From setting up specialty hotels to orchestrating brief country-music makeovers to shepherding a Madonna cameo at UMF, dance-music svengali Ash Pournouri always has a forthright answer for his daredevil marketing tactics. But when your lead client is the bright-eyed face of European club culture, readily willing to throw curve balls at an unsuspecting public, a bit of controversy is par for the course.
As the strategic force behind Avicii, Cazzette, and the At Night Management company, Pournouri balanced law school with a spree of promotions work in Stockholm, and his high-profile industry presence and stirring marketing tactics have forged him as something of an outspoken provocateur for the next generation of dance music professionals. Just as he announced his forthcoming PRMD label, Beatport News caught up with the infamous executive producer and manager to scope the highs and lows of serving a billion-dollar industry, the strategy behind a certain high-profile client, and the anatomy of a successful new-school mogul.
From balancing law school and promoting in Stockholm to the sudden explosion of Avicii’s career, were there any essential lessons learned during that pre-Avicii period?
From my legal studies, I feel I learned how to negotiate and see things from both sides of the table. From my promoter years, I learned how everybody thinks—from fans to artists to promoters to managers. I also saw how to improve any given artist’s presence on the electronic music scene by watching and dealing with so many of the top ones.
At Night has come to stand for far more than “Avicii’s management company.” What was your initial vision for the company, and how has it developed?
Since I wasn’t planning on becoming a manager or starting a management company, I really had no plan initially. However, I did know that I wanted to keep things tight and deliver 100% on Avicii before I took on someone new. I also knew that I would never make At Night a management with 200 artists on the roster just because the opportunity presented itself. I wanted everything I touched to be important and make a difference. I needed my brand to stand for competence. I needed people to take my brand seriously. We don’t cry wolf unless there really was something going on.
What considerations should each party—artist and manager—consider before embracing a professional relationship, and how do you believe these considerations should be measured?
The visions must match. Very often they are not exactly the same all the way, but as long as the end game is shared, that’s a great start. Trust is important but it has to come with time. Delivery from both parties will ensure a strong and trustworthy partnership and successful careers.
Given the increasing scope of dance music as an industry, what do you think are the most vital legal considerations new artists should consider when approaching a professional career? Are there any obvious ones that seem to crop up time and time again?
A contract signed is a bundle of legal considerations that artists and professionals need to fully understand. There are plenty of precedents and routines in going about a career in entertainment, and a good entertainment lawyer will lay these out for you. I’ve urged all my clients, almost begged them at times, to make sure they go through their agreements with relevant legal advice before they sign anything (including my management agreement), because you will never want to look back and regret not doing it later. It also provides for a smoother relationship moving forward. Obviously things change as the scene expands, but the ground principle is the same—make sure someone with experience can guide you. Whether that be your manager, parent, friend, or lawyer, it is equally important to have more than one person’s approval.
The American market has become a huge arena for you and your artists over the years. Has this arena taken a lot of balancing or was the transition to this huge side of the industry one that came with considerable challenges?
My first focus was always America. It’s such an important market. However, it does have to be balanced against the world, as our strategy was always global. We built our brands everywhere at the same time. The challenge is always time and resources. Without experience, money, or staff, it was very difficult in the beginning, but thanks to modern-day technology and social networks, it was possible. You can’t be afraid of working really hard if you want to make it in any profession.
How do you perceive the strength of dance music as a business, given its humble origins? Do you see a sustainable future for its current global velocity?
Dance music has proven to be a billion-dollar industry in America alone! It may seem to have had humble beginnings, but it actually doesn’t. Ten years ago, Insomniac had 40,000 people at their festivals already. ID&T have been doing huge numbers in Holland for years, way before they started branching out as a global company—not to mention Ibiza, which has been a destination resort for dance music since the late ’80s. I don’t know about it growing at this rate forever, but I definitely don’t think we have reached its peak yet. Some markets are still undergoing tremendous growth for us and many in America have yet to accept the genre as modern-day popular culture. It’s getting there, though.
Likewise, between House for Hunger and the Avicii Hotel, your concepts and initiatives have grown bigger and bigger. What do you look for in marketing and conceptual opportunities for your artists, and what do you believe equates to an “innovative” concept in times of mass saturation for the wider industry?
It’s definitely hard to stand out. Marketing is essentially about breaking through the noise and reaching as many as possible while doing it. You have to connect to get your message through. In every marketing campaign, we always set out to do this. However, if there were any guarantees or recipes, I don’t think I’d be in business. It’s always an experiment, dealing with masses of people. You may have ideas of what’s going to work and you may often be right, but there is no telling exactly how people will react to your communication.
It seems fair to say that alongside Avicii, you have been willing to take some chances and always seem to have landed on your feet (ie. premiering the album in a very impressive way to a one-track-minded Ultra crowd). Talk us through your experience of taking risks for such high-profile assets as Avicii, and whether you feel too many people make comfortable and risk-free decisions in the industry?
A big stage and thousands of spectators is the perfect opportunity to do something different. Ultra had 160 artists per weekend performing. Avicii had one of the most talked-about performances, and for good or for bad, I know people will love the album. We got a lot of mass exposure online discussing the upcoming album—with all the online hate we set out to do something positive with it. The results will speak for themselves. People won’t know what hit them.
What do you consider to have allowed Tim [Avicii] and yourself to see so much collaborative success? And how do you hope to build upon this relationship for the future?
We deliver to each other. That’s what’s important. Tim has to bring it in the studio and on tour, and I have to bring it on my feedback to him and everything else. If one of us stops, the brand dies for both of us.
Has the relative publicity behind you as a manager helped or distracted your work over the years, and do you believe your professional profile is just as important as that of your artists?
My brand empowers me and therefore enables me to do bigger and better things for my client. If I didn’t know what I was talking about, I wouldn’t be successful and neither would Tim. We have a closer relationship than most manager-clients and because of this we have outgrown many at a historically quicker rate. It’s not a fluke—we wouldn’t be doing it still if it was. It’s harder to hold a position at the top than to grow. That’s why I have a lot of respect for artists like Tiësto and David Guetta. They manage to still stay current because there was no fluke behind them getting to the top. They know what they are doing.
Similarly, what do you consider to have been the greatest challenge you have faced within your career to date, and why?
Biggest challenge has been to do so much of my client’s careers. To be everywhere all the time. I have to become Avicii to be able to stay consistent in all ideas and the creative. At the same time, think of creative and smart deals and do the administrative work plus run my staff. In addition to that, I have taken a father role with Tim in his personal life, giving him advice and making sure he takes care of himself outside of work. It gets overwhelming but it’s what I chose. It’s still a lot of fun and very rewarding. I love what I do. I love my staff and I love my artists. Can’t really complain.
Talk us through your outstanding plans for 2013 and what future aspirations you hold as a music professional?
I see a lot of changes happening this year and the next, generally, on the music scene. That’s very exciting. To be part of it at the level we are is incredibly inspiring and lends to my creative side. I am looking for new ways of changing the scene for the better and looking to launch new ways to connect with music fans. It’s the time to be innovative and it suits me perfect.