Balance, from an Artist and Pro DJ’s Perspective
MING (a.k.a. Aaron Albano) is a New York City-based DJ, producer, remixer and owner of Hood Famous Music, Habitat Music and co-owner of Afire Music. Starting at the age of nine, he trained as a classical and jazz guitarist and played in hair metal bands throughout high school. Because of his passion for production and interest in building a solid career in the music industry, he decided to pursue a degree in electrical engineering with a focus on audio at the University of Miami. While in college, he continued to fine-tune his production and DJ’ing skills and upon graduation, looking for a way to fund the development of his home studio, MING found work in the burgeoning Internet industry. During this time, MING met renowned musician and DJ FS and together they formed the duo Ming+FS, a collaboration which went onto produce four studio albums and over 30 singles. Eventually, he founded the record label Hood Famous Music. As an artist, MING is managed by Stephanie Lafera at Atom Empire, which counts huge artists such as Lady Gaga among its talent.
MING talked to me about his multi-faceted experience in the music business and delivered some “sound” advice for artists looking to market themselves, hone their craft, grow their fan bases, achieve balance and build long-lasting careers.
How did you first get into the music industry?
I have basically been involved in music since I was nine. I was a classically- and jazz-trained guitar player. I always wanted to be in the music business. I played in an all-star hair metal band coming out of high school and thought I was going to make it big. That’s when hair metal got killed by grunge.
My parents were great, you know, those Jewish parents from the suburbs who wanted me to have something to fall back on. And I was really good at math and science and interested in designing recording consoles. So, I went to school at the University of Miami for electrical engineering with an emphasis in audio. Because electrical engineering is a very serious course of study, it really gave me the view that everything in life has a process. And it’s not just about the dream, rather about whether or not you can live the reality of the dream. For example, if you want to build websites, you learn how to build websites. You don’t just talk about building them. You get the books, learn the code, etc. It was the same sort of thing for me when it came to production.
When I graduated, I moved back to New York and wanted to focus on production. The money I was making money in the Internet business went right into my home studio. I was playing in a bunch of different bands when I met Fred – FS – through some other friends and eventually joined his band, Millis. I heard some of the hip hop he was producing on the side, and said, “Wow. This sounds like British trip hop. We should make some music together. I bet I can get this signed.” So, we made a bunch of tracks and totally by chance, I found myself meeting with a label to talk about working on their website (this was in the early days of the Web). To show themlabel that I understood the music they were doing, I played them some of the music Fred and I had been producing, and they signed it on the spot. I was really just trying to get the Web gig. But that was the start of our electronic music career.
From there, we did a bunch of singles deals. That first project was with Brooklyn Music Limited (BML). We did some stuff for Ubiquity in San Francisco, then a few singles for Om Records which led to a three-album deal.
People often talk about the deals they do. And our deal with Om was probably really bad. This is a point that I try to drive home to people: Putting out your own record is all fine and good if you understand the business – if you have your social marketing down, have good networks and a good fan base, if you understand business and can manage money. You know what it’s like to run a record label, a touring business and a merch business. There’s a lot to understand. And most young musicians at 22 do not know how to do all that. They play to 50 people in their home town, have 100 Twitter followers, 50 people following them on Facebook and think people know who they are. From a global business perspective, you’re basically invisible at that point. So, if you look at doing deals with labels – be they good or bad – as promotion, you get the marketing power that a label has behind you. You may do a record and get absolutely nothing for it, or get stuck in a deal where you do two or three records basically for free. But if you gain the followers and fans and are able to have a live touring career, then you actually have a real career.
I’m always telling young musicians that it’s not enough to make your own record and put it out on your own label. You haven’t been put through the system, and you haven’t been validated by fans or the other people who are going to help sell your records. You’re an army of one. Some of these deals you do in the beginning won’t be good. Make sure the deals you do in the beginning are short term or limited to a certain number of years. But it’s valuable to do records on larger labels and have other people validate your music.
How many deals did you wind up doing with Ming+FS?
We had a lot of singles deals and that three-album deal with Om. Then, we had a one-album deal with Spun Records, which is defunct. So, we did a total of four full-length albums, probably about 20-30 12” records and lots of remixing for other labels. Since then, I’ve done a ton of stuff.
So, you did all that stuff as Ming+FS, and now you have a music licensing company, your own label and are managed by the same management company as Lady Gaga. All of that is pretty phenomenal.
Then, of course, you’re also a DJ. I don’t get to talk to DJs that often, and I’m kind of an outsider when it comes to electronic music. Can you speak a little bit about what it’s taken for you to become a regularly-working DJ?
When I started DJ’ing in college, I didn’t have any of my production equipment. I sold all my production equipment when I went off to school. And I started DJ’ing because I wanted to get back into it. The electronic music community was really tight, and there was no such thing as being a touring DJ. You played your local parties, traded mixtapes. There were a few people like Josh Wink, Frankie Bones, Adam X, Heather Heart who were big in the early days. But you never saw yourself as being a famous DJ in the same way you would see yourself as being a famous rock star. So, it was really for the love of the music. And when you were making electronic music back in those days, you didn’t really bring all your gear out with you. You played the records you made to support the music you were making.
I think the distinction for me is that there are some DJs that just play records – other people’s music – to be a DJ. And that’s really never what I was about. I was always a producer first and playing other records that helped support the music that I was making, so when I put out music, I could surround my music with other records that would help rock a party and keep people interested in dancing. Being a DJ for me was always about promoting my own music.
To make a living being a DJ, you start out hand to mouth. You play any local party you can, throw your own parties, do promotion so you can open up for other DJs. You go on the road taking the terrible slot so a couple years later, you have a following and can actually make money being a DJ. I think this goes for any part of the music world: You have to really be willing to put it all on the line.
I always ask young musicians, “If I gave you $50,000 today, would you put that $50,000 into what you’re doing? Would you put it behind the record we just made? Would you put it into a publicist? What would you do with that money?” Often people say, “I’d buy myself a house” or something like that. My answer to that is, “Well, then, you haven’t made good music yet.” It’s not until you’re willing to put the money behind your music that other people will put money behind your music.
That’s the thing about the music business: You have to spend a lot of money in order to make money.
There’s no doubt about that.
As a guy who played in hair metal bands – which by the way is a new revelation for me about you – how is promotion of that kind of thing different from the electronic scene? You just said if you’re an aspiring DJ, you should play any way and anywhere you can and do a lot of promotion and pound the pavement.
I don’t think it’s that much different. I think the difference for me, being a New Yorker, is that I’ll play New York a lot less than I’ll play other places. Being local to New York can make it overly convenient for promoters not to book you or pay you. And if you want to get paid, it’s better to go somewhere else and become a named person so people want to pay you for what you did.
In the first half of my Ming+FS career, New York promoters would rarely want to book or pay us. It wasn’t until we broke nationally that all those same guys were trying to cut deals to get better rates for us in New York City. When you’re a New York DJ playing across the country, it means something. Being from New York City carries a lot of weight when you’re playing in Iowa. I really exploited my locale and the rest of the country’s perception of New York City as a hot spot. No one from New York cares if you’re from Ohio and come to New York to play a show: “Yo, Ohio hip hop.” Nobody cares. You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re going to bring Iowa’s next rap star to New York City. The only way you’re going to break as that person is to become big in your area so people can’t ignore you anymore. Certain areas just don’t have credibility. If you’re doing hip hop and are from Atlanta, L.A., New York or Chicago there’s cachet there.
I think people need to be honest about what it is they’re bringing with them, who they are as a musician and what their marketable aspects are – what they bring to the table.
The other thing about being a DJ that’s really important and a little different from being in a rock band is, when you’re in a rock band playing only your original music, you’re locked into playing the music that you’ve written and the songs you may cover. A rock band might play a couple covers to extend their repertoire and help the audiences see a connection between the bands they’re covering and their own music. If you’re Jet, you might do a David Bowie cover, because you want people to see your band in that artistic light. Or, if you’re Green Day and want everyone to know that you were influenced by the Sex Pistols, you do a Sex Pistols cover.
In the dance community, you play your tracks, but you have to do a lot of other people’s music. And you also have to play music that makes people have a good time, because they’re not just there to see you. It’s a bi-directional community. As a DJ you can’t say, “I’m on stage and I’m a god, so everybody look at me.” It’s more, “I’m on stage providing an opportunity for people to have a really good time.” And every once in a while, I have connection points with the crowd through my own songs or other big songs I’m playing. And I share those points with the crowd, saying, “We’re doing this together.” I learned how to read the crowd and say, “Oh, this song didn’t work for these people. Maybe I should go this other direction.” I’m reading the crowd constantly and trying to figure out where the particular sweet point is, so I can bring them up to a certain level and then bring them back down again. And I don’t want to wear people out, so I can’t keep playing the same types of songs over and over again. I have to keep it diverse enough so people’s ears get a sonic break from each track I play. It’s like conducting a large audience of people that are also the musicians, whether they know it or not.
Rock bands could probably take a cue from that if they had the repertoire to be that flexible.
I think really good rock bands do do that. You might laugh at this, but there is a similarity between a hair metal band and a DJ. The hair metal bands love the big, in-your face tunes. And then for a hair metal band, the ballad is like a DJ putting on a track that brings the energy down. It gives their audience a moment to breathe. It gives someone’s girlfriend a moment to relate to a song, so both men and women can feel connected to what you’re doing. So, a good band can rock out, but also be sensitive. And in a lot of ways, that dichotomy is also sort of like what you find on country records.
That’s what a DJ needs to do: rock hard, but also play a tune that will clear the dance floor and not worry they’re clearing the dance floor. They need to give people a moment to breathe, get a drink and talk to each other. And then they need to be able to bring everyone back out and reconnect. And if you’re skilled enough to do that, you’ll be able to be have a career as a DJ. I’ve been a professional DJ since ’96, so it’s been almost 16 years.
Most people don’t even get to the point in music where they say, “We broke national.” So, I can’t imagine you didn’t have some idea of where you were in the marketplace. During your career as a producer, DJ, and everything else you’ve done, were there specific branding decisions above and beyond which music you played, who you played with and where you played?
I managed Ming+FS for about half the time we were together, before we had a manager. I always had an aesthetic and a concept for Ming+FS: I knew if I pushed it the right way, we would give the media something to play with. For us, it was the combination of hip hop and drum and bass. Nobody in America was really doing those two things at once. We were the first artists to be able to take the double-time feel of drum and bass – which was the new and exciting art form – and hip hop – which we both had grown up with and fuse those two things together.
And this was a time when magazines were still king. It wasn’t blogs, etc. We really gave the media something to work with in terms of having a point of view. I was very political and spoke out about a lot of stuff. I did most of our interviews, so I always really thought ahead of time about my talking points for interviews. I always tried to give much more than what was in our bio that our publicist had sent.
Also, we tried to connect with the areas we were going to and not just compare every place we had been to the next place. Each place was special. For example, Lawrence, Kansas was the first city to have a gay mayor. So, there was a really interesting pocket of culture in a city that most people in New York didn’t identify with as being culturally significant.
The first place we broke in the States was Seattle. We got to Seattle, and it was like we were rock stars. From Seattle, we grew it to Portland, then San Francisco. Being from New York and on a San Francisco-based label helped greatly, because we were covering the East coast, and they were covering the West coast.
Then, we worked the mid-states. We did everything from raves, to clubs, hip hop venues, tours – you name it. We did stickers and a couple of mixtapes that ended up being classic mixtapes for the time. I got other companies to give us money to sponsor those mixtapes and put their branding on it. We got 10,000 mixtapes made by the clothing label 33 Degrees. At that time, copying CDs was big. So, we put out 30,000-40,000 copies of our CDs. They got copied again and again, and hundreds of thousands of CDs later, we were national.
We had our own label to fill in releases, so we would take boxes of records and mixtapes and throw them into the crowd in the middle of a show. We gave away so much free stuff. And I learned that from being a promoter. If you give something to someone for free when they’re walking in the door, the show will already have a good vibe to it. We took that mentality with Ming+FS as well.
From a visual branding standpoint, we had a look to match our sound. We were careful about the artwork we selected.
We also had a street team that we built in every town where we toured. We would give the street team free product. We would give them first look at the shows and reduced admission. We did all kinds of stuff.
You’re back out as an artist now. What is your take on marketing and promotion in the modern market now that the landscape has changed?
I’m speaking with blogs on a regular basis. I do a ton of promotion on several social media platforms. I put out releases on my label to mix with those I’m putting out on other labels, so I constantly have new products coming out. I have new singles all the time. The old format was to put out full albums, but I think that format is dead for a while. So, I’m putting out singles and EPs and plan to stay focused on that for the next few years until I see we’ve reached a critical mass where people want a full body of work from me again.
I’m also doing a lot of remixing for other artists. Some of it’s paid and some of it’s free. I’m doing a podcast on a monthly basis and do live video streams from my studio. I was writing for Electronic Musician magazine for a while doing tech blog pieces and also a video blog on different production techniques.
I’m out doing tour dates again and opening up for other artists. I’m doing local dates and national dates. I recently played for 4,000 people opening up for Bass Nectar followed by a show in Brooklyn for 400 people.
And how does social media and your website play into your strategy?
I have 24k+ people following my MING page on Facebook and am also in the process of building my Twitter presence. I do a lot of music promotion through SoundCloud. And we have a mailing list where we send out music to blogs for free and a contest I use Headliner.fm a little bit. I basically dabble in all sorts of social media.
What I try to do is maintain my message and let people discover me, but also talk about the music that turns me on. I found out that with social media, when you give away things for free but also talk about other bands and musicians, you help turn the camera back around onto you.
It sounds like you’ve positioned yourself not only as an artist, but also as a tastemaker.
Do you have any other parting words of advice for people who want to have a successful career in production, DJ’ing, or both?
I think they’re separate. But, as with anything, you always need to be working to get better at your craft. Try to work with as many people as possible. Have a point of view and a unique sound. Bring something new to the table.
And learn how to collaborate. Just because you can do everything by yourself now doesn’t mean you should. I still collaborate with a ton of people. If I do work with another band, I’m getting access to their audience. This audience is going to find out who I am because that artist is going to mention what I’ve done with them. The more people you can collaborate with, the better you will be as a musician, and the larger your fan base will be.
The other thing is to be honest with the music you’re making. It’s okay to make music that is not successful. But if you want to make music that you’re going to make your money from, you have to find the line between art and commerce and be able to ride that line comfortably. You have to be able to carve out a career where you’re making money from the art that you make. Otherwise, you can call yourself a professional musician, but you’re really just a hobbyist with an addiction.
To learn more about MING and his work, check out his label, HoodFamousMusic.com or his artist page, Mingsmusic.com.