Pretty Lights Music
We recently spoke with him about his free-music model, incredible stage setup and his new album, which will be his first release with guest vocalists.
Your live show has an incredibly involved, complicated set up. It must be a headache to get together.
We put a lot into the research and development and had everything custom built so that it wouldn't be such a headache. All the pillars and towers are custom-built trussed tower systems on wheels, where the LED panels actually just clip on -- they don't have to be disassembled at the end of the night. The first handful of shows, before we had the whole system fabricated, it was a f---in' pain in the ass for my crew, and my 28-foot cubicle booth was built out of wooden two by fours. It was a bitch.
We have an Ethernet network through the snake that connects through my computer and I send MIDI signals to my LD [lighting designer]. We communicate through in-ear headphones and mics, so we can talk. One of the challenges that we had to face was how to keep it improvisable, so not only am I still able to select the tracks on the fly and the way that I play the tracks and parts, it all syncs up and connects to the visuals. So that was one of the difficulties, developing a system to set it up and then developing a system to keep it fresh and different every night, so I'm not playing the same set every night. Then I'd have to shoot myself in the head and stop doing this.
How do you keep it interesting for yourself up there?
Before a big tour, I try to produce new, fresh tracks on the regular to bring to the show, but also new versions, keeping old tracks fresh, remixing them, not re-editing, actually adding new parts, making them harder for the live show and then a lot of exclusive remixes of my own album tracks that I only play live that I then manipulate and keep fresh, mix it up on the different shows. This tour, I invested in a second tour bus with a full production studio on the bus and so I'm trying to do that as well, mainly to keep working on my record while I'm on the road, but also to continue to bring new fresh s--- to the show throughout the tour.
For someone who also releases his music for free, to also invest all this money into the production seems crazy.
I really appreciate and respect that. You are the first person I've ever done an interview with that that's ever crossed their mind. This is by far, as far as I'm aware, the biggest f---in' production rig that an independent artist has ever brought out, and then on top of that I give my records away for free. But I am able to do it because there's some sort of phenomenon that's taken place, where my music has spread virally, word of mouth has created a momentum with the shows, where I'm getting paid enough that I can put this money into developing this show.
And it's not just leasing LED panels, you know what I'm sayin'? Obviously the company that I work with didn't own the LED panels, I had to commit a down payment to buy the actual video panel product, to research and build the system and set it up, and then all the custom content development and animation, on top of the f---in' five-person employee business on my payroll, off tour, and then 11 people on tour. And then obviously, I have a lot more people that work with me than five, but that's my payroll. Anyway, yeah, it's f---in' expensive! And my whole thing is like, I'm gonna keep putting money back into it, because I want it to be dope, I want it to be next level s---, and I want it to get bigger.
With this record I'm working on now, for the first time, I'm really going all out on it rather than digging in the crates, rather than traveling around, digging for vinyl. I made my own vinyl, I made a crate of vinyl. That s--- cost me 70K just to make these records, and do it in a way that sounds like they're 50, 60, 80 years old, you know? I'm not using VST synths anymore, I'm trying to go all, not only all analog, but all modular, so it's like, not even a preset to start with, I start with the same saw waveform with every synth patch that I've built. It's a lot of involvement and a lot of money, so I'm having to really think about the model that I've developed, as far as giving away free music, and really have to know I'm making the right decision when I decide I'm gonna release and distribute this next record. Whether it's free and I rely on the show continually, or I decide to sell it, or what. As an independent artist with a self-funded show and a self-funded record, it stacks up.
You and ?uestlove had a kind of dispute during a panel recently, where he didn't understand the model. How did you feel about that? It's working for you but it might not work for him.
Exactly. I can definitely see how he wouldn't and he was like, "How do you f---in' pay your rent?" and I'm like, "I pay my rent, man. Don't worry about that." Here's something I discovered: If your music's dope, post it up and people are not just downloading it for free to try it out, they know about it, they're trying to get it and they're telling people about it. When people are talking about music being dope, not talking about it being free, then all of a sudden I'm actually selling records and that's what's happening. I give away my music, and the majority of the music that people get of mine comes off my website, but that doesn't mean I'm not selling a s---load of music on iTunes as well. That's sort of the loophole that's occurred, I still make a significant income off record sales, because I give away my music for free. Directly connected.
Do you feel like solely selling your next album might alienate your fans?
Yeah, and that's the problem that I'm trying to solve right now. I'm spending $250,000 on this record out of my own pocket, so it's like I'm trying to figure out what I'm gonna do to recoup that. I can sell a record and give out an EP, or I can just be straight up and be like, "Yo, man, I've given y'all eight albums, buy one." I'm trying to figure that out. Or maybe I'll just eat it and be like, "This is me really believing in changing the game in this way, and this music is dope. Here, take it." I'm still piecing together a game plan on how exactly this record's gonna come out.
The records that you made to sample this time around, will we ever hear the original songs you made?
Yeah, definitely. They're f---in' sick. They're really dope. I plan on putting out a side record of the actual originals. Obviously not until my Pretty Lights record comes out, 'cause motherf---ers will be sampling that s---, you know what I mean? I'm gonna put it out. It might be an exclusive vinyl thing.
They're full songs?
Basically, I'd bring a different group of musicians in every day and I would come up with chord progressions and stylistic visions. I would hear in my head what I wanted each element on a track to sound like, then I'd go back and edit the jam session into a structure, so I'm not manipulating anything except taking certain parts out and pushing certain parts together to make it like a short arrangement. So that's what the vinyl version of it will be, re-edited versions of the jam sessions.
Have you thought about incorporating vocalists?
Oh yeah, that's definitely the next step. That's a big part about why I'm not done yet. I'm super f---ing picky about the sound of everything, but when it comes to vocalists, it's even more. I'm searching and I've found some people I'm trying to work with, then it's a matter of getting in touch. I'm looking for like old white chicks in trashy blues bars who are like 300 lbs., just like, belting the illest s---, or like an 80-year-old f---in' dude on the street in New Orleans. Just unknown motherf---ers who got the gritty, raw soul.
So you're not trying to track down Snoop Dogg and the Game.
Well, with my style, I use soul vocal samples, like dope lyrical phrases and melodies that really accentuate the emotion of the track, but then I throw in that hip-hop flavor so, I am wanting to work with MCs that I like and respect, but not in the typical way. That's what makes that part difficult, 'cause I'm not trying to collab with a f---in' rapper and just give him my track and let him write a rap. I would never just put an a cappella of a rap on a track, I find the lines that mean something to me and I sample rap lyrics, but I'm also talking to a handful of MCs who would be down to work in that way, whether it means we cut a track that comes out, and then I sample their lyrics for my record, or a different track. I'm definitely hollering at a handful of my favorite MCs and so far they're into it.