Anyone that considers themselves even a casual listener of EDM has come across the name “Armin van Buuren” at some point in their lives. As a legend in the industry, Buuren, 38, has achieved multiple accolades and managed to stay relevant in an era inundated with noise.
In 1995, at just 19 years old, van Buuren charted his first hit in Europe, “Blue Fear.” For the past two decades, the acclaimed musician has written and produced multiple hits, been ranked No. 1 DJ in the world by DJ Magazine readers five times — his performances are and is only the fourth trance artist to ever land a Grammy nomination, for his 2013 hit single “This Is What It Feels Like.” Most recently, he released his new single “Another You,” featuring Dutch artist Mr. Probz.
A fun fact that even his biggest fans may not know about van Buuren is that he has a law degree from the prestigious Leiden University. Perhaps what’s even more surprising is the fact that he actually went back to complete his degree, which he put on hold in 2003, after he had already found passion and success in music. He did so because he had made an agreement with his father and grandfather that he would finish his law degree. Van Buuren told NextShark:
Actually, I wanted to study medicine, but In Holland we have a numerus fixus system, which basically means that there are only 1,500 students allowed every year — so I couldn’t do that. I think there’s a reason why I’m not supposed to be a doctor, there’s a reason why I’m supposed to be doing law. So I finished my law degree, the first year I didn’t really like; I just went through with it. But I actually really started to enjoy studying law the last couple of years because I was specializing in copyright law, and I was really interested in how that worked and the whole copyright system. At that point I didn’t know that internet was going to change our lives, especially the lives of people working with copyright. So it turned out to be a very good choice and I finished it.”
Aside from fulfilling his promise to his family, van Buuren saw finishing school as a way to have other options should music not work out.
“I never wanted to have the pressure of having to perform. If you want to be making a living out of music, you have to have hits, you have to have gigs, you have to be successful to pay your rent and your bills. I never wanted to have that pressure because I always wanted to have the escape of just stopping what I was doing and making a different sound and starting experimenting with a whole new different sound or whatever. I wanted to be creative. In order to be creative I think you shouldn’t have have any financial pressure — at least in my case, that’s just personal. So I finished my law degree, so it’s just something that I have to fall back on and I’m really glad I did.”
Perhaps one of the biggest factors to van Buuren’s success is that he never saw music as a means for a long-term career.
“I never believed I would make a career in music. And I never actually pursued it actively like, ‘Oh I need to have gigs’ or ‘I need to be a successful DJ,’ because you know what, when I started as a DJ, there was no DJ Magazine, there was no EDC or Tomorrow Land, there was no massive following for dance music on the radio. It was kind of unthinkable that your track would even be played on national radio anywhere.
“It was just that I was having a lot of fun in the studio. I bought equipment not because I wanted to make money with it or that I wanted to be successful with it; I just was very interested in technology. I love making music, I love experimenting with samples. I remember sampling my mom when she was cleaning the kitchen. You know, sampling her voice, which annoyed her. I was just being creative just because I was enjoying it.
One of the critiques of today’s EDM industry is that it’s gotten “too mainstream” and that it’s no longer pure. As an artist who’s had great longevity and stood the test of time, van Buuren has his own opinions on the purity of EDM today:
“It’s the ongoing debate of what is right and what is wrong. I think everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I think I would even go further and say the customer is always right. Yes, it’s right, everything is constantly changing and I know for a fact and from my heart that everything I do is pure.
When I was in the studio with Mr. Probz creating ‘Another You,’ we weren’t saying, ‘Wow man, this is going to be a big hit. We’re going to be in Billboard dance chart and we’re going to make money.’ It’s not about that. You’re sitting in the studio, you’re just being creative. You do what you love. Sometimes you’ll please people by doing what you do, and sometimes people will be annoyed because they were expecting something else, which is their good right, which is totally understandable.
Even though he’s a veteran in the industry, Armin van Buuren admits that he still gets nervous before every performance.
“It’s not nervous in the sense of scared-nervous, but more like excited-nervous. I always get excited for big gigs. I really, really, really, really want to give people a good time. I take that as a very serious task. I just want to blow people’s minds with giving them an energetic uplifting performance.”
Van Buuren’s renowned sets can sometimes go up to eight hours, and he revealed to NextShark that he can go the entire time without going to the restroom because he’s trained himself not to.
“It’s not healthy; don’t try it at home. Usually I just take a drink and I relax. I spoke about it with my doctor, and he actually told me that it can be dangerous if you don’t go to the bathroom. I don’t feel the urge to go to the bathroom. It’s like what any athlete would tell you: they cannot feel pain when they are running.
“People always ask me, ‘Why do you do eight-hour DJ sets?’ It’s because I love it, man. I want to play all this music. Physically, it’s not healthy to not go to the bathroom for six/seven hours. I just don’t think about going to the bathroom. I just feel the need to perform; I’m in the zone, I’m in the moment, I want to rock that crowd. That’s what I mean: you excel and go beyond — a human being can really achieve. It’s like what Obi Wan Kenobi said: ‘If you could put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.’
As someone who is no stranger to success, van Buuren gave us his thoughts on the secrets to achieving it.
“There are a couple of elements that are important in success. First of all is your own level of expectation. You also have to learn to be happy with what you achieve sometimes. It’s impossible in life to always achieve what you have in the back of your head, so you need to learn to be happy with what you achieved, even if it’s only half of what you had in mind at first. I like a quote of John Lennon: ‘Life is what has happened to you when you’re busy making other plans.’ That is what I keep telling my wife as well as other people around me. You always expect something, and then something along the way comes and you have to alter your path again. If you can learn to live with that, if you can be practical like that, then success is easier.
“It’s good to have a plan, but it’s also good if you’re working really hard and walking up against a door and you can’t go through that door. Then you just find a back door; you just find your way around it. That’s just the way life is — sometimes you cannot get exactly what you want or what you had in the back of your mind. Yes, it’s very important that you have to have a very good work ethic; nobody gets anywhere without hard work.
“You’ll have good and bad days. Even myself, as a producer, I run into disappointments almost on a daily basis because I try to work with artists that at the last moment pull back their song. You don’t see that, or you don’t read that on the news, but it’s a fact of the matter. I think all artists have to deal with stuff like that. You don’t get the sets that you want, you don’t get the building that you want, you don’t get the hotel room that you request. It’s something you have to deal with, and it defines your character how you deal with stuff like that. Life is a rollercoaster ride for everybody: it has its ups and its downs. But if everything goes well, then you’ll have more ups than downs and you’ll remember the ups more than the downs.”
The most fundamental element of success to van Buuren, however, is something he has an abundance of.
“I want to stress that the word ‘passion’ is probably most important in that. You have to really, really, really want something. I think in life it’s so much more easy if you’re devoted and dedicated to something. If you like your job — no, not like your job — love your job, you’ll be 200 percent good at it because you’re passionate about it. So, ask yourself on a daily basis: ‘Is what I’m doing right now, is it something I love?’ Because if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re actually wasting your time — you should try to search for something else.
I can honestly tell you that the reason I’m sitting here is because I love what I do. It’s never been for success or money. Yes, of course at one point in my career I made that decision to have a manger and to start a record label and sell records, which is a decision. That only came later because at that point I was realizing, ‘Wow, I can actually make a difference in people’s lives if I start a label and start promoting new talent.’ ”
Watch our full interview with Armin van Buuren below:
Photography by Melly Lee