Arash Shirazi is the CEO of The Bullitt Agency, which manages international DJs, including the Grammy Award-winning DJ Dubfire, along with Better Lost Than Stupid, Davide Squillace, and Satoshi Tomiie. As dance and electronic music surges in popularity—Rolling Stone magazine recently featured the producer-DJ Deadmau5 on its cover—we caught up with Shirazi to find out more about the business behind the music.
FAST COMPANY: How’d you get into DJ managing?
ARASH SHIRAZI: I wanted to be a journalist. I was at the Discovery Channel, where the CEO gave me great advice, he said: "If people like you, they’ll buy anything from you." I still use that. Then I worked for CNN News Source. My brother at the time was growing in popularity as a DJ as part of a duo called Deep Dish. They wanted an agent, and I said I’d try it. I was 25 at the time. I’m 37 now.
What was the business of DJing like in 2000?
It was the Wild West. The business was so rogue. Lots of people fall into it, and a lot of people are not college educated, especially the talent. I kind of put in structure and standard operating procedures. I tried to professionalize the business a bit. I tried to create a solid, legitimate, well-oiled, well-run operation.
What were the challenges of working internationally?
People from different cultures prefer to work in different ways. The Spanish are very easygoing. The Italians don’t follow deadlines. The Germans are very efficient. The Japanese you cannot insult—there’s a subtlety to negotiating fees.
Since this was a brand-new business to you, how did you get started?
I traveled to every event and wore myself down for a year. I went to every club. I really believe in breaking bread with people. I’m Persian, and food culture is big in Iran. It’s a great way to disarm people, to get to know their backgrounds.
But were you pretty clueless at the beginning?
When I first started, I booked the Deep Dish guys at a venue in Montreal. A talent buyer from another venue in Montreal called me and said, "I’m the guy in Montreal who always books your client. I’m the only person they play for. You have to cancel this other event and rebook with me." I said to this guy, "I don’t know who you are." He said, "I book this person, and this person, and this person." I said to him, "I don’t know who any of those people are, I don’t know who you are, and you don’t tell me how to do my job."
He was so taken aback by my lack of knowledge that he actually felt bad for me. He backed off and showed me the ropes, and 12 years later, he’s one of my best friends. We still joke about this. He was like, you didn’t know anything! They were major DJs, but I didn’t know who they were—it would be the equivalent of a producer at NBC News saying he doesn’t know who Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer are.
I imagine DJs have big egos. How do you deal with them?
I always hear, "I’m not in this for the money. Money’s not important to me." But the truth is it’s very important to them. It supports their lifestyle. Being a good agent is about balancing the commercial events with the events that energize their creative juices. I’ll oftentimes sit with clients and say, look, you can do 60 events in a year: 20 events have to be money-making events, 20 events won’t pay much but will get your creative juices flowing, and 20 are in-between gigs. I’ll involve them in creating this outline for the year, so when they come back to me and say, "I don’t like these events," I can say, "Look, this is the blueprint you created." Still, sometimes they’ll say, "I’m never doing that event again." And I’ll just say, "You made $25,000 playing for one hour. This is going to pay for your sushi fix for the whole year."
You have a staff of 15. Many of them are in their twenties. Is it tough managing them?
It’s interesting. You’re giving constructive feedback, which might be construed as negative feedback, and then two hours later you’re at a party drinking tequila with them. It’s really hard, because you don’t always have that professional distance. People in their twenties, this generation, always got positive feedback, and some are extremely stubborn. Sometimes you have to work late nights, work weekends. I try to make it fun and engaging.
Managing DJs sounds pretty cool.
People on airplanes always remind me how cool my job is. I go to bed every night grateful that I have a cool job. I often wonder if I sacrificed my personal life for my job and for my company. Entrepreneurs tend to struggle with that. Did I miss out on things? Did that relationship with that girl not work out because of work? You tend to reflect and wonder, was it worth it? I think at times there can be, not regret, but reflection. I’m not married yet, and I’m in my late 30s, so you start thinking about getting older and other things you want in life.
But over 13 years have you built something pretty lucrative?
I would say I’m making a really good living. People can always speculate what we make as a company, but I can speak more freely about what the DJs earn. Your average DJ can now make $25,000 in a night. We manage 47 DJs, and some of them do 60 to 100 events per year. They earn amazing sums of money right now. Agents typically take a 10% to 15% cut, depending on what services they offer. A lot of big business see dance music as an interesting opportunity right now. There’s a lot of consolidation, with big investors coming in now.