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Weekly Interview - Mar 19, 2001

The week of Mar 19, 2001 features:

Andy Van , Producer for Madison Avenue, Richmond, Australia

Internationally renowned DJ Andy Van owns and runs, together with John Course, Australian dance labels Vicious Grooves and Vicious Vinyl, home to amongst others his own project Madison Avenue, who had one of the dance smashes of 2000 with "Don’t Call Me Baby". The labels boasts many other acts as well and are arguably two of the most vital ingredients in the Australian dance music scene.

HitQuarters: How did you get started in the music business?

As soon as I turned 18, I decided I wanted to be a DJ. I loved the music industry, and have always been interested in it. My cousin is actually DJ Marcello in Holland, he's a popular DJ in Europe and one of the few top DJs in Holland, and I saw him when I was 12 and it really got me, the idea of being a quality DJ. He would send me tapes with Bill Hannon, Jimmy van Horne and Jocelyn Brown, and I grew up listening to quality funk and the early beginnings of what you would maybe call house. Everyone else in Australia was listening to rock and roll, or Billy Joel or whatever, so I think I got a better education than most. I started DJing and loved it, and that just continued, and I sort of ended up being involved in the music industry.

HQ: Could you tell us a bit about Vicious Grooves and Vicious Vinyl?

Vicious Vinyl is the tech-y, progressive side, and Vicious Grooves is the funky, disco-y, house side. About ten years ago, myself, John Course - who also runs Vicious - and a guy named Colin Daniels, who works now at EMI in the UK, we all sat down and said, "Let's start our own record label, because no one else is doing dance music in Australia". It was really to get our own tracks out there, and at that stage, it was just remixes and small productions, and records. It just came out of a frustration with Australian labels, who weren’t putting out dance music. And that was around the time of groups like S-Express and Bomb the Bass, those were the beginnings of dance music and house music, and there was no one in Australia doing anything about it. So that's where we came in.

HQ: Do you do the marketing as well?

Yes, but only from a dance perspective. We've done a label deal with Virgin in Australia, so Virgin basically takes the CDs, and does the bigger-scale marketing, where they chase all the big radio stations and the big magazines, but we do all the dance media, all the dance radio, and all the DJs.

HQ: So what, in your opinion, do you do differently to other labels?

I think although we've done one or two things along the way with overseas producers, it's an Australian focus. Vicious is really the main dance label in Australia, and we have six staff and we just concentrate on putting out music, and my big concern is not about making money, it's about putting out quality dance music. And that's not necessarily an intelligent business approach, but I am very proud of it as a musical approach. I do it because I love music, who cares about trying to make a hundred thousand, five hundred thousand, or ten million? Just make good music! And I think the main focus of our label is that, and developing talent. We've put out many, many records which have just broken even, and we're happy. We just want to get young producers making their music and getting their records out there, and usually by their second or third release, they're making fantastic songs and what's been really good is that most artists, by their third release are quite profitable and are doing very well internationally.

HQ: What were the biggest obstacles to overcome when you established these labels?

Recognition. You, know, basically you knock on five hundred doors, and from three of
them you get an answer. But it's funny, you know, to give you an example, my business partner, John Course, he's over at MIDEM (music convention in Cannes, France) at the moment (February 2001), and the first time we went to MIDEM, we got seven meetings (with record labels), and when he goes this weekend, he's got like, seventy meetings! Everyone from Ministry of Sound to Cream, to distributors, to managers, to all these different record labels around Europe all want to meet up, which is great for us, because we can just sit there and say, "Okay, you've heard of Madison Avenue, that's great, but here are ten other artists that maybe aren't Madison Avenue, but they might be one day, so listen to what they're producing now". And those doors are now opening, and each time we have more success, more doors open for us with other companies, and more people know about us.

HQ: What were the key points to starting a record company?

Enthusiasm and determination. Those are the two most important things. You've got to be determined, and have so much enthusiasm that you win over all the obstacles and continue working when you've got no money in your pocket and a negative bank balance. Then it's knowing the people in the industry, knowing all the young producers, finding them, chasing them up, and keeping them enthusiastic, playing them all the new records, saying, this is what's happening all around the world, and then that way, you will know what's going on, and you can make your music on a world-wide scale. That's another important focus at the label, making music for the world, not making music for Australia. And just getting people behind you. We were fortunate enough to have a good distributor that was behind us and who helped us out a bit, financially, at the beginning - they basically paid for our records to be made and when the records sold, they paid themselves back. That was part of Mushroom in Australia, so we really had good help at the start.

HQ: Who are the biggest successes on your labels?

There was an artist called Ground Level, who had a song called "Dreams in Heaven" which was a very, very big hit. It got to No.3 on the dance charts in the UK. There was a song called "Gotta Have Hope" by Blackout, all the DJs around the world were playing it. Another one was a big track in the UK, "White Treble, Black Bass" with Sgt. Slick, the catch line went, "White people turn up the treble, black people turn up the bass." A very cool line. One of the old guys who ran Motown said it, and we actually cleared it - we rang him up and said, "Could we use your words? Because we think they're great." And then obviously, the next one after that was Madison Avenue, and we've got a couple of other artists that we're working on at the moment who are going to be really strong, because I'm listening to the songs that they're producing now and I'm thinking, "This is going to be massive". One of the artists is called GENku (an Asian cartoon character) and the other is called Trigger, with a track called "I Feel The Presence." That's one to absolutely watch out for, because it's going to be a biggie.

HQ: How did Madison Avenue come about and what do you think was the key to their success?

Basically at the beginning of Madison Avenue, I approached Cheyne and said, "Listen, I want to do a house artist". Ultra Nate had just released "Free", which was a massive hit around the world, and that was the model, basically quality house with commercial appeal. Music that can be commercially viable, played by commercial radio stations but also by DJs, covering the credibility angle. And then after that the question was, "How do we market ourselves as an artist?" I looked at C+C Music Factory and said, "Well, those guys were producers, they weren't known as anything but producers, and they had a singer out in the front." So Cheyne and I were going to be the producers in the background, but still in the photos and stuff like that, the singer would be the lead person up front. So I approached Cheyne because Cheyne writes really good vocals. We combined her strengths and mine, which are producing energy house and phat funky loops, and finding great old disco samples, in the studio, and we started writing songs and putting together the Madison Avenue project with a worldwide focus. And then Cheyne was a mistake, in regards to she wasn't supposed to be the singer, she only sung a guide vocal, and that was the vocal in "Don't Call Me Baby." She sung it in five minutes, on the cheapest, you know, 40-dollar microphone, and John Course is in the background on the phone, and it's like the worst recording in the world, but if it sounds right, it sounds right.

"Don't Call Me Baby," was the second track we worked on and we took it to MIDEM three years ago, in 1998. And lots and lots of record companies were going, "We want this, we want this, we want this!" And I went, "Hold on a minute, we could have something here. If all these record companies want to sign us, that means we could potentially have a hit song. We should make some more music." So we started working on other songs for a potential album and we had to clear the samples, because obviously, if you sample old disco records, you've got to pay for samples, and that's fine. They were talented people in 1979 or 1992, or whenever they made their songs, you know, and I paid them. And so we started negotiating all the deals with all the samples, because we had about ten tracks with samples in them. So it was a big project for us over the course of two years. And we've released singles along the way, and they've been massive hits in Australia. "Don't Call Me Baby" sold about 850,000 copies, "Who the Hell Are You" sold many hundreds of thousands, and "Don't Call Me Baby" is on fifteen million compilations.

HQ: How were you approached by the acts that you're currently working on?

Basically, people just send us demos all the time and they say "We're working on this, what do you think?" And I usually listen to the demos, and most of the time go, "Not good enough, not good enough, keep on working on it." But occasionally, somebody sends us a great demo, and then we ring them and say, "This is fantastic, it needs vocals over it, keep working on it, it's really good though." And start keeping those people excited and inspired, because the one thing I found about producers is that they kind of sit in their own little worlds, and they kind of get a bit lost on what's going on outside their studios. And also, they work on their tracks two to three months at a time, and may have heard it a thousand times, so they get a bit 'over it', if you will. So it's keeping them excited by saying "No, this is great, this is really good. It should be like this track, not copied, but just in the same vein." So we play them other songs in a similar vein, and say, "Give the same amount of energy as this song, put some vocals over the top, or get yourself a singer, I've got a writer here," and we just help them build the project, and then just talk to them about photo shoots and artist names and bios, and start building them into something. But six months prior to all this they were just a guy with a tape deck and a song, do you know what I mean? It's really what they used to do with rock 'n' roll bands, developing an artist, but in this case developing a dance artist, which wasn't done previously -it just used to be a techno song and no one knew anything about the producer. But now, they want to know!

And I think that's the essential difference between us and other dance companies, we've always been about artist development. We wanted to build a stable of artists, to have five or six artists, and now we have over ten artists, all producing at the same time. It's a lot of juggling at the moment, for a staff of six.

HQ: So you've found some of those acts that you've worked with through demos. Do you find this the most effective way of finding new acts?

Yeah, I think people have to chase us, and be enthusiastic about their music. We do chase the occasional people and say, "Hey, what have you been working on?" or that sort of thing. I went to Adelaide, which is about an hour away from Melbourne, and I popped into a guy's studio, and I’d seen him three years earlier, and he was working on this great, smooth house music, but three years later, he still hadn't sent me a demo, and I asked him again, "What are you working on?" and he said, "Oh, not much." He's not enthusiastic, therefore I don't chase him. I think if people send us demos, that means they're willing to 'pull their finger out,' so to speak, and work hard at their craft.

Part 2 to follow next week.

Interviewed by Vivien Cheng