Industry Insider: Neon Owl's Elaine Huang On The Power Of Giving Back Through Electronic Music

We chat with Elaine Huang about why she left her six figure job to start the company and the mission of her mini-conferences Open Door Sessions.
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Elaine Huang

Elaine Huang

With all of the money flying around the world chasing DJs, charity is something that should come as a natural. Some have embraced their charitable side and others have let their peers lead. Connecting musicians and charities can feel obvious when it is done, but often it can be a tough task. What are they passionate about? What are their motives? How will the money be raised? Connecting these two parties with the rest of the industry is the mission of Neon Owl.

Neon Owl looks to empower artists, festivals and more to give back to charities in a variety of ways. Whether it is a mental health initiative or pet rescue, artists like Andrew Rayel, Arty or boat festival Groove Cruise have all taken part. Owned by Elaine Huang and her brother Ray, the company has also expanded into Open Door Sessions, which provide a platform for industry people to connect and discuss important issues that aren’t just the biggest tunes of the moment. They are conferences that discuss anything from mental health to mixing and mastering with industry leaders giving talks.

We decided to talk to Elaine about how this all came together, why she quit her six figure job to pursue this and how everyone can give back a little more. The next Open Door Session is taking place in Los Angeles this Sunday, July 28 with people like Reid Speed, Vassy, Autograf’s Mikul Wing and more all speaking. Get info here.

How did you get into the business?

I got into business because honestly, I was having a post quarter life crisis. I had a really good job making 6 figures as VP at a construction and renewable energy company. When I was about to turn 27, they offered me the junior partner position. It was an honor at such a young age, but it caused me to really think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Did I want to stay here, commit to this, and have the security of making a shit ton more money doing what I was great at... but didn't feel the fire and passion for? Or did I want to go all out and do everything I've always wanted, risking it all. I've always been an ALL OR NOTHING kind of gal, diving in head first with no plan. So I figured life was now, and there was going to be no better time to take a risk.

I looked around at all these awesome companies in the dance music industry, and didn't quite find one like the one I wanted to create: one that involved artists, fans, music, connection, and charity. I wanted to create some awesome content, meet cool people along the way, and curate awesome merchandise and experiences that was going to allow for us to donate back to charity. It was just an idea I had, and I asked my brother Ray if he wanted to join me to make this happen! We always joked that "siblings who rave together stay together" and I couldn't think of a better business partner. He liked the backend stuff and hated the spotlight. I loved talking to people and hated little details. Fast-forward 30 days; we were an established LLC basically. Then the business just evolved from there as we grew.

Who are the clients that you have worked with this on? Who are future clients?

I wouldn't call the people through Neon Owl clients but more collaborators. Although I do have my other coaching and branding business where I work with individuals, creatives, and companies to launch and grow. Through Neon Owl, we work with festivals, promoters, artists and non-profits. Some of our collaborations have been with Andrew Rayel, Groove Cruise, Trance Family, MaRLo, ARTY, and recently added Gold Rush Music Festival, to name a few. Some of the non-profits we have worked with include Fenders Music Foundation, Whet Foundation, AIDS WALK, Boys and Girls Club, and generosity.org to list a few as well.

In the future, we plan on working with more artists, collectives, festivals, brands, and non-profits. It's not so much about who we are looking to work with, but who they are as individuals and whether they can align with our mission of DANCE. GIVE. INSPIRE. We're looking for people and companies that care, that want to create unique experiences, educate, collaborate, and inspire while giving back. Any artists, brand or festival that can align with that is a partnership we would love to build on. As far as causes go, we are tapping into suicide prevention, mental health awareness, and animal rescue (a lot of our team members and volunteers are huge animal lovers).

Why did you decide to start Neon Owl?

Similar answer to the question about how I got into business. Neon Owl was never actually intended to be a "business," but a passion project. I know I can make money, and I know I could have started a much more lucrative business. The music industry is not where you go with the intentions to make big bucks HAHA, and neither is charity. But I wanted to create something that I could feel excited to wake up to each day, knowing that I'm building something that will impact people for many years to come. 

I wanted to create something that bridges the gap between music and philanthropy, and to shift some even just a small fraction of the billions of dollars being made in this industry towards some social good. I was also quite sick of shitty content, gossip blogs, and pastie chicks on my feed. I wanted to get to know the artists, entrepreneurs and creatives beyond "what they do" and who they are on stage, but who they are as people, what they cared about, and what keeps them going. I wanted to create something more positive, community based, and be a movement that can inspire others to pursue their passions and be a part of something bigger.

And without sounding too cliché, music did save my life. I turned to music ever since I was a kid, and definitely through my darker teenage years. It was my release, my inspiration, and my outlet. I listened to everything from pop, hip-hop to EDM. So when I discovered dance music festivals, my world changed. It was unlike any other culture I have experienced before. It was accepting, expressive, passionate, and freeing. My experience was that mostly everyone at these festivals were their best selves, living their best lives. 

On the other hand, I also saw that some people saw festivals as their escape from real life, dreading going back to the 9-5. Although I was not dreading real life, I myself was going through a crisis, seeking something that was going to evoke that passion and fire within me each and everyday. I wanted to create something outside of the festival that could allow for us to live by the same values beyond the four walls of the music festival. I wanted people to have something that could bring out their inner child, creativity and compassion everyday. So I created Neon Owl.

There has been a slow wave of more artists doing charitable partnerships using their music. Why is this just starting on a larger level in dance music?

I think that comes in a few different parts. I'm not a veteran in this industry, but I remember 3LAU being one of the artists I loved for giving back as long as I've known his music. I'm sure there were plenty more artists as well, but unlike pop artists, hip hop artists, or what we used to consider "mainstream artists," DJs and producers got less of the spotlight compared to the other more mainstream genres. Therefore, I think they were just covered less. 

Neon Owl Open Door Sessions

Over the last few years, EDM has become super mainstream and there’s so much crossover with the other genres that these DJs are getting a ton of radio play and coverage, which also means more reach to the masses and more opportunities to give back. I also think that it’s become a pretty cool thing to give back, and definitely good for branding. But whatever the reason, I'm glad it's happening. My personal opinion is that everyone should give back, even when they're just starting at a small level. Cause if you can't give out a dollar when you make ten, you're definitely not going to give out tens or hundreds of thousands when you make millions.

What was the original purpose of the Open Door Sessions and how has it evolved?

The original purpose of Open Door Sessions was to create events where people can come together to network under an intimate setting without the super "business vibes." At Neon Owl, we really pride ourselves in our intimate connection with our tribe, whether that be with the DJs, fans, or both of them together! There's no "better than" or "bigger than," just people. That's why I named it Open Door Sessions, as an open door for people to come through. 

The idea came to me about 2 years after starting Neon Owl. I had already met so many people from all moving parts of the industry; talent buyers, promoters, established artists, DJs, producers, vocalists, and writers etc. I was always connecting people and eventually they called me the "producer matchmaker" among other similar names. It was always a blast to have dinner, lunch, or coffee with a bunch of people I knew that never met one another. Magic would always manifest itself during and after these meet ups, whether it was a feature, a booking, or some connection to track signings. So I decided, why not create actual events where a group of 70 or so of us could get together and be intentional about supporting one another?

It's evolved in attendance for sure. Our first event had about 70 attendees, and it’s gone up to about 130. We still try to keep it someone intimate to make sure everyone gets a chance to talk to the panelists and speakers covering the topics, whether that is about how they built their brands, or production 101. In the beginning, we just had one big artist teach a section. Then it evolved into multiple panels, covering different topics from entertainment law, mixing and mastering, to creating a brand. We would get a ton of awesome guests that would reach out wanting to give back to the community as well, and these are people that run major labels, festivals, night clubs, or are established world touring artists.

What's next is that we will continue to do these events, expanding to more cities. We've been mainly San Francisco and Bay Area focused, with LA coming up in just a few days. Gold Rush Music Festival in Arizona reached out for us to host this experience at their 2-day event, so we are super excited for that and hope to bring this type of experience to different festivals around the world. New York and Europe is definitely on the agenda for 2020 on top of our existing cities fore sure. We are also working super hard to launch Open Door Sessions VIRTUAL, which will be a platform that will reach everyone else that cannot make it to our in person events. We have been asked to go to all kinds of random cities around the world, and although that is not physically and financially feasible in the moment, we are creating VIRTUAL to fill in the gaps for education, and connections for anyone who is looking to level up their music careers or tap into the industry.

There are a growing number of these types of conferences that focus on health or some other part of the music business. How can panelists and attendees make the most of them?

I think that there is SOOOOOOO much more beyond just making music and production itself. There are so many moving pieces to the industry that doesn't get taught in a masterclass, and so much of this is completely foreign to people starting out. And even if you have created some sort of traction, there are so many issues, ups and downs, numbers and nitty-gritty stuff that gets swept under the rug. At Neon Owl and Open Door Sessions, we really try to drop all of that to get raw and real. There are so many issues in the music business, like depression that get overlooked or glazed over. It's not healthy, and I hope that our events and content begins to shift that and give people permission to start opening up. I think that sharing our realities and not making everything a highlight reel is important. This industry is hard as shit, and it takes grit, passion, and hard work to even potentially make it. So hopefully our platform makes it more relatable and generates genuine support for everyone that comes through.

How do you choose the panelists and topics?

It's different every single time. Sometimes it’s what calls to our team members or me. Sometimes our previous attendees suggest certain topics that they are dying to know more about, and other times we get pitched by speakers who want to contribute.

Once we launch Open Door Sessions VIRTUAL, there will be a ton more topics because we will host class and live stream multiple times a week. That way we can cover a wide range of topics every single month from the business and branding side for everyone in the music industry to different levels of techniques as far as production, DJing, mixing and mastering for our producers and DJs.

How do you choose the charities to get involved with and what are a few that you want to work with?

It's usually a cause that I am passionate about, our team members are passionate about, or the artist we are collaborating with is passionate about. There are no "bad causes," so we are open to support a wide range of them. Sometimes an artists or brand we are working with does not have a charity that calls to them, so they are happy to support one of the ones we already work with. We are always open to having more conversations with different organizations to see if their mission and structure is fitting for us to add them to our partners lists!

What advice would you give to someone trying to create their own panel workshop or a charitable foundation in music?

There is a long list of things that goes on for miles and miles, but I'll keep it short to just 3 main things to start:

1. You must be passionate AF about it, to where you will be okay with making no money for a long time. Because if money is what drives you, you're likely better off getting a job (or keeping you job) elsewhere. There has got to be a greater purpose to WHY you do what you do in order to keep going, especially on the hard days.

2. Relationships are everything. This stands true as a rule of life. Genuine care about other people, and often times they will care back in one-way or another. The universe has a weird way of sending support your way when your intentions are pure, here to make a real difference. Don't burn bridges and be curious about the people you meet, ready and willing to lend a helping hand. It has created a ton of opportunities for myself and Neon Owl, and I'm so proud of the community we have built from this 1 rule alone.

3. Be hungry and promote yourself. I've come across so many people doing amazing shit (incredible music or project they are building), yet they are afraid, reluctant, or timid to promote themselves! If you don't believe in your mission, brand, artistry, or purpose, then nobody else will. It may seem tedious and slightly out of place at first, but your light will shine through if you are tenacious, authentic, and passionate about it. You've got to be your #1 fan in order to grow a fan base. 

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