Hans Brouwer / MassiveMusic
"You don’t need a lot of experience to deliver quality."
When he bought his first guitar, at the age of 12, he couldn’t play a note. But that didn’t stop Hans Brouwer from becoming a musician. During the ten years it took him to finish his musicology degree, Hans not only performed on stage hundreds of times, but also amassed a wealth of musical knowledge as a DJ. Today he runs the largest music production company in the world, MassiveMusic, and is the co-founder of the A’DAM Tower, a musical landmark in Amsterdam. How did he manage all this? we asked. Hans: “I worked bloody hard. Full stop.”
Interview Dorien Franken Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
John Miles sang, "Music was my first love, and it will be my last." To what extent does this apply to you? To a fair extent, though football was my first love. Sublime sport. I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but I’ve been a member of the Royal Dutch Football Association for 47 years, so that’s how long I’ve played competitively for. But music has always been an important part of my life, which is something I only realised later on looking back. We always had music on when I was growing up.
You play the bass. Is that your favourite instrument? Drums were actually my first choice. I’ve got good timing, and the only perfect score I ever had in music class was for rhythm. But it’s a bit hard to practice the drums with neighbours just a few feet away on either side. So, if you’re into pop music, the bass guitar is the next best thing.
How old were you when you started playing? I bought my first acoustic guitar at the age of 12. I couldn’t play a thing, so I tried reading chords and songs, but soon realised that this demanded more perseverance than I had the patience for as a kid.
So you gave it up? Of course not. Learning to play an instrument is a bit like climbing a steep hill for the first time. You don’t know what you’re doing and you make slow progress. But sooner or later it clicks, and what makes it click is different for everyone. What made it click for me was Outlandos d'Amour, the debut album by The Police. The way they blended pop, rock and reggae was awesome and revelatory. Sting’s bass lines were brilliant in their simplicity, so I just had to learn these. This newfound eagerness coupled with a lot of practice was my launch pad to becoming a bass player. That plus bass lessons. Thirty-five Guilders from my paper round went towards music lessons, and the other thirty went into my piggybank for a Fender bass.
How would you describe your childhood? I grew up in a very warm, loving and close-knit family, in which everything revolved around the family. My father was a police officer and my mum looked after the house; so, quite traditional. She adored her kids and loved everything that I did. It was she who filled me with self-belief. I got my fearless ambition from my father. He taught me that if it feels right, you’ve got to do it. And if you fail, so what? They gave me everything I could have ever needed, except money for music lessons. I never actually asked them for it, but I suspect they were stretched enough as it was. Amsterdam West was a pretty rough neighbourhood back then. And I was always on the streets: playing football, starting fires, etc. I came home every day with bruised knees. Football and the neighbourhood toughened me up. You learn how to take a beating.
Do you still have a close relationship with your parents? My mother died from breast cancer a long time ago. I was 25 at the time. We had three years from the diagnosis until her death. She was being treated for it, but it returned and was suddenly everywhere. It was horrible. I’m almost as old as she was when she died, and that’s a sobering thought. My dad got married again quite soon after she died, to a woman who already had two boys of her own. So he moved, which meant the family home was suddenly gone, too. In short, the family fell apart when my mother died. It was an immensely difficult adjustment to have to make at that age. It took me quite a while plus several therapy sessions to process it all.
Did you inherit your entrepreneurial streak from your father? No, my father isn’t at all entrepreneurial. What I’m truly proud of him for is the courage and foresight he demonstrated by leaving Ameland, where he and my mother were born, to move to Amsterdam, even though he was only 23 and had little but a primary school education to his name. It was the first time anyone in the family had done anything like that, and people just didn’t do things like that back then, so it must have taken real guts. He could quite easily have settled for being, say, a postman in Leeuwarden. I give thanks to God to this very day for my father’s decision. Sorry, Amelanders.
You had a scooter accident when you were 17. You rode into a car you’d failed to spot. And I was doing 70km per hour when I did, so the outcome could have been a lot worse. I got bashed up pretty badly, so football was out. This didn’t mean the end of my dreams or anything. Football was important, but not the most important thing in my life; it was always more of a hobby. My parents had a welcome home present waiting for me when I left hospital three weeks later: a bass guitar amplifier, which suggests how important music was to me already by then. Now I no longer had to plug my bass into my hi-fi and use the cassette deck’s “record/pause” button to hear my bass.
With the aim of becoming a musician? The goal had always been to get “good enough" to form bands with friends and make some money. And I did exactly that for nine months, once I finished secondary school. With toured abroad, playing every night for good money, and it was great fun. But it ended abruptly when I came down with such a bad case of the flu that I couldn’t even get up to play and was promptly kicked out of the band. And just like that, I was back home.
And then? Then I decided to go and study music. Got my application in with a week to go before the end of enrolment. Had to choose between the conservatory, musicology and music therapy — that was all there was back then. Music therapy sounded far too vague, and the conservatory held no interest because I’d never planned on becoming a professional musician. So that left musicology. I formed a band as soon as the year started: Souled Out & the Trouble Horns. We’re still together after 30 years!
You studied for 10 years. What was the most important thing you learned from musicology? I learned an awful lot of nonsense. They’d tried to create what they must have felt was a proper university degree by filling it with all sorts of bullshit subjects. At least that’s how I saw it. Take Logic and Language, for example, terribly complicated subject, but whatever in God’s name it has to do with music is beyond me. All the other students were studying classical music, and looked down on me as a pop musician. I also had a much harder time analysing Beethoven sonatas, as I didn’t know how to read music at first. Music education is much broader these days, with things like the Rock Academy, the Herman Brood Academy and the University of the Arts, Utrecht. Only once in my ten years at UvA did we ever discuss a pop album, and it was one by The Beatles. Absolutely ridiculous.
So why carry on? Because those ten years were actually good for me: I got to appear on stage hundreds of times with my band, deejayed twice a week in all sorts of clubs, and, as a spin-off from the band, ran a small booking agency from home, a side gig that grew in size to the point where I had to spend 24 hours a week running it. And all of this while studying full-time. You understand now why it took me 10 years to graduate [laughs uproariously].
You were writing your thesis when someone showed you the job ad in De Volkskrant newspaper that eventually landed you at the Soundscape music company. Why did the ad catch your interest? It said “Music Production Office” and I spotted the words “commercial” and “foreign travel”. I knew immediately that that was a job for me. The ad was six weeks old, so they’d already held their first round of interviews. They’d even singled out a candidate. So I told them: ‘Hold it! You’re about to make a mistake. You need to hire me.’ The company’s founder, Hans Bos, invited me for a chat and ended up offering me the job. I had “sold” myself as a salesperson.
Any doubts about your capacity to deliver? None whatsoever. I knew nothing about advertising, but thought I knew everything there was to know about music. I was a musicologist with stage experience, and had accumulated an immense wealth of knowledge as a DJ. I don’t really suffer from insecurity, as you may have noticed, least of all when it involves music. I knew I could pull my weight, and maybe even more than that.
Have you always been so self-assured? Yes — I am quite self-confident. And I'm also very strong-minded and autonomous. So I’m not afraid to try new things, even if I end up failing. I’m sure we’ll talk about the A’DAM Tower later on in this interview, but I didn’t doubt for a second that it’d work out, yet it’s clearly a major undertaking: to buy a tower, renovate it from top to bottom, designate the floors, move MassiveMusic in, the whole shebang. But I trust my intuition completely, especially when sizing someone up, getting a sense of their capabilities and what kind of person they might be. It’s almost never let me down.
What was it like when you joined Soundscape? Hans Bos, my partner, was a big fan of targets and spreadsheets, so I had to work really hard. He also told me there was a partnership in it for me if I did a good job. So I drove to Germany with a trunkful of showreels, including five pretty awful ads made by Hans himself. The German economy was booming and I knew we could make a name for ourselves there. Business took off like a rocket.
How did you make that happen? This was the pre-internet era, so I flicked through the phone directory, did my research and arranged meetings with potential clients. Winning business depended on winning their trust by the force of your personality. Germans are much more conservative than we are, so I’d walk into meetings and lay my cards on the table, beaming with optimism and cheerfulness: “Hello! I’m Hans. I know all there is to know about music and I’m going to make something for you because I’m very good at it. Sure, this showreel sucks, but don’t worry about it; I’ll fix up something awesome for you.” And people gave me a break.
Every now and again, I’d visit a client and notice that a competitor against whom I’d pitched for business occupied the same building. So I’d pay them a surprise visit. Ding-dong: ‘Hello, I'm Hans from Soundscape.’ People practically fell off their chairs.
So why did you leave Soundscape? In retrospect, I’d started a company with someone I didn’t really know. I learned a lot from Hans, particularly about being disciplined and working hard, but I also saw how not to do things. For instance, Hans was not the best people manager. And so eventually I was simply done. He was in it for the money and I was in it for the music. When I told him I was leaving, he offered to sell me Soundscape, but I really didn’t feel like buying a brand name with so much baggage, so I declined.
You did start your own company though, MassiveMusic, in 2000. You were 36-37, by then, so no longer the young upstart. What was it like in the beginning? We started with just 2.5 people, including me, sharing a 20-square-metre office with a freelancer. Our first assignment was for Lufthansa, and it won Silver in the music category of the ADC awards, the German advertising and design awards. The creative on the client side, who’d had nothing to do with making the music, went up to accept it, and I thought: ‘What the fuck is this?’ Because it felt very much like something I’d earned, and which had been awarded to Massive, but which I wasn’t being recognised for. Anyway, that’s how we began.
MassiveMusic has grown enormously — it’s the largest music producing company in the world. What was your main priority? International expansion. I didn’t have to, and no one else did, but I did. I saw lots of opportunities in this area and wasn’t afraid to go for it, so I invested a lot of time and energy in it. Four and a half years after we launched, we opened our New York office. That was twelve years ago, and business is good, better than ever, even. The same goes for our offices in Amsterdam, Los Angeles and London. And we recently opened an office in Tokyo.
Things have proved more challenging in Shanghai. “The Chinese market cares not about quality but about money,” you once said. Does quality override all other considerations? The Chinese place low cost above quality, but that’s not how we work; that’s simply not our market. We’re investing in our relationship with the Chinese, and are doing things for less for the sake of goodwill. But you can only do that for so long. We’ve been there for eight years, and will have to decide at some point whether to continue.
Does that feel like failing? No, I don’t think like that. I think more along the lines of: how can we serve the Asian market? I don’t recall the experience with pleasure, but you learn and move on. I really love the early part of creating a business, so when an opportunity presents itself, I grab it.
A magnificent opportunity did come your way in 2012, when Duncan Stutterheim (co-founder of the entertainment company ID&T) and dance festival entrepreneur Sander Groet invited you to become a co-owner and -developer of the A'DAM Tower, the former Shell Tower on the bank of the IJ river. What was your first reaction? Awesome! They’d initially invited me to become a tenant so they could mention MassiveMusic in their proposal for the tower. After winning the pitch as developers, the plan was to turn the building into a dance tower (ADAM stood for Amsterdam Dance and Music); but, to be honest, I don’t care that much about the dance industry. Give it ten years and punk could easily be the order of the day. So when I stuck my nose in a bit more and we hit on the idea of a music tower, they asked if I’d like to help make it happen. Duncan sold me some of his shares and so it came to pass.
Has it turned out the way you expected? And then some! A’DAM Tower is all about music, and it’s become the musical hub of Amsterdam. This building exceeds my wildest dreams. It’s quite likely that my daughter will one day throw her 50th birthday bash here, and it’s certainly going to outlive me. The thought gives me such a buzz. LookOut [the observation deck] attracts 1,650 visitors a day, with 600 of them having a go on the over-the-edge swing. We’ve rented out every square metre, and the two restaurants are always fully booked. A real estate agent told me a short while ago that he knows so many people who regret not winning the pitch for the tower. We’ve even had an offer for the whole thing, but of course there’s no way we’re ever going to sell it. Why would we?
It’s said that a dream team must include three people: a hipster (the designer), a hacker (the techie/mastermind) and a hustler (the salesperson). Which of these are you? I'm definitely the hustler, but I’m also partly the hipster, because I enjoy giving concrete form to ideas, and rolling out an idea.
Is that your strength? I like setting out a course, although I’m not a great one for long-term visions or ideas. I live too much in the present. The future depends on so many variables. So I focus more on identifying opportunities and reading the market. And for that you need to be responsive, flexible. Having said that, if Kim Jong-un presses the nuclear button tomorrow, you can forget it. That’ll be the end of everything.
You appear to have the magic touch. That must create the pressure of expectation. How do you deal with it? I don’t feel any pressure because I’m not trying to prove anything. The only pressure I ever felt was financial, and that was only in the early days of MassiveMusic, that period when you’re not only spending a lot on start-up costs, for things like the website and corporate identity, but also on fulfilling your first assignments and paying salaries prior to getting paid for the work.
Which widespread myth about you would you most like to dispel? I still meet people who tell me I’m lucky to have stumbled on a gap in the market. Firstly, it didn’t happen by chance, and secondly, there was no gap in the market. There never has been. Such comments speak volumes about the people themselves, but also about how they perceive me. How dare you say that about anyone, even if the person did identify a gap in the market? I worked bloody hard. Full stop.
Let’s get back to music. Aside from producing music, MassiveMusic also invests in emerging talent, through MassiveTalent. What must you have to make it in music? Three things: talent (which you can acquire by working hard), perseverance, and consideration for the commercial side of music. Never underestimate the value of a good network, nor the cost of your decisions. The bands we work with via MassiveTalent are totally fine about doing commercial work, which is great because it’s allowed them to make a good buck, with which they financed future albums. We’ve also scouted artists who’ve said they don’t make music for ads. Ok, fine, but you won’t get far in this world if you take that stand. It’s all well and good having principles, but I can assure you that you’re going to find it much more difficult to achieve whatever it is you’re hoping to achieve.
Who’s been your biggest discovery? The Danish singer Agnes Obel. You’re unlikely to ever read in an interview or newspaper that we discovered her 10 years ago, but the same goes for a lot of the artists you see on De Wereld Draait Door who became stars after we scored chart hits with them in China. ‘Things just took off,’ they say, when the host Matthijs asks how they broke through. No, they broke through because MassiveMusic discovered them, licensed their music for ads in China, which won them a massive following. But yeah, I guess that doesn’t sound as cool a story.
What disappoints you the most about the music industry today? I was really counting on streaming services shifting the balance of power to the artists, at long last; but those bloody record labels managed to maintain their stranglehold by refusing to allow Spotify access to their artists’ back catalogue. As a result, Spotify, despite the billions invested in it, isn’t the one pulling the strings, because they’ve had to make Universal, EMI and all the other labels partners. It’s such a shame.
Your memory must hold a vast library of tracks, after all your years as a DJ. Which one would you like played at your funeral? I thought about this recently on vacation. As an ex-DJ, I think in playlists. Stevie Wonder’s “They won’t go when I go” is a certainty, because it’s just so incredibly heartbreaking, and would fit the occasion perfectly. Bowie’s “Heroes”, because that’s practically my life’s theme tune. Brilliant track. Crank up the volume, and you’ll get it. Give me a minute and I’ll give you ten more. If I ever have to make such a playlist, I'll include a couple of private jokes, as well. A bit of deejaying for my last ever audience.
What advice would you give anyone contemplating the uncertainty of self-employment? You don’t need to have a lot of experience to deliver quality. You need to have business in your DNA. Be prepared to work very hard, particularly in the first few years, and if it takes off, you’ll start to enjoy some financial peace of mind. Entrepreneurs start with an empty bathtub. You put in the plug and turn on the tap, but you don’t actually start to make any money until the water starts to spill over the edge. That’s what most people fail to realise. Salaried workers in particular haven’t a clue.
Finally, if we were to ask your team to make a sound logo for Hans Brouwer, how would it sound? Like a funky bass loop.