When gun-toting police officers and helicopters swooped down on Kim Dotcom’s $24-million rented Auckland, New Zealand mansion back on February 20th, 2012, the Megaupload founder was taken by surprise. He’d just returned from a long night in a recording studio and was settling down for bed. Little did he know that the United States Department of Justice—working in tandem with New Zealand police—was after the hacker-cum-entrepreneur for his alleged role as the chief architect of an Internet piracy operation. According to DOJ, Megaupload cleared $150 million off of premium website membership charges and $25 million in advertising, all while people were illegally trading movies, music, and software. Kim was arrested and jailed with three other executives from the company. Megaupload’s servers were seized, the website was taken down, and the entertainment industry’s biggest villain was finally caught.
That’s the story that Kim Dotcom desperately wants to leave behind. Because in the two years since the raid, the German-born giant has battled with the United States government, managing to dodge extradition. He’s also won a small victory, proving that the Government Communications Security Bureau—New Zealand’s version of the NSA—illegally spied on his operations in the months leading up to the arrest. Meanwhile, he’s watched his new service, Mega—a data-encrypted service like Megaupload, launched last year—quietly grow in popularity, signing up 30,000 new users a day. A forthcoming legal music service, Baboom, described as a hybrid of iTunes and Spotify, is expected to make its full debut at the end of 2014.
Yet the real reason why Kim Dotcom has reason to smile is because last month, on the two-year anniversary of the raid, he released his greatest labor of love, Good Times, an EDM album he’d been quietly toiling away on. Although it was almost instantly panned—“How could Kim Dotcom possibly make a good album?”—the project is filled with catchy, uplifting songs. Surprisingly fun songs. Even Dotcom’s vocals, unmistakable for the German-Finnish accent, are endearing.
And this isn’t just some pet project. Need proof? On New Year’s Eve, in front of thousands of people, Dotcom performed his music at Rhythm and Vines, a New Zealand music festival. Should he ever find the legal restrictions around his residency loosened, he may very well end up spinning your next crazy concert experience.
We talked to Kim Dotcom about his very under-appreciated album, his legal issues, and why the entertainment industry should be asking for his help.
Interview by Paul Cantor (@PaulCantor)
When did you first start making music?
I have always been making music on my computer, started with early chiptunes on my Commodore and throughout my teen years. I knew that one day I wanted to do something with it more professional and a bit more sophisticated in a studio, and then when the opportunity arose with the meeting with [Black Eyed Peas producer] Printz Board, I did not hesitate.
How did you meet?
I was on a summer holiday with my family in Paris and a friend said that the Black Eyed Peas were in Paris, too. So we went to see them, and then that same friend was a friend of Printz Board and said they’re later going to a party—would you like to go and meet some of them? We went along and met him and then the following day, we had dinner, and decided that we will spend some time in the studio in Hong Kong and see how it goes.
I remember when you put out the Megaupload song—was it hard to get all the artists involved in that? You had Kanye, will.i.am., Diddy, Jamie Foxx, Chris Brown in the video.
Everyone in the music industry used Megaupload. Most of the labels had dozens of accounts with Megaupload. So when we asked people to endorse Megaupload, we were actually running into open doors. One thing that we did not show, for example, Jamie Foxx, in his endorsement, he said, “I love Megaupload,” but he also said, “You know, I am getting all my shit from Megaupload,” and, “You know, I am doing this and I am doing that, getting my porn from it.” Of course we could not use that.
When did you start working on the record?
The first song that we worked on is actually on the album, it’s called “Take Me Away” and the first version of that song was 14 minutes. During that summer holiday, I also went through a Nürburgring rink, which is like an epic old race track, 22 kilometers long. And I booked it out for the whole day and we shot some footage there. So I thought it would be cool to have a song that goes with high speed driving, for this racing day. We created “Take Me Away” and there is a video on my Youtube channel, driving around the rink, and the long version is still in there.
Did you know you would wind up making a whole album?
The album was not in my head from the start. I really just wanted to do the track, the sound for this video that we made, because it was important to me to have something nice. One of my friends went with me to the race track, his name is Kimi Raikkonen and he is a former Formula 1 champion. He agreed to race with us for whole day and it was just absolutely amazing and I wanted to have really cool song for that and I knew exactly what the song would be.
How does building an album compare with building something like Megaupload?
It is pretty similar, actually. When it comes to websites, I am a perfectionist and I am analytic when it comes to pixels. I would tell designers that I need to move these pixels to the right and need to do this and that, and in the end, you know, the small baby steps that create the right look and feel—and it is the same thing with music. It’s pitching this up a little, using this plug-in, and then playing with the sound just a little bit.
How hands-on are you with this stuff, though?
I spent hundreds of hours in the studio. Every single song on that album is my song. I have done so much work to it, and I have done most of the sound design. When you hear something that sounds a little bit unusual—like these kind of transitions of the sound in the background, where you hear all the different morphing—that is all me. I sit there and I spend so many hours and then I even put it together in Pro Tools the way I want. What happens after that is the mixer goes in and he makes the vocals work with it and he makes the drums work with it.
I call it hacking [music]—it is really like hacking for me—because I do not really know the notes.
So it’s a little collaborative.
It’s really a hands-on collaboration process. But the cool thing about all these other guys is that they play all these instruments. They play the keyboard, they play the drums, even the trumpet. So they then take the results of these hours of basically hacking music. I call it hacking—it is really like hacking for me—because I do not really know the notes. I am just sitting there and trying hundreds and hundreds of combinations until I hear something that I say, “Wow, I like this.”
After the raid, your millions of dollars in assets were seized. How did you pull off making an album with no money?
Mega, the new business, launched nicely. And things progressed well and we raised some capital for the company and then the investor was kind enough to support my album project. It lifted everything else, all these dark clouds in my life, all the negativity, the kind of depression that I went through because of everything that had happened and the unfairness. The whole destruction of this business and 220 people losing their jobs without a trial. There was a never a trial, never a hearing, we could never defend ourselves. They just destroyed it, pulled the plug, shut it all down. I was really angry, and to be in the studio and to work on something positive and happy and uplifting, that kind of pulled me through this whole dark episode of my life.
What else inspired the LP?
I love driving fast. I grew up in Germany, we have the Autobahn here, where we can drive without a speed limit. And throughout my 20s, I always had fast cars and I always went to the maximum. Like, my average cruising speed was 250 km/hr. I would drive at night, go from Nennig to Hamburg, 800 km, do that in four hours and just listen to this kind of music. I wanted to make an album that I would put in my car and go incredibly fast and just enjoy from the beginning to end. I made this album for myself, actually.
Were you apprehensive about releasing it?
Yes. I knew it was not going to get the shine it deserves simply because it has my name on it. It kind of spoils the whole soup because the music industry hates me.
What other struggles have you run into?
I wanted to make deals with six to 12 distributors, and one after the other turned us down. They said, “Nah, the labels do not like you and this is toxic.” We had a listening party where we invited all the radio DJs of the major stations in New Zealand. All the DJs, they came here and they listened and they were like, “Awesome. This is the best. Amazing.” Then when it came to actually playlisting it, we heard from two guys that the more senior people in the radio station said, “Nah, do not play it; the labels do not like it.” So, there is a lot of sabotage going on.
I notice all the comments on the YouTube videos are like, “Wow, I didn’t expect to like this so much.”
If this album did not have my name on it, I think it would fly and people would just go nuts and it would play on the radio. But because it is me, I do not think it will ever go anywhere. People say exactly what you said. Like, “I had no expectations.” They all listen to it, the feedback is so positive. On iTunes, in the US stores, it is like 4.5 stars, 50 reviews, everyone super positive.
The video for “Change Your Life” shows you on stage. You’re a DJ and you’ve got the crazy vest on with the lights. Was that the first time you’d done that?
First time and one of most exciting things I have ever done. To be in front of 25,000 or 30,000 people, having them dance to your music and hands in the air, was absolutely mind boggling. I was totally nervous… but when I saw the welcome that I got and the people cheering, then the first song started so brilliantly. It was absolutely dope; I am hooked. I want to make an another album with less vocals and harder beats and go a little bit more aggressive and play venues like Tomorrowland and stuff like that. The big raves with 150 to 200,000 people.
I think you need to be able to leave New Zealand in order to do that.
It would take probably a couple of years to resolve the case. I’ll never be extradited. Never going to be in a U.S. court room. Because the extradition treaty here does not allow extradition for copyright. What they had to do, the Department of Justice basically did it trickier and applied the transnational organized crime treaty, and what they are saying is that we are a mafia organization, that me and my team members and my partners in the company were basically like a crime family. That we started the website with an intent to be criminal. They are calling it racketeering, the biggest problem that they have is, there is no evidence whatsoever of any racketeering—because it never occurred. We were innovators. We created a website that people love. We never thought for a second that anything we did was illegal.
I would love nothing more than me and my family getting green cards, going to L.A. for a year, sitting down with the big Hollywood studios and coming up with the most advanced and awesome Internet distribution platform for movies. It would make Hollywood more money than cinemas, DVDs, and everything else combined.
And you’ve said the raid was more political than anything else.
The chairman of the MPAA was a senator for 20 years, Chris Dodd. And Chris Dodd is the best friend of Joe Biden, the Vice President. Chris Dodd, when he joined the MPAA, was paid to pass legislation called SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy act, for the Hollywood lobby. He failed with that and attacking Megaupload was Plan B, the back-up plan. In case SOPA did not succeed, they would just send chilling effects around the internet with this law enforcement action against one of the largest websites on the planet. So, this is a really political case. The MPAA donated to Obama’s reelection campaign, $120 million U.S. dollars.
Switching gear, tell me about Baboom.
It’s a hybrid of iTunes and Spotify. So, you can buy music or you can stream music. Our unique proposition with Baboom is that you can download music for free, but the artist still gets paid. I have developed a software called Megakey and what it does is, if you install it on your computer, it’s running as a tiny little background task. It’s like an ad blocker, basically. If you surf the Internet the ads that you see on Google, for example, instead of turning them white or black, it just replaces the ads with ads that we control through our network. You are getting the ad dollars basically put on your Baboom account to spend on music later or spend on content. So the vision here is to alter the ad experience. Just by browsing the Internet, the way you do it today, you will earn between 15 to 18 albums a year in credit.
And it will just be music?
Baboom will start with music, but down the road it will also be hopefully a distributor of TV series, of movies, of e-books. So, any kind of content that is copyright relevant for example, could be sold on Baboom. And of course our credit system with Megakey is only going to give you credit for whatever you wanna buy on Baboom.
With the rise of streaming, Hollywood and the music industry seems to have given up on the idea that they can beat piracy. Knowing that you have a track record of creating products like a Megaupload why haven’t the major players come to you and asked you for help?
I would love that more than anything. I know I could actually help them and I could be the solution to the problems that they have. If they were rational, they would look at my track record as an innovator. Every year that goes by where I have to fight this case—and they really are not making any progress, because they don’t have the right ideas—it’s a waste of time for both sides. You know, I would love nothing more than me and my family getting green cards, going to L.A. for a year, sitting down with the big Hollywood studios and coming up with the most advanced and awesome Internet distribution platform for movies. It would make Hollywood more money than cinemas, DVDs, and everything else combined.