Anyone who’s dived into the entertainment industry knows how hard it is to find success. The risks are high and the saturation of ambitious people thinking they’re the next big thing makes it ultra competitive.
Los Angeles natives and UCLA graduates Lawrence Vavra (aka LV) and Matt Colon have found success through Deckstar, an artist management company they founded in 2006. Currently, the duo manages notable names that include EDM artists Steve Aoki, who was ranked as the #10 best DJ in the world by DJ Mag, Porter Robinson and Vice, along with rock band Blink 182.
With such an incredible portfolio of talent, most people would want to know how they even got there in the first place. Recently, I had the pleasure of catching up with LV and Matt via email, here we discuss how they got into the business, how to recognize talent, and why most people fail in entertainment.
Briefly tell us how you got into the entertainment business.
LV: Growing up in L.A. and just being around the industry my whole life, I was always drawn to it, but as I continued my education, I quickly learned that there wasn’t a real road map to follow to become a professional. I figured out in law school that I didn’t want to be an attorney but knew the degree and education would help if I got into music. I got inspired when I read Russell Simmons’ biography and literally tried to do what he did (meet a lot of people and throw a lot of good events/parties) and hoped that by doing so I’d discover my own version of Run DMC. For me that artist was DJ AM.
Matt: Mine is truly an L.A. story. I grew up here at what some would call an inner-city school. I opted to attend UCLA despite being accepted at a much more prestigious school, knowing that somehow my destiny did not reside on the East Coast. While in college, I found a passion for the entertainment industry through a variety of internships and ultimately landed a marketing job at a record label in the electronic/dance scene, which led to a marketing job with a dance music mag where I met with Steve Aoki, became his manager, and the rest is history.
How did you form Deckstar? Did you get early investors?
LV: As DJ AM’s career started picking up, we noticed that other DJs didn’t have proper representation and thought that we could really help a lot of these guys. I had started working with Paul Rosenberg on AM’s record and we decided to expand his management company, Goliath Artists, to the West Coast, so starting another company to satisfy this niche made a lot of sense. Out of everyone I had worked with in the industry, AM and I really liked working with Matt and Steve; we were all part of this blossoming L.A. music scene and it just made sense to do this together.
Matt: We didn’t really have investors other than ourselves. Every time we made a dime we put it back into the business, growing our staff and improving our infrastructure. The end goal was always to build a company we could be proud of.
Was there anyone who doubted that you both would do well in entertainment? How did you deal with that?
LV: Nobody outwardly conveyed their doubt, but there were a ton of people who didn’t think it was a good idea or that some of our particular artists didn’t have the goods to make it. When things go bad, everyone doubts you — even the artist — but you have to just stay the course, do what you believe is right and make the best decision you can, thinking about the long-term effect of that decision. Paul and I always joke that if it were easy, everyone would do it.
Matt: Never a blatant doubt but I do remember a few sarcastic jokes, especially in the early days. I remember when I quit a dot com marketing gig to take half the salary at that first label, my old boss raised a glass at dinner saying, “Here’s to Matt, who’s leaving us to go sell records.”
What have been the biggest challenges growing such a business?
LV: Finding good people you want to work with day in and day out is the hardest part of growing the company, and I mean that in regards to partners, clients and employees. You all have to want the same things to really have an impact.
For me, personally, losing AM to an overdose was something I wasn’t prepared for. Trying to recover from losing such a close friend and business partner is a challenge in any walk of life.
Matt: For me, the struggle is trying to find the balance between running a business and still participating in the daily duties of being a manager and serving my clients. It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds putting out whatever is today’s fire with a client and forget that you have an office full of people that also need your attention and leadership.
Being a great manager requires an eye for talent. How do you guys separate the winners from the losers when it comes to people you decided to work with?
LV: Data is a great initial indicator. In today’s world, there is so much an artist can do on their own to make some noise before the industry even notices. Unfortunately, data helps but can’t predict how a career will go. I hate to say it, but your gut is probably the greatest way to pick winners. You have to be prepared that something may not work like you hoped, so as long as you can look back and take pride in the fact that you believed in the artist, then go for it.
Matt: Finding an artist with a successful future is only half the battle. It takes just as much work to find a promising employee or executive. There is an art to managing an “artist” and a science to communicating their needs to the rest of the world.
Aside from raw musical talent, what makes Steve Aoki so popular and successful?
LV: It’s his drive. I’ve never seen anything like it. He works his ass off, he’s trained his body to be able to sleep anywhere at any time; literally, he will sleep for eight minutes in the waiting room of his doctor’s office. We have to convince him to take a day off.
Matt: Probably a few great attributes. First, he knows that content is king and is willing to make tireless sacrifices to create it. He’ll go from a 12-hour studio session to a 14-hour video shoot and then fly straight to a gig on the other side of the world, hoping to catch some sleep on the plane. All the while, he is being trailed by a videographer and photographer who are capturing every moment, documenting his life on social media. And he understands how that has played into his success. Before, the only people that got to appreciate his over-the-top live performances were the people physically at the shows, but thanks to social media, he can share that with the entire world on a daily basis.
What’s been the most memorable moment regarding Deckstar?
LV: There’s no one moment that sticks out, but as we grow and get meetings or sign artists that we are so excited about working with, it feels great. These are multi-million-dollar-a-year businesses and they are considering having us at the helm. It’s hard to have a better, more memorable moment than that feeling.
Many people aspire to go into entertainment, but very few make it. What separates you guys from the many who fail in this industry?
LV: Humility is probably something I’m most proud of. We all have egos, but in music, we all have BIG egos. It’s important to remember we are all the same, doing what we love and trying to make a living at it. You don’t need to hold grudges or piss on people to be successful. As long as you keep your side of the street clean, you’re going to do OK.
Matt: I think a lot of people are in it for the wrong reasons. They’re thinking it’s a shortcut to a fun and easygoing lifestyle. When reality sets in and you realize it’s an often-thankless job that demands you be on call 24 hours a day answering hundreds of emails and calls a day, the appeal wears off. And if it doesn’t, those not equipped eventually fall by the wayside and are weeded out.
If there was one thing you could change about the EDM industry, what would you change?
LV: I think there could be a lot more cooperation. There’s a lot of unnecessary conflict between artists and executives, very similar to hip hop in the early ‘90s, and there’s really no need. It’s very inefficient and hurts the industry as a whole.
Matt: Probably the media’s obsession with EDM drug culture. You get just as many drug and alcohol arrests (if not more) at a heavy metal, rap or country concert, but that’s an old story. Any time you get tens of thousands of people in the same place you’re going to have a few bad apples. It’s nothing new though. Parents have been worried about their kids listening to popular music since the invention of it.
Say you guys lost everything today and had to start from zero again — what is the first thing you’d do to start rebuilding?
LV: I’d align with good people and get moving. Probably ask Matt if he wanted to partner up and give it another go.
Matt: That’s the beauty of the music industry. The next big star is always out there waiting to be discovered.
Any latest projects you’d like to share?
LV: We are excited to work on different ways to use tech/finance to enhance our industry. The recorded music industry has been disrupted and I feel that the live space and services part of the music industry will follow suit. We’d love to be at the forefront of that.
Matt: We’ve been investing in a lot of great companies that we believe are changing industries as a whole. If we could be the company that changes our industry for the better, that would be the end goal.