Managing Deadmau5 Independently with Dean Wilson

For over half a decade, Chance the Rapper and Pat Corcoran stunned, inspired, and proved wrong an entire industry of veterans by challenging the status quo of the music business. 

But their public fallout caused an onslaught of thoughts and opinions from spectators, including a notion that the two’s situation should serve as a cautionary tale for the next generation of teams who want to avoid the major label system altogether. 

Of course, journeying down the path as an independent team should be met with caution. But Dean Wilson, manager and label partner of dance DJ and producer Deadmau5, believes there are a set of principles one can follow to achieve a major label level of superstardom while remaining in control of their intellectual property. 

Stem spoke with Dean to explore his perspective on the precision, foresight, and trials management teams should anticipate when considering the independent path. 

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1. Define your brand of independence 

Set the parameters for what your version of independence will look like. According to Dean, the definition of independence can vary with each team, so long as every member agrees. 

“Independence for us is releasing records when we want to release records, in our time frame, in the way we want to release them, and not having any of [our] masters or publishing owned by somebody else.” 

But with the freedom of flexibility comes a massive weight of responsibility. Dean’s four-person staff does not have the luxury of passing to-dos off to various departments or charging mistakes to an expense account. At each point, the team is tasked with ensuring that everything surrounding Deadmau5’s brand – which includes music, video games, merchandise, an independent label, and live shows – is performing at its full operational and financial capacity. 

Dean’s ability to oversee each function stems from his days as a producer before transitioning to working in the distribution and licensing world. Experiences on both sides of the industry allow him to “speak creative” while keeping logistics top of mind. Scouting those who respect the business and administrative requirements of an artists’ career, coupled with a clear understanding of how to monetize and protect an artists’ IP, should be at the core of every operation. 

“What excites our team is building, protecting, and managing the brand,” Dean said. “People say, ‘You manage Deadmau5.’ No, I manage a brand. Joel Zimmerman is Joel Zimmerman, Deadmau5 is a brand. Mau5trap is a brand and a label, and that’s what we do all day every day.”

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2. Work backward

According to Dean, rolling out a record meant for Top 40 radio could take three to nine months, or longer, and a significant financial investment. 

With that, Dean and his team calculate every decision and map out on a timeline, beginning by “thinking of everything that could potentially happen along the way. We go at a date, and we always work backward… [then,] we’re building out shows and events, looking up sponsorships and endorsements, and finding the people we want to work with.” 

But he understands that not all plans end in mind-blowing success. Even major labels may not see a return on a number of their investments in a fiscal year. But from Dean’s experience, the best possible opportunity a small independent team can give itself comes from huddling together, strategizing, and executing on a months-long rollout. 

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3. Assess your bandwidth, then hire what you need

A well-developed plan equals a clear understanding of what your team can realistically handle. Ideally, independent artists can achieve Grammy nominations, top spots on Billboard charts, and major endorsement deals. But Dean says that’s an unrealistic expectation if outsourcing of a core set of label-like services is neglected. 

Everyone thinks that anyone can be independent now and everyone can put an album out. They’re right, everyone can put a song out and get it on DSPs and go to a distributor. But great, then what happens? How’s anyone going to know about it? What’s your plot, how are you pitching? How are you selling your record? How are you building your brand and your artist?”

Depending on the size and capabilities of the team, there are a few services each independent might consider outsourcing to take their releases to the heights Deadmau5 has seen:

  • Committed distribution partners
  • Quality A&Ring
  • Radio promotion

Even if those services are secured, an independent team should still expect to do a majority of the heavy lifting. 

“If you think this is going to be a walk in the park and your distributor is going to do all the work for you, you’re misled.” 

The concept of independence is often met with varying opinions. Some suggest it’s nearly impossible to achieve global success without the assistance of a major. Others believe it’s the most sensible path to retaining their rights to their creativity. Dean’s outlook is simple:  

“Being independent means being smart enough to know what you can and can’t do.”

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