TLDR: Robb Harker of Supermodified Agency talks about the adventures of running a booking agency & what’s happening in the industry.
Hi Robb, thanks for taking the time for an interview with us! Most people in the industry know you as the man behind Supermodified — your renowned DJ booking agency — but most clubbers and dance music fans most probably have no idea who’s pulling the strings behind the curtain and who takes care that a DJ is able to play venues all over the world.
Please, tell us a bit about yourself, where you originally come from, where you’re living now, how your business started and how you became one of the most influential figures in the electronic music industry.
Thanks for inviting me for an interview, it’s nice to do something with Frisky! I’m originally from Victoria, BC on the West Coast of Canada. I came out to Korea in 1997 to teach English “for a year,” fell in love with Asia, and never left. There wasn’t much in the way of dance music here back in the late 90’s. Frustrated with the local music scene I decided to take matters into my own hands. I partnered up with Morgan Wilbur, an expat friend who was also living in Seoul. We brought a DJ friend of mine from Vancouver and threw together a party on a shoestring budget. Nobody expect much but after a month of flyering we pulled in 800 people, had an amazing vibe and Seoul’s electronic music scene was effectively born. Over the next 6 years we pioneered the scene here under the guise of ‘Sickboy Productions’. Around 2003, Morgan left Korea and I shifted from the production company to club management. Later that year I was part of the team to launch M2, Seoul’s first major nightclub. Although it is now considered small by Seoul nightclub standards, at the time, with capacity for 1000+ it was the first club in Seoul big enough to invite top international Djs on a regular basis. I was a director at the club for a couple of years, with my focus being on programming and marketing.
Throughout my years of promoting one offs and clubs, one of my main sources for DJs was a boutique agency in Hong Kong owned by Simon Birch. He was the Asian rep for an agency called Excession which handled the likes of Sasha, Nick Warren, Steve Lawler, Lee Burridge and more. Over the years we became good friends. He was also an aspiring artist and was discovered in 2004. With his career in art blowing up, he had less time for the agency so I pitched the idea of taking it over. He was on board, as long as I agreed to expand the operation. We rebranded the agency as Supermodified and I moved the office to Bali. I ran the agency from Bali for a little over 4 years and then brought the agency back to Seoul in 2009.
So you have a promoter and club management background, that’s interesting. I guess it’s very helpful to know the business from every side of the story. Would you say, back when you started Supermodified, that it was kind of a ‘golden era’? How have things changed, is it more or less fun today, and what do you wish would NOT have changed?
I think globally the ‘golden era’ had already come and gone. It’s fair to say the term accurately describes Seoul in the early 2000’s. I don’t know if Asia as a whole had a specific ‘golden era’ though as each market was conceived at different times and have been growing at different rates.
Things have changed dramatically over the years. I guess the obvious change is in terms of scale. There are loads of new promoters, new clubs in all the cities and the festival scene has grown a lot across the entire region. Globally the scene is bigger than ever but North America and Europe are already established. Asia is still seen as the new frontier in many ways. Based on populations alone, the potential for growth in this market is insane so everyone has eyes on Asia at the moment. Another obvious change is in the music people are listening to but again I think this is a global phenomena more so than just here in Asia.
Is it more or less fun today? I definitely approach things from more of a business perspective now than when I first started but I still love what I do. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten up and thought, “Oh shit I wish I didn’t have to work today.” The day I stop enjoying things, I’ll move on to something else. And when I try and break it down, I don’t think there’s anything I wish would not have changed. The very fact that the industry is ever changing is what keeps things exciting. Can you imagine a job without change? Punching in at the same place from 9 to 5 everyday for years on end? I sure as fuck can’t.
I have given up on the 9 to 5 thing a long time ago, I exactly know what you mean.
Talking about scales and the relatively new and big EDM festival scene, people like David Guetta, Steve Aoki, Calvin Harris and so on; there’s a lot of negative feelings about this from the people in the so called underground. Is this business something Supermodified is involved in, and how is it different from the underground scene, seen from the perspective of a booking agency?
When I started the agency I was very much about pushing a sound that was dear to me, this being the true “progressive house” sound of the ’90’s (not what Beatport calls Progressive House today). This worked well as it was “the sound of the times” in a sense and there was no shortage of bookings. In the past few years however there was a definite shift in the market towards a demand for more commercial sounds.
I think part of being successful in business is anticipating market trends and finding a way to work them into your business model. I chose to cultivate the agency’s roster in a way that reflects the demands of the market. I still look after my original core roster, and that will always be my music of choice personally but I have no regrets in my decision to expand the roster with commercial acts.
To me, the whole dialogue of “us vs them” between underground and commercial acts is a load of shit. The twitter rants, name calling etc, these all seem to happen just when an artist is about to release a new track or drop a new album. They are just lame attempts to grab some attention. At the end of the day, all the artists are here to make music and to entertain. Who cares what medium another artist chooses to do this in?
When some underground act gets up on their high horse, I just don’t get it. You don’t like the music? Fine then don’t listen to it. You don’t like a DJ throwing a cake? Fine, don’t watch it. Is it farcical? Sure. Does it cheapen or dilute what you are doing in the underground? Absolutely fucking not. I’ve heard plenty of rants but I have yet to hear any solid argument as to why one thing is better than another. It’s a question of personal taste and should be left at that.
Do you think the commercial business helps the underground, and vice versa? Will today’s festival kids be the underground club kids from tomorrow?
The commercial business helps the underground, no question about it. Commercial dance music is accessible, that’s why it hit the mainstream. It appeals to the young generation of clubbers who aren’t particularly educated in various forms of dance music. Build ups, big drops, lots of melody etc. The kids are being spoon fed their mushed carrots and peas. Darwin’s theory applies to dance music. As these kids grow up their tastes will refine and they will evolve into the other genres dance music has to offer. 10 years ago or less, these kids would have been listening to rock, pop or hip hop. Now they are getting into dance music at a younger age and that can only be good for the future of dance music as a whole, be it commercial or underground.
I’m not sure I would say the underground scene drives the commercial side but the commercial side owes its very existence to the underground movement.
Where do you see all of this going, and what would you like to see in a few years, as a music lover and as a booking agent?
There’s all this talk about the “bubble” and how the scene isn’t sustainable; a house of cards that can come tumbling down at any moment. I disagree.
It’s a multi billion dollar industry and it’s not going anywhere. Fees are at an all time high and I think it’s only a matter of time until we see a market correction to a certain extent but overall I think the industry is healthy and will remain that way. I’ve been in Asia through 2 different financial crisis and to be honest the entertainment sector didn’t suffer much. Whatever is going on in the rest of their lives, people still need an escape and many of them find it in music and partying.
Musically no one really knows for certain what is going to happen, that’s what keeps things interesting. Over the past few years there was a clear shift. Djs who were once on the main stage at a festivals are now playing side stages and tents while the commercial sounds have taken mainstage. I think it’s cyclical though and things are already starting to swing back around. If you look at Beatport trends, ‘deep house’ is now the top selling genre. Acts like Disclosure are getting headline slots. ID&T is looking to take their festival brand Awakenings global.
The market for commercial music is still massive and will continue to be but at the same time, the future is looking good for the underground.
Wow, that’s a pretty shrewd and readily comprehensible statement. And I have to admit that I haven’t seen some of it from this perspective. I’m one of those guys that tends to bitch about the commercial stuff, because it annoys me.
Sure it can be annoying, especially to a “purist” but at the end of the day it’s harmless.
Okay, I’m interested in how a day in the life of the Supermodified boss looks like. Do you have regular stuff going on, rituals, tasks that have to be done on a daily basis, or do you completely let yourself “fall” into things and get them done as they occur? I mean, booking requests are mostly unpredictable, but how does running a booking agency of that format look like?
Supermodified doesn’t have office hours. The majority of the artists I look after are based in Europe so their managers and European agents aren’t starting work until it’s 6pm here in Seoul. We operate with a more fluid structure. I have a great staff and the team just knows what their roles are. If something needs to be done they take care of it.
I also travel a lot both for business and pleasure so one of the things I love most about my job is the flexibility. I probably spend about half the year working from my office and the rest of the year working from the road. I’m definitely more productive when working from the office but I can run the business from anywhere with my iPhone and a decent 3g connection.
A couple of years ago I spent Christmas and New Years Eve in Goa with my family. It was supposed to be a 10 day trip but on the second to last day, while relaxing on the beach, I checked the weather back in Seoul and saw it was -17c. My wife and I looked at each other and tried to figure out why we were going back to that. We couldn’t come up with a decent reason so we changed our flights, rented a house for 2 months and rode the winter out in Goa. I was still working the whole time but I was doing it from my laptop on the beach. I can’t think of many jobs that allow for that kind of flexibility.
Have you made real friends with artists?
Of course. I’ve worked with some people for over a decade and have become close friends with many of the artists I work with.
If you tour with someone you form a pretty cool bond that only comes from experiences shared on the road. Unless the person you are touring with is a total douchebag it’s pretty hard not to become good friends.
Out of 100 booking requests, what would you say, how many are to be taken for serious? I guess you have developed a feeling for bullshit?
You definitely learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. I mean if you are getting an email from a “promoter” who claims an extensive list of previous events, and he’s writing to you from a hotmail address that’s a bit of a red light. I don’t know about a percentage but over time you learn who’s serious and who the time wasters are. I’m pretty set with my go to promoters in the more established markets so I don’t have to deal with the wild cards. In the emerging markets like Vietnam, Nepal, Mongolia etc though I’m still testing various promoters to see how each operate.
Then you have a market like India with a massive population and rapid growth within the industry. Suddenly every kid with a laptop and a gmail address fancies himself a local agent or promoter and they all claim to have promoted all the same big events. Every wannabe promoter claims they worked on the Avicii tour when all they probably did to assist was to hand a flyer to their sister.
What is the number one reason a potential booking doesn’t happen, falls through? Is it when promoters have to pay stuff in advance or when they have to send signed documents back?
Most of the time if a gig falls through it’s because the promoter has defaulted on the payment. Contracts are a formality really. This is Asia, if a promoter is going to try and screw you, the contract doesn’t mean shit anyway. You have to get all the money well in advance and leave yourself time for a back up plan if things go tits up.
Let’s say a promoter wants to have a specific artist, and no other. You’ve agreed on a fee that works good for everyone, but then comes the hassle … getting the right flights, hotels for a specific date that works for you and the promoter, I mean, getting all this working together. How do you successfully manoeuvre through that jungle of requirements and options? Either the date doesn’t work together with flight fares, or you have good fares and the date doesn’t work. Then accommodation is available or not, or too far away, and whatnot.
Do you have tricks?
It’s really the artist that dictates things and not the promoter. If a promoter is really set on a specific act then it’s a question of working the promoter schedule to create an event around the artist availability. Remember Asia is just one of the territories in the Worldwide plan. If the promoter has a fixed date for their event then it’s a question of working with whichever talent is available on that date.
Before confirming a show we do look at the flight schedule to make sure we can get an artist to the show in time. For example if an act needs to be on stage in Tokyo for a festival at 3pm then we know the night before we can only look at shows in cities nearby (like Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai etc). You basically have a framework of what is logistically possible and you deliver shows within that framework.
The agency’s job is to secure the show and get the artist as far as the local airport. Obviously we oversee all logistics from that point onwards also, but ground travel, hotels, meals etc, this is all the responsibility of the local promoter.
I’m sure you have one or the other fantastic anecdote to tell. What’s your best one? Funny, weird, unbelievable, fucked up … go for it, please.
Haha, it’s like a scene out of a movie, seriously.
Right so a couple of years ago I was on a side contract to tour manage in Europe for one of the artists I book in Asia. We were hitting the top festivals throughout Europe that summer and flying country to country on a private jet. Day 1 was a double header starting in Hungary for Balaton Sound and then jumping back on the jet to Serbia for Exit Festival. Of all the shows that summer, Exit was the one I was most looking forward to.
The jet landed in a small airfield in the south of Hungary, about a 60 minute drive from the festival site. As we were only planning to spend 4 hours in Hungary, I told everyone to leave all their luggage on the jet and just take essentials for the show. As we walked across the tarmac, I asked the pilot if we should bring our passports. At this, the artist and his girlfriend (GF) gave each other an awkward look and asked, “Passports?”
Turns out, they hadn’t thought they needed passports as we were staying within Europe and not flying commercial. It didn’t occur to them that on one hand the GF was American and on the other, we were flying to Serbia, which was not part of the EU.
Luckily, many artists have more than one passport for visa reasons and in this case, the artist happened to have a spare passport with him. The GF was not so lucky. Anyway, we had a show to do so off we went to the site promising to keep in touch with the pilot while he looked into a possible fix. Not long after, he called to say he’d spoken with immigration in Hungary and Serbia and while Hungary agreed to let her leave without a passport, Serbia would not let her in.
“What if she doesn’t get off the jet?” I asked. The pilot relayed the question and said their response was, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you ask that question.”
So that was our plan. We’d fly to Serbia, GF stays hidden on the jet while we go do the show and then we’d come back in the morning and all fly out to Portugal for the next show. Easy right?
Well as it turned out, by the time we got back to this small airfield in Hungary, there had been a shift change with immigration. We all showed our passports and went through security with GF bringing up the rear. They had been briefed about her lack of passport but unlike the early shift, they weren’t letting her leave without a green light from their superiors. As we waited for the phone to ring with permission to leave, we knew the clock was ticking and we had a very tight schedule to take off, fly to Serbia and get the artist onstage in time at Exit. Finally word comes that she’s not going to be permitted to leave so the new plan is to try and call our driver back (he’d left us at the airfield which was in the middle of no where) and have him drive her 4 hours to Budapest. She could have her passport couriered in and she could catch up with us in Portugal.
Immigration had different plans though. They informed us they’d been instructed to arrest her and detain her until her identity could be verified. With little time to make a decision it was agreed I would stay behind to get her out of jail while the rest of the entourage carried on to Serbia. They boarded the plane and it began to taxi onto the runway.
So here I was, 4am in the middle of nowhere, no ride, no one speaking English and the police dragging GF off by the arm. I managed to get my driver on the phone and he agreed to come back and get me. I pleaded with the police to wait for my driver to arrive but they insisted GF and myself come to another building on the other side of the airfield. He was demanding my passport and after deciphering his broken English it became apparent my passport had been stamped with an exit stamp so until this was remedied I was also now in the country illegally.
We were walking across the parking lot, up a small hill with the terminal behind me and beyond that the jet driving towards the end of the runway. I reached into my bag to get my passport for the policeman and it was then I realized that not only did I have my passport, I had the artist’s passport which I’d taken from him on arrival for safe keeping. The passport, without which he would not be allowed to enter Serbia and perform his show. I frantically tried calling him on his mobile but it was engaged. As I tried others on the phone, the jet made the 90 degree turn onto the runway and the engine started to rev up for take off. In the final seconds I remembered I had the pilot’s number so I called him and to my relief he answered! I screamed at him to stop the plane and I started running back down the hill and into the terminal. I flew through the security section setting off all the alarms in the metal detector. The officials were yelling at me to stop but I just kept running out the door and onto the runway.
The pilot opened a small side window in the cockpit and I handed the passport up. They took off and in the end, made it to the show in time.
When I got back to the front of the terminal, my bag was sitting there and my driver was just pulling up. GF and the police were nowhere to be seen but my driver mentioned he’d passed a police car leaving when he was coming into the airport. We jumped into the car and took off after the cops who had a 15 minute head start. Luckily we managed to catch them and followed them 150KM north to a small village where they locked GF up for the night. They released her the following day and we then had to travel to a small town in North Hungary as it was the only place with an immigration office open on Saturday. Her passport was sent to us there and after some paperwork we were given permission to leave. Another long drive to Budapest for a flight out to Portugal and we caught up with the rest of the tour party.
Still gutted that I missed Exit!
I’m really wondering how China will develop in the future. I personally had a few requests looking good but they fell through at the end, and all on short notice. Visa issues, permission issues, all that. What’s your prediction?
As far as I’m concerned, if you aren’t looking at China right now you’re looking the wrong way. It really is the final frontier in dance music.
Currently in China, the nightclub niche accounts for less than 1% of the population (less than 10 million ppl). Compare that to Mando Pop listeners which make up nearly 70% of the population (900 million ppl). Think about that number for a second. The potential for growth here is astounding. People have been saying for years that dance music is about to blow up in China and while it hasn’t happened yet I think we are nearing the tipping point.
I’ve been booking club shows in China for well over a decade and for the most part Djs have been playing to confused “clubbers” who are more concerned with their game of dice than the music. Clubs lack proper dance floors and instead you find tables and booths covering the entire club.
More recently, forward thinking promoters have been launching festivals and I’ve been working closely with the group that produces Storm. They are going into their second year this year with acts like Avicii, Axwell^Ingrosso, Afrojack, Kaskade etc on the main stage, and the likes of Darren Emerson, Dave Seaman and Emma Hewitt on the side stage.
Things are changing quickly.
I’ve recently helped on a collaboration between Avicii and Leehom, a Taiwanese Popstar (cue groans from Frisky listeners). China’s version of Twitter is called Weibo and to give you an indication of Leehom’s popularity he has over 44 million followers. The project was created and run by A2 Live, the same company which created and promotes Storm. The idea was to create a crossover track of commercial dance music with Mandarin lyrics; something the Mando Pop listeners can relate to more in an effort to open their minds to other forms of music. If all goes according to plan, this will be the bridge to really help open up the market.
(Addition from Robb after we were done with the interview: Three days after the track dropped in China it’s the #1 trending issue on Chinese social media. I love it when a plan comes together!)
Interesting. I heard about things going on in Chengdu and Shanghai, but actually never Beijing, which might be only me not having seen something else. Is Shanghai the “capital” of the scene right now, or do you see things spreading all over China? Also, are promoters there generally interested in other Asian artists, let’s say from Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines …?
There’s lots going on in Beijing. It’s probably the 2nd busiest city for clubs and events in China. They even have an annual festival outside of Beijing on the Great Wall now.
Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Shenzhen are also fairly busy for bookings.
Unfortunately it’s not the greatest market for regional DJs. Club owners worry if their customers look up to the booth and see an Asian face, regardless of where the DJ is from, they’ll assume it’s a local Chinese DJ and the club doesn’t get credit for bringing in a guest.
Many clubs would rather have a no name Caucasian DJ who’s obviously international than book a regional DJ.
Robb, thank you for all those insights behind the curtain of this business and into your head. I personally learned some things, and I’m seriously impressed by what you’re doing and what you’ve achieved. Good luck with everything, I wish you many more successful years and hope to meet you soon when you stop by the Philippines!
Thanks Ingo, it has been fun!