Before 2004, if you were a DJ trying to transition from turntables to computerized deejaying and looking to find tracks, you had to navigate through pirated music on legally dubious services like Napster and LimeWire. Best of Denver winner Beatport — which in part functions as an iTunes of rights-cleared electronic music and a trove of information about the genre — sought to correct this. Now, sixteen years after its launch, the website continues to endure as a key player in the electronic-music scene.
On Friday, Beatport will host a 24-hour music festival, including DJs like Carl Cox, Nina Kraviz, GRiZ, RÜFÜS DU SOL (DJ set), A-Trak, Nicole Moudaber, Chris Liebing and Nora En Pure, all playing on Twitch.
Before this was announced, Westword caught up with Jonas Tempel, co-founder and former CEO of Beatport, about his new role as a creative advisor to the company, his record label, Beatport's current innovations, and the past, present and future of electronic music — both locally and beyond.
Westword: Colorado wasn't really a state known for its house and techno scene, so what inspired you to start a distribution company that primarily caters to these genres?
Tempel: Denver actually has an extraordinary scene that was developed in the early ’90s and has thrived for almost three decades. Some would say earlier than that, even.
We’ve had nightclubs in this city that were early adopters of the culture and the sound of electronic music, as well as a fully developed warehouse rave scene. As a DJ, I admired those promoters and club owners that had the courage to develop something new, and that is what drew me into the scene.
My career as a DJ is approaching thirty years, and I still love every second of it. I could live without the social-media drama that swarms every culture, but like everything, you take the good and the bad. When it came to Beatport, we simply saw things changing, and more and more DJs were exploring the potential of digital.
At that time, playing on CDs or off a laptop came with a significant social stigma, and the adoption was slow at first because of those factors. But nonetheless, we saw a future where DJs were going to need content and not just vinyl.
The genesis of the entire Beatport concept actually came from my co-founder Eloy Lopez, who was an early adopter of digital deejaying. The greatest problem was that you could not find content, and you were left scrolling through LimeWire or Napster, hunting down decent digital rips of vinyl records. It sucked, and Eloy figured there must be an easier way.
When he came to me with the idea, it wasn’t more than a question: “Why can’t I buy the music I love as a digital download?”
Remember, this was 2002. There was no iTunes store. There was nothing but file-trading sites. So the question and the insight was super-revolutionary. At the time, I was running my ad agency, and we decided to explore the potential of the idea. There was just no doubt that the future was going to be digital. And we figured we had as good a chance as anyone to make it happen.
So in late 2002, we brought in our third co-founder, Bradley Roulier, who had the network of relationships as a promoter that would become extremely valuable to our team. From there, we brought in our DJ and club friends and got to work building what became Beatport.
Could you tell us more about the electronic-music scene here before the EDM era? What made it extraordinary?
I don’t think the scene died or changed all that much over the years.
Of course, the early rave scene was more special to us, because that culture was emerging. It was built at the intersection of music, culture and art. People wanted a place to express themselves openly, and the parties were filled with people we considered family. One thing that sort of died was the event laminates. The kids used to wear lanyards around their necks with small versions of the fliers for each event they attended. So the more you went, the more you had. That sort of “collection” of experiences got undermined by social media.
Back then, each promoter had their own take on the scene, and that added to the fun. Their fliers had a different look, or their venues were decorated in a certain way. It was always fun to arrive and take in the art of the venue. It was a full sensory experience.
These were generally relatively dirty warehouses, and during that time, terms like “dirty little ravers” started to appear. Kids would be leaving the parties at sunrise, covered in dust, and even having dust under their noses from breathing dirty air. But no one cared. It was just part of the experience. Today things are most likely just as fun for the kids, but the venues are generally legal and clean, which I guess makes it feel a bit more mainstream.
Obviously, as the scene grew, it was harder to do such special events. But I think the kids still love the feeling of expressing themselves through music, fashion and dance. That is a coming-of-age ritual that is timeless and an important chapter in exploring yourself as you transition into adult life.
In 2014, Beatport sold to SFX Entertainment. In 2016, SFX went bankrupt, which Pitchfork signaled as the popping of the EDM bubble. However, clearly, that did not happen. Why do you think this is, and what observations have you had about the industry since the collapse of SFX?
I think it’s safe to say that money changes all cultures. And when DJs started becoming multi-millionaires and booking fees skyrocketed, it was very very hard for festivals to survive at that scale. If they have one bad year, it can take a decade to recover. Don’t be fooled that the promoter is making a ton of cash. Sure, once a festival is established and has a built-in crowd, things become less risky. For a festival like Coachella, it’s totally trusted by their fans, and the lineup is less important. But for the upstart DJ-driven festivals, it’s very hard to survive.
Of course, there are great examples of festivals that thrive, but they took their time and grew naturally. SFX was super-aggressive and was following a model that may have worked in other cultures but was off-putting and insulting to the core electronic-music fan. Remember, the purists in any scene are unaffected by the trends. SFX was chasing something that was not realistic. And the fallout was spectacularly bad for everyone involved. But the industry moved on.
What creative and business trends should people be looking out for in the electronic-music industry? Are we going to see another evolution in the DJ?.
Right now, DJs are still trying to own their music. In the next few years, like consumers, more and more DJs will simply pay to access a large catalogue of content and curation. As bandwidth and technology improve, the need to “own” the content is less important, and the need to have access to your personal catalogue will become the new standard.
We are living in the exact same moment as sixteen years ago, when DJs were terrified to switch from vinyl to digital. Now they're terrified to stop “owning” and start building sets that can be accessed in all software. The future is coming.
Beatport launched Beatport LINK in 2019, and we are building an entirely new customer base around this model. It’s amazing to see it happen. I can’t comment on actual numbers, but I’ll tell you that our first year of LINK will be significantly more successful than our first year of Beatport.
Anything developing locally that you’re excited about?
I don’t go out as much as I used to. But Denver is always ahead of the curve in many ways. The venues in this city are very special. I think we take it for granted too much.
How are the venues special?
If you are opening a club in today’s market, you are spending a significant amount of money on production. The customer is expecting crystal-clear sound with massive bass. The modern sound systems from Funktion-One and Void have changed the game entirely, allowing attendees to have an immersive audio experience without the annoyance of ear fatigue from low-quality sound systems. On top of that, most new venues are filled with LED walls, intelligent lighting, lasers, Kryo systems and other amazing production to help create the ultimate experience. You cannot be considered a contender without these investments.
Anything developing locally you’d caution against?
No. Everything is getting better. I love what is happening in our city.
Anything new in the city — events, venues, or musically — that peaks your interest?
Mission Ballroom is really amazing. It’s light-years better than older facilities.
You’re also a DJ and producer yourself. You own a successful label out of Denver with Bad Boy Bill called Moody Recordings. What does the future hold for these outlets?
The greatest thing about owning a label is meeting the artists that are passionate about your label’s sound. Moody owns some legendary titles that are twenty years old but still relevant today. As the world becomes increasingly connected, the songs of each generation find new audiences and the bubble happens again. We have one song that we own called “Dancin',” We licensed a remix of the track to Sony Spain six years ago. Eighteen months ago, the song caught fire on TikTok and now has over 320,000,000 plays on Spotify alone and another 300,000,000+ on YouTube. It’s just a great example of what can happen when you own content.
Any marketing and distribution tips for small local musicians who want to own their content and distribute it widely, yet might not have the support of a massive network to do so?
I always tell people the same thing: “Write a hit.” With the ubiquity of music-production software, almost anyone can release a song. The problem that creates is that you end up in a big bowl of mediocre soup. The only way out of that mess is to rise above it. Hone your craft. Find your audience, and be relentlessly obsessive about standing out. The artists that break through are the ones that achieve these things. But stardom is not fair. Some people just have star power, and some significantly more talented people do not. So it’s hard to predict. The best you can do is follow your heart. Make great music. Surround yourself with people who support you, and make as many moves as you can. The results are generally in some equal proportion to the effort.
You’re currently a creative advisor at Beatport. What does that mean? Can you tell us about any interesting projects you’re currently advising on?
Beatport is an extraordinary business with a global audience of fans and customers across all genres. After the SFX fallout, there was a natural reset of the business back to its core. The decisions made during the SFX days nearly killed the company. But great brands ride the ups and downs and keep going.
My role at Beatport is to focus on the product and brand strategies. We are working on our down-range plan, and I’m so excited to be working with such an amazingly talented team. The future is brighter than ever at Beatport. Our main focus as a company is to improve our entire customer and supplier facing assets. My role will be to help guide those efforts along with the rest of the team in making sure that we have an innovative offering in the increasingly competitive global market. Additionally, I’ll continue to work on the brand and all the brand imaging to bring us up to date. It’s a big role, but I love the company, and the team is extraordinarily dedicated and passionate. It’s a winning combination.
You are an owner at Beta, which has recently had its own set of trials. Your partner, Brad Roulier, has publicly attributed part of this to artist fees not being affordable in a 1,000-cap venue. However, there are plenty of small clubs around the world that are able to book world-class talent. How are they able to pull it off, yet Beta hasn’t? Is it the local market, or something else entirely?
I’ve never had an operational role at Beta. If you want to interview Brad about it, you should. But I have no comment.
Any other projects you’re working on that you want to tell us about?
Yes. Brad and I founded a new company two years ago that is in development. It’s something completely different and will be ready for launch in mid-2021.
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What’s next for Jonas Tempel?
Professionally, I’m really happy in my life. The things that I get to do every day make me extremely fulfilled. Being creative and working with smart people is what I love, and chasing new projects and goals is my passion. That feeling of professional satisfaction is important to me, and it drives my passion to do the things I do.
As for new stuff, I’ve reconnected with Brad to build a completely new company, and I can’t wait to make a more public announcement about the product and the concept in the near future. We’ve been working quietly for almost three years, and we should be launched sometime in mid- to late 2021. This is by far the most ambitious project that either of us have attempted, so the stakes are extremely high. But our entire careers have been about betting on ourselves, and I continue to believe in our skills as entrepreneurs. However, the funny thing about life is that if you spend too much time trying to plan it all out, you’ll drive yourself crazy. What I’ve learned is to live every day with intention, do a good job, and things tend to work out positively. There have been chapters of my life where I failed to remember that simple mantra and I let my ego drive my decisions. Those days are behind me. My life now is super-simple, and I could not be happier. I think it’s safe to say that the next ten years are pretty well organized around Beatport, my music and our other new projects.
Tune in to the Beatport 24-Hour Global DJ Marathon on Twitch at 2 p.m. Friday, March 27.