Meet Ash Pournouri: The Man Behind Dance Music’s Latest Phenom
“I think I was an entrepreneur even before I knew the definition of the word. I started out quite early with my own projects — trying to turn something from an idea into some sort of business or independent project. Basically with anything I do I try to turn my ideas into reality. And to me, that's what an entrepreneur is.”
Ash Pournouri of At Night Management has distinguished himself as a marketing genius over the course of the past few years. From his first attempt at management with Avicii, which saw the artist evolve into a superstar DJ with one of the most popular tracks of the past few years, “Levels,” to the continued success of rising Swedish duo Cazzette, Pournouri's work has more than spoken for itself. But Pournouri had been establishing and developing businesses well before he ventured into the music industry.
His first project, which he described as “a fund for file sharers… based on an insurance model,” offered users insurance against litigation stemming from illegal file sharing for a low monthly fee. Pournouri initiated the project as a high school student, seizing an opportunity to provide a safety net for users “at a time when there was a lot of worrying about the implications of file sharing.”
Unfortunately, the legal arm of the recording and film industries were largely unsuccessful in pursuing litigation against file sharers, leaving little demand for the fund.
Immediately following the completion of his secondary school education Ash began developing the concept for a new business centered on high quality music streaming on mobile devices. The idea had the potential to be revolutionary as the product was being developed prior to the proliferation of smartphones, pegged by Pournouri as a “precursor to Spotify… the ultimate music service because I couldn't see [music] being more accessible than through your phone.”
The project found its way before the eyes of Spray, an incubator which Pournouri described as “a non-profit organization in Sweden that help[ed] Swedish technologies and new companies evolve.”
“It was the perfect partner for me. But right around the time I pitched the idea the company turned private, for profit.”
The aftermath of the relationship completely changed the trajectory of Pournouri's career.
Ash recalled great difficulty in the partnership with Spray. But initially, it seemed he had landed on a gold mine.
“It had different radio channels that you could steam online, and you could see the upcoming songs on each channel, it was revolutionary for them. It was a sound alternative to radio where you could see what tracks were coming up that was unheard of.”
As a naïve 19-year-old, he found his way into the office of Spray's CEO, presenting his mobile phone solution and sharing information behind the functionality of the technology. The CEO was impressed with his solution. Soon after, Ash found himself in front of the entire board presenting his music streaming solution. But his optimism betrayed him, as shortly after he disclosed all of the details of his solution, the company reversed and claimed to have a similar solution of their own.
“To present your concept — it's just an idea — and they're proceeding basically without you. I didn't understand what had happened on the legal side. How someone could just steal your idea like that? Six months later I saw that they sold that exact same concept to IBM. IBM was initially the developer of the platform that iTunes uses.”
Pournouri pegged this experience as one of the defining moments of his coming-of-age as an entrepreneur.
“It colored me. At the time I was nineteen and I was alone, and I felt that I had given up this multimillion dollar opportunity. At least that's the potential I saw in my head. It was a huge blow, but that also got me into law. That was actually the moment I decided that I wanted to get a law degree. And it wasn't to be a lawyer or a legal rep. I just wanted to have that knowledge.”
His follow-up project came in the form of a wireless back-up service for cellular phones. At a time prior to the back-up services embedded in modern smartphones, Pournouri realized that there would be great demand for a wireless backup solution for mobile phones.
The service managed to attract the attention of Metro, a Swedish media company, which Pournouri brought on as a global partner on the marketing side before it was fully developed, running ads in the widely distributed paper. At the same time, a partnership was forged with MTV as an online partner. Business was booming, but there was one major hurdle that needed to be addressed: delivering the product.
While Pournouri has an innovative business mind, he is not a software developer. Accordingly, he outsourced help from a software developer. Unfortunately, the product was not delivered as promised.
“I think at the time I paid almost $90,000 to get [the software] done. At the time it was a lot of money for me. I was 23 when I did that. And they couldn't deliver. I went to these meetings with my partners when they said the software was done, but it didn't work. I went back [for additional meetings] and it still didn't work. And I lost Metro as a partner, and of course MTV Networks, because I had no proper working service.”Facing considerable losses as a result of the developer's failure to deliver, he began to pursue legal remittance.
“I ended up in a lawsuit with them. I was pretty well ventured into my legal education, so I started that process on my own. [The case] got so far that I had to get proper legal representation. We found that the company had no funds and were in the red. I had my first kid at the time and my lawyer said, “Forget about this. Just make sure they pay you for your legal expenses. You're not going to get anything out of this.”
It was this experience that fostered his insistence on total creative control and extremely high-level involvement with business projects.
“Because of that whole process I decided that I never wanted to give up control again. I couldn't develop myself so I had to employ people to code. Because of that I said I'm never going to rely on anyone else as an entrepreneur. Whatever I work on I want to be able to control the product.
“That's why when I started working with Tim [Avicii] I was super involved in everything — even the production. I wouldn't give up control because I had this vision, and for me to drive that I had to be fully involved.
“I don't think a lot of people know this, but that's what colored me — my business life, basically. I was kind of still figuring out what I wanted to do, but I knew what I enjoyed was setting up new projects and making them happen — from an idea to reality.”
These experiences were invaluable lessons that played a major role in the successful client-manager relationship between Ash Pournouri and Tim Bergling, better recognized by his stage name, Avicii. Regarding Ash Pournouri, Avicii stated:
“I was always really driven… But when I met Ash he took me to a whole 'nother level… Like professional… Like when I met him he really took me out of nowhere and built my career. I wouldn't be here without that.” The duo met after Ash reached out to Bergling and the two met over coffee to discuss collaborating to develop his productions. Pournouri suggested that the road to success wasn't actually much of a challenge.
“We were kind of overestimating the competition. The labels to me were like this big end game. If you end up going to the labels you really made it. But when I started working with the labels I found out that they were unprofessional. They weren't up to par with my expectations. Not even the majors. I learned that a lot of these people weren't even competent. They were riding on routine, and whatever was set for them before. We thought it was going to be much tougher. But when we saw how professional we were, how creative we were, how bold we were in a way, we just kind of flew past all of the other guys.”
An emphasis on creativity has faired well for At Night Management, notably through the unconventional premiere of Avicii's album with a performance by a live band during Ultra Music Festival — a Miami based electronic music festival — and the unprecedented deal forged between At Night client Cazzette and music streaming service Spotify for the launch of the duo's first album.
Reflecting on the criticism resulting from Avicii's controversial album premiere at Ultra Music Festival in Miami Pournouri stated, “The simple answer is that we knew what people were gonna say. It wasn't like no one's gonna notice we put a live band up there. We knew people were going to react. That was the point, to promote. If you look at Ultra's line-up they had over 160 artists per weekend. The person, the one artist that was talked about the most, by far, was Avicii. For me, being a marketer and a brander, mission accomplished. We got their attention. Everyone was talking about the album.”
Commercial success has been a double edged sword for Bergling. Following the success of his global hit “Levels,” Bergling's fame has been coupled with criticism for being “too mainstream.”
In a previous interview with Elite Daily he stated, “In the beginning it bothered me, because you're like, 'Oh yeah, I want to tell this person that it's not like that.' Kind of like, “Are you stupid?” [Laughs] Just look at my music then and look at my music now. I just kind of laugh when I see people telling me I've sold out or something like that because I haven't changed anything.”
Pournouri and Bergling made the decision to provoke fans to ultimately generate positive buzz surrounding the album. A risky move indeed, but considering the success of the album's first hit “Wake Me Up” — earning Avicii a number one hit in the UK, the number one song on Spotify globally, and the number 2 spot on Spotify's “Top Artists” list — the duo had great foresight.
In comparison, Avicii's global hit “Levels” — “after all the radio play, after all the marketing, the power of Interscope being the biggest major label in the U.S., and the Super Bowl commercial” — only peaked at 31. “Wake Me Up” on the other hand reached the top 25 without being released to radio, record label endorsement – video marketing.
Similarly, Pournouri's emphasis on maintaining creative control resulted in an unprecedented deal between At Night artist Cazzette and music streaming service Spotify. By the time Cazzette signed with At Night Management the electronic dance music scene had vastly changed from the inception of Avicii's career. He stated, “I didn't want to follow the Avicii recipe. But when I signed them the electronic market was different — completely blown up. Everyone was a DJ. It was hard to break through the noise. So we had to do something different.”
He recalls that the partnership birthed from a mutual connection between the two companies through Madonna's manager, who recommended that Pournouri meet with Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify while he was in New York. By chance, the two linked up following his return flight to Stockholm at baggage claim.
The resulting deal created a flurry of media coverage regarding the deal, legitimizing Spotify as a partner for one-to-one relationships with artists and catapulting Cazzette into the mainstream spotlight. Cazzette's album “Eject,” released in three parts, received millions of plays and ultimately landed a deal with Island Def Jam.
“[The deal] contradicted what everyone said about Spotify–how it draws away from album sales. We signed the album to Island Def Jam almost 4-5 months after release. Financially it was a big deal. We kind of proved that Spotify just added to that pot.”
Pournouri recently launched his own record label, PRMD and also has plans to launch a new studio complex in the heart of Stockholm. The new studio will exist within one of the most prolific buildings in Scandinavia, creating what Pournouri hopes will be “a music hub for creative people in the music industry — talent we believe in — to connect people of the right mind together and [create] music with heart, with the right people.”
Photo Courtesy: EDM Sauce