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Before The Music Interview Series – Headphone Activist

Hailing from Pittsburgh, Headphone Activist bring a unique sound to the SLC EDM scene. His catalog is a fusion of Hip-Hop and world influenced music. This unique sound has gone viral multiple times around the globe and continues to generate millions of streams on a yearly basis. Headphone Activist recently had music featured in an award winning indie film and has a fresh take on how he releases music. In this week’s episode of Before the Music we dive deep into his music releasing strategy and go in depth about his project!

How did you get your alias?

Atmosphere is a Hip-Hop duo from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I got on a really big Atmosphere and Rhymesayers kick. They had the name ‘Headphone Activist’ in one of their songs. I heard it one day and thought it was awesome. I searched it on google and the only thing that came up was the lyric from the song. I liked the way it sounded. It also connected with me because I spent almost all of my downtime in my room with my headphones on.

What year was this?

We just hit the 10 year marker, so around 09. 

10 year marker from when you started producing music?

10 year marker from when I heard the name and got serious with production. It all happened within a six month window. I was writing Drum and Bass, Jungle, then Hip-Hop. Trap wasn’t really relevant at the time because Dubstep was the sound then. I went to a festival DJ Craze was headlining about two months after I decided on the name Headphone Activist. He played an entire Trap set. That was when I heard TNGHT, Baauer, and Flostradamus for the first time. I was walking around the festival being super inspired when I heard the promoter freaking out because the driver had partied too hard and couldn’t take DJ Craze to the airport. I offered to take him to the airport. On our three hour drive he plugged his laptop into my aux cord and showed me lots of music from his set. I told him I wanted to get into production, but didn’t know where to start. He showed me tons of sample packs including Lex Luger and Jahlil Beats. I went home and downloaded everything I could. A few months later I put out my first EP. It was awesome he shared his love for music with me. Those three hours changed my life.

How long had you already been producing before Headphone Activist?

I was doing music in high school. I played piano as a kid and was trained in violin. I got into a band in high school, which ended really sour and kind of turned me away from writing music. It wasn’t until I discovered turntablism that I really was inspired again. I thought about how you could play with the sound by scratching a record was kind of like playing an instrument. Hearing different genres blended together was so fresh.

Is that when you got into EDM?

About the same time, it was all in the same year. I got into turntablism around 07. By the end of 07 my friends were dragging me to Electronic shows and by the end of 08 I was dragging them to Electronic shows.

What have been some of your biggest challenges with your project

I would say leveling up in regards to representation. Being approached by agencies and management teams, then sitting down with them and being told everything they will do for you. For example, once festival season hits, you might get booked for shows you don’t really fit on. If that’s the market they have pull in, that’s where you’re going to play. Kind of playing the game has been the biggest challenge. Just to clarify, not every agency or management team sucks. It look me five years before I found Jeremy and Mitch. I’ve been with them longer than I have with any other team. Part of what makes them so good is they don’t lie to me. They never say one thing and mean something else.

How did you get involved with V2?

When I moved here I started playing shows for Taryn’s company Smoke Siignals. Taryn introduced me to Jeremy at a party and we hit it off really well. I reached out to Jeremy and asked if he would be interested in helping with my project. We laid down so many guidelines when we first started working together. I wanted to make sure I could write what I wanted to write and wouldn’t be dictated by what’s popular. 

Photo by Stefan Poulos

Do you feel like some of your other management teams tried to control the music you produced?

I think they’re a business at the end of the day. Their intentions aren’t bad, but are based more around the business and not creativity. I’ve always wanted to build a strong organic demographic and then land a big deal with let’s say, Adult Swim. If something like that happens and your music is featured through them, your fan base will grow. 

It seems like you have a strong interest in producing music for TV shows and films. Your track ‘Ocean Floors’ was featured in an award winning indie film, ‘Frontier.’ How did that happen?

I started organizing my catalog and sent a lot of emails out. Mitch and Jeremy were really good with helping me meet and connect with anyone I might want to. In the process of the emails being sent out the film crew contacted me. They said they had an independent film that needed some music. It wasn’t offering a ton of money, but they promised credits would be given. My thought was sitting at home and writing music would be better for me than traveling all the time. With shows you don’t start right away playing major festivals, you play bars and 8pm time slots. The same goes for the leasing and licensing world. You give your music away for basically free and make your money on returns. I figured being featured in films was the best advertising I could get from an organic standpoint.

Is doing music for films or TV shows your end direction with this project?

Video games if I had to pick specifically. Films and TV shows would be awesome though. I really would like a series. I know I wouldn’t be the only one doing it, but it would be super cool. I think it would have been really awesome to write the music for Breaking Bad or Mad Men. 

I heard about your idea to produce 20 records and releases on a weekly basis for the 2020 year. What’s that about?

I’ve kind of slowed down on releasing music. Before I was traveling I would release a record once a month. The growth from it was awesome and fans seemed to like it as well. While traveling I didn’t seem to have enough time to write music. I want to release on a weekly basis instead of a month by month basis. Since I will be releasing on a weekly basis, I can put out more of the music I’m making, versus one record a month. I’ll have more freedom to share all of the music I’m making instead of only releasing what directly relates to my brand. 

So with this catalog you plan on releasing whatever you want and it wont follow one specific sound or style?

Yeah. Initially I wrote four records that all fit my main brand. Those are released within a month by month basis. Each month you will get a record that sounds like it’s a part of my project and the other three records will be different. There will always be one specific record that goes with the sound of my brand.

What are you goals with releasing music in this style?

To grow on platforms is a lot of work. I eventually got to a point on Soundcloud where I didn’t have to trade reposts. My music following was organically growing. I moved over to Spotify and have slowly been building my follower count over the past couple years there. I finally hit the 20k mark. I figured with the start of the new year I could put a record out, then seven days later another record, and so on. Every seven days my followers will get a new record. I figure since I’m releasing more, my listeners will go up because I’m putting out more tracks. My goal is that my music will be shared more because there is more of it in rotation. Overtime I see it increasing my follower count versus paying to get that same reach. 

Who is inspiring you with your new music you plan to release in this catalog form?

Clams Casino came out with a new instrumental EP. Flume is a constant source of inspiration for me as well. My favorite catalog wise is this kid SwuM. He is in the Chill-Hop type atmosphere. He was the one who gave me the idea to put this catalog together. Seeing how he and all of his boys release music has inspired me to release in this form.

Photo by Michael Lucarelli Photography

Do you think it could be more beneficial to spend more time on one track instead of releasing music on a weekly basis?

I do. I think both are equally valuable, it just depends on where you are at with your project. With the catalog I’m releasing in January you are only getting maybe six records that have been written in the past couple months, everything else is back catalog. This release style is not so much for someone who is just getting their foot in the door. It’s more for those who have a big library of music they want to share.

How do you distinguish the difference between the three tracks from your back catalog and the one new track you want to push harder?

Great question. In a nutshell, the records I listen to the most and enjoy listening to on repeat are the ones I always consider as my singles. Cloud City and Ocean Floors are some examples. I’ve always used this formula when deciding which songs to release and which ones to archive.

With you having one sound people typically come to your page for, do you feel the other three may push people away because it’s not what they want to hear?

It’s possible, but I say why not try. I mean look at what you guys did with Get Freaky. You tried something new with the LED wall stage design. Maybe having it in a different shape and style could push people away, but you have confidence in your team that once the lights go down, the wall comes alive people are locked in and remember why they are there. That’s how I approached the catalog.

This catalog starts in 2020 correct?

Yes. I finished the catalog and everything with it including the artwork. Now we just need to get it to distribution and have them organize the 20 song catalog which is a lot compared to giving them a single. I really think people will want content released this way instead of waiting six months for the next banger.

Do you think you will try this method for 2020 and this continue the following year it if it goes well?

Yes that’s the plan. It’s all trial and error. This is kind of like the beta or alpha test. 

What is something you are proud of that you never have a reason to talk about?

Man, nobody has ever asked me this in an interview before, that’s a good one. I love when people tell me about how they use my music. A family who has been listening to my music for a while had a newborn baby. The baby was teething and one evening when my music started playing their baby totally zen’d out and fell asleep. They found my music helps the child forget about his teething pain and relaxes him enough to put him to bed. That was so cool to hear. Another example, my buddy walked into a store at a mall and recognized the music playing in the store as mine. My buddy asked why the store worker was playing my music and the guy said because of the instrumental aspects. It doesn’t scare away customers.

If we finished this interview and you found a winning lottery ticket for 500 million, what would you spend the money on?

I would give it away. I make a living doing art and don’t need anything else. I’d probably stash a nest egg, but 499 million of those dollars would go to helping people. The high school I went to had an electronic music program and I would like to donate towards programs like that. I feel like if I had all of that money and kept it to myself I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Helping others is mainly what I would do with it.


Wrote by:

Ethan Freeman – V2 Presents Intern