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By Charlie Amter
Disruptor Records may be known as the home of the Chainsmokers, but ever since New York-based label founder Adam Alpert turned the EDM duo’s success into a joint venture deal with Sony, the imprint is finding its legs outside of the world of electronic music. Most notably, the label has begun growing its own cadre of female singer-songwriters such as Dove Cameron, whose hit “Boyfriend” has lit up international terrestrial radio and streaming sites globally alike this year.
Variety caught up with Alpert to talk about his label’s growing influence in the pop world, his philosophy on developing artists, the new Chainsmokers album (out Friday), the future of streaming, Alpert’s JV at Sony Music and more.
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While many may associate Disruptor with electronic music, you are having a fair amount of success at the moment with young female singers and songwriters. How do you see the label’s identity in 2022?
We’re having a peak right now. As I tell my team [Alpert says Disruptor has a staff of 10 people, split between NY and LA], we have peaks and valleys in this business. The label/management venture is almost eight years old now and early on people just sort of assumed we were an EDM company, but we never really thought of ourselves that way.
I started the company with the mindset that I had been given the freedom to sign whatever I like, and I’ve always been such a big music fan of all genres. It just happened that my first success was with a band [the Chainsmokers] that came out of dance music. So, we have had that stigma a little bit – but we have kind of shed it over the years, but we were never a dance label or trying to be explicitly a dance label.
Dove Cameron’s “Boyfriend” has turned into a big song for Disruptor, how did the record come about and to what do you attribute its success?
We put together a slew of sessions for Dove over the course of two months. I actually publish Evan Blair, and the very first session that she did was with him [and others]. She had written 20 or so songs over the course of those two months, and that song came out of the very first session. The story is her story and then [co-writers] Skyler [Stonestreet], Delacey and Evan [Blair] and her made it come to life [in that songwriting session]. It was one of those magical moments that you hope for.
It’s now a global smash. The BBC has really embraced it. I just got back from the UK and we had a little Disruptor promo week in London, it was really great. “Boyfriend” sort of came out of nowhere. It was a song that Dove wrote, that she loved and she wanted to test the waters with via posting it on TikTok and it took on a life of its own and because a kind of anthem for the LGBT world. It just exploded and we had to react to it.
I also think that great writing begets great writing, so Dove is on a tear right now. We have the next song that she just wrote a few weeks ago, and we couldn’t be more excited about it. She’s kind of found her wings with her songwriting. Timing is everything with that…. you have to be at the right place in your career, the right place in your life, with the right mindset. It just starts to flow and work. We’ve been working with Dove for almost five years now, and this makes all those years of hard work worth it and so fulfilling.
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Another young female artist you found success with recently is Emmy Meli. How did you help assist her with “I Am Woman”?
Emmy, we actually found on TikTok, which is very common these days, but as a joint venture and a label, we pride ourselves on signing things very early. We are always looking for things that we love, and then deciding if we are passionate about it, it doesn’t matter to us how long it takes for them to break. So, when we sign stuff, it’s because me and the rest of my team just genuinely love it — and are like “We believe in this person, we are excited to work on this person, and whether it happens in four months, or four years, we’re ready to commit to that.”
And so, it’s one thing to have a song that’s doing a little something on TikTok, and it’s another thing to see that and meet the artist, identify with the artist, understand their vision and their message and be like “I want to do this.”
That song [“I am Woman”] was so poignant and so timely and similar to “Boyfriend” — that is a timeless song. And when we met Emmy, we just fell in love with her. To be able to help her take her art and help her get on so many different stages – digital and physical – that’s why we do this.
Not all your streaming success stories are young women. One artist you helped find a larger audience for in 2020 is Ritt Momney, how did you start working with him?
He was an artist that we were talking to for almost a year, we just really loved his music. It’s very indie and not the most commercial, Top 40 sounding music, but we just loved him, and my team loved him, and they came to me and said “we really want to do this” so we had lots and lots of meetings with him and really got to know him and decided to sign him.
Mid-paperwork of us signing him, he put out this cover of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” and it started moving on TikTok, then we signed him, then at the very moment that we signed him he had a viral song. But because we were early, and because we were willing to take risks early we reaped the benefits of signing him because every label was calling him by that time – but he was already down the road with us.
We pride ourselves on taking early bets and putting in the years to get there. I have a lot of artists that have not had their moment yet, trying to get there. I think they all will because I believe in them and we are still passionate about them every day that get to wake up to work on them. So, that’s what sets us apart a little bit from signing directly to a major. We are willing to be early, and we are willing to take the time to give that extra level of attention that developing artists need.
As a manager and label head, you get pitched songs all the time from music publishers, what are your thoughts on taking finished outside songs for your artists? Can they ever work?
A lot of artists won’t take outside songs, because they really want to write them or be a co-writer to have it be authentic to who they are, but there are some who are open-minded and who will take outside songs. In my own personal experience, outside songs don’t work as often as the ones the artists write themselves. “Boyfriend” is a perfect example because that song is authentically Dove.
How do you manage to split your time between the management side of Disruptor and the label side, and how do you compartmentalize and find the time for everyone?
That’s a really good question and the answer is I don’t. I don’t compartmentalize. I don’t think, ‘Am I the label? Am I the manager Am I the publisher?’ all I think about is what do I have to do to break this artist. So, all the artists that are signed to our label that have their own managers, I sort of act as a co-manager – I want to help route the tour, I want to help decide which promoters to use. … And even though that is not really a record labels responsibility, it’s just the way I am because I am a manager at heart.
We manage a girl named Maude Latour who’s signed to Warner who we are super excited about. She is so quirky and passionate and we are just obsessed with her — we have been working with her for years, she just did two nights at Bowery Ballroom recently and she has another tour coming up in the fall that we are super excited about.
And we are excited about Jessie Murph, who I think is one of the most talented people in music right now. She’s 17 years old and one of the most incredible songwriters I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. To me, it’s just a matter of “when,” not “if.”
How does your Disruptor JV work at Sony? Do you have the freedom to do what you want?
When I first got offered to do this joint venture at Sony by Doug Morris, my response to him was, “I’m going to run a label like a manager would run a label” — and what I meant by that was that I’m gonna help in all aspects of the artists’ career. If I’m passionate about that artist, I just want to find a way to be involved and help. Once they come on board, I don’t wear a hat — I just do everything. All the artists we sign to our label, we chose one of the Sony labels to run it through [such as Columbia, RCA etc.], so we work with all the labels at Sony.
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You are still best known for your work behind the scenes with your friends The Chainsmokers…what’s it like this year rolling out new music after the guys have been off for a few years?
It may look like time off, but we didn’t go into it, like, “Oh, we need to take a couple years off.” They had basically had this “always-on” strategy for the last 10 years where they were performing 250 to 300 shows a year, traveling around the world, and in order to support that, putting out music at such a rapid cadence. It started back in the day, with us putting out a song every month. Back in 2014, that wasn’t a thing. But our attitude at the time was we’re not trying to have hits, we’re just trying to deliver to our fans. A lot of people really didn’t understand that at the time. DSPs loved it but radio didn’t understand it – the major labels didn’t really understand it, then we started having hit, after hit, after hit.
Then we came up with this idea where we would put out a song every month, but as an album product that increased by one track. Our albums “Sick Boy” and “World War Joy” which was 2018 and 2019, that’s what we did, so every song had its own campaign and its own moment. And that worked really well for us. At the end of 2019, they had done a big arena tour and we talked about what we wanted to do, and they got to the point where they felt like it wasn’t an “event” anymore because the fans and the market were so used to getting a new song every month. So, they made the conscious decision to go away and starve the market a little bit.
The other very important reason why they wanted to do that is because they want to go make music with no pressure—no rules, no deadlines, they didn’t have to make a single. So, they put up this away message in Feb of 2020 saying “we’re going away to write this album and you’re not gonna hear from us until it’s ready” and then COVID hit. It was the craziest of coincidences.
They went to Hawaii with their friends and they wrote 30 songs – many of which make up the backbone of this album that is coming out, with no rules. This is the best music that they have ever made.
It’s a smart move to starve the market a bit now, as we are in an attention economy and there is often over-saturation — especially in the music marketplace.
I had people at radio tell me “You need to get the Chainsmokers off the radio; there is fatigue.” Multiple Chainsmokers songs would be on the radio at the same time.
I had to pry this album out of their hands. Every song took them two full years to make. The level of detail of production, the level of detail in songwriting took them two years. They took a lot of left turns. Succeed or fail, it was something they had to do. So, now, this album is like our baby. We’ve just spent so much time on it.
You’ve done a few unique things in promotion for the new Chainsmokers album, “So Far So Good,” and people especially seemed to like the humorous YouTube video you dropped at the beginning of the year (“Sorry, The Chainsmokers Are Back”). What was the strategy behind that video and for the buildup to the new record dropping on May 13?
Well, the question is, how do you come back after two years? What’s the first thing that you say? What’s the first thing that you post? The cliché way is to make some super slick graphically crazy asset around your assets or music videos and be too cool for school. But they were, like, “That’s not gonna work for us.” So, in typical Chainsmokers fashion, and they came up with the idea all on their own. … They were, like, “Let’s be self-deprecating. Let’s make the people that love us, love us more. And let’s make the people that hate us be like: ‘You know what? Those guys are pretty funny.’”
It’s a nice asset to have — not taking yourself too seriously, especially in the dance world.
That’s how they came up with the idea for the funny video. The joke was, the label had them replaced because it took them two years to make the album and because they are such average joes, nobody would even recognize that they have been replaced with two other guys.
We spent a lot of time perfecting that story and that video and we were so happy with the way that it works. The fake Chainsmokers even did radio interviews for us, they went to Vegas with Alex and Drew and everybody really loved it. And, you know, as a manager, I got a lot of compliments from my peers and friends in the industry, and that meant a lot to me. We were just really proud and happy with how that was received.
Both Alex Pall and Drew Taggart of the Chainsmokers are big into investing in startups, are you also into the same?
I work with them on all their endeavors. The way that Mantis [their joint venture fund], came to be was that when they started to have some success in music, they started to get approached with a lot of investment opportunities.
Alex and Drew are passionate about working with cool creative people – and they have approached their music that way and in a lot of ways, they look at the Chainsmokers as a startup too. We started Chainsmokers in my bedroom the same way some of these startups started small too. So, they started angel investing and the reason why people started coming to us was because not only did they have the means to invest, but, they had the audience which was the most coveted audience that a startup could want, which was young people.
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What has been the biggest success story for Mantis so far in terms of early-stage companies you have invested in?
We’ve done a lot of deals through Mantis, probably over 80. There is this really cool company called RTFKT, which just sold to Nike, and they make NFT sneakers; we thought that was really cool.
You’ve announced that the Chainsmokers will be sharing royalties from their new album with their biggest fans through a partnership with music investment platform Royal. What are your thoughts on the future of music streaming as a manager, and label owner? Are you bullish on putting music on more non-traditional streaming platforms aside from Spotify over the next few years?
I’m very bullish on Blockchain and Web3, I always have been. I know for a fact that tech is the future of every industry, because of the transparency that it brings to every industry. It wouldn’t be fair for me to predict how the companies of today are going to adopt and use it, and what that is going to mean for the transparency of the different industries but right now I’m more interested and excited about the utility of it, and the community-building aspect of it then the monetization of it. But I do think it will be a solve for a lot of pain points in getting paid [for artists].
We invested in 3Lau’s company and right now, it’s a very effective way for artists that are not making a lot of money off of streaming to supplement their income. I don’t want to say that NFTs should replace DSPs, I think that they should complement them. I think that DSPs are going to help find a way to make that happen on their own platforms. Let’s just say that the Chainsmokers have invested and supported countless Web3 and NFT companies in the last few years but they have not yet released one yet on their own.
Finally, what is the status of the Chainsmokers’ music drama TV project that you announced in 2019 that was in development at Freeform? Is that still happening?
Yes, that project is still in development. And also, our film and TV production company, Kick The Habit, recently executive produced our first feature film last year “Words On Bathroom Walls,” which is on Amazon, and which the guys also scored during their hiatus. And we are very excited that we are moving to cast the lead for our film “Paris” with Tri-Star — the very first project we announced as a company.
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