As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Paul.
From entrepreneur to musical genius, Justin Paul has worn many hats. His over 20 year-career consists of titles including music executive, producer, DJ, and educator specializing in A&R, branding, content acquisition, live entertainment, music licensing, rights & clearances, marketing, strategy, and TV/Film production. Not only was Justin Paul mentored by legendary record producer and DJ King Britt, but as founder of Playloop Records, Justin oversaw upwards of 50 releases, six of which broke into the Beatport Top 10.
As lead producer/DJ of the PEX (The Philadelphia Experiment) artists’ collective, Justin co-produced and performed at dozens of forward-thinking events, all while establishing strategic partnerships with Live Nation and the Camp Bisco Festival. In 2012, he co-founded the indie record label and lifestyle brand Underground Sol, which has seen its share of well-received dance releases, including a few hits of Justin Paul’s own music, including the “How Long” remake, which reached number 1 on the Nu Disco chart. Justin Paul’s other accolades include creative partnerships with The W Hotel, Hangout Music Festival, Filifera Hollywood, and having his album featured on both the American Airlines and Delta Air Lines inflight entertainment channels.
In addition to his creative work and partnerships, Justin also brings his dynamic experience to a roster of businesses by consulting on their musical needs. In addition to consulting, working with a variety of bands and musicians while teaching the business of music at UCLA are among Justin’s educational initiatives. He is inspired to bolster the next generation of musicians by providing education and consulting, and connecting brands and events to their audiences and customers on a sonic level.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was really fortunate to grow up in a household where music was always playing. My grandmother and I would make our own mixtapes and listen to them in the car. My mom was in college at the time; she was a theater major and was a singer in a local band. I would go to band practice with her, and I picked up on a lot from it. We also had a lot of vinyl records. I remember at a young age when I got my first record player, I would read all the liner notes and look at the artwork and knew even then that I needed to be in the music business in some way.
When I was about 14, my cousin, who was like an older brother to me, would DJ private parties, school dances, nightclubs and other stuff, and brought me along as his helper. I would mostly just help him set up his records, turntables, and speakers but every now and then he’d throw me a bone and let me be the opening DJ. After a few years of networking, we got so much work between the two of us that we were able to land a bunch of clients. By the time I graduated high school, I probably DJ-ed hundreds of events of all sizes and was even playing some nightclubs too. At that point, I had really gotten my chops as a DJ, as far as running turntables, mixing, matching vinyl and creating beats. I really learned how to be a great audio and sound engineer. I got into lighting too; how lights can tell a story in your set. To be a successful DJ, you need to know social dynamics so that you can take people on a journey through your music. Things like that, I found, you can’t really get out of a book. Interacting with the public is a big part of DJ-ing; it’s not really something that you can teach in a college course. If you’re going to be a DJ or in a band, you have to know how to guide the audience through your story.
I still DJ-ed when I got to college, but I didn’t know what degree I wanted to pursue. I changed majors a couple times. I remember even asking the program chairs, “Do you guys offer a degree on how to be a record producer or a DJ?” but of course they didn’t. They suggested that I go into radio, so I enrolled in the Marshall University broadcast journalism program. At the time their radio station, WMUL 88.1 won the Marconi radio award many times for best college radio station in America. That started my journey, learning how to DJ on the air as an announcer. I got to interview artists, do production and learned about FCC law. Different record labels started to pitch their music to me because they wanted me to play their songs on the radio; that’s where I learned more about song promotion.
Fast forward, I got a job working in television. I joined the union and I started working in local TV. I started out just as a teleprompter operator and running studio camera. Once they figured out that I was a DJ and a sound engineer, they asked me to do sound for live television. I ran the board and did live news, sports, other specialty programming. I was still DJ-ing at this time and performing five to seven nights a week, but I was also working 40 to 50 hours a week in television. I was learning my craft on both sides. I saw a lot of similarities, like editing a video together and editing music, so there was a lot of crossover. Also during that time, I learned a lot about computers, so overtime I could make, produce and promote my own music; everything just kind of came together.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There was a situation where I was hired as a DJ to play a corporate event. I think it was an event where they were selling long distance service for mobile phones; it was totally a pyramid scheme. This cheesy sales guy had an opening song that he wanted me to play. He burned a CD and brought it to me and was like, ‘it’s track two. I need you to play track two.’ I was like, ‘okay, I’ll play track two.’ So I did.
Of course, it was the wrong song and he got really mad at me. It messed up his whole grand entrance and then we kind of had to do a do-over. I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing local TV personalities that were there trying to figure out a way to make extra money in this pyramid scheme, looking around with severe confusion and disappointment in their eyes.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The Malcolm Gladwell books “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Outliers: The Story of Success” both have made a huge impact on my career, mindset, and approach to life.
In the “Tipping Point,” Gladwell documented how the little things we do in life can make a big difference. Gladwell’s research in Outliers quantified how many hours it takes to become great. Also how practice and hours can overcome natural talent. In other words, someone without natural talent can equal or surpass someone who doesn’t put in the practice/work.
Tim Ferriss Podcast also helps with my career. His interviews with wildly successful actors, entrepreneurs, and athletes have provided many insights into their routines, mindset, and how they overcome adversity. His recent interview with Hugh Jackman has been on repeat during my morning walks.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision and purpose with music is to bring joy and entertainment to people’s lives. People deserve it. People work so incredibly hard and there’s so much going on in everybody’s lives, especially now.
Early on when I learned how to DJ, I figured out that I could put two records together and create a seamless mix between them. I saw how much joy and excitement came over people’s faces. My music made people get up and dance and that hooked me.
As far as my work in consulting and teaching, I do everything I can to offer my students and my clients things that I didn’t have growing up. I taught myself how to become my own business. One of the things I pride myself on is being able to tailor whatever I’m doing to a client whether it’s in the classroom at UCLA or a private client. I try to offer my real world experiences, so that I can help other people achieve their dreams.
I understand what it’s like to grow up in a small town with little access to the music industry. I literally went from being a kid doing manual labor to someone who made it onto a concert stage. I had to figure it out on my own.
Now that I did it, I want to be able to give people a better path. Even though there is a right of passage in some ways, I still want to help people reach their goals and let them know it is possible. And I can use my own life story as an example of how you can overcome a bunch of craziness and downturns in your life. If you just never, ever give up that it’ll all work out, it might not work out exactly like you think it will, or how you want it to, but you will make progress in life.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle is that you never know what’s coming around the corner. Right now in this moment, things might not seem that great, but you just have to keep going no matter what. You have to put one foot in front of the other and believe that around the corner, something great is going to happen.
One time, I took a contract with the W Hotel to be a DJ and music director in the Maldives. I was living in Los Angeles in the Hollywood Hills, and I was nervous to leave the country for three months. I had to dedicate my entire career to working in the Maldives on this little Island. Clearly it was the right move for me to go do that because now I wouldn’t even dream of doing that due to the global pandemic.
When I went and played all those events, I did a good job of taking pictures and putting them on social media. When I got back to the United States and met up with a friend, I went to Coachella with him to help his band that was playing. When I was backstage, I ran into someone who was following me on social media. They told me that they were blown away by everything that I was doing with the W Hotel and that they needed to find a DJ to play at a beach club festival. I had no idea that I was going to land one of the best DJ gigs of my life coming back from that experience in the Maldives. People saw that I was performing these gigs and promoting them well and it turned into other opportunities. I think every entrepreneur, artists and musicians are entrepreneurs, whether they want to believe that or not has to take calculated risk. You have to be willing to go for it because if you play it safe in life, then things are probably not going to turn out how you want them.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When COVID hit, I was not able to go see my mom and check on her because she is a polio survivor and is immunocompromised. Clearly not being able to go see my mom, give her a hug, look after her until we could get a COVID test took a mental toll on me. It was really hard to be without her those months. I felt a little better about going to see her after I was tested. It was the same thing with my fiance’s mother. We really couldn’t go see either of them anf there are a lot of things that we both were used to helping our moms out with.
The challenges of trying to navigate working from home, from a creative standpoint, is really hard. There’s a lot of distractions that come with working from home. I think that all my years of DJ-ing, being glued to my headphones in order to cue up a record while hundreds of thousands of people around me are jumping up and down and screaming, allowed me to have laser beam focus. This helps me out during quarantine because I can pay attention to my work. Of course this can have it’s negative effects as well: sometimes I am so in my own world I don’t even hear people speaking to me or trying to get my attention.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Of course, all of my DJ gigs were cancelled. It feels very weird that I didn’t play any festivals this summer and that I didn’t travel. I love to travel. I’m a jetsetter. I spent a great deal of my adult life on an airplane. I love to go to another city and connect with other people. It’s really amazing to experience other cultures and see how music impacts other people. There’s part of my soul that is feeling empty from not being able to travel and not being able to play music for a live audience. Let’s just be honest, live streaming is just not the same, but I work with the power of visualization. It’s something I did as a young child. I try to imagine in my mind that I’m playing for a large crowd and tap into that energy when I’m at home. But we all have to be honest — virtual events just aren’t the same. It can be such a challenge if the doorbell rings and it’s Amazon, or if the dog barks; it takes you out of your zone.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Definitely due to the mental struggles that come with the pandemic, I’ve been focusing on meditation and mindfulness a lot. I realized that everyone is so busy with their jobs and families that sometimes 30 minute meditation classes are just too time consuming. I decided to make short ambient meditation and healing songs so that even if people only have three free minutes in a day, they can take that time to reconnect with themselves. This project allowed me to take advantage of the opportunity to make music that I normally wouldn’t have a chance to make. I’ve always been so focused on dance music or indie rock. I really wanted to meditate, heal myself and tune out all the negativity of COVID; that’s what kind of inspired me to make those particular releases.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I feel like there’s going to be a lot of opportunity post-COVID. The COVID pandemic really flattened the world for artists. It put almost all artists on a level playing field. I feel that the artists who are able to be productive during the pandemic, they will be the ones to learn new skills and write a bunch of songs. They could come out of the pandemic with a new album, with an EP, or with a bunch of singles. They could come out of this with a lot of great new content that could really re-energize them and potentially create a fan base for them.
People that are able to stay optimistic during the pandemic and those who have taken the time to learn new skills will create a lot of opportunities for themselves. Music business is tech business. Artists can learn more about technology, whether that’s coding, graphic design, photography, producing videos, whatever it may be. There is an opportunity there.
Of course, I know that people have gotten really depressed during COVID. It is a really tough time. I’ve found though that some artists create their best music when they are experiencing heartbreak or melancholia. I believe that, whether we had COVID or not, we’re in a time where the music business is a bullet train: people are forever going to have new things to learn and new ways to update their skills. People are going to have to be more flexible than ever before.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Especially when it comes to live entertainment, there will be changes to come for many years.
Because of COVID there’s going to be a section of the population that will still be paranoid, and rightfully so. On the opposite end, there’s going to be people that are just so overwhelmed with excitement that they can’t wait to get back out there again and go see their favorite artist. I think that concert and festival promoters are going to have to rethink their business models. Typically concerts and festivals have to sell 70% of their tickets or more, or 70% capacity to even break. If it’s 10,000 people for that concert, they have to sell 7,000 tickets just to break even just to pay the artist, to pay the sound tech, to pay the ticket takers, the security, the insurance, the electricity bills. It is impossible to keep capacity that high while enforcing social distancing.
Thus, everybody’s going to have to make some compromises post-COVID. When things open back up, artists might have to perform for lower fees, while concert tickets might have to be more expensive. I think that there’s definitely going to be some changes. It’s a brave new world out there, but I think everybody’s going to have an open mind.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
In the Post-COVID economy, I plan to hopefully get out there and teach and play music for live audiences. Once again, it might be very different than what we were doing before. It might be more intimate events, where it’s kind of limited to maybe a hundred tickets. I know I’m going to probably perform for more intimate events.
I’m also going to experiment with performing some of my meditation and recharge music live. Typically as a DJ, it’s been all about making people dance and put hands in the air. One of the pivots for me as a DJ and a record producer, is that I plan to do more intimate, sound healing, meditation events, which is going to be something very different than what I was doing before.
Also I want to ramp up my music consulting/coaching practice as well. I want to try to help more artists live their dream; giving back to the youth communities is something that I’m looking forward to doing. It’s something that I did years ago in Philadelphia. I used to help the Grammys Association at an organization called Music Cares where we would teach inner city teenagers how to make music. I feel that post-COVID, I want to get back out there and go to some of the communities where they need the most help and share my knowledge of music.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Have more compassion, more patience. Work on your health more. If you aren’t already, exercise more, meditate more, eat better food, be kinder, be more compassionate even to people that have opposing views. Try to find common ground with people. You should always keep learning whatever you can, and try not to let your ego get attached to a particular story or outcome. Be more flexible in life, and just be grateful that you’re alive and that you get to contribute to society. Be thankful that you get to have love and that you get to have family and friends.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother used to say, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” While I believe you should take risks, you should take calculated ones. Always be prepared and learn as much as you can before taking a risk. When I was younger, I moved to Philadelphia. I made sure I had a job in television before I moved and taught myself about television production beforehand.
How can our readers further follow your work?