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Jason DeMarco explains why algorithms have no place in the Adult Swim Singles

The SVP/Creative Director for Adult Swim On-Air and co-creator of Toonami also revealed plans for three new albums this month.

June 22, 2020
Jason DeMarco explains why algorithms have no place in the Adult Swim Singles

For almost 15 years, Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco has upheld his mission of supporting music artists simply because he was a fan without playing the politics game with labels or other outside forces. In his words, he finds stuff that can simply be classified under the, “Yeah, this shit rocks," category. He’s used William Street Records as the outlet, releasing albums from DOOM, Killer Mike, IDK, Cerebral Ballzy, as well as collaborative projects with labels like Ghostly International, Hyperdub, and Definitive Jux.

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10 years ago, he assigned himself the task of obtaining new music to use in Adult Swim on-air bumpers and promos without much of a budget. Thus Adult Swim Singles was born and quickly took on a life of its own as a playlist of what made the multi-faceted mind of DeMarco tick. What started out as an 11-song run has now expanded to 52 songs that run the whole year, weekly. He’s also hand-picked a team of others to help with the music curation. The budget has magically stayed the same due to DeMarco’s strategic correspondence with artists who are naturally fans of the network as well as leaving the power of exclusivity and streaming rights in the artists’ hands.

In our conversation with DeMarco, he discussed a new initiative to help bolster the artist community Adult Swim often taps into titled Stimulus Swim. It was released last week in three volumes: Friends Of Adult Swim, A Hyperdub Mixtape, and A Ghostly Mixtape. Each volume also contains links to Bandcamp pages and other resources to directly support artists featured on the projects. Some of those artists include Adult Mom, Genesis Renji, DRAMA, Brijean, Jammz, and more.

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Read our interview with DeMarco below as he breaks down the origins of Adult Swim, the accountability they’ve maintained towards other creatives, and the Stimulus Swim series that they just launched to help artists during quarantine.

Jason DeMarco explains why algorithms have no place in the Adult Swim Singles
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I saw how Sean Akins and you started Toonami years ago, and then Adult Swim took shape. I was wondering what that journey entailed.

Jason DeMarco: Toonami was very early in the early days of Cartoon Network when they were trying to figure out an afternoon action cartoon block when Cartoon Network was very focused on young boys. Then Toonami got bigger than I think anybody thought it would. Then after enough years, I think we all started saying, "Hey, we're getting a lot of older viewers watching."

Mike Lazzo was the person who said to his boss at the time, Jim Samples, "Hey, I want to have a two hour block once a week where we just show cartoons for adults." Jim, to his credit, that's a big gamble, but he let Lazzo do it because in the spirit of Turner, he said, "I won't give you a lot of money, but you can do what you want."

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When he knew he wanted to do that block, we all worked in the same building, and he naturally came to us as people he thought understood how to do packaging. A lot of the editors, and including the guy who still runs the bump team now, Michael Cahill, they all worked on Toonami. We helped launch Adult Swim from inside with a lot of the stuff that we already had where we worked at Williams Street.

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What I think about Adult Swim Singles most now is its place in the context music streaming because it's changed so much. It went from an era of physical CDs as the only medium to an era of streaming. Has that switch affected how you approach selecting artists for the Singles?

I think so. A couple things happened over the years that forced us to change our approach. Creatively, the approach was always either work with established artists, but put them together with different artists so that what you're hearing from a particular artist is different from what they might normally do. In the very early years Flying Lotus did an Adult Swim Single with Killer Mike.

Then beyond that, the goal was exposing "new artists" or lesser known artists to a new audience. They were downloadable for a couple of years, but as the years went on, we started seeing two things, which is, one, less and less people were using their laptops or desktops. It was moving to mobile pretty quickly, and then streaming exploded. It became obvious that we needed to allow people to stream and download.

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To most people, streaming is how they listen to music. That actually freed us up in a way. That's one of the reasons the program went from 11 tracks in its first year to now usually around 60 over a year is that when you stop having to pay labels for downloads, you can spend less because it costs much less for them to let you have a stream of a song for 24 hours exclusively. Then after that they can put it wherever they want. Then it's just money falling out of the sky into a band's lap. Most bands are going to say yes to that unless they're huge acts. That's not the kind of act we work with anyway.

We've not spent more money on Singles than we have in year one. We've moved wholeheartedly into the musical discovery thing. I think nowadays we've seem that people love hearing about new music from Adult Swim. That's one of the more exciting things for most people that listen to Singles regularly.

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Now obviously with quarantine, artists can't tour, which is obviously a big money maker for them. Is that something that Adult Swim's Singles program is thinking about more, on top of the payment for the song upfront?

We actually are going to this year release three compilations probably sometime around May, but I'm not exactly sure of the date.

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We're calling it Stimulus Swim, Volumes 1, 2, and 3. Stimulus Swim is going to be the express purpose to highlight indie artists who could use financial support. We're going to pay them to make exclusive tracks that we'll put up for people to hear for free, but also we're going to highlight all of their Bandcamps. Then there are sites where you can buy their music, so when we post these compilations on our site, there'll be links to their Bandcamp and to their label or whatever they want us to link to. Then the commercials will definitely drive home the point to help these guys or gals or them.

One will be with Ghostly International; one will be with Hyperdub because they're obviously two fiercely independent labels who always do right by their artists and who we have great relationships with. Then the third one is going to be this compilation of complete indie artists that don't have labels and aren't signed that we're just going to put out.

We want to make sure they understand that we want them to be okay too. We don't want to just be taking their coolness, for lack of a better term, without being willing to give them something in return.

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Speaking about all the artists involved with Adult Swim, I think something that also has just intrigued me so much outside of the music is the artwork and the animations that go into the website that you guys build out every year. I remember even one year, there were animal heads that you could go inside of and see from the perspective as if you're inside of the mask.

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Yeah, we won a Webby that year.

Congrats on that. Is that a separate team that also seeks out these visual artists that have the components?

That's actually two different groups. That's my art director, who works for me, who his whole job is basically working on web stuff for Toonami and Adult Swim. His name's Shawn Moore, and then he works with our in-house design team, led by Jacob Escobedo, and sometimes the in-house design team will come up. The year we had all the weird photos.

There were different tableaus. That was all the in house Adult Swim design team, the same people that do all the billboards and the show art and every product and all that. That was all of them. Then some years it's more Shawn, the heads that you talked about, with more Jacob designing heads, Shawn working with a third party to build a site and make sure it worked right, and then us looking at it all together and saying, "Okay, this works. This isn't too top heavy for the average user." It's a mix, but it's almost always developed in house entirely. Then it's usually executed by a third party that we pay to build site.

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As far as the music selection goes, I feel you're just not the type of guy to go out and chase trends. Are there certain themes or different sounds that you just randomly hear here and there that you go out and seek, or is it all purely just random?

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I think it's changed over the years. Two things: one is since I picked most of the Adult Swim, it skews towards my taste. You don't hear a lot of Americana; you don't hear a lot of rock and roll. I listen to mostly electronic music, rap music, and metal. That's most of what you'll hear on Adult Swim, but even within those genres, there are subgenres. There's stuff like noise and experimental music and ambience and things that spin out of those genres that I stay in touch with. Now the team picking Singles is beyond me. It's actually four other people who pick the singles. I pick some too, but then we all just work together because last year I decided it's been one white guy picking all the music long enough.

We need to expand it into more thoughts and perspectives. Now it's a team of two men and two women. Shannon McKnight and Laura Sterritt work with me here at Adult Swim as producers, Adam Shore is a freelancer who works for Red Bull, and then another friend of ours, Adam Fuchs, is an artist. They're just people who I know. Even if I don't share exactly their musical pace, I know they know a lot about the music that they like, Really, I just want to make sure that whatever our choices are, they're authentic and they're not driven by anything other than a human saying, "I really this music," because to me that recommendation still matters. It's still better than an algorithm when a human who really knows about music says, "I love this band because they remind me of this band because they come from this tradition and this is why you should check them out."

As far as how I find out about music, to be honest, I'm such a media omnivore that I find out about music from friends from Twitter, following labels, following music critics I respect. Then honestly I'm an old man, so I go to iTunes every Friday, and I look at the new releases, and if I haven't heard of a band and it looks interesting, I sample it.

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I just want to spend maybe the last few minutes going into the vaults of the Adult Swim Singles history. I know you helped introduce Killer Mike and El-P to each other, and then with the Danger Mouse stuff, you had some songs with them already, and they were interested in adding some skits from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Were there other tracks or just projects that you helped assemble that may have not seen the light yet that you hope does someday?

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I could tell you there's one Freddie Gibbs track that he did with someone that we all love, that Freddie loved and that the producer who made it did not love and wanted to redo the beat entirely. But it was something you've never heard Freddie on anything like this. Then Freddie just didn't want to redo his rap to fit the new beat, and so the whole thing just sort of... I've got it on my laptop, but it's never going to happen.

Any clues maybe as far as who this mystery producer is for the Freddie track?

Don't get mad. He doesn't make much music anymore. I'll say that.

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Are there any tracks that you got to A&R that was a fun experience?

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The stuff like putting Killer Mike with Flying Lotus was fun because they hadn't met each other. Putting El-P with Jeezy. I didn't think I'd ever hear that. Then HEALTH doing a remix of an OJ Da Juiceman song, stuff like that was always really fun to me. Usually there's one single every year where even if it's a remixer taking a crack at something, or we released a Gibby Haynes with Mastodon song. Sometimes the artists who know us well bring us those opportunities because they're like, "Oh, Adult Swim Singles is a perfect use of this song that doesn't really belong on either of our albums, but we want to release." Those are always the most fun ones. I really liked the JJ featuring Ne-Yo song that we did, which is two songs smashed together really, but I love it.

Is there an ideal listening environment to consume all this music you guys put out a year?

Look, for me, the ideal listening environment is my car because I have the best sound system and I can drive around and I'm actually focused on the music.

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But I think for the average listener, I think most of these Singles are best heard on your phone with your headphones in your ears walking to work. That's honestly to me what they're best for, or in the background while you're doing something at home or at work and you can stop and pay attention when you want to, and you can let it go when you don't. To me, that's the function of a different type of track every week. Some tracks you're going to vibe with, some you're not. That's totally okay. If you were a habitual user of Singles and you came back every single week and you heard all 60 songs, if there were only five that you love or really liked, I feel I did my job.

Photo: Adult Swim 2020

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Jason DeMarco explains why algorithms have no place in the Adult Swim Singles