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What I learned from creating an underground music documentary

In 2009 I got the idea to create a documentary about the early days of house and rave. I wanted to describe how electronic music evolved from the house sound of Chicago via the raw techno sound of Detroit to the hardcore techno we were creating in Rotterdam. I decided that the best way to do this was to have the original artists talk about their experiences. I drafted a list of artists that influenced me most as a music producer and asked them to tell their stories. This documentary ultimately became ‘Oldschool Renegades’.

Lesson 1: don’t go the independent route

If I had known how hard it is to do everything yourself, I probably wouldn’t have started the project. After the documentary’s release, I made friends at Vice en Noisey; they would’ve made perfect partners for this project. Instead, I signed with a major record label: TopNotch (Universal Music), solely for distribution. They added no value in the creative development process. Being linked to a company like Vice or Netflix will open doors with the artist and their representation. In the end, the distribution with the major record label didn’t work out, so I was basically on my own again but with my rights stuck in a global distribution deal. I got stuck because of the funding they provided and the music rights they failed to clear. I had financed most of the production myself with the help of free labour from my cameraman. I only needed extra funding to go filming in America. Ultimately that’s where I got to do the interviews with The Prodigy, Moby, Franky Bones and Lenny Dee. Their legal department wouldn’t start clearing the 100+ tracks as they thought it would be too expensive. Unfortunately, they didn’t even try. I still think most of the music in the documentary could’ve been cleared with a fair deal. So next time I have a good idea, I will contact Vice, Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Lesson 2: create a little hype (but not too much)

Start with using your strengths to hype your project. I am not the best director, but I am a good editor and sound designer. The first thing I created was a collage of tunes that take you right back to that era. Then I filmed close-up shots of a Technics SL-1210 MKII turntable with a record that had a ‘smiley’ logo on the label and edited it to the music. Finally, I put a logo and some animated text on top and started shopping. The final trailer that you can see here is the first trailer with a few artist’s quotes on top. I got a lot of feedback on the trailer: people wanted to see this. Next, I sent out a press release to the leading music journalists in my country. It simply stated: ‘Poing producer, creates documentary about the early Rave scene’. The news got picked up by a couple of websites, including ‘VPRO 3 voor 12’, an influential music website in The Netherlands. They revisited the project two years later, resulting in the deal with TopNotch (Universal Music). After the hype comes the pressure. The audience is constantly asking when the project will be released, as do the people you interview. You have already reached the point of no return, and you will have to finish the project now. I have struggled with this, but it also motivated me at times. Keep going. Knowing that a group of people wants to see your finished product is inspiring.

(Richard Hall a.k.a. Moby, filmed at his house in Hollywood)

Lesson 3: learn how to reach a rockstar

I showed the teaser trailer to my old friend Joey Beltram, one of the original pioneers from the early techno scene. At a very young age, he had already created classics like: ‘Energy Flash’, ‘My Sound’, and ‘Mentasm’, the first record to have the legendary ‘Hoover sound’. He agreed to the interview, and the best thing was: he told me that he had never talked about his early work on camera before. But, like a snowball effect, dropping his name helped me access other artists from the scene. These were not the massive rockstar names but essential ones nonetheless. Getting to stars like Moby and The Prodigy took a lot more effort. The best advice I can give you is not to use the front door. Most people would go straight to the artist’s manager or the record label, but they will screen all the requests and weed out the unimportant ones. I took many side doors to get close enough to get the interviews. I was surprised to have only two degrees of separation between myself and both Moby and The Prodigy. My advice is to find somebody close to the artist who is more subjective to your cause. Build a relationship, and if your intentions are good, there is a chance that somebody will introduce you. The odds are even better if you produce it for an established channel.

(Liam Howlett, the driving force behind The Prodigy)

Lesson 4: shoot more action footage

I was particularly interested in artists sharing stories. Consequently, you will see a lot of talking heads. The dedicated fan of the genre will love this documentary regardless. To them, it’s all about the stories, but to keep your film interesting for a larger audience, you need material to cut up the scenes. I was lucky enough to have videos and photographs from old raves, but I wish I had filmed more of the everyday life of the artists. It’s just great to ask questions while a rockstar is mowing the lawn. Take them out of their comfort zone, and maybe they’ll share more. I also wished I would’ve had a B-roll. A secondary camera helps in getting those extra shots.

(Manuela Kamosi aka ‘Ya Kid K’ of Technotronic)

Lesson 5: submit your work to film festivals

I had some luck here, as I never had to submit it myself. ‘Melkweg Cinema’ invited me to screen the film at the Amsterdam Dance Event in 2013, the film’s official premiere. Somehow somebody connected to the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) had seen it. Shortly after ADE, I received an invitation to present my film there. Not only is this a significant festival, but it was also going to show the movie several times in multiple theatres. They flew me into Copenhagen, picked me up from the airport and set me up in a nice hotel. I felt the same way I had felt many times when I was on tour as an artist in the ’90s. I thought this could be my second career as an artist, evolving from music to film and being equally successful. I got to join the audience at one viewing, and I could see (and hear) how they responded. Similar to watching the crowd react to a record you are playing. There were cheers, laughter and in the end, there was applause. After the credits ran, I participated in a Q&A session. It was magical. Seeing my film presented in a theatre has been a goal since I started producing music videos in 1995.

Lesson 6: enjoy the momentum

Back at the hotel, the crew from BeatFest, a film festival in Moscow, approached me. They had seen my film and wanted to select it. Their interest is probably because of the rare occasion of having a lengthy interview with all members of The Prodigy; Liam, Keith and Maxim. The band has a massive fanbase in Russia, and I’m sure they sold out. Ultimately, the film got selected by six different film festivals, and I had not submitted it to any of them myself. If I am to produce another movie, I will most definitely submit it to every suitable film festival I can find. I had the most fantastic experiences, and as it turns out, because of my ‘distribution problem’, a film festival is the only place you can ever see my film. It’s has become as underground as the scene itself once was.

(Q&A sessions are the most fun and rewarding part of the experience for me)

Oldschool Renegades (2013)

Featuring: Richard Hall (Moby), Liam Howlett, Keith Flint, Maxim Reality (The Prodigy), Frankie Bones, Joey Beltram, Lenny Dee, Ben Stokes (DHS), Graham Massey (808 State), Nick Halkes (XL Recordings), Matt Nelson (SL2), Eamon Downes (Liquid), DJ Smiley (Shut up and Dance), Acen Razvi (Acen), Renaat Vandepapeliere (R&S Records), Cisco Ferreira, CJ Bolland, Frank de Wulf, Ya Kid K, Patrick de Meyer (Technotronic), Olivier Abbeloos (T99, Quadrophonia), Nikkie van Lierop (Praga Khan), Miss Djax, DJ Paul Elstak, Orlando Voorn, Jeroen Flamman, Guido Pernet (Human Resource), Danny Scholte (Rotterdam Termination Source), Oliver Bondzio, Ramon Zenker (Hardfloor, Interactive), Jens Lissat (Interactive), Sven Rohrig (3rd Phase), John Walker (DJ Kutski). Check it out on IMDB