This is an interview done in 2013 with the founder and CEO of Rephlektor Inkorporated, Justin Kleinfeld. At a time when dance music was exploding over the US, Justin was at the heart of the industry, having worked with artists like Swedish House Mafia at the start of the group’s career. I was writing for a now-defunct dance music magazine at the time and was recently able to recover the interview from their archives. Below you can read about Justin’s early days in the entertainment business, his work as a journalist, and how he does PR for his clients.
– Hi Justin. Thanks for sitting down to speak with me. How did you get your start in the entertainment business?
Getting into entertainment wasn’t easy in the 90s. A lot of young people today start off by writing for a blog, which they later parlay into a job if they’re savvy, but you couldn’t do that in the pre-Internet days. As a teenager, I used to call New York record labels in search of a job, but of course they had nothing to offer. Once I’d graduated from The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, I decided to focus on TV production and got a part-time position at MTV News in the programming department in 1997. The following year I landed an internship position at USA Network, which led to my first full-time job at their sister company, USA Films. I started out as the assistant to both the CFO and the Head Of Marketing, and soon became the assistant for the chairman, Scott Greenstein, who’s currently the President of Sirius XM. That was at a time when USA Films was working on movies like Being John Malkovitch and Traffic, so it was great for me to be thrown into the thick of the industry at only 22.
– After working at USA Films, you transitioned to CMJ, right?
That’s right. I’d always been fond of CMJ and had seen some of my favorite artists at their Music Marathon conference in New York. I later learned that the founder was from Long Island, which was ten minutes from where I lived, and I thought maybe I could find a connection since we were both locals. So I emailed him when I was in college, and to my surprise, he responded. You don’t expect people to answer back with that kind of thing, but he did, and we kept in touch for a long time. While I was at USA Films, he told me that vacancies at CMJ would be available soon, including a position as his assistant. I’d gotten a job offer from Atlantic Records at that time which offered better pay than CMJ, but it was in their online department, and when I saw that my desk would be positioned in a corner where no-one was close by, it turned me off. Knowing that I wouldn’t have the chance to network with people at Atlantic, I took a pay cut and went to CMJ instead.
I started out as the assistant, but when the dance music editor got fired I took over his position, and we were able to attract enough reader interest to relaunch the section with me writing it. I had two pages every week to fill with reviews, news, and interviews, and CMJ even gave me a few covers later on. I also freelanced for magazines like Remix, BPM, and Miami New Times, and I got to do cover stories on artists like M83, LCD Soundsystem and Underworld. My interviews were partly about music production, so I learnt a lot about what happens in the studio and what software people were using, which the artists appreciated. It meant I wouldn’t ask them standard softball questions, and they were given the chance to talk about the details of their work.
– How did you transition from journalism to PR?
I was eventually laid-off from my assistant position at CMJ but stayed on as a freelance contributor for the dance column. During that time, an independent PR agency came to me and said they needed part-time help, so I went to work with them for about six months. That’s how I got into the PR business. This was still in the pre-Internet days, so the value of print press was high and I learned how to pitch music content from a print perspective, which means understanding that magazines have a limited amount of space on their pages. You really need to know who you’re speaking with at the publication in order to convince them to offer that space for your content.
– And how did your company, Rephlektor, come about?
By working for a few months at the PR company, I realized that the only thing I needed to do this kind of work was a phone and an email account, so I started Rephlektor in 2005. Dance music in the US wasn’t popular in the 2000s, so for many years I only had a few clients and there was no need for me to hire anyone since I could train myself to do everything. Things changed when the genre blew up in 2010 – my work got more intense, but I was still able to run things by myself. The organizational skills I developed while working at USA Films really came in handy for being able to visualize artist campaigns in an effective way, so I could plan things accordingly.
– Were there any challenges that were difficult for you to overcome at the time?
The biggest challenge in starting any new venture is the risk involved. Granted, I didn’t have a steady paycheck when working as a freelance writer, but journalism was still a reliable source of income when compared to running a new PR company that had no clients. But I was fortunate to get some help when I started out; Ben Turner is a friend of mine who manages artists like Richie Hawtin, and he helped get me one of the all-time great dance acts as my clients: Ralph Falcón and Oscar Gaetan from Murk. I also started working with Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of the most influential electronic acts in the world. Everyone talks about Kraftwerk as pioneers, but Yellow Magic Orchestra had an equally big influence.
Slowly but surely, I was able to acquire more clients but it took a good five years until things blew up in 2010. I don’t have the same kinds of concerns now, but it took five years of toiling away. On one hand it felt good to avoid having to work for someone else and I enjoyed making my own hours, but on the other hand you have to work your tail off. Five years of working from home can get lonely and it takes a lot of discipline. If you want to create a real business in the dance music industry, it’s not about going out to party – the most significant moves I make are done during business hours. It may be a perk to have access to clubs that my clients work at, but none of that would be possible if I exploited it and did things that were harmful to my job.
– Were there times during those five years when you wanted to give up?
Sure, and I almost did. At one point I remember thinking, “Screw this, I’m going to law school instead ” (laughs).
– Why law school, when you’d studied film production in college?
Once you’re out of the loop in an industry, it’s hard to get back into it. I hardly remember what I studied in school, so I was at a crossroads. But fortunately, dance music in the US eventually blew up, which shows that you have to stick with things. No-one’s going to hand you anything for free and being persistent is a part of paying your dues. But when you see your friends in the finance sector making tons of money and you know that you work just as hard yet have nothing to show for it, it can be discouraging. That’s where the passion has to come through. Even when the money wasn’t flowing, I would still get a natural high from seeing a great article published about my artist, and it made the difficulties feel worthwhile.
– Did you have any breakthrough projects that made you realize that the dance scene had taken off?
Yes, I did. I started working with Swedish House Mafia around February 2010, and my first experience with them was at the M2 Ultra Lounge. They played their first New York show there and it was packed, which I didn’t expect. After that, they did Masquerade Motel and Madison Square Garden in 2011. It was like a “pinch me” moment, because I grew up in New York seeing Nine Inch Nails and The Rolling Stones at the Garden. My favorite hockey team, the New York Rangers, won the Stanley Cup there, so it’s a special place for me. To see a dance music event at a venue like that was unbelievable, and things took off after that. My business grew through word-of-mouth and I got to know a lot of artists that were touring in the US. Once dance music became popular, a lot people needed a publicist and I was fortunate to pick up a lot of big names.
– What is it exactly that your PR work entails?
That depends on the client. Some ask me to do press releases for their projects and I’ll try to get them as much coverage as possible. Others are open to brainstorming, so we bounce ideas back and forth. But most guys will come with a skeleton of a game plan; they might have a track with X amount of assets, like a music video or a remix, and they’ll ask me what the best plan is. Who do we target for premieres? Does the project lend itself to any unique kinds of promotions, or is it just a regular track that’s hard to say anything about? In the latter case, we might just do a general promo push. But if there are certain angles and themes in the music that an artist thinks could resonate well, we might aim for a more creative campaign.
– What does your day-to-day work routine look like?
On my average day I wake up around 6:30am, get on my phone, check all my emails from Europe and the West Coast, and delete all the spam. I write press releases and pitch media outlets for the artists that are in town and I try to set up interviews – it’s a desk job that never ends. I can only imagine how it used to be back in the day when there was no email. I’ve spoken to people who used to do it and they tell me stories about sending out couriers with actual press releases and artist photos (laughs).
– Do your artists judge you based on how creative your campaigns are, or do they only care about achieving positive results?
To be honest, I don’t really get much feedback from them, which I take as a good thing – no news is good news because you’ll definitely hear from someone if things go wrong. Also, if you’re working with an artist that already understands how the press functions and what outcomes are realistic, it makes things easier because they’ll have more reasonable expectations.
– You were one of the first PR people to embrace working alongside dance music blogs. Has that relationship continued to be beneficial?
Absolutely. I was going to them before they blew up since most mainstream press doesn’t care about dance music. The most famous artists might get some coverage from big publications, but I found that blogs were an outlet that could help the scene immensely, and you don’t have to twist their arm to do it. You’re dealing with kids who’re mainly in college and write for the passion of it. Most of them want to attend the shows and I was more than happy to get them in. As it turned out, the blog world blew up and has become very important now.
– Despite the success you’ve had in working with blogs, is there any one thing you don’t like about them?
Sometimes things get printed as fact without any proof or attribution. Someone might write an article about how much money an artist makes, yet there’s no source cited at all. People are really eager to pick up on that kind of stuff, which can be unfortunate.
– What do you like most about how the scene has evolved in the last three years?
The overall work ethic of artists in this genre is very impressive. Fans might only see the glamorous parts or read about DJ fees, but these guys work tirelessly, and some of them have to balance family life with their careers, which the public only sees a snapshot of. Things have become exciting on the fan side too, which is a big change from how it was a decade ago. When I was going to clubs in the 90s, DJs weren’t playing music that could be heard on the radio, and the whole scene was wide open to be discovered. Then came a lull period in the 2000s where clubs started getting half-empty and the excitement died down. But today’s kids have revitalized everything, which I don’t think anyone expected. Even those who say things like, “This DJ is terrible” or “I only like underground music “, are doing some good for the scene because that sort of criticism is a part of what makes the music fashionable. A lot of that has been missing from dance music for a long time.
– Are there any changes that you’d like to see in today’s scene?
That’s hard for me to say. I could say “I want to see more of this or that “, but things like that are already happening, or will happen in the future. I’ve been doing this for so long and it’s finally going well, so personally, I don’t think I want to change much at this point (laughs). I try to work hard and respect people, so things are going well for me as a result.
– Thanks for talking to me Justin. It’s been nice to learn about your job. What’s next for you? Artist management?
Most dance music managers have been doing their jobs for a long time, so even though I understand how the industry works, I prefer to leave that kind of work to them. I wouldn’t be able to do my clients justice as their manager because it would entail too much of a learning curve, and I’m plenty busy as it is. It might be of interest somewhere down the line but it’s not ideal for me right now. Besides, I’m very happy where I’m at. I couldn’t have gone to school for this job, and to have gone from being a fan to working with the artists I looked up to is insane. So I’m not in a rush to change things.