meeting is back in the early ’90s, when you and David Prince and Gary “Sir Real” Kuzminski were working on a fine dance-music fanzine called Reactor and really proselytizing about the joys of the nascent American rave movement, as well as your big plans for Chicago.

M.A.: Yes! I don’t remember the conversation, but that sounds like me. The magazine was published out of my house. You know, the nice thing about Reactor is none of it’s on the Internet.

J.D.: That’s kind of sad, though. I remember some extraordinary interviews: early Moby and the Aphex Twin…

M.A.: Moby, Aphex Twin, Terrence McKenna, Tim Leary, a great conversation with the Stereo MCs about being Christian… there was just great stuff in there.  You know, I lost my archive in a fire in Chicago. It was Christmas Eve of 2000. I went to the movies by myself—the Star Trek movie—got home, and I’m like, “Where the hell am I gonna park? There are fire engines everywhere!” And then I realize it’s my building that’s on fire! Mercifully, my dog was fine, so the magazines I was happy to lose. But every now and then I see people reference Reactor, or with some of these rave archives, people have scanned the covers. But it might be just fine, frankly, that it’s not fully available. It certainly is not [full of] the kinds of things that I would say to young people today.

J.D.: How so?

M.A.: As a young person, I think young people can use certain language when they’re speaking to each other, and it’s different from adults. And so there’s lots of stuff that I did growing up that I wouldn’t tell other people I recommend. I don’t have any regrets, but it doesn’t mean I tell people things are a good idea.

J.D.: Well, like I said, you guys were proselytizers—your generation’s version of Tim Leary or Ken Kesey.

M.A.: Yeah, no s---!

J.D.: So what was the trajectory? How did you go from local electronic dance enthusiast into building a very successful career?

M.A.: Before I started my label, Organico, I was at Wax Trax Records, working for Jim Nash. I had gotten into Chicago dance music when I was working at a record store in San Francisco in the ’80s; I was out there for a bit going to school. Then I moved back to Chicago.

I started my label Organico after Wax Trax. It was a total labor of love, and to this day I’m incredibly proud of it, especially the Derrick Carter record as Sound Patrol. And we put out stuff by Dub-tribe Sound System from San Francisco, and a great local act with Gary Sir Real in it called Squishy...

J.D.: I remember all of those—great records, one and all! Were they successful commercially?

M.A.: It was a struggle, you know? These were the days when most of your revenue was in vinyl. You had to manufacture it, which was expensive, and you had to ship it, and in those days, independent record sales were all effectively consignment. So the label didn’t get paid for, usually, at best, 180 days after shipping the record. Sometimes, if you were waiting for a check, you might get a box of records back instead, if the distributor had over-ordered. It was a nightmarish cash-flow business. I really admire Dan Koretzky [Drag City] and Bettina [Richards, Thrill Jockey] and what they did with their independent labels at the same time.

J.D.: When did TVT come into the picture?

M.A.: TVT bought Wax Trax before I left Wax Trax. That was my time with TVT. I signed the KLF to Wax Trax, which was a Billboard No. 1 dance record, and still a record I love very much. You know, I think arguably you could say the Beatles, in their relatively short recording career, did everything that rock ’n’ roll had to offer. And KLF has changed dance music still to this day. I’m not equating them with the Beatles, other than having, in a very short career, defined the entire growth curve of a genre. As a matter of fact, the KLF, they called their music “stadium house,” which at the time was a joke. But when you listen to their records, every single KLF record has a huge stadium-sized crowd sound in it, so it sounds like you’re in a stadium. It sounds like you’re at a contemporary festival.

J.D.: The group was prescient in a lot of ways, you’re absolutely right.

M.A.: So I worked on that, and with Thrill Kill Kult, which I was incredibly proud of. Meanwhile, with my label, I worked on it for fits and starts as I could afford it for a number of years, and eventually the Internet happened. And I was lucky enough to be invited by a buddy of mine to join a company called RadioWave.com, which was Motorola-funded; it basically was Motorola investing in an incredibly nascent Internet radio station. RadioWave was one of the first big national Internet radio networks; we worked with terrestrial radio stations and companies like the Loop and Clear Channel, getting their signals online and replacing the ads with different ad inventory, and then we built the first really large network of programs for an Internet radio station. I built branded channels for Blue Note, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Vans Warped Tour, and there was a time when we were several of the Top 10 genre stations on the Internet, very early on. It was a really exciting time.

J.D.: The company was ahead of its time.

M.A.: Really. We spent a lot of time pitching things that didn’t go anywhere, and eventually Motorola shut it down, shortly after 9/11, if I recall.  And then I was mercifully unemployed very briefly, until I went to work for a company in Chicago called MusicNow. Before Spotify, it was the first nationally deployed and licensed streaming and on-demand digital music service. And I fell in love—that’s when I really, really fell in love with music on the Internet. Because what I enjoyed about record stores and what I enjoyed about DJing was sharing music with people, and getting the feedback of whether they loved it, instantly. And you can do that online through digital music services. You can learn instantly, and in great detail, if people like what they’re consuming.

I remember the first time I saw a report showing me on our radio stations the most common songs people were skipping; my head exploded! It was so fascinating. If a song was a big hit, we were programming it a lot, but nobody wanted to hear it! I love that about the Internet. Because, you know, my personal taste is not a massive factor in my pleasure in helping other people find music they’re gonna love. If it’s not hate speech, and people love the record, then I’m gold. Other people have much more important things in their lives to worry about than who the next cool band is; they’ve got kids to take to soccer practice. I learned that working for Rick Addy at the Record Exchange in Evanston, and that stayed with me my whole career. And besides, what I like is f---ing weird!

Anyway, I worked at MusicNow for a while, and really dug in on the product side there. It grew from not just being a music programming creative thing, but also a user experience for digital music services at that time. That’s where I got to know developers and started to understand how things work. And to be perfectly honest, digital music services haven’t changed at all since then. They’re all a giant pile of music, with a search box, a display area, and some sort of algorithmic listening. They’re all the same—identical.

J.D. We haven’t seen the next generation, have we?

M.A.: Well, what really changed is that music subscriptions services did not matter until the Smartphone was predominant. That’s why MusicNow was too early, and even why the legal Napster was too early, because the value to the consumer wasn’t obvious until it was on your phone. And so with Spotify, their service is basically the same as everyone else’s, but their timing, with the arrival of Smartphone culture, was impeccable.

J.D.: When did you go to Napster?

M.A.: After MusicNow in Chicago, I moved to Seattle to work at Amazon. When I was there, Amazon was interestingly organized; the team I was on had nothing to do with the music group. About six months into my time at Amazon, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: Come be the vice president of the music group at Napster, which meant all the licensing, all the programming, everything with music. I moved to L.A. to take that job and it was a blast.

It was a phenomenal experience, but it’s a painful struggle to have the brand be both a help and a hindrance, which was the case at Napster. It was just like Spotify, the same technological techniques, the same value proposition for consumers, but it had been branded earlier [as “illegal downloading”]. Still, whatever it was named, it was too early, because Smartphones won.

While I was at Napster, we sold the company to Best Buy, which was a great exit for the folks who had been nurturing it. And shortly thereafter, I started thinking, “What am I going to do next?” I got a call from a headhunter one day, and the headhunter says, “Would you ever consider working in Denver?” And I said, “Only if I could work at Beatport.” And 90 days later, I am the COO of Beatport. That’s really how that happened! Beatport was looking for more experienced executives to help the founders out, and I was really the only person I know of that they met with my experience who had a hardcore dance music background.

J.D.: For people who don’t know, explain what Beatport was and is.

M.A.: Beatport is the world’s largest online record store for DJs. Some do it professionally, but I would say many of them to do it aspirationally. Like how many more people buy basketballs to play in their driveway than to play on the court. But they are all acting like DJs with the music. That’s really a key differentiator: They’re gonna use the music as a root element of creating something new.

It was already the most important brand in dance music when I arrived, it’s just that dance music was not having its moment yet. But I do believe that in the time I was there we helped grow the dance music market globally—helped it reach a more mainstream or larger audience, I would say.  And in my time there, we also doubled the size of the company.

What we did was really transform Beatport into a community hub. What we saw was that fans wanted to be where the DJs were, so they were coming to the record store and using the record store as a music-discovery engine. They knew, for instance, if they looked at the Top 10 charts, that was a reflection of what the most important DJs in the world were buying. So what we began doing then was a Beatport dance music news blog, remix contests, big social activity, live DJ broadcasts, so that we really became the connecting tissue between the DJ and the fan. For that fan who really wants what I would call the number-one experience of feeling most closely linked to their favorite artists—the super-fans, if you will—that’s where they all comingled, and that grew Beatport’s audience substantially.

By the time I became the CEO, which was about a year after I started, the directive from the board was to find a buyer. And I spent a lot of my time building a company and a process to make that happen. The company had already taken venture capital money a few years before I got there, so by the time I got there, it was very close to time for any venture capitalist to say, "Hey, where’s my money?"

J.D.: So it wasn’t a surprise to you that Beatport was sold to SFX; it was part of your marching orders.

M.A.: Beatport had a very corporate board that I worked for, that I did not vote on, so Beatport was sold by the people who owned it. I’m extremely proud of the results I achieved with them.

Tomorrow: Matt Adell on the current state of EDM.

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