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Interview: DJ Armin Van Buuren

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Armin Van Buuren is one of the forerunners of the modern dance music scene. Consistently voted by fans to the top 5 in DJ Mag's annual DJ Poll, Armin has gained popularity through his relentless touring, top-notch original productions, as well as his weekly syndicated radio show, A State Of Trance. His focus and commitment to trance music, specifically, has lent him continued credibility as one of the leaders of the genre. His latest release, A State Of Trance 2006, continues the series he started to capture some of the best tunes of the year. I caught up with Armin earlier this summer, just after the album release, and had a chance to ask him about music, both his and the industry at large.

It's been a busy 2006 for you so far. There's been a DVD release of your "Armin Only" mega-concert from the fall, your "A State Of Trance" radio show celebrated its 250th episode, and now we have the latest CD release in your popular mix series, A State Of Trance 2006

Armin Van Buuren: Ha ha, I'm also currently touring the US to promote the A State of Trance release and I've been preparing for a very busy summer season.

Certainly no one can accuse you of taking it easy. What projects are you currently working on?

AVB: I'm working in the studio a lot at the moment. There's one big remix I'm working on and we're planning to release sort of a "loose ends" album in October.

Oh, excellent. So it's more of a rarities collection, as opposed to a best of?

AVB: There are a lot of older tracks and exclusive versions of my tracks that have never been released, so I'm finishing some exclusive new tracks from this new album.

In addition to DJing and being an artist in your own right, you're also at the helm of a record label. How do you shuffle and prioritize all your different responsibilities?

AVB: Fortunately, There's a lot of overlap in what I do. When I prepare a radio show I listen to new music, which is also very useful for my DJ sets and the A&R of Armada. It has happened that someone sent me a track, I played it on my radio show, signed it to Armada, and played it in my set all on the same day. I have a great team of people in the office that help me and actually do most of the work, like handling licensing and so forth.

Let's talk about digital music for a second. There has been a lot of ink spilled in the press during the last couple years about downloaded music, claiming that it's everything from the savior of the music industry to its ultimate undoing. From an artist and label perspective, what are your thoughts on its impact to the music business in general, and maybe specifically within the dance music culture?

AVB: I believe there's a line in the American constitution that basically sums up why we have copyright. It is to promote and stimulate arts in general. It's very simple: if you don't pay for your downloads, artists don't get paid. The whole reason of copyright is to be able to give an exclusive right to the artist so he can afford to distribute his work. Some of my friends who are great producers decided to call it a day with producing music, just because they couldn't pay the rent anymore. It's a very sad but very true reality. What we see at the Armada office is a shift from selling vinyls to online downloads. It's harder to sell an underground dance track, which means more and more producers are playing safe and not experimenting so much anymore.

But in a sense, it seems that perhaps dance music might be less… "convenient", I suppose, when it comes to a download format, as the experience is more centered around a longer DJ set, which means one big file to handle, than one-off songs that are more quickly obtained. Is that a hindrance or a help when it comes to managing or positioning with download store sites (or even your own label store)? Or because of that do most people tend to avoid mixed sets altogether?

AVB: I think good brands and big names still do sell. It's all a matter of marketing I guess. Some download portals are strictly for DJ's, other more for the general public. Mixed sets are maybe more appealing to the last group than the first. I think it's a big help for the music in general that we're able to make DJ sets available. The audience wouldn't be interested in a particular song maybe, but will still buy the track because it's in the mix. A lot of people still do like mixed DJ sets. I think a lot of people are still adjusting to the quickly changing market, as is the record industry.

Because the online world is now the primary location for new music discovery, especially with social networking sites like MySpace, we're seeing a lot more people searching out and discovering new kinds of music and artists on their own instead of only hearing what's on their local radio station. How would you describe trance music to someone who might have heard the term but wants to know more about what it is and what differentiates it from other types of dance music?

AVB: Trance is the most melodic type of dance music, I guess. It's very euphoric, uplifting, and filled with energy. It's the ultimate dance floor music for me. Trance can take you on a journey through different styles of dance music. That's the best part. A good trance set in my opinion almost reads like a good book or movie. It builds up, has excitement, surprises, impact, etc.

Your radio program, A State Of Trance, is internationally syndicated and one of the premier outlets for new trance music. How do you go about finding and selecting music for the show, as well as just keeping it fresh from week to week?

AVB: I get music literally from everywhere. The most important thing is that I'm in touch with a lot of producers personally. I go online, I download, I buy vinyl, people send me stuff on AIM, some still send cd-r's or vinyl to my p.o. box, some producers give me stuff at gigs, etc. There's no golden way of working. I carry a big hard drive with me on which I collect all the latest stuff and organize it into a show once a week.

Is it hard to find time for those since you're also touring quite a bit, or is it something you can pretty much put together anywhere as long as you have a laptop and your decks?

AVB: When I'm on the road I mix ASOT on my laptop. Searching new music is a perfect way to kill time on planes and in hotel rooms (in which I spend most of my time). The best thing about this digital age is that it's very easy to carry music with you so that has made my life a lot easier. Plus, I wouldn't be anywhere without the Internet. Trance music is something that happens on the Net.

Are the CD releases an extension of the show? Or maybe a best-of-breed selection, after finding some of the tunes that are really popular from week to week or from playing out live?

AVB: I had 84 tracks I wanted to put on this latest double compilation but I couldn't do that. Lots of the tracks on the comp weren't even played in my radio show when the CD was already out there. Because there were so many great records to choose from, I chose for two themes for this edition for A State of Trance.

Yeah, this latest release takes a little bit of a different direction from the previous ones. What was the inspiration for wanting to differentiate out these two halves of the set?

AVB: CD 1 is called “On The Beach” and CD 2 is called “In The Club.” I'm really happy with the result. I hope people will buy this CD and take it with them on their holidays this summer because it has been made with the summer of 2006 in the back of my head. Especially CD 1, it has loads of summery records with a Balearic vibe, you know, vocals, guitars, pianos. Perfect for on the beach! CD 2 is more of a banging trance CD with the latest uplifting trance that has proven to be the biggest of my recent sets. But the most important thing of the CDs is the story, even a big hit record on the CD is less important. I spend a lot of time thinking and planning the mix.

The "On The Beach" portion is still pretty upbeat, but also has a more casual vibe, like it's something you could listen to just while spending an evening at home. Is that blend for a mix something you often have the opportunity to try out live, or do you generally have to keep things more club-oriented?

AVB: It totally depends on the mood of the night. I like to play harder, more clubby sets, like CD 2. But these sets would go better in a big room with a lot of people at 3 in the morning. I do play more intimate sets around the world as well, like early in the evening. The variation is the coolest thing about my job.

Since part of your job is developing new talent for your Armada music label, who are some of the up-and-coming trance artists that you're really excited about?

AVB: Matthew Dekay, M.I.K.E. (check out his new album!), Mischa Daniels (not really trance though) and Amnesia Brothers.

Tell us a little bit about your organizational habits. What tools or methods do you use to help keep everything organized? Do you have certain programs or devices that you use to manage your info, or schedule?

AVB: My biggest friend is my Apple PowerBook. I use it 12 hours per day. Make sets, burn CDs, email, download, watch movies, chat with friends, phone, etc.

What are some of your favorite non-dance albums or artists? Or what music from outside your given genre do you draw inspiration from?

AVB: I'm a music addict and when I'm not in the studio I'm often online ordering new CDs. There's a lot of great music out there. I recently discovered the albums of Zero 7, Keane, Imogen Heap, and I'm a big Coldplay and Pink Floyd fan. If you look at my iPod you would probably laugh because there's a lot of different stuff on there, classical music, rock, ambient, anything really…

Armin, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

AVB: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

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