This interview has been paraphrased for consistency and clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Jay Hardway here!
Joey: Welcome, Jay! How are you?
Jay: I’m good!
Joey: There probably aren’t many people who don’t know you yet, but can you tell us a bit more about how you started? You already mentioned that you started DJing at house parties, weddings, and those kinds of things.
Jay: I started making music when I was 14. At the time, it was just a hobby and something I already loved. I was already into the local DJ’s and would always ask about their equipment. Then a friend of mine introduced me to his DJ set, and I would practice with him. He used to DJ at a hockey club. I then started doing parties for friends, weddings, and then bars. I was kind of stably doing that but wasn’t going that much anywhere until I got my first hit six years ago.
Joey: When did you realize that this might be a career?
Jay: I was 14 or 15 when I found out about Fruity Loops and was already learning how to make melodies. Then, around 18 or 19 was when I thought I had some talent.
Joey: What was the reaction from your family or friends when you started doing that?
Jay: They were very annoyed because I would show them the music I thought I was very good, but there’s this thing when you start making music or anything creative, you think you’re excellent, and you believe everything you make sounds good because you made it and it’s new. But then you reach this point where it’s like, ‘oh’ I’m not good at all. I think it’s called ‘Mount Stupid’ or something: you go down all the way and slowly build your quality and become better. I think the moment for me was when I bought my first studio monitors. The melodies were already there, but the sound and the other things were horrible. I then realized that I had talent, but a lot more work to do.
Joey: You mentioned that you’d spent a lot of time in the studio. How did you develop your skills? Did you go to school?
Jay: No, I watched a lot of youtube tutorials and found out by myself. I was mostly having fun and making stuff that I wanted to make. I would hear a track by Chuckie and try to recreate it, but it wouldn’t sound anything like it. Every time you do a new project, you learn a new skill, find a unique sound, or find a way to make your kicks sound better. With hundreds of projects, after awhile, you just become better and better. And there’s this point where you start to hear if your track is good enough.
Joey: That’s interesting. How do you hear that? Can you explain it?
Jay: It’s tough. I feel like I don’t always have this because sometimes I think something sounds good while everyone else hates it. So there will always be a taste thing. It’s also nice as a DJ to test your track out and see the reaction in the club. It’s purely experience when it comes to knowing a good melody or baseline, but you need to test it out as well.
Joey: It’s a bizarre thing because I talk to a lot of artists like music producers and DJ’s, and that question keeps popping up, like how do you know when your track is finished?
Jay: Oh, it’s never finished, I think.
Joey: But how do you decide the moment when it’s all done?
Jay: I think you’ve got to talk to a label or your manager and decide, ‘this is it.’
Joey: So you use other people to make decisions as well?
Jay: Kind of. As a producer, your track is never finished. You always have some stuff you might still want to do. For example, polishing high hats, adding FX, etc. There’s always going to be things that you want to change. For the sake of your release schedule, you sometimes need to say, “okay, the baby is leaving the nest now” haha.
Joey: So how did you do that before you had a label or manager? Which people did you reach out to?
Jay: Forums. I would post on the Laidback Luke forum. He was giving feedback himself, which was helpful because technically there were some tips, but he was also mostly giving us opinions. It used to be a hotspot of people, like a little community. Also, the Vato Gonzalez forum was really good. We would meet up at Dancefair with people from the Vato forum, and it was a cool and small community. I don’t know if there is a community like that now. It seems more individual.
Joey: There’s definitely a few more pages — especially Facebook groups. I have one myself where 1000 producers are talking to each other and giving feedback. I think it’s moved from having a forum on your website to social media.
Jay: You have to accept the fact that it will never be finished. I remember I sent my track, Electric Elephants, to Martin Garrix, and he was like, “I don’t like the drop.” It really impacted me, and I tried to change it and come up with new stuff but decided to keep it that way. It turned out great, and it became a big success. So, you can’t please everyone; there’s always going to be people who don’t like some stuff in your track.
Joey: That’s the thing about music. It’s art. I can have a look at the Mona Lisa and say, “I don’t like it,” but somehow it’s still worth millions of dollars. There’s a significant personal opinion involved in the whole matter. That’s always really interesting because when you ask for feedback, you get their personal opinion and not feedback.
Jay: That’s important, but I also think with feedback, you know you get good feedback when you hate what the person is saying because you knew they were right. I noticed this even with the A&R at Spinnin. I would send a track, and he would come back to me like, “yeah I like it, but….” and then everything he says you know is right, but you hate it because you don’t want to admit it sometimes to yourself. It’s essential to have really honest people.
There are definitely artists that do everything the way they want to and have success, but I don’t know if you can do that in the DJ or EDM scene; you want tracks that always please crowds.
Joey: It’s a balance in that you also have to please a crowd, but at the same time, you want to represent yourself as an artist. It’s a compromise.
Jay: It’s like a gray area since it’s artistic so you shouldn’t make it more commercial, but at the same time, it’s a business.
Sometimes you’ve got to say, “I’m going to do this track this way.” You’ve also got to remember that you’re always expressing yourself, and even if there’s one lifelong fan because of that track, it’s a win. If the rest don’t like it, you’re going to have a new record the month after.
Joey: What are your thoughts on the releasing amount? Did you mention once a month? It’s kind of changed in the last couple of years.
Jay: Yeah, it’s crazy stressful. You put yourself under pressure; your fans put you under pressure. Whenever you release a track, people are asking, “when is there new music?” I mean, you can choose not to do that. You can decide to release two tracks a year, but I think you’re going to have a difficult time getting bookings.
Joey: That’s the thing. Promoters need ammunition to sell tickets. You feel pressure from fans, from promoters — maybe your manager is also starting to push you because they need to sell you as well. And you’re pushing yourself because you want to release music as a creative artist. That’s always going to be difficult and a struggle to get the next big thing.
Jay: The fun thing about making music is that you never know what’s going to be the next big thing.
Joey: In your opinion what’s your most famous track?
Jay: ‘Wizard’ with Martin Garrix is my biggest hit. I expected it because Martin was already big. Martin released Animals, and right after was Wizard. But personally, I think Electric Elephants has been the one where the industry saw, ‘oh this guy is legit; he can produce as well.’ That’s a more significant achievement for me because that put me on the map.
Joey: Did you expect the track to become that big?
Jay: No, not at all.
That’s the fun thing. You’re just sitting in the studio making something that you like. You find a label for it, it gets released, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. I think that’s the great thing about music these days, especially with the internet, you never know where it ends up. Sometimes it ends up in the Indonesian charts, and you’re like how did it end up there?
Yeah, it’s crazy how it works. I remember sending it around to some DJ’s, and they were like, “It’s awesome,” and the label sent it around, and it got so much good feedback. That’s what happens a lot. And when they start playing it in Ultra and Tomorrowland, that’s different, and you know it’s getting some different traction.
Joey: Do you have an idea about what makes that track special?
Jay: It’s accessible. The first time you hear it, it’s already easy to listen to. It’s an easy melody but also has a different sound. It’s different and easily accessible.
Joey: You mentioned the collaboration with Martin Garrix. Can you talk a bit more about how that happened?
Jay: Yeah, we go way back. We were friends before we both got big gigs. He was producing when he was 14 years old, and I met him on the Vato forum. We worked together for the next few years and became friends. Once everything blew up, he got signed to Spinnin Records and Animals came. No one expected the success of Animals. And then Wizard came. So literally the summer of Animals, right before, I was still delivering barbecues. Half a year later, I’m touring across the world.
Joey: So that track put you on the map internationally and got you the gigs and financial arbitrage.
Jay: Yeah, like in a really fast time. It felt like it was overnight from DJing in a small bar in my hometown to DJing in Vegas.
Joey: In the beginning, when those international gigs came in, were you booked together with Martin Garrix, or under your own name?
Jay: Well, I’ve been signed to Ace Agency, and they were really smart with their tactics. I got signed right around the time of the track.
Joey: So Wizard also put you on the map in the industry.
Jay: Right, and Martin was speaking very highly of me. He made sure that Ace Agency signed and made sure that Spinnin signed me. He was really pushing me forward. It was really cool to see a friend do that.
But then, the way Ace Agency did it was genius because they said, “Hey, you booked Martin Garrix, do you also want to book Jay Hardway?” So I had my own fee and my own name, and of course, I was presented when Martin Garrix was booked, but as a separate artist. Not like a package deal, because the thing is, when you do a package deal, you don’t know what price you’re worth. And now we knew in that market, Jay Hardway is worth X fee. We could really build that market.
Joey: Wow, I didn’t know that was the start of it. I thought you had a whole career before that.
Jay: Well, a career in barbeques! I was making a lot of music, and not releasing it yet. I was already signed to Universal publishing, but Wizard was really my launch. Then it was the pressure for me to continue.
Joey: How did you comprehend with that pressure?
Jay: It was a lot of insecurity in the beginning because I knew I could make music, but I didn’t know how to convince anyone else that I could make music as well because they thought I only released hits with Garrix. So it took me a couple of months. I think Wizard was released on October 2013, and it took me till March to release Bootcamp. That was my first solo single, but it did really well, so it brought me some hype again.
Joey: I can imagine that’s a tough place to be in. It’s great that you have such a kickstart to your career, but at the same time, the audience might think you’re ‘Robin’ to ‘Batman,’ and now you feel the stress of proving the fact that you’re not Robin — you’re Superman.
Jay: I tried to let go of that idea. I was also a bit older than Martin — Martin was like 16, and I was like 22 ish. So I already had more life experience that I would be less impressed by that idea. I was just going to do my thing, and if people booked me because of Garrix, then amazing, and if they started to see that I make my own music, that’s awesome. But I never really tried to overthink. The pressure there was mostly coming from myself.
Joey: I think that’s your power. We’ve never spoken before and what I can tell about your stories is that you are consciously aware of the things that are happening in your life and your career. I think that’s a big power.
Jay: Yeah, I think it’s really important. We see a lot of artists that are puppets, and they don’t really care. I never did that. It’s also crucial to be conscious of your health.
Joey: Is that still something that you think about when you’re touring. Do you do a lot of long tours — so two-week tours?
Jay: No, not that much. I prefer one, maybe two weekends, and then that’s it. Two weeks is a long time for me to be away from home. The US isn’t that big of a market for me, so it’s mostly one weekend. In China, sometimes I do two weeks because there are two weekends connected, but mostly it’s been just a separate weekend with two shows. In the summer you might have some shows in the middle of the week.
Joey: What’s the biggest market for you right now? Asia?
Jay: Asia is big, but it’s tough to tell these days.
Joey: Is Europe still a thing?
Jay: Yes. On the one hand, promoters are saying EDM is dead, and yeah, it’s hard to book EDM acts. On the other hand, you can do shows, and people are going crazy on the commercial stuff. You start to question if EDM is really dead. I was at a street parade in Zurich, and this guy starts with Techno, and then another DJ starts playing commercial stuff. Right away, people began going way crazier. So people say they don’t like EDM, but they do otherwise. They still love commercial stuff.
Joey: Yeah, like saying that you’re underground is more “interesting” but a lot of people are commercial. It’s the decision that you make as an artist. What are you going to follow? Do you want to please the crowd? Promoter? What’s the balance in that whole story.
Jay: Well, pleasing the promoter is selling tickets. If you sell your tickets, the promoter is probably happy. That’s basically the way it is. I’ve had a bunch of times where they loved my set, and we had a good time and dinner, but in the end, they are way more into the money.
Joey: But let’s say that you organized an event. You book your favorite artist for probably a crazy amount of money. You schedule the artist, it’s not a private party, it’s a commercial party, and ten people end up there. You get 100 euros in revenue, and that’s it. I would go crazy — who wouldn’t?
Jay: Yeah, that’s what you’ve always got to realize as a DJ. You don’t have to be a commercial guy, but you have to accept that if you’re not adding commercial touches to your set, you might end up doing fewer shows or selling less tickets. That’s also okay — but if you want a big mainstage, you’ve got to start by selling tickets.
Everybodys always like, Timmy Trumpet came out of nowhere and now he’s big. But I remember I was headlining a show and he was the second headliner. But he had this merch and his blow-up trumpets — he’s been building ever since and working really hard. Now he’s doing the mainstage. People don’t see what’s behind the scenes.
Joey: You mentioned that you spent a lot of hours in the studio, and there’s this saying that after 10,000 hours you’re a pro. People also forget that people went through the whole thing — they went through the same period.
Jay: I get demos from people that say “hey, it’s not mastered yet” and then I always think like ‘okay, there’s one of these again.’
Joey: So what’s your thought at that moment?
Jay: Well, it’s like saying “It’s not good enough, but I’m still going to send it to you anyways.” Why don’t you finish? If it’s not mastered, that’s basically an excuse that it doesn’t sound good.
What’s also frustrating about being a creative artist is that you put in hours and hours, but then it’s like no one wants it, and you can’t do anything with it. You could send it to your mom, and she would like it, but that’s so many hours wasted. That’s something that you’ve got to live with.
Joey: Well, I think that’s changed. We come from a time where that actually happened. If you couldn’t sign on a label, you were fucked. But right now, everyone can post on Tunecore or Distrokid, and for 10 dollars they put your music on Spotify or iTunes. Right now, if a label doesn’t want it, you can still say fuck it, let me do it myself. Let’s contact some playlist owners and see if I can promote it or send to a couple of DJ’s. That’s when you come back to the art aspect of it — there’s always people who do or don’t like it. I think there’s a big advantage right now for aspiring artists. They’re not relying on third parties anymore. The label or manager isn’t in charge anymore; you are in charge. It just comes down to how much work you spend to promote yourself.
Jay: It’s a hard job, so that’s why you’re paying half of the track royalties to labels in the first place.
Joey: Labels can still be super handy, but only when you sign with a label with that reach like Spinnin or Revealed — those are all labels who have the attention of their fanbase. You also need a label that’s consistent with the quality.
Jay: I think it’s always dangerous for yourself and your own brand if you’re posting anything online. I always had the feeling that if my track wasn’t good enough for my label, maybe it’s not good enough for my market. So I would come back with a record where more people from labels said, yes, ‘it’s good enough.’ It’s kind of like quality control. But then again it’s a balance.
Joey: It’s a critical question. Similar to a promoter, the label is in the money business. So if they listen to a track that’s AKA “underground,” that’s hardly sellable. But at the same time, it might also mean that it’s different and that it could be the next ‘Animals.’ It might break the normal. Releasing safe means that you can expect the outcomes, but releasing tracks that break the normal might get you more success. As an artist, you always have to ask if a label declines it, is it a bad track or do they not see any money right now?
Jay: That’s very difficult; it will always be hard like that. But it’s also cool since you never know how a track is going to do in the end.
Joey: Would you agree with the statement that you’re as good as your last release?
Jay: I would say maybe you’re as good as your worst release. Then again, what’s a good release? Is it a million plays or a track that people really rethink how the track hits them emotionally, but it only has 50,000 streams. Which one is better? I think it’s a tough time as well when it comes to hits.
Joey: I heard a thing a few weeks ago, which was kind of mindblowing. Someone said, “Don’t you think that with artists, people only remember the hits.” Like, let’s say you’re releasing 10–15 tracks a year. What if you release the next Animals, which brought you through a global #1 status. Do you think people would care about those other releases?
Jay: Yeah, no. That’s an excellent point.
Right now, even the shittiest tracks on earth get released. So it’s more accessible to old lookup tracks. For example, my first remix was horrible. But you can still find it online. Is it a bad thing? Or does that thing still put things in perspective? Like people can see how you’ve improved.
Yeah, there are still some tracks which are on SoundCloud and don’t sound that good. But now people can see how far I’ve come.
Joey: I think the fact that you have a track record of releases gives people an insight into how much work you’ve put into this project. It’s not like you’ve released one track and your career is made. It’s your resume.
Jay: But still, if I were to score a #1 hit, people could say I came out of nowhere. And that’s not true.
Joey: Yeah, I think that insight should push aside some stress because it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is if you like the track. If it isn’t successful, too bad, and move onto the next one. But each release will bring you some form of success; it could be one person who is impacted by that track, or a million streams.
Jay: Yeah, I think that creating music is always stressful. Especially when you’re in the studio and not having inspiration can be frustrating. I think every creative person has this moment that you go through after every project that you finish.
Joey: That whole thing is a mind game. In a creative block, you’re your worst enemy. It’s not that people are saying that those eight measures you produce are not good. What if 2 million people on the planet think otherwise? It’s a constant fight with yourself.
Jay: It’s something that you also have to deal with. Part of being an artist is putting yourself out there and being vulnerable. If people comment on your track, it sometimes feels like a personal attack. You always need to get your mind straight.
Joey: Is that something you’ve learned to deal with?
Jay: I’ve definitely learned to control that. As you get older, you encounter more bad things about the industry or bad experiences on tour. It’s important to realize what’s going on. I do believe you definitely need some guidance from people around you. But you need to have some people who are grounded and are telling you, “hey, it’s normal for you to go through this.” After a couple of stressful periods, you learn that it’s going to be a part of life.
Joey: Looking back at your career, what would you have done differently?
Jay: I don’t think I would have done anything differently because I feel like everything happened in such a way that took me to where I am. Of course, I had some conflict with managers and labels, and I would do things differently, but I still feel like that would have had to happen for me to understand. Sometimes you have to make mistakes to really know why you do it. Like you said before, you can’t learn anything from a book because you have to experience it yourself.
Joey: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time to come over here and share your knowledge!
Jay: Thanks for having me!