Justin Blau, AKA 3LAU, is a rarity in the music industry: A successful recording artist, DJ, and producer whose main goal is not fame, but helping others. Raised in New York and Las Vegas by parents who emphasized the importance of charitable work, Blau left college, where he studied finance, and the promise of a lucrative career in business to pursue his dream of making music. He went on to release a string of well-received original tracks, including “How You Love Me,” “Is It Love,” “Fire,” “On My Mind,” “Hot Water,” and his latest “Star Crossed,” as well as remixes for Rihanna (“Desperado”), Katy Perry (“Bon Appétit”), Shawn Mendes (“Stitches”), and Ariana Grande (“Into You”) — all of which have racked up millions of streams. He also built his reputation as a live performer, appearing at such major festivals as Electric Zoo, EDC Vegas, and Lollapalooza, and has toured extensively internationally. But unwilling to take and not give back, Blau has used his business savvy to parlay his success into doing good.
In 2016, Blau launched Blume Records, an independent label with a ground-breaking model that harnesses the power of streaming to raise money for charitable causes. “It doesn’t cost a fan anything to help raise money,” Blau explains. “They don’t even have to buy the song. They can just share it with somebody, which raises a dollar. The more people stream the music, the more money is raised. That’s when I started realizing the concept was revolutionary. Not to toot my own horn, but no one had used streaming to give back before. It was always, ‘Buy this album and you’ll donate 10 dollars to charity.’ With Blume, giving doesn’t require anything than what fans already love to do, which is listen to and share music.” (In addition to releasing 3LAU music, Blau has also released tracks by other artists [Kap Slap, Paris & Simo, Justin Caruso] and has an eye to sign artists who want to use music to benefit charitable causes.)
In December, Blau wrote a check for $200,000 to an education nonprofit that funds school construction in the developing world, Pencils of Promise, which is using the money to build a seven-classroom school in Guatemala, as well as to fund clean water, education, and teacher development programs. (Of the total amount, $120,000 was raised from the streaming of 3LAU’s hit single “Is It Love,” which has 16 million streams on Spotify, plus donated remixes by Arty and other DJs that tallied another nine million streams.) “My parents instilled the importance of education on me,” says Blau, who visited Guatemala for the first time in 2013 when his prior fund-raising efforts helped Pencils of Promise build a primary school there — an experience that inspired him to broaden his philanthropic footprint. While education is Blau’s primary focus, he has donated to other causes, including $30,000 for the ACLU. His most recent track, “Star Crossed,” is currently raising money for hurricane relief in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico.
“I feel like my fans and I are doing something great and I know it can get even bigger,” he says. “We’ve impacted a lot of people’s lives. With a couple more big songs, we can impact more lives and watch it multiply. Hopefully we can inspire other people to act and there will be this domino effect. When I went back to Guatemala recently, it solidified why I did this in the first place. I saw a music teacher teaching his students outside in the hot sun. Soon he’ll have a classroom.”
Blau traces his involvement in philanthropy back to high school, when, as a member of the debate team, his research on the topic of poverty led to his discovery of micro-finance — making small loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries so they can build businesses in their local communities. At 17, he founded his own micro-financial fund and, along with his fellows students, raised $25,000 through selling sandwiches at school. The New York Times wrote a story about it and Blau earned a full scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis, which is where the concept of starting a record label began to form.
Blau had always loved music. His mother was a dancer and choreographer (her father was one of Jimi Hendrix’s recording engineers), who played classical music for her son while he was still in the womb. “She would put an old-fashioned tape recorder next to her belly every night,” Blau says with a laugh. His earliest memories were listening to classic rock artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin in the car with his dad, a self-made entrepreneur who started his own party-planning production business. Blau had taken piano lessons since the age of five, but stopped because ”I really liked to write and mess around on my own,” he says. “Having a teacher felt limiting.” As he got older, Blau began listening to artists like Radiohead and Sigur Rós, drawn to the “fine balance between euphoria and darkness in their writing, and their use of electronic sounds,” he says. At 13, when his family moved from Long Island to Las Vegas, he taught himself to play guitar and took up piano again to set the poetry and lyrics he’d written to music. “Even today, every song starts with me sitting at my piano in my studio, the same way I wrote when I was younger,” he says.
Blau’s love for electronic music was sparked during a trip to Sweden with a college friend between his freshman and sophomore year. “That’s where my dance music story began, with artists like Avicii, Alesso, and Swedish House Mafia,” he says. He wanted to learn to DJ, but couldn’t afford the expensive equipment, so he invested in a new software called Ableton, which enabled him to mix well-known pop songs with dance music, known as mash-ups, and uploaded them to YouTube. In 2011, Blau debuted the first volume of his mash-up compilation series, Dance Floor Filth, and had his material spun by several prominent DJs, including Porter Robinson and Bob Sinclair. He also drew attention for winning a remix competition for his remix of Tiësto’s “Work Hard, Play Hard.”
At the same time, Blau used his business acumen to brand himself, knowing he’d have to do more than be a college campus DJ if he wanted to have an actual career in music. As his mash-ups went viral, other colleges began to book him and “suddenly, I was making $1,000 a weekend, flying to Georgia to play a fraternity, and sleeping in a frat brother’s bed,” he says. He began working with an agent and by 2012, was opening for rappers like Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, and Macklemore around the country while completing his junior year. “It was like, ‘All right, time to give this my full attention.’” He decided to leave school and devote himself to music full time.
In 2013, 3LAU released his first original track, “Escape,” on Hardwell’s Revealed Recordings label, followed by “Vikings,” a collaboration with Botnek, on Dim Mak. More official remixes (Zedd’s “Spectrum,” Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) and singles followed, including 2014’s “We Came to Bang,” 2015’s “Alive Again,” and his biggest track to date, 2016’s “Is It Love.” This year saw the release of “On My Mind” (with an official video starring his friend, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski), “Hot Water,” and his latest, “Star Crossed,” which, using real guitars, piano, and drums, draws on ’80s rock, synth-pop, and indie-dance to comment on how difficult it is to maintain a relationship in a world run by technology. “I wanted to combine more instrumental elements and electronic elements to create something that felt retro but still contemporary,” he says of the track. “While it’s a departure for me, I still wanted to retain my songwriting style, so it has both a euphoric nature and a darkness to it, which is what I’ve admired in all of my artist inspirations. It’s like, ‘How do you balance something that’s really emotional, but still makes you happy simultaneously?’”
The emotional purpose of his songwriting, Blau says, is to inspire others to overcome their sense of feeling lost. “Every song is somehow about being lost in some way, whether that’s in love, in life, in mental health, whatever it may be. Sometimes the lyrics shed light on the brighter parts of that, like what it might take to pull yourself out. But in many ways, I write as a means to try to combat that feeling of being lost and I hope the music can do that for someone else.”