March 5, 2014
From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 10, 2014
The world’s top superstar DJs are some of the richest and most famous individuals in the music industry. Music writer John Lewis analyses how they became so successful.
They play other people’s music in nightclubs. They rarely say a word to their audiences and they barely crack a smile. Yet the world’s superstar DJs, as they’re known, often earn more than the artists whose music they play. It’s all a far cry from their impoverished DJ cousins plying their trade on local radio stations or at parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Superstar DJs are far too cool for weddings. They inhabit a glamorous world of first-class aeroplane flights and uber-trendy nightclubs, earning four- or five-figure sums for just a few hours’ work.
With expensive headphones wedged between ear and shoulder, they mix beats with one hand, raising the other skyward as an adoring crowd whoops, cheers, applauds and dances. Superstar DJing has become a global phenomenon.
The economics of venerating the DJ is simple enough. A single DJ – even with a small crew – is always going to be cheaper and easier to manage than a band and its entourage. And they’re able to play much longer sets. But what are venues paying for, then? “They’re paying for your taste,” says Fatboy Slim. “It gives the event a focal point, a personality, a filter through which the music makes sense.”
Fatboy Slim was – alongside the likes of Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox and Pete Tong – part of the world’s first wave of superstar DJs who emerged in the UK in the 1990s. He believes his medium is stronger than ever. “People have been announcing the death of the superstar DJ for more than a decade now,” he says. “And it’s true that, in the UK, the clubbing scene has tailed off a little, with big clubs like the Hacienda and Club UK going under. But now the scene that transformed Britain in the 1990s has gone global.”
The world’s highest-paid DJ, Scotland’s Calvin Harris, grossed US$46 million last year.
Today’s big-name DJs are less likely to be playing raves in rural locations, as they were in the 1990s. Instead they’re earning big money in Jakarta and Hong Kong, Baku and Bahrain. And it’s no longer the preserve of British hipsters. The world’s highest-paid DJ is still from the UK – Scotland’s Calvin Harris grossed US$46 million last year – but the other names on the Forbes Top 20 DJ list hail from elsewhere. Many of them – Tiësto, Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, Chuckie, Hardwell, Dash Berlin and Nicky Romero – are from the pop wasteland of the Netherlands. Three more are from Sweden (Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, Laidback Luke), while there are big names from Japan (Steve Aoki) or Italy (Benny Benassi), all of whom are earning more than $5 million a year.
The crowds dancing to them are as big as ever. In the early 2000s, Fatboy Slim once DJed at a British rave of a quarter of a million people. In 2008, at the Dortmund Love Parade, in Germany, Paul van Dyk, Carl Cox and Armin van Buuren got more than 1.6 million people dancing, while, in 2010, at the Art Of Love show, in Duisburg (also in Germany), Tiësto, Paul van Dyk, Carl Cox and Armin van Buuren had a crowd of 1.4 million.
What’s notable about these superstar DJs is that they’re overwhelmingly European. American rock star David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) has a theory that electronic dance music – or “blip hop”, as he calls it – is a distinctly Northern European phenomenon, a product of “social democracy, long, dark winters and advanced access to computer technology”. Although the founding fathers of DJ culture were black Americans, such as the New York hip hop star Grandmaster Flash and Detroit’s techno pioneer Derrick May, there are surprisingly few Americans in the Forbes list of top DJs.
“This is partly because club culture never really took off in the States,” says Fatboy Slim. “In Europe, people would start clubbing at the age of about 16 and go out about twice a week. In America, most clubs were over-21s only and kids are routinely ID’d, which means that teenagers end up hanging out at shopping malls rather than going to clubs. But that’s slowly changing now.”
Simon Reynolds is author of the dance music history Energy Flash. “American authorities would always clamp down just as dance music has often looked like breaking through in the US,” he says. “The word ‘rave’ became associated with drug-related deaths.
What’s happened in recent years is that ‘techno’ has been rebranded as ‘EDM’, or electronic dance music, ‘raves’ have been rebranded as ‘festivals’, the drug ‘MDMA’ has been rebranded as ‘Molly’. Clubbing has been cleaned up for an American audience, and finally it’s broken through to the mainstream.”
In America DJ culture has been used to lure younger punters to destinations like Las Vegas, which have traditionally attracted an aged demographic. Tiësto was one of the many big-star names lured to Vegas venue Hakkasan by casino mogul Steve Wynn, while Wet Republic employed Calvin Harris. On top of that come endorsement deals, merchandise sales, royalties, remixes and other business ventures.
“People always want to dance,” says Fatboy Slim. “As long as there are enough people who want to hear the music you play, you’ll have DJs. And, daft though it may seem, as long as people want to hear their music, venues will pay them lots of money.”
Populous has created permanent and temporary venues for concerts and festivals around the world including Big Day Out in Australia and The O2 arenas in London, Dublin and Berlin.