The Wall Street Journal

DJ Steve Aoki Discusses Vegas Paydays, Benihana and His Latest Venture


DJ, record producer and music executive Steve Aoki talks to WSJ's Lee Hawkins about how casinos justify paying some big-name DJs $500,000 a night or more, and how he leveraged his fame as a DJ to break into the lifestyle, culture and restaurant businesses.

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- From Lady Gaga to Kesha.
Skrillex was coming to our parties all the time.
The world was coming down in this place
where there was no segregation in the music.
It's like, you want a break in LA,
you have to play at our parties,
because we're consistent and we're bringing in
all of the new talent.
(dissonant tune)
- When people hear the term DJ,
what is their perception versus the reality
of what you do?
- When people think of Steve Aoki, they think of a DJ.
They think of playing these raves and festivals,
and this culture that we're all very familiar with now,
but it depends on when you ask.
Like 2000, when I first started,
the DJ could have been actually the wedding DJ,
or the DJ in the back corner of a bar
that you actually don't get to see,
and that's obviously evolved into a DJ
becoming the main focal point of an event.
- So take me behind the economics that enable
a casino to pay a DJ like you half a million dollars
a night or more, probably, to play a Vegas nightclub.
How can they do that?
- It's exactly what you're saying.
It is purely economics, and it only makes sense
to the casino operators to be transparent
about how much money they're bringing in.
Before, when I was going to Vegas, this is pre-2010,
I'll be lucky to get three to five thousand dollars,
and I got a bit of a name back then,
but if I can get five grand, I'm feeling good.
They would never disclose their information
of what they're doing at the end of the night.
This doesn't make sense to them when they're
paying someone that low.
But when you're paying someone that's actually bringing in,
and that's what the difference is between then and now,
is that the artists themselves, they are
the artists that are bringing in the customers
into the casino and into the club.
So those people that can actually command
all the people that come into the club,
they have to strike a deal where it's economically viable
and to be fair and just on what they're
gonna pay the artist.
Every deal with every artist is different,
but it's all based on economics, so you gotta assume
that whatever the artist is getting paid,
the club is definitely gonna get paid a lot more,
and if the artist is not bringing in those numbers
as they suggested, because you do pay this advance,
like hey, here's a two-year contract for you,
and this is what we expect.
It's just like stocks.
And then another club's like, we expect your stock
to do more.
We're gonna bring you in more, so we're gonna
pay you a little bit more, and then you have to decide,
well, do I lose the stability of going away
from what I already know works to go to something
that's potentially not the right fit for the brand
and take a little bit more, or do I stick with
something that makes sense?
So I mean, these are the conversations that are happening
internally from management to artist to artist,
and then from management to the casinos.
- And because of music streaming, right,
music is probably more like a loss leader to you.
That's probably not where you're making your money
off of music sales.
- Oh yeah, right.
- Merchandising, endorsement, live shows.
So what does this tell us about the music industry model?
- Well, I think one thing it does tell us is that
live entertainment is something that
we all wanna be part of.
That the human experience is very much based on.
You wanna go out and you wanna feel something.
You wanna experience something, and that,
and the end of the day, is the most
powerful tool that we have.
I think about my music, and how it can
be part of the culture and be on trend
with what people are thinking about right now,
because that's very, very hard to do.
You have to be just a little bit ahead of culture,
but not too far ahead.
You have to be a little bit ahead, just a little bit
where it's like, this guy, this girl is very smart.
And they're directing, they're helping
push the culture in that direction.
And that's a very, very difficult thing to do,
because there's no wheelhouse, there's no formula for that.
- And you really diversified beyond that
as an entrepreneur.
If you can list for me a couple of the
major partnerships that you have.
- Oh god. (laughs)
Well, Asics is a big partner on athleisure
and footwear, so I work with them on all athletic,
and a big part of my life is being athletic,
fitness, all that good stuff.
And they're a great partner.
We developed a shoe together.
ANA airlines, a Japanese airline company.
I work with them as well, and in a big way.
I'm brand ambassador for them.
Diesel is a recent one, so working with them
as well on the watch side, and just launched a comic book
with a great partner, Impact Theory,
that isn't in the comic book world,
but we're both comic book fans, me and the founder
of Impact Theory, and so we joined forces together
and created this Neon Future comic.
I mean, there's other smaller ones.
Those are the big ones, and then I have my own companies.
I have my record label and publishing and management,
Dim Mak, and my fashion brand, Dim Mak Collection,
and I also co-own another brand,
a heritage skate brand called Vision Street Wear.
- For as different as you were supposed to be
from your dad, you own big stakes in five
different restaurants at least, right?
- Right, yeah.
- And some of them are hot.
- Oh yeah. (laughs)
- [Interviewer] Tell me about those.
- So the thing is I never thought...
Benihana is in the blood.
It's almost like I don't need to be part of it
to be part of it.
It's just my, it's like my family created it,
so it's part of the Aoki DNA, and I guess
in that regard it's hard to leave a very familiar ship.
I've been setting sail and it just,
something would draw me back into the restaurant business,
the FNB business, and in this case
it was a great operator that I trusted,
and I always say you trust the people
versus trusting the company.
So I trusted this Australian, Dick Mathers,
and all of our restaurants are doing
really, really well, and then my newest business
endeavor is Pizzaoki.
- Right.
- But it's based on a new model that I think
is gonna take shape, which is where Uber
went from taxis, where streaming went from physical CDs.
- [Interviewer] How does it work?
- [Steve] It's a delivery service-only pizza company.
So we have our own kitchens and in our kitchens,
we service all those areas, obviously.
- So you went from indie rock to becoming a DJ.
How did that happen?
- Yeah, so what happened was I moved to LA
to really go, okay, I'm gonna focus on my record label,
and I had to make some noise.
I had to make some noise in Los Angeles,
so I started throwing these small Dim Mak parties,
and we're talking 40 to 60 people.
And kind of cultivating our own little indie scene
in Los Angeles, and that grew to become
the gateway where all the underground acts,
it doesn't matter if you're hip hop, you're rock,
you're pop, you had to play the Dim Mak parties
to get exposed, to blow up.
Every manager to every label to all the agents.
- What was the timeline?
How long did this take to get to that point?
- So I started playing around 2002, 2003.
Started DJing little parties here and there,
and then I started thinking, hey,
I wanna branch our brand Dim Mak
into these parties and do consistency around them,
and then eventually we got a bigger space
and we're like, well, we have this new artist
Kid Cudi, he's gonna come through, he's gonna perform. is gonna come through.
Kanye West is gonna come through,
and different artists that were either
interested in the underground and what we're
doing in our parties, or about to blow up.
From Lady Gaga to Kesha.
Skrillex was coming to our parties all the time.
I not only excelled as a DJ and a personality
in that world, an ambassador of that world,
but as a producer, and that's when I was like,
I'm gonna remix all these artists.
- I had a chance to watch your documentary.
It's clear from that that your father had
a very strong influence on your life.
You had a strong connection to him.
Rocky Aoki, known mainly as the founder of Benihana.
Tell me about your relationship with your dad
and his influence.
- My father, he's...
He's kind of like the superhero that flew in
and flew out of my life.
My mother raised me.
She was my rock, she was there, day in, day out.
My father would come in and come out,
and he was just doing his thing.
He was an entrepreneurial businessman,
very similar to what I'm doing now with business.
Just hands in a lot of different places.
- People who don't know your story
would think that you had a silver spoon in your mouth
and that your father helped you get started
in your career, but that wasn't the case.
- So when I was in debt, when I finally was at
this place where I was like, okay,
I'm out of college, I'm gonna do this independent business.
I'm gonna start my label and I have
these incredible bands that are actually
very popular, and I'm like, I'm finding bands
that the world is recognizing, and I'm selling
loads and loads of records, and I'm gonna
make tons of money.
I was so sure of it, and then I look at my
credit card bills and I have ten of them
and they're all maxed out, and I'm like $100,000 in debt,
and my business plan is completely,
there is no business plan.
I was financially in a bad place,
and the one person that could really pull me out,
that has the money to pull me out, is my father.
- [Interviewer] But you never asked.
- You can't ask him.
It's impossible.
It's like asking stone from water,
you cannot get anything out of him.
And so my father was a very strict Japanese
hardcore workaholic.
- To some extent, it seems like the isolation
that you felt as an Asian kid in Newport Beach
actually helped you.
- Oh, big time, big time, yeah.
I mean, the thing is that when you're alienated,
when you're pushed away, you don't go through
the conventional methods of how to socialize,
of how to be part of a group.
So the group dynamic of sports, of conventional sports,
or anything that's a convention is no longer
a way for me to be like, this is how I'm gonna
socialize to fit in.
So that's where I found this subculture of music
that allowed me to have a space there
where I could fit in alongside other alienated kids.
In that sense, that music, that little music scene
that I was part of, was like a religion.
It was like we are gonna be the people to promote
this little culture.
It gives you this power that anything is possible
if you have a community of people support you,
and it can be as small as four people.
- Yes.
Final question here.
What would you like the Steve Aoki brand to represent
over the next 20 to 30 years?
- Oh, god. (laughs)
20 years.
- [Interviewer] As the future is.
- Ho ho ho, very exciting stuff here.
Very exciting.
We're talking 2040.
2040, what's going on, 2040?
Okay, so.
Well, I think that Dim Mak, we're a lifestyle brand,
and that's what I wanna represent is culture.
I want my company, who I am, to represent the culture,
and help push that forward.
- [Interviewer] That will be your legacy.
- But in 20 years, we're gonna really put technology
and where that's going on promoting health,
promoting longevity, because by this time,
and I really believe this, that we are the generation,
this life, you and me, all the cameramen here,
everyone that's alive right now,
we will either be the last generation of people to die,
or the first generation of people to live forever.
So we are at this crux, the precipice.
We are at this point of existence
where we can have the technology to get there
where we will indefinitely be alive forever,
where death is just a cancer that was in the past,
polio that was in the past.
Unless you get hit by a bus.
- Be careful, brother.
Thanks so much, Steve Aoki.
This was great.
- Thank you.
(dissonant tune)

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