Michael Weiss of Nervous Records on Passion, Vision and Building a Brand
The end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s are among some of electronic music’s most revered/nostalgic years. Pivotal on a global scale, by this point in dance music’s timeline, the sounds, DJs and record labels coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York have catapulted their way onto dancefloors around the world.
Helping blow the roof off garage from New York in the early ‘90s, Michael Weiss of Nervous Records is a rare example of someone leaving an indelible mark on a sound and a scene—and still doing awesome things 27 years down the road.
Launched in ‘91 (when hip-hop was big on the radio and freestyle was still popping), Nervous came at a time when house music in NYC was a thing in a few clubs with DJs like David Morales, Frankie Knuckles, Junior Vasquez and Tony Humphries in Jersey holding down prominent gigs, but the sound was under-the-radar for the most part.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that goes against the grain, never really cared much for pop music or the pop culture thing.”
Although not as well known as DJs, “Producers like Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, Todd Terry, Roger Sanchez in New York and Oscar G and Ralph Falcon in Miami, plus Basement Boys in Baltimore, Deep Dish in DC, were making these incredibly fresh tracks that did not sound like anything else,” tells Weiss about the impetus and year Nervous kicked off. Adding, “There was a really strong community of New York labels like Strictly Rhythm, Nervous, Nu Groove, Emotive and Maxi who recognized that this sound was blowing up all over the world, even though it was still very underground in the city. It was just a good time to start a label.”
Nervous was able to harness the energy that was dominating dancefloors and hasn’t looked back since. “I’ve always been somewhat attuned to the DJ,” shares Weiss. “I would instinctively react if a club was popping off and ask the DJ what was being played.”
Three decades on, house music has grown beyond belief and Weiss—with an unwavering passion, perseverance and authenticity—has navigated Nervous through it all while building a catalog of hits and respect along the way. Tastemaker credentials firmly established, the Nervous label owner comes armed with a wealth of experience and knowledge about what it takes to have long-term success in a fickle, trend-driven scene. Here’s how you turn a vision into a house music brand…
Catch Michael Weiss on the We Built This House panel at this year’s Winter Music Conference. Industry and Access badges are now available, and registration is open.
You went to Stanford. Was music something that you always wanted to pursue?
I did attend Stanford. My father also was in the music business. He was one of the early distributors, going back to the Sixties—vinyl, 8-track tapes and 45s. My dad always had a love for the music; he started this disco label called Sam Records, but the distribution side of the business has always been a lot more safe and stable so he kind of made that his base.
I was given a mandate when I was younger to not go into the music industry because it’s a hectic business. My dad saw children of friends and colleagues who would be swayed the wrong way. I had the dangers of nightlife drilled into me at an early age. Nightlife is great—the music and meeting people, making friends, but unfortunately alcohol and drugs often get abused. So yeah, I was given a mandate to not go into the music business.
I was a good student. I went to Stanford and then law school, so I really wasn’t going to be in this business. But nightlife was just so great when I came back to NY in the late Eighties. My instinct was to start going out.
“With anything in entertainment, whether it’s a hit album or a hit label or a hit song, when it rockets quickly, it goes to orbit and 27 years later I still feel like we’re in orbit.”
So you’re fresh out of school, getting inspired by what you’re experiencing and hearing in NYC clubs and boom you start a record label?
It did happen quickly. There was a New York sound that was very edgy and attractive to the world. I’ve always been the kind of person that goes against the grain, never really cared much for pop music or pop culture. I find underground more interesting and this was a sound that was happening then. I also feel fortunate because the guys that were doing that music, Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, Todd Terry, I just linked with them as friends. Even after all these years those guys are like my best friends.
Nervous was known as a hip-hop up until the Josh Wink release, yes?
Yes. Well, we made the most noise with that first hip-hop release by Black Moon, called “Who Got Da Props.” Our first releases before that were that underground house stuff, that New York sound. Hip-hop at the time, in Brooklyn especially, had a great bunch of talented kids coming up. So I got on that on the early side—before, like Wu Tang Clan came out and even before Bad Boy blew up. We were really there first with that gritty New York underground sound. And it did really well. I recreated the logo to make a Wreck logo so it had a hip-hop feel to it and that really helped the brand. People would associate anything cool coming out of New York with that character.
I met Josh Wink in a club in Philly and I could see he was very talented and that he was doing a techno type thing. So I created the Sorted logo to represent a techno vibe. Josh’s record was amazing, “Don’t Laugh” was one of my biggest releases—it totally blew up. That record still, even today I hear it played at festivals in Europe for like 15,000 people. They go crazy.
I remember being in LA record stores and flipping through the bins; the Nervous logo was very identifiable.
I’m really lucky that the logo caught on and captured the imagination of Europeans very quickly. We had a merchandiser in Europe that was very good and within 12 months it was seen in airports and all the trendy shops. It was unbelievable. I could literally walk down a street in Paris or Rome or London and see Nervous shirts. I feel like with anything in entertainment, whether it’s a hit album or a hit label or a hit song, when it rockets quickly, it goes to orbit and 27 years later I still feel like we’re in orbit.
27 years is an achievement, how do you stay motivated and passionate for so long?
Music gets me excited. I like going out. Nightclubs are where you really see things, and if you go out enough, there’s nothing like hearing a DJ play for like three hours and then all of a sudden they play a record and that changes everything. It happens. No one knows why or how. You can’t replace the experience of being there versus someone telling you about it. It’s not the same.
The creative side also drives me, seeing how friends like Louie Vega, Kenny Dope and Todd Terry have stayed hungry, always making music and still love playing gigs, I feed off of that kind of energy. I’ve seen them play shows for like 5,000 people in Europe and it’s all young kids. Being friends with them, going to those gigs together, has helped me to stay interested in the whole industry. It’s one thing to go out when you’re just exploring a new scene, but we’ve all gotten older together. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always up for meeting new talent and we still promote a lot of new artists. But it’s nice when you can go through those experiences with your peers.
On a philosophical level, I think it’s a question of quality of life and what you want to do. This industry is really one of the most exciting things to be involved with. Music is one of the best things about life. It’s inspiring, it gives you creativity and it can move you in certain ways. You can have an emotional attachment to a song in that it will remind you of certain things in life.
To keep with it, you have to stay youthful and open-minded. Good music and new sounds will never stop coming, so either you want to roll with it or you don’t. And the fact is, you can’t stop youth—people get older and new people come up. I always say that you gotta stay interested and hungry for the next great thing to maintain a positive outlook on life. Staying positive also means staying away from the many things about this industry that can distract you and stray you from the right path. Health is important. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that drugs and drinking are the most prominent elements that pull people away. Artificial never works; you can’t beat Mother Nature.
Music is one thing, but ultimately this is about being good in communal situations, knowing how to work with other people, because you can’t do everything yourself. Stay friendly, give off positive energy and people will react. And really, what can you do after music that is as good? Movies/film are cool, but it’s different—they can take years to complete. Music is amazing because you can literally be with someone, see how they get inspired and it’s like magic… that someone who spent five hours or whatever in a studio and then the next day you have something that is not only going to be heard worldwide, it’s something that could be worth a lot of money and provide massive spiritual enrichment because it’s going to hit people everywhere. This is the great thing about music, that it can happen so fast and you never know where or when inspiration will come from. I spend enough time with guys like Louie Vega and Kenny dope, Oscar G and Ralph Falcon and I see them come up with hits and you never know what’s really going to work. They say Clive Davis calls hits. I dunno. I’m sure he has as many misses, but you never hear about those.
One thing that has really helped is the great A&R people who have worked at Nervous over the years. Starting with Gladys Pizarro, who is known for her legendary signings at Strictly Rhythm. Gladys actually worked at Nervous during our first year of operation. And Dru Friedman who went on to run Duck Down Records was a great A&R person on the hip-hop side. Kevin Williams is another legendary dance music figure who has worked with me on and off over many years and still works at Nervous. Andrew Salsano has been finding the hits for Nervous over the past ten years.
When you have a hit and you see the way it just catapults around the universe, there’s no feeling like that. And it starts in the club. You’re involved with the record and then you hear a guy play it and witness how the whole club goes berserk. That’s an amazing feeling. I guess some people don’t appreciate that feeling as much as I do, but I love that like nothing else when you’re involved with the project. And I don’t make the music, I’m only involved with signing or helping promote it, but seeing how something that you’re touching effects a lot of people is a really nice feeling.
Is having a “Plan B” a good idea or do they just distract from your original goal?
I do remember periods over time when I would think to myself, wow, it’s been such a long time since we had anything even buzzy. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the end. And I would sit there and I would see the bank account dwindling. But by now, the Nervous catalog is pretty vast with enough hits in there to give it real value, which is something the streaming industry has really helped with. So as long as I stay conservative, I do feel like I have a certain security right now in the operation. If the streaming industry were to go down then it’s a whole other matter. But right now it’s really a nice cushion and has given me the ability to kind of veer into the nightlife industry, which is a whole different beast.
What made you want to get into the nightlife side of things?
The beauty of the events is that more and more I’m able to do them with people that I work with on the music side. It takes a while to really get into promoting—I paid my dues.
I kind of saw the writing on the wall around 2005/2006 when the event concept was really blowing up in New York while the music side was stagnating. When I started promoting, Tuesday was only one night that was available to do events in New York. I had to jump in somehow so I did a lot of Tuesday nights. Flying in DJs from overseas, I would lose money on a regular basis, but doing that is how I really learned how to create a good event.
I was also fortunate as around that time there was a promoter team of Rob Fernandez and Benny Soto who were emerging as the most creative promoters in the city. They saw my interest in the event’s part of the industry and allowed me to get involved with some of their shows. I learned a lot from them. Sadly Rob passed away a few years ago.
Throwing a proper event isn’t easy.
There is a lot of preparation with the artists and the marketing and promotion. And most importantly, you have got to be there. You can’t show up at midnight to see what’s up and then leave. If you really want to be an event promoter, you have to be there for the duration hanging until 6am or whatever. You want to be there when the DJ plays his last record.
In the past few years, Benny and I have been partnering on some events and it definitely feels like the parties are getting bigger and better.
Music and events are the same kind of experience for me because I get a real thrill by being involved with something that works.
It’s great that the record label and club nights work hand in hand.
We talked about branding earlier and how the Nervous logo really helped. My promoter name is Mike Nervous, so that constantly calls attention to the label and helps with exposure. For the music business side right now, the one thing I tell all these guys I work with is that branding is everything. There are too many individual releases for people to know what’s what. And ultimately the audience is a bunch of kids, they’re probably not going to take the time to research the producers behind the tracks, but they will know who the brands are with the sounds that they like best. Branding for a record label is crucial right now.
YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud, assuming that they’re going to hang in there, are only going to get bigger. The audience will grow too and more tools will become available allowing fans to listen to your music. There’s real value in that—it adds up. I mean, it’s all pennies, but it’s just a matter of having a vision. I feel like people just don’t understand that they can set up all this themselves, it’s not that difficult. If you’re an up-and-coming producer and want to highlight your own music, do business with a long-term view. If you set up a SoundCloud page, set a goal. Say to yourself that within two years you’ll have like 50 tracks that you can earn money from. You might end up making like $500. It might be $5,000. You don’t know.
Royalties have gotten so complicated and sophisticated because the nature of the business has evolved. It used to be that you look at the amount of records you pressed, you look at what you spent and would be given a percentage. It could not have been simpler. Now royalties are based on so many different platforms that you have to be able to figure out a system to handle that fairly. Which is another big piece of advice—the importance and vaulue of doing a proper business. You have to make people want to stay with you as a brand and people have to feel like they’re getting paid what they are due. And even though it’s sometimes not a lot… a track on Beatport could sell 10 copies or a 1000 copies, but artists have a right to know.
“There’s something about America that always translates into cultural forces.”
Let’s chat WMC, when was your first year in Miami?
‘91, the first year WMC moved from Fort Lauderdale to the Fontainebleau in Miami. That first year was cool, but I remember ‘92 being the year when we really felt like we were killing it.
What was it about ‘92?
I feel like before ‘92 that the bigger/notable names would get together at the New Music Seminar. When it came to dance music at this time, there was a lot of antagonism between Detroit with techno and Chicago with house… who came first, who started what, etc. Cities and scenes were very territorial. But I feel like in Miami in ‘92 was the first year that you saw a lot of great support, everyone hanging out. Social networking (pre social media) was at its best. There was a lot of love going around for everyone and people were killing it. We had big records to promote. “Feel Like Singing” by Sandy B was blowing up. Strictly Rhythm had a bunch of hits, Maxi Records too. “Plastic Dreams” by Jaydee, “Always” by MK and “Some Lovin’” by Murk came out that year. “Gypsy Woman” was a hit. Lots of great records and it wasn’t the major labels killing it. When Winter Music Conference started in Fort Lauderdale, major labels were playing more of a role, but their presence was not as dominant anymore because they didn’t have the hits. They were trying to get our records because independent labels were so hot. I would say between ‘92 to ‘94 were positive years for everyone.
This was also a time when there were few club nights in Miami that meant anything. I believe Leslie Doyle started Magic Sessions this year and that party was another qualitative leap in terms of house music being recognized worldwide with DJs like Tony Humphries, Todd Terry, Louie Vega and Kenny Dope. Dave Padilla had his big night at Warsaw and I remember hearing him play a long set and dropping all these New York records. Groovejet was another great club. So was Third Rail, where Oscar G and Ralph Falcon played a party with Danny Tenaglia, Louie Vega and Kenny Dope. Amazing line-up.
Was Nervous afterhours in ‘98 the first year you started to throw events, or were you doing stuff before?
I did a few things before then in association with certain projects. But yes, the late ‘90s is when we started to do regular events. I thought why not try to do something a little more interesting. Like I said, those early years were great with so much energy, but what do you do next? So we did a couple pool parties at the Albion Hotel and those were really crazy. And then we had a silly, last minute idea for the Nervous afterhours at Denny’s. The first couple of years were very informal; we literally just told people about it verbally. People showed up, it seemed popular. We had a couple of boomboxes out. The third and fourth year is when we started to step up our game.
The third year, we set up a sound system and promoted it. Incredibly, Denny’s let us come in and do this. Well, we gave this little old woman who was the manager at the time a couple of hundred bucks each year and she said, “Yeah, do want you want.” I bought $300 worth of $1.99 Grand Slam breakfasts for everyone that came. We had people going around and pouring vodka in everyone’s drinks. Year four, we brought in lighting. They had these columns on the ceiling and we set up some minor rigging. It was unbelievable. We literally juiced the place up completely and put black posters all over the windows so the police wouldn’t come in or stop to see what was going on.
If you were to do that now you would get busted so quick, so many violations. It would start at 4am and go to 6am and I must say it was a great party. We owe a lot to that little old woman. I remember calling the next year and she was no longer working there and the person I spoke with on the phone thought I was crazy. They said there’s no way you did that here. Of course I didn’t really say exactly what it was and downplayed it somewhat. But yeah, it was all about that one little old woman who just said, “Hey, do what you want.” And we did. But, South Beach with a different place back then. There was no police. It was still a dead zone.
Going back to the early Nineties, you’re right about those years being notable… Lil’ Louis, Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills, Plastikman, Masters At Work, Aly Us, Green Velvet, River Ocean, Barbara Tucker. So much greatness.
And these were all American things. It’s incredible to think about how different it was in terms of Americans making worldwide hits.
Everyone doing business is a good thing, but the only problem I had with majors is that even though they can expose the music better, to them it becomes more about money. The energy that’s given towards money is never the same as the energy given toward creativity.
Once majors got involved… I feel like CC Music Factory on Columbia was cool because it was an American based product that tore up dancefloors all over the world. But it was basically combining a lot of the elements that all the guys were making in their underground tracks and things were never quite the same after CC Music Factory.
How important do you think America is to the dance music industry overall, on a global scale?
If you bring it back to the early Nineties when we were on top of the world, it’s almost the exact opposite. Right now the most prominent producers, nightlife and event brands are all European based. It’s crazy. I would venture to say that Ultra and EDC are probably two of the exceptions. Both of them appeal to a wider audience and they’re more commercial. The trendier event brands like Circoloco, Awakenings, Elrow and Hyte are all European based.
I look at it as the pendulum always swings. It’s just the way it goes—cycles. One thing about America is that there’s a cultural force here that Europe can never replicate. You can hear it in music. Soul, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, freestyle, house music and techno, these genres all ultimately did come from America and whatever forces existed at the time within the country to make people feel inspired. Who knows what that is, but I don’t feel this experience can be replicated. I do feel like it’s going to come back to America in terms of being the source of the musical inspiration itself.
With Nervous, I’ve always been a big promoter of New York because I like being in touch with the people I work with. But I have really opened up and work with a lot of Europeans now. We just did a project called Nervous Brooklyn Sessions where we flew in two guys from Italy, one guy from Belgium and a guy from France into Brooklyn for a four-day studio session just because we thought it would be interesting to see the dynamic of them working in Brooklyn and how it might inspire them in a certain way. And it kind of did, that release will come out in December. But yes, America is kind of on the recipient end of things right now, but what are we going to do? You roll with it and wait for that moment when it turns back around because it will eventually.
What do you think America can learn from dance music around the world?
I feel that Europe has always been a lot more professional. On the record label side, they’ve always treated dance music and the producers in a much more business like fashion. Even the major labels when you would do deals with Columbia or Polydor, you walk in and they were treating dance music back then the way American labels did rock and roll. They have full respect for it. You didn’t feel like it was being treated secondary in any way. So treating everything with the proper amount of respect from the business end is important. Marketing, everyone should have his or her music pushed in the same way. Like how Universal markets Lady Gaga, why not do it the same way? Give it the same energy as Drake because it deserves it. It might not be as big of an audience now, but who knows what it will be. And on the events side too, the European philosophy of doing business is different. They treat their events like America treats sports teams with the same kind of pre-planning, budgeting and production value. They go way over the top.
We have to compete—we have to. But there have been examples. Output in Brooklyn is one. There was a minute when there were no interesting clubs in America. Clubs would spend minimal on the design, on the sound, etc. and then Output opened in Brooklyn and really set the bar of what a club could be like. America with all the grit, and even though it might be hectic, there’s something about America that always translates into cultural forces. Dirtybird is another great example. Their marketing is unbelievable, the way it’s so distinctive and the way they create a team of producers and DJs. That’s really a concept that started in Europe, but they took it and turned it into a West Coast force. I think that’s the new template for what to do. I try to do that as well.
Where do you see yourself and the label in 10 years, still at it?
Yeah, I do because it works for me. I’ve had a couple situations over the years to either sell the label or do joint ventures that would have made me a lot of money. I also had a couple of good offers to become general managers of other prominent labels, but at a certain point I just would think to myself, what’s going to be more valuable? The money or the experience? Focusing on the experience more than the money is what works for me.
I do wake up some mornings and say to myself, after these events that go to 6am that I can’t believe I still do this and enjoy it all these years later. The energy of the music and the nightlife and being involved with good people never gets old. I feel very fortunate in that sense. If in 10 years I’m doing the same exact thing, that’s fine by me.
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