Go Big or Go Home: The ICONYC story of John Johnson
It’s the late 90s and progressive house rules the roost. Sasha and Digweed had set the foundations and a whole new generation of artists were breaking through and making waves. Artists like John Johnson. Breaking through in 1997, he was in the thick of a new wave of acts such as Sander Kleinenberg, Anthony Pappa and Steve Lawler. And for the next 10 years his feet would barely touch the floor with releases on some of the most prestigious labels (including a remix for Heaven Scent, John Digweed’s first ever Bedrock release) and remixes of every top tier act you can imagine from U2 to Kylie Minogue.
Over 300 productions and remixes and countless tours later, in 2006 he decided he wanted a change. Stepping out of the music business and into the corporate world of business, he moved to New York City and thought his life in music was over. Spoiler: it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
Fast forward: it’s the late 2010s, house music rules the roost and John Johnson has set new foundations with ICONYC, one of the fastest rising label brands to emerge in recent years. In less than three of those years, ICONYC has become a household name among house DJs and takes up a near-permanent residency in the Beatport Top 20 with releases from the likes of Mononoid to Stiven Rivic to Jamie Stevens.
Doctor ‘Go Big’
It’s impressive by any label’s standards. But what’s most compelling is the context in which it’s all happened. During the whole of ICONYC’s development John has also been studying a PHD (he is now a doctor in mathematical business theories) and was managing director at a New York advertising agency. In his own words, he’s the type of person who has to ‘go big or go home’ – Go big like his new and recently launched concept. ICONYC TV is a new video content series that allows some of house and techno’s most prominent and inspiring protagonists to tell their stories and play records in some of the world’s most beautiful locations.
Rolling out weekly, season one artists include Booka Shade, Carl Cox, Darren Emerson, Wally Lopez and many more. It kicks off with Umek and will run until Spring, 2020. By then, he’ll already be deep into filming season two. Like the ICONYC label – and the whole first chapter of his dance music career years ago – the series is hugely ambitious. But why has he developed it? And what happened to draw him back into dance music in the first place? We called him to find out more…
You came through in the 90s but took a break from the music industry for a few years around 10 years ago. What caused that break, what brought you back and what did you do in between?
I had been nonstop for too long and something needed to change. I was doing 150 gigs a year, I was producing too much, remixing too much. I needed something different. So, I went back to university and got a degree in business and moved to New York. That was in 2006. I started working in the corporate world and, for a long time, I wasn’t involved in the music industry at all.
Did you still follow the music?
Of course. I was still into music and collecting it, but only as a listener. I got into deep house in a big way. Solomun, back when he was first starting Diynamic. Innvervisions. Dixon. I loved what they were doing and it sounded all the better because of the rise of the EDM sound, which I really wasn’t a fan of. And I’m still not to this day. It made me think I’d got out at the right time! But then, a few years later, someone in Hungary called Greyloop wrote about me. He was writing about all of us guys who came through in the 90s and I found his article about me totally by accident.
I’m the type of guy who, if I do something, it has to be successful
I did a very rare thing and Googled my name and I saw his blog ‘what happened to John Johnson?’ I got in touch and said ‘don’t worry, I’m still here, still alive!’ The funny thing is we became very good friends. Still to this day. It was Grey who pulled me back in. It started with the guest mix, then he came back and asked for another one and I ended up doing quite a few. Then he told me he’d started a prog house label called Stellar Fountain and he asked for a remix for old time’s sake. That was around 2011 and I thought ‘why not?’ It evolved from there.
Five years later, ICONYC was born…
Yes, time did fly very quickly. We launched the label in 2016 but started working on it in 2015. The idea – as it is with everything I do – was to ‘go big or go home.’ I’m the type of guy who, if I do something, it has to be successful and leave a mark or it’s a waste of time and resources. I had to take it seriously. I was also doing my usual job, I’m a managing director at an advertising company in New York, and I was studying a PHD. Let’s just say that the last four years have been very intense.
Wow! Are you a professor or a doctor?
I’m a doctor in mathematical business theories. But I have to thank my team for allowing me to do this. You can’t do everything on your own. You need a good team around you, and I had that, both in work and at the label. Everyone I work with has pulled through for me and let me concentrate on what I needed to do. I couldn’t have done any of this without them.
Amen! Take us back to the launch of the label…
Well, word had got around that John Johnson is back and is launching a label. People were interested, but you know what it’s like with a new thing; they stand back and see how it goes. We did some scouting. Lots of scouting. We went through YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud with a fine-tooth comb. We picked up guys who were super talented but only had 10 or 20 followers and quickly became known for bringing through guys who hadn’t released before.
I set about creating something that really draws you in
That’s like finding a needle in a haystack!
It really was. We actually started that in late 2015 and it took nearly a year of finding people, preparing the music and making sure everything was professional. Artwork, press releases, promo. How we communicate everything to everyone. That’s how we grew. After a year we wanted to get some big guys on board so we invested in signing artists who would help us push the label forward.
Give us some pivotal releases…
I’m proud of everything we put out. But the big change came in March 2018 with a release from Michael & Levan & Stiven Rivic which featured Robert Babicz on the remix. That was the catalyst. Shortly after we had a big release from Mononoid and continued from there, continuously getting big names on the label.
As you said: Go big or go home!
Exactly but then I wanted to get bigger. We finished 2018 off with a huge release that featured Jamie Stevens and it was a great feeling, but I still wanted to take it further and get us to a Top 10 level label. Top 20 is hard work, but top 10 is brutally hard. All the top 10 guys have their own labels. Bedrock John Digweed, Innvervisions Dixon, Solomun’s Diynamic, Drumcode Adam Beyer etc. I thought ‘what we can do to work with these guys?’ You either offer them a gig but I didn’t want to do events. It’s too much of a commitment. Someone suggested streams but we have many great channels for this. But then we came up with the idea of the concept of ICONYC TV. You see so many streams in very cheap and shabby studios with just a few disco lights and a guy playing and personally I find it boring. I set about creating something that really draws you in. Can you remember when TV shows got big in the early part of the 2000’s?
Totally. HBO, Sopranos, all that…
Exactly! What those shows did was keep you engaged and into it for the whole duration. And that’s my idea with ICONYC TV: I want to keep people engaged, make things interesting and visually pleasing. The quality has to be the very best, it has to tell a story and it needed to feature artist/DJs who are in the upper echelon that we aspire to. The whole thing has to hit visually and I wanted it to be shot in historic locations. We shot in Croatia, Italy, London, Amsterdam, Berlin. In the next season we’re filming in Japan, Hong Kong and South Africa, for example. The whole concept is to see the DJ play in a beautiful location and tell their story. Season One has guys like Umek, Booka Shade, Carl Cox, D-Formation, Paul Sawyer, Wally Lopez. They all have a story to tell. ICONYC TV tells that story, shows some of the set and reveals these stunning locations.
It’s that whole ‘go big or go home’ idea again…
Exactly. As I’m sure you understand as a writer, when you do anything creative, you want to leave a legacy. Something you can leave behind that you’re proud of. That’s what this is all about. Finding your own limits and seeing how far you can push things and what levels you can take them to.
How far are you pushing ICONYC TV, then?
As hard as we can. There are some amazing episodes in Season One with guys like Wally Lopez, Umek, Darren Emerson, D-Formation, Booka Shade, Mononoid, Disco Tetris, Paul Sawyer and many more. In terms of the production, every episode has to be ‘wow!’
I have to ask about Denon DJ’s role in the ICONYC TV series, you’ve got these titans playing on our machines right here. How did that go?
It has been such a joy to watch to be honest. Most were a bit hesitant to play on the Primes due to the fact that they never played on the SC5000 before. Luckily, we had Frank Hahn from Denon DJ & Rane DJ present at most shoots. He was able to illustrate how powerful and versatile the SC5000 is in no time. He took the guys aside and gave them a personal one-to-one introduction/tutorial. The rest, as they say, is history. I think most guys where surprised more than anything on how technologically advanced the players are in comparison to what they knew. So much so that they fell in love with the SC5000 which showed during their performances. Seeing the transformation with my own eyes was something to behold.
Nice. The series launches this month, where can we find it?
Everywhere. YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, all the pages of all our media partners. Denon DJ, Akai, Red Bull, Decoded Magazine and Frisky who’ve given us a station to broadcast the full mixes. The episodes are only 18 minutes long but we filmed the full set, which is an hour, so you’ll hear them in full on there. The episodes are also in two parts, the second part will air six to eight weeks down the line. It’s 13 episodes over 26 weeks plus a behind the scenes special episode.
Then straight on to Season Two…
Yes, like a typical American TV season. We learnt a lot of lessons with the first season, now we know what we want and will be filming it all and ready to launch September next 2020.
And the labels still run as they have been…
Of course. ICONYC TV is for the labels. I want to work with the biggest artists and work together with them. The label needs to work in tandem with ICONYC TV and benefit from it. I’m so attached to it; I built it up from scratch to something people got to know about in just two years. I don’t know how many million labels there are out there, but to stand out in a crowded market like that is very fulfilling. Hopefully ICONYC TV will create even more exposure and create even better relationships with the artists I respect and admire. That said, I need to keep my feet on the ground. I don’t want to get too carried away, but the feedback we’ve had so far on the episodes we’ve shown people makes me realise we’re on the right path and we’re doing something that’s worthwhile.
Worthwhile is the key word. There’s integrity there. You’re doing it for the right reasons…
Everyone does things in different ways and has different reasons for doing it, I guess. It’s down to how far you’re willing to take things. You need to keep pushing your own boundaries to move forward. Things stagnate if you don’t. Stagnation means regression. You need to try and find out what you’re capable of and what ideas of yours work. If you don’t, what are you doing? You’re just going to bed, waking up, working and repeating, it’s Groundhog Day every day. It comes down to your personal philosophy, I for myself need to know what is possible and test myself on a daily basis. You will otherwise never find out what you are capable of if you don’t push yourself to the max for whatever it might be or you are trying to archive. You have to risk it for the biscuit, right?