True to Style
As we get into the CUPRA Formentor VZ5 with Stefan Dabruck and drive off, it becomes clear right from the start that this guy doesn’t just make music. The forty-seven-year-old had originally trained to become a logistics manager, found out exactly what he didn’t want to do – and today, with more than six hundred and fifty gold, platinum and diamond certifications to his name, he is one of the most successful music producers and artist managers in the world. With his unbridled determination and strong will, but above all with his completely different way of thinking, he has turned the music industry on its head. His latest venture, CUPRA Music Labs, was opened in Frankfurt because, as he says, it’s important to him that his hometown of Frankfurt regains its status in the music business. We didn’t visit him there, however; instead, we went on a drive with him out of the city and into the peace and serenity of nature.
The motto of this issue is “Really?” That reaction people have when you’ve done something crazy or surprising. What spontaneously comes to mind when you hear that?
I think I once signed a techno song by a Frankfurt-based artist with just that title. It was very successful! [laughs]
But has anyone ever said it to you?
Let’s put it this way: If I had a euro for every time someone said, “Really?” I would have a real spaceship on the roof today. (Editor’s note: Stefan Dabruck has just ordered a giant model spaceship that will be perched on top of the CUPRA Music Labs.)
You’re famous for doing things your own way. Do you ever come up against any obstacles doing things like that?
A lot of the things I’ve done have resulted from not getting anywhere. I like to compare that to having to dig under a door when you can’t get through. The reason I opened an office in Nashville, for example, was because we weren’t getting any top international writers in Germany. It started when I discovered Robin Schulz. We had a stroke of luck in 2014 with “Waves” – and that was a singer-songwriter song. I then thought long and hard about how we would write the new songs, and I made a list of which songs had originated where. On that list were eight songs from my genre, and all of them came from Nashville. As a result, I flew to Nashville and literally went door-to-door there, though with two number one hits and a number two in England, I did have a foot in the door. I visited all the important writers there, Nathan Chapman, who produced the first seven Taylor Swift albums, or Tommy Lee James, who I also later managed myself. What I said to all of them was, “Hi, my name is Stefan Dabruck. I’d love to work with you guys.” That’s how I made the connections I have today.
"That’s a typical example of how I think. I don’t necessarily want to cut corners or do everything completely differently. I just think big."
But Stefan Dabruck’s recipe for success not only includes thinking big. It’s also about analysis and hard work.
The word “obsession” often has negative connotations, but the bottom line is that I’m obsessed with making music. It really makes me happy. There were a lot of very difficult moments where I asked myself why I was doing what I was doing. But there were also moments when I realized that I had created something with music. And that’s not at all about success. Of course, that’s important, too; an athlete wants to win. But how you get there, the path you follow, is the important thing – this process of creation, when you get the finished product, listen to it fifty times over and know that it’s going to be a hit. That’s much more exciting than going platinum afterwards.
“The word ‘obsession’ often has negative connotations, but the bottom line is that I’m obsessed with making music. It really makes me happy.”
Today we’ve got Spotify, YouTube and TikTok, distribution channels that have radically transformed the music industry. How do you manage to land a hit with so many different channels?
I’ll answer the question like this: Spotify is a tech company. They don’t have any music themselves. The reason they were able to get so big was because the record companies didn’t come up with the idea of streaming music. Of course, a lot has changed in the last few years. Right now, Spotify is the big thing, or TikTok. But when I’m writing music, I can’t worry about whether some kid somewhere is going to dance to it or not. I’m forty-seven years old, so dancing is far from my mind [laughs], but so is TikTok. I don’t get that at all. When Instagram was the big thing, the people who decide who gets a contract at the record companies would always ask how many followers someone had on Instagram or Facebook. But in the end, no influencer had a hit. Because nobody cared. That’s the beauty of it: at the end of the day, a hit is a hit. If you have a song that people like, you can write a hit in the farthest country in a kid’s room on a 1984 Atari keyboard. Last year, one of the biggest hits worldwide was Imanbek with “Roses”, a remix with a billion streams. It comes from deepest Kazakhstan. It’s not always the big ones who win. Of course, it can also be over again pretty quickly, for a second or third hit you really need a strong will. Like David Guetta, who keeps going and doesn’t stop. You know what? David Guetta has now also got a six-pack, during the Covid lockdowns. I said to him the other day, “You’re a great guy, but I hate you for that!” [laughs] Yeah, that guy is hardcore!
“Automotive designers as well as music producers follow certain guidelines, and within that framework we are free to create.”
Do the successful pieces you’ve helped create have something in common?
Let’s put it this way, I’m someone who’s fond of melodies. I met the French musician Hugel seven years ago at a music fair in Amsterdam. He played me a song and I said, “Okay, you’ve got a record deal.” Nothing happened for six years after that, but then all of a sudden, he became huge. I think that has a lot to do with believing in people.
What do you think has changed in the music industry? Apart from the fact that it’s not just the big players who can get ahead.
Of course, there’ve always been what I like to call “lucky punches”, but the way to get them has changed. As I said, the channel doesn’t matter. I think it’s much more important to give young people a chance – especially if they have talent. Then you may also decide to take the long road, even if it takes ten years to get there. David Guetta didn’t have his big breakthrough until he was in his late thirties, which is very, very late. And he had already been making music for fifteen years before that. But people don’t see that.
Where do new ideas come from? From the young savages or the experienced experts?
Through the mix of both. That’s the great thing with us in dance: that as a producer you always have to be up to date and there’s always something new. That’s how you can keep up internationally as a producer. If you’re a rock musician, you can always do the same thing for twenty years. Though I don’t want to badmouth rock music. The same goes for Schlager music, which still sounds like an eighties Casio synthesizer or Bontempi home organ.
“A lot of the things I’ve done have resulted from not getting anywhere. I like to compare that to having to dig under a door when you can’t get through.”
Where do you find new things?
I’ve had about three or four epiphanies in my life. The first time was when I heard Swedish House Mafia. More precisely it was Steve Angello. He was about twenty years old at the time, living at home and producing music in his mother’s kitchen with Sebastian Ingrosso. Guys who, eight or ten years later, managed to fill Madison Square Garden three times in a row. They sold a total of 1.2 million tickets, more than Madonna. That’s a moment I like to remember and think, “Anything is possible!” Or when I met Sam Martin, who has written quite a few world hits, including “Daylight” for Maroon 5. He told me his story, and it wasn’t all about success either. Or Scott Borchetta, Taylor Swift’s manager. These are all people who inspire me. I asked myself what these really great people were doing differently from me, and I realized: There’s nothing different. That gave me a lot of confidence. Actually, there’s only one person who I think can walk on water: Max Martin. He comes from Sweden, produced the Backstreet Boys in the nineties, and today he produces The Weeknd. He’s the most successful producer of all time. That’s someone where I say: Okay, all right, you’ll never get there.
So he’s doing something different?
He doesn’t sit at the piano all day writing hits, but he must have launched the careers of fifteen producers who learned from him. That’s a role model: I produce producers now.
Let’s talk about cars. Is the process of designing a car comparable to that of making music?
Surprisingly, yes. I’ve had the good fortune to talk to automotive designers about just that. And they told me that the thought processes during the creative process are similar. They also have to follow certain guidelines, just like I do. I can’t completely break out and do some wild free jazz. Well, I guess I could, but it’s not what I want. You have to stay true to your style. After all, you’ve got fans to please. Coldplay, for example, has a certain sound. When they start playing, there’s always the same aesthetic, but at the same time it’s somehow modern. In other words, musicians and producers as well as car designers have a certain framework, and within that framework we are free to create. Another parallel: You think a few steps ahead, always ahead of your time. 2022 is already over for me. I already know what the next four singles are and from which artists they will be. Sure, you can always copy things. That works from time to time, but you’ll never really get ahead.
Which song best describes the CUPRA Formentor VZ5?
At the risk of doing a promo: “On Repeat”, the new single from Robin Schulz and David Guetta, which will be released at the end of April.
CUPRA Formentor VZ5
Engine: turbocharged inline-five
Displacement: 2,480 cc
Power: 385 hp (287 kW) at 5,700–7,000 rpm
Torque: 480 Nm at 2,250–5,700 rpm
0–100 km/h approx.: 4.2 s
Top speed: 250 km/h.
CUPRA Formentor VZ5 2.5 TSI 287 kW (385 hp) DSG: Fuel consumption (combined): 9.3 l/100 km; CO₂ emissions (combined): 212 g/km; CO₂ efficiency class: F