Exclusive: Interview with Sander Landsaat | Protocol Group

Sander Landsaat, CEO of the Protocol Group, is a very busy man. You may be familiar with the Protocol Recordings through Nicky Romero, but the Protocol Group extends far beyond recordings to events, management, licensing, and more. One of the big players behind it all is Sander Landsaat, but he’ll be the first to tell you that success is a team effort. Always humble, Sander shared with us a wealth of knowledge, from what the Protocol Group has been up to, how the industry looks from his perspective, and much more.

How did you build up Protocol to be a reputable name in the electronic dance music arena?

We try to not move with the hype. Like in the beginning of the year you saw people like Showtek who introduced a style with a really hard low end. These fluctuations happen, we try to keep a stable life. The key to that is that Nick [Nicky Romero] is our head A&R, together with a team of three more people. We receive about 1-2 gigs of music a week, and we try to listen to everything, but we are very particular when it comes to our music DNA. We also have a sub-label in the workings. It’s a team effort with us, and we like that to show through in our operation.

We have a lighting guy, a visual guy, a camera man, a tour manager who does the effects during the show, it’s all a well-oiled machine, and we are lucky to have one of the biggest talents in the world to work with. The show we put together, I’m very proud of.

How involved is Nicky Romero in the operation of Protocol Recordings?

Nick has not had a lot of relevance in the music world in the past year because he’s coming back from a burnout, it started with glandular fever, and it progressed, and it was difficult for him. But our next release, with Nile Rogers, is insane.

It’s a funny story, I introduced Nile Rodgers to Nick, and at one point he started producing again and he wanted to get in the studio with Nick. There’s such a generation gap between Nile and Nick, Nick was like, “Nile Who?” I said, “Nick, you gotta do this,” and I played him “Le Freak” and stuff that he produced for Madonna and David Bowie, and Nick said, “I don’t know, maybe. This guy did something cool but I don’t know if it will fit in an electronic setting.” Two weeks later Nile was in the studio playing on his bass and he found this riff and said “Nicky, Nicky, you better get this because I might lose it!” and Nick recorded it, and within 10 minutes we had the set-up for the track that’s coming out now. But I’m just happy that it happened.

It’s important for me to see where your views are, because we have territory specialists here at the label, and it’s important for me to pick your brain to see how you think. Like our buyers, they tell us the “EDM bubble has burst,” but its bullsh*t, we don’t just sell music, we sell an experience.

How do you select which artists to sign to the label?

We are a very headstrong organization when it comes to promoting music and signing artists. I can tell you a lot of A&Rs at major labels don’t like me. They are trying, for instance when the CD was introduced, it was a logical progression from vinyl. The establishment pushes back to change, because why should they change this very lucrative thing they have in place? Why should we take chances? So they will push, push, push, and finally they will take it in. So the whole system is based on making money with physical sales being a big revenue stream. There are major labels that have over 15 A&Rs under their employ that have a salary of half a million dollars a year. And that’s based on that one hit, or that one artist that they land. But if you have to pay out these enormous sums of money, and nothing is coming in, you have to start chipping away at the foundation.

That letter that Taylor Swift sent to Apple Music, it’s funny to me. Music is a commodity in life, it’s one of your first four necessities of living, at least for me. We don’t make as much money as we used to, but that doesn’t matter. The label started out as a purely promotional vehicle, because we wanted to release music where we wanted, when we wanted, and how we wanted. So now we have a licensing network in place and it’s a conversation.

How do you see electronic music changing in the next year?

Since EDM came up in the states there has been a signing frenzy with major labels. But they see that it’s a market that is difficult for them. Take Universal, they have four or five of the biggest acts in the world signed to them, but those projects are so heavily un-recouped that it doesn’t make sense for them to work the music anymore. You have to understand what your target audience wants, and when you are working with an underground genre, you can’t expect to exploit it like pop culture. And I find that worrisome, because we are also catering towards the radio. But some people get so over-A&R’d, that it chips away from their existence, or why they became popular. And these are people [the A&Rs] that don’t know the scene that just want you to gear your output to the market to make the most money. And I think that’s such a wrong perspective, the reason why all my guys work is because we have one passion, and it’s music. Maybe my second passion is making money, but it will come. If you reason from strength, and are convinced of your qualities, and you do it with passion, it will flow back to you.

The whole company is set up – we have one mother company who owns all of the separate subsidiaries, and that’s where we do the split in equity. So if events are doing badly, and recordings are doing well, we all help each other out. This is difficult for me, because now I am a promoter, a record label owner, and a manager. So if I have to negotiate a publishing deal for one of my artists, I have to put my manager hat on. And that’s where some people misunderstand what we are trying to do, the reason we try to do everything in-house in order to keep speed in our organization. We are creating a springboard for new artists. For instance, Volt & State’s manager Thomas, is only allowed to manage two acts. In some other companies, manager may have five, six, or seven acts to look after. It’s impossible. One of the key factors in doing group management is maintaining a relationship. For the artists’ psyche, as they say in Dutch, “The grass is always greener in the neighbor’s yard.” Without being disrespectful, artists are opportunistic people, they have to make their money during a set time when they are popular. But as a manager it’s difficult because you might put so much effort into your act, and it might not work. Then one guy comes along and helps them out and gets lucky and suddenly you’re the devil and they’re god. That’s the difficulty with moving in this space.

People think Protocol is Nicky Romero, but Protocol represents way more than that. We are now a global network to help young artists and tell our story.

If you have influence, are you obligated to help other people?

Our conviction is that if we work hard together we can all make money. But I’m very strict when it comes to the rights for my artists, everything has to remain with the artists. It’s very important because that’s their pension. You’ll see in publishing that people will sign their life away because they get a five grand advance. What I’ve found is that there is a facility for young kids to not feel the pressure to sign a big contract that a record or publishing label puts under your nose, just to get your music out there. Young artists are so anxious to affiliate themselves with a big label, it’s like Valhalla. But in order for them to get where they want to go, they are relentless, even towards themselves, and they are very detrimental to their careers from the get-go.

So we do everything in house, maintain the artists rights, and work well together. In this business, if you hold grudges, and take things personally, it will end you.

Tell us how your career has evolved in the music industry.

I have done everything from being a bouncer, to renting lights and sound, to being stage manager, to driving DJs, I have done everything in the scene so that helps me today. My motto, and it’s not very polite, is “everybody has to take a shit,” so why are you, or anyone else, better than me? When it comes to my guys, I would never ask them to do something I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself. It’s important to me to do things so I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.

Protocol is marketing, but it comes from a good place, because we feel that we are connected to our fans. Their growth on an organic level is ridiculous. We have ambassadors in every country, and they fight for us, and we are proud of that. Like, Nicky’s biggest fan is a girl who has a handle that says IMSONICKYROMERO, and today she’s here. I fly her out, and I put her up, and she’s so cool. She’s so humble and such a hardcore fan, it’s an honor to call her family, and we’ve become friends over the last few years.