Interview: John Acquaviva
Whatever your involvement is with electronic music, chances are you’ve felt the influence of John Acquaviva.
Perhaps best known for his involvement with Richie Hawtin in forming of the highly influential labels Plus 8 Recordings and Definitive Recordings, his influence and reach extends in swathes beyond these considered pillars of dance music culture. Aside from his extensive musical accolades, John Acquaviva also boasts being a founding member of Beatport, as well as a key figure int he development of DVS DJ technology.
This Friday, 18 August, John Acquaviva joins Music On at Amnesia Ibiza where he will take to the Terrace ahead of its captain, Marco Carola. On the night, Amnesia’s Club Room will also see Marco Faraone return for his third Music On appearance of the season with Chicago’s Green Velvet bringing things home. Ahead of that event, we managed to catch up with John for a diverse talk on many of his activities. From Executive Producing film to music based private equity funding, John is truly one of the scene’s most business savvy figures!
“We’re underground music people who travel to the corners of the world to find a handful of freaks like us.”
To start of, I wanted to talk a bit about the film you executive produced, ‘The Red Man’. How did the project come about? How would you describe your relationship with film?
Thanks for asking. It’s a great pleasure to meet people who have several interests! For me, aside from the business, I have always been fascinated by art and being around creative people. Eventually, we always try to harness our collaborative creativity. I love bringing ideas to reality, whether they are technology ideas or studio ideas for music. You also meet a lot of creative people in this industry.
A good friend of mine, Jimmy Gonzalez, had always been a DJ and a fan. I saw him cut his teeth on a bunch of shorts and every time I would see him he would tell me what he’s done. Since I was always impressed with his work I would tell him to keep me posted on his new projects. When he showed me ‘The Red Man’ pre trailer I was blown away! I got hooked on it. I was executive producer in the sense that, if I meet a creative person, Im trying to make the best of someone else’s ideas. You are steering them. I’ve worked on all kinds of aspects of bringing a production into reality and, since I loved what Jimmy did, I let him role with it. Then, I worked with him extensively on the post production and final story edit of the film. I learned a lot about film through the process!
I’m a fan of film and I like to think its consistent with my philosophy on culture. We’re underground music people who travel to the corners of the world to find a handful of freaks like us. The handful of freaks have grown and expanded out of independent music and now includes independent film. I don’t watch blockbusters or Disney films.
I call them focus group films…
Yes! I find myself also watching a lot of International films. I like quirky stories and irreverent films. Anything that is not cliche.
This film is a Faustian tale. Every generation needs to revisit certain stories. Life is a journey so you’ll always have The Odyssey manifested in some kind of film. This is one is a Faustian tale with heavy psychological elements about selling your soul to the devil.
When Jimmy was writing it, the film was going to be about an ageing rockstar because, in the broader society, you need to tell your story through someone who held a guitar or a microphone. Since Jimmy came from DJ culture, he realised that he could make the story about a DJ. I worked with him on making a film that isn’t comfortable and explores the aftermath and downside of a DJ career, and the choices that have been made. Unfortunately, not everyone survives well! This film goes there.
Going back to what you were saying about the creative force on a project doing the bulk of the creative heavy lifting, and understanding the role of Executive Producer, it is someone else’s script…
It’s not my role to micro manage. That is something I had to learn about balancing the business person in me and the creative person. I think I can apply myself and do almost anything. It’s important we have that level of confidence but when I started travelling, I would always meet these brilliant people despite my own “brilliance”. Sometimes, you have to let those creative Alpha people ride and become a team player. When I’m not the talent guy and I join a project, I have to watch and play my role. For me, that is a really important dynamic.
Having your hand in such diverse projects, does it take an adjustment period to this “step back” approach?
My bandwidth is broad but I keep it stretched. I have a number of colleagues who remind me not to get too crazy. I have done enough where I feel pretty comfortable in how to approach it. For the film, there was a month of shooting but I was rarely on the set. Jimmy was cool about letting me do a cameo but I didn’t even want to do one. That wasn’t what i was there for. I don’t get into projects when ‘m supporting or financing to role up my sleeves and do the work. Honestly, I don’t mind my name in smaller print. I believe in this day and age of extreme Capitalism that it’s a game. We try and play the game and its nice to win. Money is freedom to do good things, not squeeze people to do more nasty Capitalist things.
I have too much empathy for my friends who are starving artists. Starving artists in a Capitalist world live in tough times. Never have things been better but its all really skewed. Things are only better for people who make the top 10 Google search. If you’re underground and prefer something more to life you have to make the effort to search it out. It’s all part and parcel. I can’t look myself in the mirror if I’m a blatant Capitalist.
That’s a meaty topic right there!
In having made my money in the arts I believe you have to be a patron of the arts.
Something else I was reading about was your Sonar talk on Plus8 Equity. Do you have these kinds of conversations in that partnership? How do the hard money people you are dealing with view this philosophy?
I do have them. My partner Richie and I have a boutique private equity fund focused around music. We want to help get music into other sectors. It starts with music but then we look at how to magnify it. It makes sense to invest in this both for ourselves and for our own investors. Richie worked at Morgan Stanley in Palo Alto, which was a big deal! He also loves music. When he stepped down off of Wall Street to manage a smaller fund it wasn’t about the money. But, if someone is a visionary, they should be making money. That’s what I tell young people.
I jumped into this world of music when it was a downhill ride in the 90s and we found a way to make money. Then, it became a downhill ride again with the paradigm shift from analogue to digital. As we all hung on, we did well. We were able to participate in the paradigm shift with Final Scratch and Beatport. I believe our ecosystem should strive and all my partners feel the same way. We don’t need to take a cut of everything because it always comes around. even this little bit of cheeky altruism, we need more of!
One of the prominent social dynamics of the left these days is this vilification of wealth…
I am a true libertarian. Not a pot smoking or gun carrying one but I am one. I welcome difference in people. I travel around the world to learn from other cultures. I am not this globalization guy who wants a fucking McDonald’s on every corner. I support the local cafe because I want to taste to local coffee and eat the local food. You do have to make money though. Unfortunately, there are still many idealistic people who are willing to do work for free. The landlord will always charge you rent though. If a person has an idea they should sell that idea. No system is perfect but if you live in a Capitalist system, why do go the extreme. I’ll play extreme Devil’s Advocate but I’m not an Anarchist.
On all sides of the ideological spectrum there is this tendency to walk yourself into a corner, which then becomes the bubble. Then its hard to burst….
To wrap up, on a lighter note, with so much going on these days, do you manage some free time?
I did the math. I started in 1990 and average about 120 gigs a year. I’ve done a bout 5000 gigs in my career now. I’m a bit of a work horse. Not a lot of footballers play that long a career.
I was thinking who that is a lengthy baseball career.
Yes! Like Cal Ripkin! Our ears are other peoples knees. Part of me is lowing down. I stopped doing afterparties and also took shorter gigs in order to protect my hearing. I also didn’t want to be a slave to my art. It’s a struggle for every artist. There’s always that tortured moment when your inner voice tells you you are a sell out. An artist needs to evolve so I didn’t want to be a slave to myself. I am my harshest critic.