He crowd surfs with his friends, like Skrillex, from atop a raft. He jumps up on stage barriers and hurls cakes in the faces of fans who are either holding “Cake Me” signs or wearing the slogan on t-shirts. He even licensed a “Let Them Eat Cake” t-shirt at retail chain, Forever 21. Which brings us to his company, Dim Mak, a label, events/lifestyle company, and apparel line that he founded in 1996. Yes, Steve Aoki’s entrepreneurial skills should be studied, and aside from being a label-head/A&R guy (breaking the bands Bloc Party, the Bloody Beetroots, Klaxons and the Gossip), the man is a Grammy nominated producer. And now he’s a gold record artist, as the lead single, “Delirious (Boneless),” with Chris Lake and Tujamo and featuring Kid Ink, off his second album, Neon Future I (which came out in September through Ultra Music, and has guests galore from Fall Out Boy to will.i.am) sold 500,000 and went on to be a Top 40 and Shazam Top 10 track. Aoki is also a man on the move, as this interview was done in three parts between exiting the airport, stopping in the studio and from a San Jose hotel where he was on one of his 250 tour dates this year.
Music Connection: With such a dizzying tour schedule, how do you find the time to be creative and make songs on the road?
Steve Aoki: That’s part of the adaptation to this kind of lifestyle, you have to be able to do them on the road. I have multiple studios that I work out of: I just built one in L.A. ‘cuz we just moved offices from Dim Mak and I sold my house where I produced 90 percent of Neon Future I. I just built a studio in my apartment in Las Vegas, and I generally produce off my laptop. You have to make the most of your time; you have six to eight hours to kill before you even start playing a show, so there’s actually a lot of downtime on the road.
MC: What’s up with that Dim Mak van we see around town?
Aoki: I bought the van at a time when we were always using an Econoline for touring. That’s another part of using your resources properly and efficiently: I bought the van and then I got sponsors to wrap the van, so I basically got a free van out of it. That is how Dim Mak had survived to this point, by working and having great partners who understand our brand. Whether it’s the van, promotion, radio, or development and A&R, all of these are tools to make sure that as many people as possible can hear the music. I’ve always been savvy with producing business, whatever it might be. Business doesn’t always have to be about a financial outcome it can be with a personal satisfying outcome, as long as the product is respected.
MC: Can you talk more about your entrepreneurial instincts?
Aoki: As a kid I was always doing creative things, like making and distributing a ‘zine, and doing it consistently so people would know about whatever brand or band I was doing. I did the same thing in college: I was writing for a ‘zine, writing a column, doing reviews, interviewing bands. I was in a band, I was putting on shows.
I started my label Dim Mak [in 1996], and if you looked at how much money was spent in doing all those things, it was next to nothing. It wasn’t about how much money you could make at the end of the day back then, it was more about the product, making sure that it represented what I was trying to represent in the best way I could do it. I’ve always kept with that ethnos with anything I’ve been doing, and even if it doesn’t have a huge financial success, as long as it has the success that makes me happy, then I’m okay with it. The financial success won’t dictate where it should go. Essentially, when that happens the brand changes and that is when the idea “selling out” really deems true.
MC: Speaking of brands, how were you able to expand your interest in music into a full lifestyle brand?
Aoki: The branding actually all started way before the DJing and way before the label, like the idea of a lemonade stand that kids have in the front of their house. When I used to put on shows I would screen t-shirts of my band in my mom’s closet. I would get vintage shirts, screen my band on there and sell the shirts for four dollars so I could make the extra two dollars. And I carried the same DIY principle throughout every branding/business decision throughout my career, whether I was starting Dim Mak or going to Kinko’s and the copy centers and printing up t-shirts. I’ve been doing that since I was 15.
I got into apparel in 2005 when I was offered a free booth to sell Dim Mak t-shirts in exchange for a DJ set. So I got flung into the deep end of the pool of selling t-shirts alongside all these clothing brands and pretended to be a brand. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, but I learned the ropes as I was going. I partnered up with a friend of mine and in over two years of selling t-shirts I started my own tradeshow called United, and that’s when we brought in our own brands and we sold real estate inside of a room for brands to sell their line. So whenever I get involved with something I always end up trying to expand and make a community effort out of it.
MC: Most EDM artists don’t brand themselves like rock bands; do you recommend that as a way to stand out in a crowd?
Aoki: The difference is that I came from being in a band, and the only way to make money is when the fans buy t-shirts. Ask any band and they’ll tell you that their merch is how they survive on the road to pay for the costs; that’s a given. And the culture is for people to buy band t-shirts. I mean, I have a million of them.
T-shirt culture didn’t exist in DJ culture, now it does because there’s a huge forum for it to exist. For electronic dance music, there’s no Rocawear, Sean John or whatever, like in hip-hop, and that’s because the culture’s so new. People are trying to do it right now, but it’s difficult. Like you said, Dim Mak is a lifestyle brand, and that’s because I come from that world of incorporating all these different elements. Obviously what you’re listening to is not the experience entirely: what you wear is part of that experience, what you’re feeling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, is as much a part of your experience as listening to it.