Where the late Kurt Cobain once said the duty of youth is to challenge corruption, the Netherlands’ young dance-music frontrunner Nicky Romero has had his own vigilant reign over electronic music. An aspiring drummer turned beatsmith to every corner of global club culture and its pop-savvy sidelines, Romero has the ability to unite two cultures without ever impeding on musical quality—and it’s landed him an impressive amount of #1s and live milestones for a man yet to hit his mid-20s.
Taken under the wing of David Guetta and juggling his own vivacious peak-time offerings with studio spots for the likes of Rihanna, Romero’s recently minted Protocol Recordings venture and radio concept has added yet another notch on the belt of an artist who looks set to do it all on his own terms. Off the back of a landmark year that has climaxed in collaborative releases alongside Nervo and Avicii, Nicky Romero caught up with Beatport News to talk organic progress, the balance of club anthems with crossover hits, and why being just a DJ doesn’t cut it anymore.
With a slew of #1s and some equally huge live landmarks behind you, how are you feeling as we wrap up 2012?
It has been completely overwhelming, but I think this past year was my most important to date. 2011 brought me my first taste of success in DJ Mag and on the Beatport, but this year things just went into overdrive where #1s, collaborations, and landmarks are concerned. In hindsight, this could have been the most important year of my career, because it felt like I made the formal switch from amateur to professional that had been looking to happen throughout 2011.
Between your global club overhaul and various marks on the wider realms of music, it seems fair to say that your rise has been a prompt one. Was this sudden explosion within your career one that you saw coming early in the game?
To be honest, I never realized I was heading professional. To me this began as a hobby, and as a result I never really thought about it in terms of a long-term career—I was just doing the job properly and enjoying it. I definitely had no concept of making a career of it, and it worked out well because I ended up finding the right people to have around and help me build it to the level I am today. It really has been a team effort, and I am proud of what we have achieved.
Is it fair to say that your early experience as a drummer significantly shaped the way you make and approach music today?
Absolutely! It is thanks to drumming that my career ever took shape. It was through my development as a drummer and involvement in bands that I developed rhythm and musical aptitude. That platform turned out to be a vital influence in my work for the electronic music platform. The knowledge transferred really well, but it is quite ironic at the same time, because when you look at the drums I use in my tracks, it is actually slightly minimal in terms of production. That being said, it has worked incredibly well for me and I am grateful that this particular passion helped me on my way in the bigger picture.
Your homeland of Holland remains a notoriously cutthroat arena for aspiring talent. Do you believe that Holland was an essential place for you to cut your teeth and develop some of those essential skills that have served you within your now global career?
My belief is that if you can DJ in Holland, you can DJ anywhere in the world. The Dutch are a tough crowd because they are so into their own world and if you want to take them, you have to give them your all. Compared to my home nation, the rest of the world has felt relatively easy. I was lucky because my DJ background involved R&B and house music in local bars way before my days as a straight house DJ. This was an amazing platform because you really had to read the crowds and get inside their heads. These days you have to be as flexible as you do influential—it is all very well innovating but to do that within the respect of what your crowds want to hear is vital. The Dutch being so stubborn made this a second nature to me. The very nature of the industry makes that understanding essential—we have so much talent and opportunity on offer that bringing your best has to be a natural impulse.
In spite of the huge success you have mustered within your relatively short career, your sound does not appear to have been compromised under the weight of mass attention. Did this take a lot of gradual development on your end and did the scope of radio and the charts ever cloud this process?
What kept me busy was finding my signature sound—the radio and charts were completely accidental. For me, the signature sound came quite early within my career; it was more about developing and finely tuning it to be the best it could possibly be. There is a focus on the “success” element of music these days, but without the development you are unlikely to see that sort of success develop first—and then aim for huge success and you are more likely to find permanence. I think it is important for young guys to find their own way because it is a much better story to tell than taking the obvious routes. In the earlier periods of my career, people related because it was a pretty organic development, and I think that is essential to success in terms of sound these days.
As one of the many artists to develop his own label and radio venture, do you feel like dual imprints such as your own Protocol brand are essential for modern artists trying to make their way in this industry?
These days you can no longer just be a DJ—you have to be a whole business entity. Between the radio shows, label work, live appearances, and productions there are so many boxes to tick these days and each one is vital to your visibility and success within the modern market. Protocol was an essential platform based on my own early experiences. When I first started nobody was interested; they all wanted something new and fashionable. Now I really like being in a position to give producers a chance and support them, especially because we now have the radio arm of Protocol to promote them further. I guess there is an element of giving artists what I never had. I made some stupid deals in the early days and now I can safeguard like-minded artists from falling foul of the industry in a strong creative environment.
You have not been shy of playing with the club-to-chart crossover during your time as a producer. With such mixed enthusiasm greeting the crossover of club and pop music, how do you gauge the reactions of industry peers and fans to the fusion of these two once seemingly contrasting genres?
It is only natural that people judge pop music, but to be honest I have never cared about that particular brand—I just carry on making my music. If it crosses over to the radio or charts then it is immediately more than just a club track and there is no harm in developing and extending your skills to different sounds and avenues. It happened really successfully with “Wild One” and again, I believe that mine and Tim’s (aka Avicii) “I Can Be the One” proved that it can be done without taking any substance or quality from a piece of music. Whenever someone writes on a song then it becomes pop, but that journey can be both natural and positive and therefore I see no grounds to write it off. I like having the best of both worlds and am proud to still be collaborating with people like Netsky and Wolfgang Gartner in the future.
On top of your successful club tracks for 2012, you took considerable stripes for lending your hand to Rihanna’s latest album. How did this experience contrast with your previous collaborations, and is there a sense of pressure where these high-profile productions are concerned?
Working with Rihanna was an incredible experience. I am not the sort of guy to get easily impressed or starstruck, but that was a huge honor. I was overwhelmed with how kind and professional she was as an artist. Entering the studio with her and David Guetta was always going to be a little overwhelming because they are huge professional artists, but it makes you want to really perform to your best ability and show that you deserve to be in those sort of creative scenarios. I was lucky in that I had worked with some considerably big artists in the past and so I was able to keep my cool. In my experience you are at your best when you can keep your cool, and she was so cool that the whole process was enjoyable.
You seem to have benefited significantly from the support of David Guetta. Outside of his obvious visibility, what did you take from his guidance?
People like David are incredibly good at approaching tracks from outside of the club mentality. He is very open-minded and he opened my eyes to the wide availability of pop music while developing my arrangement and recording skills, not to mention teaching me how to edit vocals and write piano parts. With 25 years and counting in the game, he simply knows what works, making his knowledge and experience invaluable to an artist in my shoes. He takes the time to develop people’s knowledge and understanding and I am so grateful I was one of those lucky enough to be part of that experience.
Given the dramatic speed at which you have broken through to the high end of the industry, what do you consider to have been the most challenging aspects of your career to date?
For me, the biggest challenge is dividing myself. There is so much talent and inspiration out there that the room for repetition is endless. If I am honest, my sound is still a work in progress, but I feel like the biggest steps have been made. Working and setting up Protocol was an immediate challenge—I don’t think people realize how time-consuming labels and radio shows can really be. Three Beatport #1s out of our four releases suggests that the first steps have been good, and we have forthcoming material with David and Calvin Harris that is sure to up the game for the future.
With so much accomplished for 2012, how will you be approaching the new year, and what can we expect to hear from you personally in the first leg of 2013?
The new year will be all about stabilizing the Protocol brand with a string of parties. I also want to push artists like Nilsson and Tony Romera, who I am really excited to be supporting and working with as they are showing a lot of positive signs at the present. As far as my own productions are concerned, I want to expand my sound and approach. We may have seen the union of pop and club music, but I want to start experimenting with genres like rock and drum & bass to really see where we can go with the sound of electronic music. My next single, “Symphonica,” will be hitting the digital market, which was a really exciting one for me as I got to work with a full orchestra. That will be followed by “Legacy,” which is another solo track with a huge topline—but that one I am keeping a secret for all the fans to speculate over. Obviously the Netsky and Wolfgang Gartner collaborations will be coming, and, of course, the main aim is to up my game at every possible turn without compromise.