At the height of midriff-baring, factory-produced female pop-stars and over-choreographed boy bands, 19 year-old Finnish producer, Ville Virtanen, better known as Darude, exploded in mainstream America -- a feat most artists need years, sometimes decades to achieve. Years later, he DJs worldwide with current gigs across the US and Ibiza, produces new tracks and remixes old ones (he just released a free remix for fans), hosts his own radio show, co-owns his own label EnMass Music, and still manages to be a family man to his wife and son in Atlanta. Over a decade after the success of “Sandstorm” and “Feel the Beat,” Darude’s music is still heard in clubs around the globe, sporting events in the US, and Humvee’s in Afghanistan.
A decade ago most Americans recognized only two dance tracks – Kerncraft 400’s “Zombie Nation” and “Sandstorm.” How does it feel knowing that something you created has had such an impact?
I’ve pondered and re-thought this numerous times. It’s wild and overwhelming. I’m extremely proud, of course, but it’s something I still can’t quite fathom. The practical thing is that it’s been 12 years since that track has been released and I’m still earning a living making music and performing. I’m not a billionaire, but I’m living comfortably and I’m being flown around the world to play loud music. It doesn’t suck. There are so many stories that I’ve heard about “Sandstorm.” I’ve heard it’s been the first dance at a wedding. I played in Orlando two years ago and I remember this so vividly; a guy came up to me at a gig and told me loved “Sandstorm.” I said thanks and he told me that I didn’t understand, he drove for miles in Afghanistan back to base having stayed up two or three days straight and they would blast music to stay awake. "Sandstorm" was one of their favorite tracks to play. I had someone come up to me at a gig and say, “Feel the Beat” is the best track in the world and then squeeze me so tight. He told me his brother died and his favorite track was “Feel the Beat” and they played it at his funeral. What do you say to that? That’s what makes me realize how far it’s gone. It’s pretty humbling.
“Sandstorm” is one of, if not the biggest selling dance single in the history of EDM. Talk to me about the aftermath of “Sandstorm” and the challenges of trying to follow-up such a massive hit.
There was no pressure or challenge, because it all happened so quickly. “Feel The Beat” was made right after “Sandstorm” and they sound quite similar. The composition is totally different musically, but the sounds are similar and that’s because they were made back to back (it was produced by JS16). As soon as “Sandstorm” started to dip in the charts, they [the label] released “Feel the Beat” as the follow-up. At that time, I didn’t have time to be nervous or feel pressured, because by ’99 I had really never been a performing artist. I was pulled out of my every day boring student and part-time work life to DJ. Plus, we were so excited about the success, which was new to the both of us and being in the studio was just fun. I didn’t have time to reflect too much when I was flying to different countries and sleeping in a different hotel every night. In 2002/2003, we started making the second album. I would be lying if I said there wasn't any pressure there. We started to go clubbier and the first single off the second album (Rush) wasn’t a huge commercial success, but we got great feedback from other DJs and industry folk. We just decided to go with a harder track as opposed to a crowd-pleaser. That took the pressure away. We figured if it’s a good enough track it might still make it commercially, but at least we can be proud that it’s a track DJs could play. In many countries we got a good DJ chart position even though the sales weren’t as big as the first album was.
Speaking of sales, the credibility of the site Celebrity Net Worth.com remains to be unseen, but they recently released an article about the richest DJs in the world and they named you the 28th richest DJ in the world with a reported net worth of 2.5 million. Do you have any comment on this?
I’m honored that I’m in that kind of list. I’m in very good company. At the same time, I can tell you whomever has done that list couldn’t possibly have any close idea of what I make or my net worth, but I’m not bothered by it. At some point in my career there have been times where making money out of music was bad. Art and money don’t go together, blah blah. I don’t give a crap about that. This is my job and I have mouths to feed. I’d rather do this 24/7 than have another job. Being on that list, whether or it’s true or not, doesn’t make me lose my street cred or gain any for that matter. There’s this so-called underground circle that talks about credibility, but then you make it past a certain point it becomes critical to make money or be successful. If you were an underground artist and all of a sudden one of your tracks is gaining huge momentum and it looks like it’s going to be selling like hot cakes. What are you going to do? Pull that track? Pardon my French, but fuck no. No one is going to do that. They’re going to want to have the money and have the name so that they can get better gigs. Earlier in my career I was pissed off about people talking about the “cred,” but I got over it a long time ago.
As you’re well aware, since the explosion of EDM in the States, people have pledged their extreme loyalties to certain genres. However, the inception of EDM in America seems to have quite the opposite effect commercially. It’s allowed mainstream artists to incorporate elements of hip-hop, rock and electronic into their music. It’s not about specific genres in mainstream music anymore, it’s about how can we bring all of these genres together to create something unique.
That’s true. The main question people always ask is what’s going to happen with trance? There’s always going to be (for the foreseeable future), the Christopher Lawrences who are not all of a sudden going to be making pop-trance, but they’re going to continue to make their psy-trance (or whatever is their exact genre), because that’s what they live and breathe. But there are going to be others who haven’t been in the business for that long and they’re going to hear a psy-trance track that they love and a pop track that they love and marry the two. The genres are going to evolve. The main genres like house or trance are never going to go anywhere. There are so many genre snobs and tracks snobs. It’s funny, because it’s those people who don’t make the music themselves or maybe haven’t achieved much yet who bitch and act like they know things by being a genre snob. When EDM (whatever that means to anyone) started it was all about anything goes. We have a million different sub-genres. Everyone’s fighting over who’s the best. It’s just ridiculous. Good music is good music. I’m over the labeling.
Why do you think people take so much time to discover and nurture their love for underground acts, but are so quick to drop them when they turn “mainstream?”
It’s cool to be individual. If you like this music right now (whatever it is), why does it make it bad if 20 or 20 million people like it next year as well? That’s the thing. I understand that then thousands more people might be making the same music and then everything sounds like everything else and maybe dilutes the actual original thing, but what prevents you from listening to the original stuff still?
If you love music then listen to the music you love. Period. The same goes for performers. DJs should play what they want to play. There have been numerous instances of clubs booking DJs to perform and then management kicking them off the decks if they’re not playing what certain people want to hear. If you’re going to book a DJ, you should be familiar with the music they play.
You would think. I don’t know if I can go too much into that as it might effect me as a DJ getting bookings! There are a couple of things here. The first, it’s a wrong booking if that happens. If it’s not, then it’s a management problem and a money thing. And the manager makes a huge error. There was an incident in Vegas recently where a house legend wasn’t allowed to play. Money talks. People who had bottle service probably bitched for whatever reason. You need to have some kind of policy cleared up beforehand. You just don’t do that if you book someone and advertise it for weeks.
You started a record label called EnMass Music with Randy Boyer. How did you two meet and what prompted you to take on this project together? What do you want to achieve by pursuing this?
I met Randy at the first gig I ever played in the US in Hartford, CT. I had no idea 10 years later we would be starting a record label. I’ve had good experience with the labels I’m signed to, but when my contracts end with the current labels, I’ll be signing my tracks to my own label so I have complete creative control. I believe that in all these unknown names there are a couple of gems. It’s a way to build a name for a label to find those gems that are really good and it’s a huge task in this day and age when everyone is making music. We want to run the label pretty much the same way we are as people. Approachable.
You’ve recently announced a month of Ibiza dates at Es Paradis, which is your first in 5 years. Why stay away for so long and what’s bringing you back?
Yes, I’m playing there every Tuesday at a night called Colors. I’m excited about that, as it’s been a while since I’ve played there and it’s nice venue. The lineups are great. My friends from Finland, Super8 & Tab and several British DJs like Lange & Andy Moor are coming to various nights. I'm back, because I got a great opportunity. Ibiza is a very special place to play and a special market as well. It’s difficult for a single DJ to get to play at a great club there. You could go and probably get a booking at a smaller venue, but big promoters or so-called families like Armada or Vandit always book the main venues. It’s difficult to get a great booking that’s worth traveling to back and forth for or be there for a month like I’m doing. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t played there. I haven’t done that many gigs in Europe systematically the past few years so that might be a reason why I haven’t been getting good requests to play over there. I could try and sugarcoat that, but that’s not my style. That’s a big thing even for an up-and-coming DJ, it’s difficult to get a foothold anywhere unless you have good allies or you sign with a certain label, booking agency or management company. The market is dominated is by these big names, which is great, but that’s just the reality.
You moved from Finland to North America. Why Atlanta and what North American dates do you have coming up?
My wife's family is in Atlanta. A lot of my gigs are in the US and have been the past 10 years so it was actually better for me touring wise. I can leave for the weekend and be home Sunday afternoon and try to live 9-5ish during the week. Before that, I would have to pack a suitcase and hop over the pond and be on the road for seven weeks, live out of a suitcase and cheap hotels one after another. That gets old at some point. The US has been a really great [market] for me. I have done 40-60 gigs a year here. When I come back mid-August I have a gig at City Lights Festival in Grand Rapids. Last year they had 10,000 people and they’re expecting it to be even bigger so it should be great. I’m not sure what else I can officially confirm other than that. When they’re confirmed, they’ll be on the website.
Speaking of the web, you’re very open with your fans on Facebook and Twitter. You also started an extremely helpful DJing advice note series on Facebook. How important has social media become for an artist?
Ten or fifteen years ago, there were chats and then forums got really big. Now, I don’t know very many forums or message boards that are active, because everything is in Facebook. There are a few techy [message boards] things I use and those are alive and kicking, but the social aspect of the Internet has killed message boards. Whether it’s online or face-to-face at a gig, I appreciate everyone who gives a crap about my music and me. The least I can do is have a conversation with them. Not that I don’t trust my music being good enough, but it gives a whole other dimension to it when you can create personal contacts. One of the coolest things about social media is it’s incredible to talk to somebody a month, a week or even sometimes a year before and then you play in their city and meet them and then shake their hand. They give you their Twitter handle and you think holy crap that’s the person I earlier only knew as a weird little avatar and now I’m talking to them in person. I really love that. I like to be a real person and artist that everyone can approach. I'm not somebody who's throwing you music from the powers up high, but I'm just a regular guy that's playing music and partying with the people.
That's great and the whole point of social media is to converse.
Social media is great for promotion, but I try to steer away from being in your face about purchasing my music. I let people know when a single comes out, but I usually post some stuff that I find interesting and hopefully people can relate and that in turn gets people interested in my music. I try not to think of it like, “hey, buy my album.” That’s not the point. I try to give advice to aspiring DJs. With the Internet being so open, everything is so available. I wish I had that back in the day.
You recently released a free download of the 2012 Drums Mix of your 2008 single “In The Darkness” for fans. It’s always refreshing to see artists rewarding their fans with free music. What inspired you to do this?
I’m planning on doing it more at some point. I made this track for my own sets, but people are asking for certain tracks at my gigs and after 3 or 4 years you run out of remixes. You don’t want to play the same thing over and over again. I made a new mix and made it more current. As I made it and started playing it at my gigs, I realized I’m not going to benefit much from keeping this track as it’s an old track (released 4 years ago). I have different record labels in different countries and I believe that the hassle of releasing it officially would not have been worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to try to sell my music as well, but let’s just say there’s another old track I remixed why not hand out one of them for free. My Facebook likes shot up a couple of hundred in a couple of days. The buzz it creates is definitely worth it and it’s nice reading all the comments too. It’s a win-win.
Another way for your fans to stay connected is through your radio show, Salmiakki Sessions, which has been in effect now for seven years.
It’s something that I do for my fans, but it’s also something I do for myself. It’s a great way for me to keep myself in check about new music coming out. Every month I have to go through and find tracks that are good for the show. I try to play great music [in the show] and if I have a finished track from my fellow Finnish producers and a finished track from other producers that are equally good, I tend to sway towards the Finnish producer. So there’s a little bit of patriotism. The radio show also acts as a consolation prize to people who cannot make it to my gigs for whatever reason. They can listen to what I’m currently playing.
You mentioned on your Facebook page that you believe popular EDM is good for the scene regardless of the few that dominate it. Why do you believe this? And do you think that pop stardom is the end goal for most?
I’m not saying every DJ should be a pop star. What I tried to convey is that there are a lot of people who are bitching about that. The negative side about the Internet is that everyone has a voice and mostly negative people are voicing their opinion. I don’t understand. Guys like Avicii or Tiësto are always being trashed, because they’re so big. Why does it make the music you like any worse? This is an age-old thing. I’ve seen one or two cycles of this, because I’ve been around for 10-15 years. Everything burns out at some point. Now we’re going through this huge peak of house music. The main thing that’s changed is that America has caught up. That’s why it’s created such a big uproar. The marketplace is just huge. The main point is that it brings more people to listen to our genre. A person that has never listened to house music before, they need that kind of stuff [mainstream] to get into it [EDM] first. If they like it, then they can slowly educate themselves and get into deeper stuff.
The music industry has gone through numerous changes for more than a decade and with the rise of EDM, we’re seeing it change drastically again. It has changed the way we listen, see and engage with music. You’ve been in the industry for over a decade, where do you see this industry heading now?
If I knew I probably would be making huge plans to combine making great music and making a lot of money out of it. It’s difficult to say. I think the cycles are still going to be there. Something big will come up once in a while, everybody does it and then it saturates and then something else comes along. Dance music has become mainstream and it will probably never go away now. The main thing that’s changed, outside of actual music, are the online downloads. They have changed the whole game and social media has made it possible to make artists reach their crowd directly and even personally. The majors [labels] are struggling to find a way to be big, but have their artists be approachable. It’s interesting that there are so many small labels now that are making great music. If they’re making great music, they’ll get big too. I don’t know if there’s a line somewhere where the label is run perfectly and isn’t too big or too big for their own good. I don’t know the answer to the question. Myself and my record label partner [EnMass Music], Randy Boyer, have had a label for only a year. What we play in our sets and what we make is something we’re going to sign and release on this label. That’s the way to go, provided we keep a personal and direct connection with our fans and continue to grow the fan base. It doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of business, but the direct connection you have with your fans is the thing that will direct [the label] more and more.
The definition of a DJ also seems to be changing. What does it mean to you?
That’s the thing. When people, in general, say DJ, it means to almost everyone these days someone who makes music. It used to be that a DJ was someone who played other people’s music. People don’t realize that it’s similar to the pop world; there are some people who write, but have never performed or people who sing, but never write. In the DJ world, there are DJs that have never produced before, but they have producers who do it for them. They’re all kinds of combinations of that and people put that under one blanket name and it might not necessarily describe how their career is being run. The term “superstar DJ” has existed for a few years now so I don’t know if that’s changed that much since somebody first started using that term. The big guys that are selling out stadiums, especially in the US where it’s kind of a new thing on this scale means that it reaches so many more people. Then there’s the commercial aspect of it where organizations realize that there’s money to be made so that brings a whole other element and seriousness in it where money can be made.
Do you think the more money gets involved the more it attracts the wrong people?
Well, who’s to say who are the wrong people? Some people have said that now all the hip-hop DJs and producers have jumped on 128 [bpm] house style and that’s not a good thing for the scene. But at the same time there have been some drum ‘n’ bass DJs for a decade or two have borrowed things from hip-hop. And that hasn’t created an uproar, because drum ‘n’ bass hasn’t really become mainstream. The most common thing is that everyone is borrowing. People take influences from everywhere.
What I mean by that is that you shouldn’t want to become a DJ or a producer because you want to make money, you should want to become a DJ or producer because you’re passionate about it.
That is something I tell everyone. Everyone wants to be a DJ and everyone is a DJ. I feel like such an old fart when I say it, but study and keep your day job. Try this as a hobby first, because if you start thinking about making money it creates such pressure from the beginning and that’s not a creative place at all. If you’re struggling to make music or get gigs, because all you’re thinking of is money, it’s not fruitful. It’s best if it’s a happy accident.
Your tracks have charted all over the world, you’ve received countless awards and accolades…when it’s time to retire many many years down the road what will you take away the most from this whirlwind experience?
One day I’m not going to be able to tour. Maybe I’m ugly or I don’t play good music anymore, but I hope to have the record company functioning so I can still be in the music industry. I don’t know that it’s one single thing, but the touring and experiences have made my life so much richer than I could have ever imagined it would be. I’ll be taking connections I’ve made with me. I’ve made a ton of great friends. On a very romantic note, I did meet my wife at one of my gigs in Orlando. That’s obviously a huge thing. It’s very difficult to sum up, but I’ve learned a lot about myself, having to face new situations and new people. I probably would have learned something similar in the last 12 years anyway, but maybe not on such a wide scale.
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