- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- Afrojack is one of the world’s most famous DJs and has been making electronic music since he was a young teenager.
- He’s the CEO of a large talent-management company and runs his own record label.
- He said the biggest mistake he ever made was declining a credit on David Guetta’s 2011 song “Titanium,” which he helped write, because he thought it would hurt his underground credibility.
- He’s been focusing on discovering and mentoring new talent, teaching them to develop behaviors successful artists have – before anyone has even heard of them.
Afrojack is a world-famous Dutch DJ whose real name is Nick van de Wall. He's a hero in popular electronic music, but even if you're not into that scene, you've almost definitely heard a song he's made. It may have been an original or one of his many collaborations, with artists like Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, and David Guetta. A collaboration with Guetta won him a Grammy.
After 15 years of playing everywhere from small clubs to big arenas, Afrojack is now passing on what he's learned. He's the CEO of the talent-management company LDH Europe and the head of his own record label. With both, he takes a hands-on approach to discovering and mentoring young DJs.
One piece of advice he's giving new artists: Put the hours in, even if you don't see success for years.
Listen to the full episode here:
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Transcript edited for clarity.
Afrojack: Initially when I got into music, I just did it for fun. I was very lucky I had a supportive family.
Richard Feloni: You were really young, right?
Afrojack: Yeah, I started music production when I was 11, just for fun. I was a break-dancer, street dancer, and when I was 14, 15, I went to the club for the first time, heard house music, and I saw like how when people are coming together, and enjoying something they're all good, and then when they go back outside and the music stops, like suddenly everyone's fat, skinny, tall, small, rich, poor, everything. Like, now, you get the societal issues. Well, when there's a party, it's just people having a party, so to me it showed there's a totally different way of maintaining a society outside of the current society we live in.
- Helene Wiesenhaan/Getty Images
Afrojack: So that's what got me into music initially, and then, later you get managers, you get lawyers, you get all this business stuff going on, and you see it's very easy to get drowned, and get pulled into the ... back into the box, and even though your box might be music, it's still a box, and you're still limited by the expectations of your publisher, your publicist, your agent, or your manager, et cetera. I learned - thank God - a few years ago that that doesn't make you happy. Like, it'll get you successful, but it won't eventually make you happy. And actually going out of the box, and just like doing stuff you like, even though it might sound silly, that's the fun stuff, and that's also what brought me the most success.
I had a lot of underground records. I was very big in underground, and the Pitbull called me, so like, "Yo, you wanna do a record?" So, like, "Well, yeah, but you're kind of like commercial music, you know, and I'm underground." And while I was thinking this, I was, like, "Wait, that's not really fair, so I'm going to tell Pitbull no, because he's too successful in pop music."
Feloni: It'd be holding yourself back.
Afrojack: It will be holding myself back, and holding him back, because he's too successful. Like, "I would love to work with you. You're a very nice guy, but I can't do it because then my friends will think I'm a sellout." Wait, it's the opposite, you know? I think the most profound business advice you could give anyone is really stay true to what you love to do, and don't make any concessions personally. You can make them in work, you can strategize, but don't lie to yourself. Know what you're doing, and know what's real.
Making the biggest mistake of his career
Feloni: And you said you came to this realization a few years ago. What happened a few years ago?
Afrojack: Well, it was, like, the biggest mistake of my career. Not necessarily "Oh my God." My life changed, but by far one of the biggest songs I ever made that I didn't put my name on, so David Guetta sent me an email, and we were working on "Titanium." It was a tremendous hit for me, but I never put my name on it, but it's not like David took the record, and ran. It's like David emailed me, he said like, "Hey, so the song is done. You want do David Guetta and Afrojack featuring Sia? And, I said like, "Nah, it's too much of a song for me, you know, like, I'm more cool, and underground, so ...
Feloni: You just do it with Sia.
Afrojack: Selling out, yeah, and then, like, the song took off [its music video has nearly a billion plays on YouTube], and everyone went crazy, and then in all my interviews they started asking me about it, and I was like, "Yeah, it's kind of silly." So me making a decision out of fear for the reaction of society made me make the less successful decision, and the not real decision, because the real decision will be like, "Well, yeah, I worked on it." Of course I want my name on it. I want people to know what I do. I had fun working on it. It wasn't like I was like, "Oh my God, it's pop music." No, I loved it. I learned so much, so yeah, I think that email, and like I still want to print the email, and put it in my studio so I can use it as a lesson for other artists, but that's definitely the biggest mistake I ever made in my career. And I almost made it again a few times.
- Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images
Afrojack: But I think everyone makes that mistake sometimes, you know? Like, you just get pressured into doing something that everyone says is right. You're not sure about it, but, well, if everyone is jumping in the ocean, let's jump in the ocean, right? No, no, no. Don't do it. Maybe you can't swim, and everyone already learned to swim, and now you're in the ocean and you can't swim. It is like, "Oh, well, if you do, if you can't swim, why did you jump in the ocean?" And you're like, "Yeah." So, don't jump in the ocean if you can't swim.
Time to be a mentor
Feloni: At what point in your career in these past few years did you realize that you had learned stuff that you could pass on to a whole new group of talent, like young DJs coming up?
Afrojack: Say, if you compare the music industry to the food industry, and I figured out my way as a producer to become like a McDonald's of production, then someone's going to do Burger King, it might as well be me.
Afrojack: So that's kind of the thing, and it's not like you're creating your own competition. It's just like you're recycling your information. Like, I know how to tour. I know how to promote, I used to sell tickets for parties. I used to be there at the door and handing out flyers. I used to clean up the club, like I know everything about what's happening in a nightclub. So if I pass on that information to a new DJ, and instead of walking in a nightclub, and we were like, "Yo, you book me, I'm the guy." He goes in, and he says hi to the bartender, and hi to the security people, hi to the cleaners, hi to the toilet people. Like, it's going to be completely different. Fine, everyone's going to be happier, and he's going to be way more appreciated, so get booked more, basically.
Feloni: So all the stuff you had to learn?
Afrojack: Yeah, basically that's all I'm doing. Like, I learned all this stuff, write a book about it, but instead of releasing the book, and like, "Look at my book - I'm so smart," I said, like no, you can get in my book, which you can sign here, and I'll teach you everything, and I can guarantee a certain level of success, because I already have the network, and I think this is like, this isn't even for me like the business step to make. Like, the business step for me to make would be to maintain my current career, continue focusing on my own singles, making the same amount of money every year, and then growing to be old with lots money. I don't want to do that. I want like what I learned, like by touring it's like you get lonely easy, and it's so much fun when you get to - how you say? - redistribute the wealth.
Like, when I get on a private jet, it's nice. It's like, yeah, private jet, but I don't even think about it, because I do like 200 flights a year, so I get on, and like open my laptop, I get to work, but the first time I got on I was like, "Oh my God, there's no security? I don't have to show my passport? I can just sit? I can have nuts?" Back then I used to smoke, "You can smoke on the plane. What? I thought the plane would like, if you smoke, no." Like, there's all these things, and for me the first time I was like, "Yeah." And then, the 10th time it was like, "Yeah." And then, the thousandth time it's still like, "OK, it's still pretty cool." And just for me to set it up it would cost me one phone call, and you can go in a jet, and you see everyone, and you get to meet new fans, and you get to meet a new audience. For me to do one phone call to help someone's career change, or someone's life change, like that's the most fun thing there is.
Afrojack's first international chart-topper was 2010's 'Take Over Control':
Feloni: You had become so used to a certain level of success that even if you maintained it, it would just feel empty?
Afrojack: Well, it's a very funny thing, which occurs across religions and across different philosophies, that even if you have everything, like we're designed subconsciously to then start fiddling away on our own stuff, so a lot of people would probably notice, as soon as they reach a level where they think, like, "Wow, I'm actually happier right now. Like, everything is going well." And then, you like, yeah, it gets kind of boring. It doesn't matter like what you do in life, but if you just had a good day at work, and all your projects are finished, and your school is good, your family's good. You get paid and lay down on the couch. OK, so what do I do now? And then you start nibbling away on your own success to create a new hole to fill up, because that's how we're built as people.
OK, so no matter what you do in life, no matter what your business is. Your business is always dependent on one very, very specific, important complicated thing: people, people. Everyone seems to forget this. Everyone, like if you're a microphone salesman, you're focused on the microphone. If you're a hat salesman, you know, you're like, yeah, but this hat is so special. The pen, how to sell this pen? Like, it's not about the product, it's about the consumer, but if you don't study the consumer, if you don't study people, how do you expect to become successful with anything?
So what we started doing over the past five years, instead of just going like, "Oh, let me sit down, and make a song, and hope people like it." Was actually make a lot of songs, and see like algorithms in a pattern to figure out like, why do people like music? Instead of going like, here's a song I hope you like it, go like, why do they like it?
Feloni: Like analyzing it scientifically?
Afrojack: Yes, but this is like the strategy that everyone's supposed to use for everything, but sometimes somehow when we need to like apply to our own life, or to our hobbies, or to something passionate, then it's supposed to happen organically, but when you're speaking of your work, you write a plan. If you have like an important job interview, you write a plan. You start a business, you write a plan. You got to figure out finances, you write a plan. You've got to figure out the thing you love most in your life, let's go with the flow. Let's make it happen. It will come falling out of the sky. Like, no, so that's like, then you've got to really sit down, and think about it.
Building a business
Feloni: When you're saying how structure is important for reaching what you're trying to accomplish, what do you have set out before you right now?
Afrojack: Well, I got very lucky, so three years ago I was in Japan, in Tokyo, for the first time. I was like, "Wow, everyone's so nice here." I was there with a man named Verbal. He's the head of clothing brand called Ambush and he's also a chief creative adviser for a company called LDH in Japan - Love, Dream, Happiness. Very big management company. Almost a billion-dollar company. So I met these people and I had this idea of like, well, I'm probably crazy but I think everyone can do anything. And then I'm like these people and I met the main men, the heroes on the founder of that company running an almost billion-dollar company, based on artists' development and the dream of basically making business, sort of doing like a "Shark Tank" thing for creative people and artists with very weird dreams. So to me when I saw that I was like, "OK, I'm going to do this." I started doing it with my label that I already had and we started signing artists. I started, signed Fais, where the first multiplatinum single is now touring and stuff, doing very well. I signed a couple of other artists, and then about two years ago they said like, "So how would you like to run LDH Europe?" I was like, "Well that's nice, but I already have my company, guys. I can't run two companies at the same time." So they basically said, "Well, let's just put everything together and then start working." So now in all recordings is a part of LDH Europe and I'm the head of LDH Europe.
Afrojack signed the Dutch DJ Fais and helped him build a large following:
LDH Europe is the main thing and my main thing is to find talented people who are motivated and willing to give up their current life for their new life. And is this thing I had with one of the girls that we recently signed. I was talking to her and she was always a little bit shy and then if she got shy went like ... and I told her, "You got to stop beating around the bush like that." And she said, "But that's just how I am." It's like, "But that's not who you will be." So I told her, "Yo, right now you're a student, you're going to be supersuccessful artist. So you have to get comfortable with who you are and also being comfortable with not really knowing how you are because you're a variable." People also forget this. People are variable. So embrace the variableness and don't be afraid to change.
Feloni: So you were able to take advantage of this just because of the way that you can network and the people that you meet.
Afrojack: Of course I built the network already.
Feloni: Exactly, yeah.
Afrojack: So we have a set network; we have phone numbers of people who most people don't have phone numbers for. Then of course LDH has also very, very serious business connections and creative connections. It's also the fact that we're not dependent of a bank or a big investment committee, because if you would go to investment committee and you would say, "Well, I have this idea, can you please put it in 25 million?" They're like, "No, you're crazy. Here's $10." In my case, well, I'm definitely putting my money where my mouth is, all the money that I made over my career is now going into building studios, getting these kids apartments, getting them the right teachers, getting them dancing teachers, getting them mental coaches. Everything necessary to get them to where they want to be, where they can do what they love. That's the final financial risk I'm taking.
- Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Feloni: So it's like you're almost like a Silicon Valley investor, but among DJs? Like you're incubating them?
Afrojack: Yeah. But I'm investing in and recycling my own information.
Feloni: So on that, when we were talking about how you have this network that it took years to build up and now you're passing it on to other people, I want to go back to when you didn't have that network. If someone's listening and they're like, "Oh, it'd be great to have these connections, but I don't have any." How do you do that in the first place?
When you're just starting out, act like you're already successful
Afrojack: So the main thing that I base my writing people off on, is when I meet them it's like, "I really want to do this, but so-and-so-and-so," and then 99% of the time so-and-so-and-so is not enough of an excuse not to have made it. So if you look at my situation, I was cleaning up the floors at the club. I was waiting in the DJ booth until the DJ had to go to the toilet so I could play one song.
Feloni: You snuck a song in?
Afrojack: Yeah. I went to pick up glasses, I was walking around with towers of glasses through the club, anything I could do to be around what I love to do. If you look at the success of Justin Bieber, everyone thinks like, "Ooh, Justin Bieber just was born successful." No. Scooter Braun took Justin with his guitar to every radio station, waited, sometimes three, four or five hours outside or right by the door in the lobby, whatever, until they could, "Please, listen to him play." They don't even need to broadcast, just please listen to this kid play. So is literally you go up to the doorstep of where you want to get a job or where you want anything, you lay down there, you say, "I'm not leaving until I get a job. I don't even need the job. Just listen to my story or let me prove to you." So when you do that, it's totally different ballgame.
Then, if you're any good, it's everything. But the most important thing, most people say they tried everything, they didn't even try shit. It's like, "Yeah. So I really want to become a DJ. I've been producing for a week now and it's not going very well." I'm like, "Of course not. You've been producing for a week." I started producing when I was 11. I didn't have my first song signed until I was 17 and that required me first four years of production. Then two years of figuring out why my songs weren't working. Well, yeah, that's about seven years, six, seven years. But it's not just like do it a lot. It's also think about why you're doing it. When you look at Cristiano Ronaldo, when you look at LeBron James, these guys, they don't just train football or train basketball, like, "Oh, let me kick this ball a thousand times to make it go as right as ... as well as it can be." They think about the strategy. They think about, "If I move here, where will he go? What will his reaction be? Maybe I should make a cluck sound like a chicken to scare him off for a second and then shoot," like strategic thinking. So it's not like LeBron became good by just doing this a million times. He did this a million times while thinking about how to do it the next hundred thousand times and the next one hundred thousand times, etcetera. That's how you become great at something. That requires you to put away your pride because you will look really silly.
Be confident, but don't become a narcissist
Feloni: On this notion of collaboration, like, if you even wanted to give an example of what it's like when you're working with someone creatively, because I think that this applies to whether it's LDH and doing something from a business standpoint. I think it's similar, too, if you were in the studio working with someone on something, what have you learned on just how to deal with people and when to hold your ego in check and then when to push forward. What have you learned with that?
Afrojack: What I learned most by working in the studio with very successful people is that, not just me, but my whole team is there, and you notice when the artists just talks to you, or if they also say hello to the rest of your team. Then ego comes into play of course. So one of the most important things I heard from Zen is that it's a very serious effort to try to destroy your ego, completely remove your ego, but ego is a human part of you, so you can't completely get rid of it. But to make it as small as possible is the best thing you can do.
- Aaron Davidson/Getty Images
So I ended up in the studio with a great artist. He meets everyone. He says hello to everyone. He says hello to me. We're all cool. We have the greatest sessions ever. Make great music. Someone else comes in, he's like, "Hey, yo ... Hey, what's up man? So nice to meet you. Yeah. So let's get this thing cooking." Doesn't say hi to my cameraman. Doesn't say hi to my manager, doesn't say hi to my publicist. I'm already like, "Do I want to be affiliated with the person like this?" But not just me thinking this. Everyone in the room is thinking this. So they might be successful, but do I rather have this big of a company with this guy that I don't like or half as big, but with the guy I really like. So if you look from that perspective, no one's wanting to work with the guy who that's a--hole, or not necessarily be an a--hole but has the ego or thinks he has to live up to certain expectations.
So what I learned the most by working with celebrities and very famous artists is not just be humble but make them feel humbled; take care of them, take care of their people. So that's what I learned. Of course, you never know who anyone is, but also all be very, very real. If you're nice to me, but you're not nice to my cameraman, like, everyone will notice it. So don't just be nice to the people that matter.
Feloni: As you got bigger and you started getting into more projects and you started growing your business, the business side of things more than just the creative side of it, did you have to learn how to trust people in a new way? As in now they're dealing with everything that you've created and kind of taking it into a business side of things? What was that like?
Afrojack: I did have to learn to trust some people, and it was very, very difficult sometimes, but eventually it worked out, but the only reason it worked out is we were completely honest and open with each other. What do I like? What don't I like? What makes me happy? What makes you happy? What do you need? What do I need? What's the goal? And that's the thing, what I keep saying to myself and to my team, my management team, and my CEOs is, be neutral. It's not about how you feel about the situation; it's about what situation is good for the company because it used to be just me. Now I have all these artists signed to me and people with lives, with families, we're providing for them. They took a risk by working for a new company; it's not going to look good on a résumé if the company fails. So then we're responsible for all of these people.
So now when it comes down to what is the next step, it's like, "I don't agree, man. I think that brand is whack." No, it's not about what you think. It's about look at it neutrally. How does the artist feel? How do you feel? How does the fan feel? And then when we have all the feelings, is it good? Will it work to bring the artist where he wants to be? Will it make the brand happy? Will it bring the brand what they want to have, and make your decision based on that. Be neutral. Stop ... I don't know how to say that. What do they call it? "Peacock behavior" or something?
Afrojack: Yeah: Stop it.
Feloni: Yeah. Stop flaunting yourself.
Afrojack: Because you look silly. And that's the thing: The more you are involved with it personally, the sillier you look. You know how important this is for me? No, it's not. It's not important.
Feloni: Remember the other people you're working with.
Afrojack: Your kids in school is important. This project isn't important. So anyone whoever says like, "Yeah, but this project is very important for me." It's not. Even I'll tell you right now, and it's probably the worst thing I can say if I would have shareholders, but I don't so they can suck it. LDH isn't important. The company isn't important, my project isn't important. What's really important is that I wake up happy, that I go to sleep happy, that my mom wakes up happy, that she goes to sleep happy. My kid wakes up happy, she goes to sleep happy, and the same goes for everyone I'm working with. Of course that is partly dependent on the success of LDH, but even if LDH would flop and Afrojack would still flourish, then I could use that to give them other jobs to still create the same amount of happiness, but happiness is not based on a billion-dollar company. I can't imagine what to do with a billion dollars outside of reinvesting, but then you see a lot of billion-dollar companies reinvesting their money to make more money. It's like, no, make more happiness, figuring it out better.
Feloni: So it's prioritizing the relationships over any individual project.
Afrojack: No, prioritizing life. Prioritizing life.
Feloni: Prioritizing people, OK.
Afrojack: Yeah. It's very easy. Again, in this society everyone is always drawing success and happiness dependent of business success or financial success. Yet there's so many people, especially in the $100,000 category who are so sad because they're chasing the bag but the bag's empty. But they just make it pretend like the bag's really nice.
A track on Afrojack's latest album, 'Press Play,' shows his approach to collaboration. He made it with German duo Jewelz & Sparks, and had his friend Dutch DJ Nicky Romero make a remix:
Take a kid's approach to success
Feloni: So how do you define success?
Afrojack: Happiness. I'm pretty sure every kid is successful - 99% of kids up till age 10 are super successful because their parents make everything good for them. Every day is a happy day. They go to school, they learn something. Sometimes they're a little bit sad sometimes, sometimes they are not, but they're always happy. They wake up happy, they have their mom to cuddle, they have their dad to cuddle. There's always something. I think that's the goal, and when we go on Instagram and we see these guys with boats, and jets, and DJ booths with 10,000 people, everyone is always thinking like, "Wow. I want that." They don't want that, but they think that will bring them peace of mind. I actually didn't figure it out until a while ago. I was on some friend's yacht, a 100-meter-plus boat, which is like 300, 400 feet - I don't know.
Feloni: Big boat.
Afrojack: Longest boat.
Feloni: Big boat.
Afrojack: So I'm on that boat, and the first time I thought, "Wow, it's so cool," and I saw all the staff. You get the service, 20, 25 people, yacht life, caviar, and then I was, like, "Wow, this is so cool." And then I was thinking, yeah, the cost. So you have 25 people working for you full time. Then you have the engine cost, the boat cost, the initial funding of the boat to buy the boat, guests, putting the boat somewhere, cleaning the boat, insurance. The caviar costs money too; the food costs money. They probably get too much food because you don't know what the clients want to eat, so they have to throw away like 80% of the food. I was just thinking, like, "Wow, I'm so happy I don't own a boat." I'd rather be on a friend's boat or maybe rent one for a day or something, but, yo, you don't want to own a boat.
Feloni: You don't want to go through all of it.
Afrojack: Can you imagine what you could do with that instead? But that's kind of the thing. If you look on Instagram, you see all these cool shoes, watches, jewelry, cool clothing, et cetera. It won't change your life, but they make it look like it will change your life, but it doesn't. It's not the clothing that makes you feel like, "Oh that will make me happy." It's the things associated with it and of course I can only say it because I experienced it and I cannot help it if you didn't experience it and don't believe me. But it's true, the right shirt does not make you happy. You know what would make me happy? Not shaving, like I now.
Feloni: That's success right there.
Afrojack: That's success. Not having to shave for a interview because you don't need to. That's a sign of success. Me being able to do what I want when I want and be OK with the repercussions.
Feloni: And we've talked about how you've learned all these things through experience.
- Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Feloni: Yeah, exactly. So what would you say looking back on it that? What was the biggest challenge that you've overcome?
Afrojack: I'm just lucky. I got the right information. I read the right books. My mind is set the right way. I don't see anything as a challenge. I've never really seen anything as a challenge.
Feloni: There was never a moment when you questioned yourself?
Afrojack: Well, yeah. So right now, I didn't have a top 100 single in the Billboard charts for like two years. So supposedly that's a challenge to overcome. The label wants a better song; they want a better album. You have to do this, you have to do that. But like I said, this is stuff from an old mentality that a lot of people still have. If you step out of that mentality, you notice I don't really care, and that's the thing. A lot of people used to ask me when I just started deejaying, "So what are you going to do after this, when it stops?" I'd say, "Well, it's not going to stop." "Yeah but what if it does?" "Well, I don't know. I'll work at McDonald's, I'll do normal life." "Yeah, but don't you rather save that money?" "Why? So I can pretend to be successful and rich?" So say like everyone would stop booking me right now and I would never make another dime. Oh, I'm so happy I saved my millions of dollars so now I can still pretend to be very successful and cool. It's like, no.
Feloni: Like what's the point. Yeah.
Afrojack: I grew up on nothing. My mom worked her ass off and she made like, what, $1,200 a month? Which back in that day was enough to pay for the house and macaroni. She couldn't even afford a babysitter. She had to take me to the gym when she was teaching classes and stuff and I was very happy and she was very happy. So you can have debt and be happy, and you can also have what I have now and fly private jets and be happy. Then if that's all gone you can go back to doing what you were doing and be happy. Wearing the latest off-white or wearing this will not change your life. It's not like if I take it off I'm like, "Oh my God. Life just got 2% worse." It's, like, no, I'm the same guy, I have the same family, I have the same friends, I have the same team. It won't change anything ... I don't know how to explain that message to people, but that really is the thing that's worth most to me. And that's also why I'm happy because I'm not afraid of losing everything.
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Afrojack.
Afrojack: Thank you.