Meet Axel “Norde” Ulfson – Music Producer. Had his break-through with the smash hit “Every Single Night”, and has since then gigged around the world and written music with some of the best. The insofar peak of his career? His Tomorrowland gig of course. We met Axel for a quick chat about his tripple M role models, why music is maths, and how there’s nothing as unsexy as ”sexy” industries.
Occupation: Music Producer
You work as a music producer. How did you end up where you are today?
I’ve always loved music, and have always known that I like to be the captain of my own ship. Therefore, I decided to, after a boring education at Stockholm University, move to the US to study music. And on that road it goes.
What motivated you to turn your interest into a career?
Well, I’ve got two theses in regards to this. Firstly, you can do whatever you want in the world if you work really hard for it. The possibilities are there if you are ready to give it your all. Secondly, it’s actually possible to make money within the area you think is fun. If you have an interest, then you both could and should turn it into a profession. Interest creates engagement and engagement creates success. With those two theses in mind I felt like there was nothing stopping me from going for it.
What are your primary skills within what you do?
That I am diversified. I am schooled within everything from jazz, to classical, to pop and electronic music. Further, I can play multiple instruments, which enables me to create music within different genres. I also believe that I’m pretty simple to work with, I easily connect with other artists. The social aspect of what I do is more important than you might think. When you get into a session, the result depends on how well you connect with the artist. You want the artist you’re working with to open up and share. A session starts with simply hanging out with each other, and if you connect, well then the musical collaboration will be better. And more honest, and more intimate.
What does a session look like?
In a session you put together people who are good at different things. Often it’s an artist, a producer and one or more songwriters. It becomes a sort of project where you gather the competence you need in order to achieve a certain end goal. The goal could be a radio hit or an emotional ballad.
Do you like this type of project structure?
Absolutely, I actually think that other industries should learn from how the music industry works when putting together a team. Having talented individuals being put together based on competence for a specific purpose and goal enables fantastic synergies. Every constellation focus on its individual goal. Locking people into a room and waiting to see what happens is astonishingly effective, and something that definitely should be applied to other industries.
Can you pinpoint one of the most important crossroads in your career?
When I was accepted into Berklee College of Music. It was then I started to see music as a career rather than an interest. It was then and there I decided that it would become something that I would dedicate my future years doing.
Choosing Berklee was a big investment in your music career, is that the reason that you’re still in the industry?
Perhaps, however, I am pretty stubborn. The day I got accepted into Berklee, my end goal was set and there was no turning back. I feel great around music and in the music world, and therefore it feels like I’m doing what I should be doing.
Say hello to your 20 year old self, vad would you have told yourself now that you didn’t know then?
If you would change career path in the future, what profession would you like to try out?
I’d probably do something within entrepreneurship, have my own company. Being an entrepreneur is similar to being a freelance musician. Similar way of working, similar problems and similar solutions. But then I’d also want to be in a really boring industry.
There’s nothing more unsexy than “sexy” industries. I like to think about things that are yet to be invented. Find the intermediary between existing solutions. Optimise processes and find logical solutions to uninteresting but important problems. The uncool is the new cool. I want to have a huge company that no one knows about. A company without a Facebook page.
So either that or a physicist. I’ve always been interested in physics and maths. Producing music involves a lot of maths. Frequency. Sounds. I love theories, systems and structures. Either you think of a song as “just a song” or you go more in depth as to why it sounds like it does and the emotions it brings out. You find a lot of maths in that. You can break down melodies into formulas and in that way determine how “catchy” a certain song is. You can calculate how many different elements of sound a brain can process to be comfortable. You can judge the relationship between tones, as they are in symbioses. I like to see music as structural rather than just improvise it.
This sounds somewhat controversial, do you differ from your industry colleagues on this point?
Well, many really talented musicians primarily compose by gut feeling and emotions. Something you can come really far with, but I’ve always liked looking at music as a structure. I like the layers. Where the instruments are in the frequency spectrum, where they appear in the sound image, how they work together, instead of just listening to the entire song as a whole.
It’s Monday morning, -10C outside and you’re really tired. How to you motivate yourself?
I don’t go out, I keep on sleeping. I work 9-5 like everyone else, just the other 9-5.
Do you have any role models?
Martin, Mozart and Menkel. I’ve always admired people who work harder than everyone else. And these three are and were obsessed with working diligently and hard. There is an anecdote about when Mozart went bowling with his friends (yes, bowling existed in the 1700s …), where he in between rounds stood by a table at the side of the track and wrote down symphonies. Right from the head, of course. Yes, I love people who are best at what they do.
Do you believe in talent?
Yes, I do. However, I believe that it is 80/20 hard work.
What differs the music industry today from 100 years ago?
Today, the music industry is a tech industry. More so than a performance industry och therefore, the music industry is evolving in the same pace as technology. In other words, in a crazy speed.
As society needs to adapt to technology, the difference in our music habits is just as big as with our technology habits. The interesting thing is that the record labels and publishers who were big back then still exist today, but as they’ve had to adapt to technology, they have completely different sources of income. An unintentional but successful adaption.
What will the industry be like in 2030?
The pace of which technology changes makes it almost impossible to guess. I do think that the music industry will become more live based. It’s a clear and well paid source of income in a time where other ways to access music become cheaper and cheaper, and result in lower and lower margins for the musicians.
Further, I believe that we will see a larger middle class among artists than we do today, rather than a dominating top class. During the 90s, the top class was dominated by a handful of artists but as a result of Spotify and other streaming services, the music consumption has become more “democratized”. This means that the songs become more important than the artists. One example of this is Mike Perry. His song “The Ocean” was one the most played songs during 2016, yet surprisingly few people knew about him as an artist. You become a fan of a genre rather than a specific artist.
Axel’s top five…
- Series? Games of Thrones
- Destination? LA, always
- Podcast? Historiepodden (Swedish)
- Mobile app? Reddit
- Spotify playlist? I try to listen to more albums than playlists. Right now, I recommend Francis and the Lights’ new album.