Photo courtesy of Arthur Rad
We had the opportunity to get together with I Love Neon's John Hatz half way through his 16 show marathon celebrating the company's 16 year anniversary. The Montreal nightlife legend spoke to us about how they got started, how the scene's changed, and how you can do it too.
THUMP: Who is I love Neon?
John: Right now we're going through a transitional phase, over the last couple years we've made some changes internally in order to increase our staff. We have a relatively newish team—two years ago it was just me and a couple of people and now it's properly set up. I handle a lot of the electronic music buying and a lot of the art and creative direction. Daniel came in about a year ago, he handles the day-to-day business operations, bigger picture kind of planning and dreaming up new ways for us to get into different business like festivals, etc. Wesley does all of the marketing and all the ticketing, Patrick does all the rock buying, Oliver runs production on the shows and Mayday does all the ticket distribution. Plus we have a couple other people that come in and out.
You guys have been around for 16 years, how'd it all get started?
It's kind of like a band where one or two members are always in it but then somebody bails and somebody gets replaced and then someone else decides they don't want to be in it anymore. There have been many versions of Neon over the last 16 years and I'm kind of the last man standing. It started originally with my friend Justin, right now he's the creative director of GURU energy drink, and my friend Tiga who's a well known Montreal born musician. The three of us started it out of our record shop, DNA records. At the time I was managing Turbo Recordings, and we had nowhere for the kind of music we wanted to hear. We started this night called Neon at this spot called J'ai Bar on the corner of Prince Arthur and Saint-Laurent. That's where it started, we started doing electro and abstract stuff and it was Tiga and his brother Thomas Von Party DJing. I was doing some of the graphics with Justin and we had this mailing list with 100 people and I actually thought all 100 people would come to every show. Then one day, electro, and it's important here to clarify that I'm talking about the electro genre of music and not just electronic music, blew up and all of sudden the music our little shitty party was promoting was on the cover of i-D magazine. Next thing you know we walk up to our party and there's this giant line-up and we had to move it to a bigger venue, we just started doing 1000 person parties right after that.
How would you say electronic music has changed from the late '90s till today?
I don't think it's actually changed as much as everyone is acting like it has. Electro was the new thing and then electro got diluted into house and techno and then dubstep became the new thing. When you've been in the scene for 20 years you start seeing things repeat. Things keep getting reinvented and re-launched, people get excited, but essentially it's the same thing: kids going crazy to electronic music.
How would you say the excitement from major media players towards electronic music has affected the industry?
That's relatively recent. What it has done is legitimized "EDM" as a proper genre in the same way it happened to rap years and years ago. Now we have this new genre that they call EDM that was essentially created by corporations in order to help them classify the music. It's really become almost a dirty word on top of that. They've affected dance music just as they had affected every other kind of genres previously: where they once had a 360 deal with Prince they'll now have it with someone like Steve Aoki. They'll take on whole artist contracts from ticketing to t-shirts and it's more difficult for us because now when you buy a show there are a ton of new costs that are pre-determined that were never factored in before. There are more people coming between the local promoter, the artist, and the money. They've replaced the lost revenue from album sales by creating and raising the prices for everything else.
In your opinion would you say that we are moving to a place where the independent promoter, whether in dance or otherwise, is in peril of not being able to do what they've done for the past 50 years?
I don't think so. I think there will always be a need for an alternative. I don't think anyone, including agents, managers, and artists, want to have only one option. I think that there will always be an independent version of music promoters because nobody wants a monopoly. We win shows every day because artists want to play for a legitimate dance music promoter. We can deliver something that a large corporation can't because they're not here; they're not on the ground. I think musicians are aware of that and I honestly don't think the big corporations want it to become a monopoly… we work with Evenko all the time, we do lots of co-productions together and they often reach out when they have a show that needs help or an extra push. Maybe that's just a Montreal thing; I really don't know how that relationship works in other markets but I do know that everyone here works together.
You were saying you were looking at continuing to expand further and even a music festival, what's next for Neon?
It's a tough question. We already have a ton of projects going on. We're really trying to expand into nightlife; we essentially sell entertainment and good times and I think what people appreciate about our brand is that it allows them to escape from their every day life for five hours at a time. Whatever that involves is something I want to get into more, and I think that although we definitely want to move towards music festivals and venues we mostly just want places that allow us to continue to help people escape and have a good time.
For the first time ever the general public has started to look at the electronic music scene as a source of legitimate professions, what advice would you give to a young kid trying to get into this industry?
Learn the ropes. Learn every aspect of the game and don't move too quickly. Every great bar or club owner will tell you that they were once a busboy and it's the same thing in event production; personally I was a flyer boy when I started in this business. People today don't want to put in the time on those shitty jobs but that's what teaches you how the business works and it's something that we make new employees do within the company all the time. When we bring in someone new we make them do everything, they need to learn the ropes. One of the hardest things to figure out is that what we're selling has a lot to do with human interaction. How we set up a room, how the flyer looks, the kind of music coming through the speakers… every aspect of the show matters and the more experience you have in different aspects of the industry, the more chance you have of doing it right when you're driving the ship. There's also no immediate pay off. I didn't get to do a Metropolis show until 10 years into my career; they wouldn't even answer my calls before that [laughs].
Montreal has been seeing a bit more recognition than it had previously, how would you say Montreal is looked at internationally right now?
I think there are two visions of Montreal. First off it's a cool place that people want to play because of its great reputation. That being said it just isn't an A market and a lot of shows don't make it here because we can't pay what larger markets like New York or even Toronto can pay. I think people want to play here to break or start their career or to be a part of a movement but at the end of the day we're that cool place that doesn't make money [laughs].
Many people might not know this, but it wouldn't be realistic to say what you guys were doing with electro didn't have a profound effect on what is going on in electronic music today? Did you guys see this coming?
No, I really think we were just like every crew that starts in their 20s. We never had any idea that we'd influence anyone or that they'd actually be successful. To be honest all those early ventures were financial disasters. But what we noticed many years later was that these projects helped us become influencers and furthermore people knew about them all over the world. If you speak to my accountant he'll say 90 percent of the things I've tried to do were disasters but if you speak to some kid in Barcelona he'll have a copy of every single thing we've done from a flyer to a DJ mix. I think one of our biggest defeats was that we were always too humble and we didn't necessarily know when we were on the cusp so we never tried to make the jump.
What's the favourite show you've ever done?
We did LCD Soundsystem at SAT in 2005 and it was the wrong room for the show because they were just simply too big. They agreed to it because they wanted to do something underground and warehouse-y and it was one of those shows that we sold 1000 tickets for and had another 1000 people waiting outside before the show began. It was cool but definitely kind of crazy. Five minutes before the show James Murphy decided he wanted more sound so we had to bring in a second system. It was just one of those wonderful terrible incredible experiences where you had this amazing band playing in this weird venue for way too many people and then after they got off, Jordan Dare played and no one left! Then we took everyone to this Peer Pressure after party, so now you have LCD Soundsystem at this weird after party in the middle of no where and obviously the next day their bus leaves late and yeah, overall it was just an amazing experience.
The second party would have to be what was our first ever Metropolis show which was MSTRKRFT and Boys Noize for either our eighth or ninth anniversary party and we sold it out and at the time it was just very fitting and very special.