Dance music tours rock concert revs

Electronic dance music has broken out of the domestic house-music ghetto in a big way, and into arenas and stadiums across the country, enriching promoters, DJs and even the cities in which it plays, and bringing with it a beat that, finally, looks like it’s built to last.

Superstar Dutch DJ Tiesto wrapped up his U.S. College Invasion tour Oct. 8, with a set at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., a 26,000-capacity show that was the largest single-DJ concert in U.S. history. On the opposite coast, Canada’s Deadmau5 played six sold-out nights at Gotham’s Roseland Ballroom last week, shortly afterward, tickets went on sale for Swedish House Mafia’s December show at Madison Square Garden, where the group will be the first dance act to headline the iconic venue.

Such success stories are increasingly easy to find, and that’s without even mentioning the elephant in the room: Dance music promoter Insomniac, headed by Pasquale Rotella, recently drew 230,000 fans out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for its flagship Electric Daisy Carnival in June, after growing too large (and some would say, unruly) for its longtime home at L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum.

“You have fewer and fewer people who are stuck in the old days; people are a lot more educated,” Rotella says, talking in the midst of last-minute prep for Insomniac’s fall massive, Nocturnal Wonderland, in San Bernardino. “Even here in San Bernardino, when we talk to the guys in the mayor’s office, there’ll be (someone) who’s a huge fan of a particular DJ. It’s a different landscape.”

As Kevin Kerslake, the musicvideo helmer who documented the fest for the film “Electric Daisy Carnival Experience” puts it: “It’s like the biggest thing out there that you’ve never heard about.”

For many years, that description could have been applied to dance music in general in this country. Beset by “next big thing” predictions, 1990s electronica acts like the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy and Underworld broke huge in Europe and the U.K., but never managed to surpass niche status as U.S. touring powers. That niche designation took hold quickly, and aside from pockets in coastal cities and ritzy bottle-service clubs, electronic dance music seemed to have disappeared from view over the past decade.

According to Tiesto, who has spent more than a decade gigging Stateside, such willful ignorance of the burgeoning scene may be on its way out.

“It’s changed drastically,” Tiesto tells Variety. “Press has never been very supportive of electronic dance music (in the U.S.), and it’s always been a little smaller. But there’s no way back. … Everyone accepts it now that dance music is a mature genre, rather than something weird that will go away again soon.”

Considering some of the amounts of money involved, there are few who would want it to. Tiesto, for one, reportedly notched $28 million in touring grosses last year alone. Electric Daisy managed to draw sextuple-digit attendees to its Vegas dates despite three-day passes starting at $215 a piece, with VIP packages running more than double that. (Though he declines to give specific figures, Rotella says revenue from the three-day event was “in the tens of millions of dollars.”)

Those numbers are likely not lost on venue owners either. Last spring, Insomniac even commissioned an independent financial firm to tally EDC’s economic impact from 2010; they found that the fest had generated $42 million in additional economic output for Los Angeles over a mere two-day period.

The turnaround in the scene’s fortunes has been years in the making, and even if the music never made the immediate leap to the mainstream the way it did in Europe, where DJs are household names and dance fests like Germany’s Love Parade have routinely drawn million-plus crowds, the victories along the way have been illuminating.

For Tiesto, one such victory came a year and a half ago at Coachella, when he became the one of the first DJs to break out of the rock-centric festival’s dance tent and headline the main stage.

“It was amazing when I closed out the main stage, and there were 75,000 people there, and I think maybe 25,000 knew who I was,” he laughs.

So why has dance music taken so long to catch on here as a touring force? For one, while the music’s primary forebears — disco, house, Detroit techno — were born on these shores, the music never had the sort of cultural impact it experienced in Britain, for example, where the “Madchester” and acid-house scenes were as universal a generational experience as love-ins had been in the ’60s. Another cause was the lack of a defining homegrown scene, as U.S. devotees increasingly looked toward England and the Continent for headliners.

Yet perhaps the biggest reason for dance’s late resurgence is simply a new generation of fans, exposed to the music on the Internet through unusually well-connected artists — witness DJ Kaskade’s ability to unintentionally shut down Hollywood Boulevard with a single Tweet last July — who are too young to remember when electronica’s premature canonization as “the new rock” provoked a flash point of debate.

“Over the last 10 years, it’s been amazing to see the turnover,” notes Michael Cohen, whose indie management company Complete Control handles Tiesto, as well as DJs Armand Van Helden and A-Trak. “We’d never really felt much of a connection to the high school and college demographics before — they were always more in the hip-hop market, and we had more of an older crowd. … Audiences are younger now than they’ve ever been.”

And as the crowds have grown younger, performers have become more willing to meet them halfway. A frequently-aired complaint during the fat years of the 1990s bemoaned many top acts’ unwillingness to tour the flyover-country venues that could have been key to Stateside longevity. In contrast, Tiesto’s Southern California spectacular came at the end of a tour that took him to Yspilanti, Mich., and Winston-Salem, N.C., while Deadmau5 will follow up his Gotham blow-out with dates in such humbler environs as Kansas City and Bloomington, Ind. And though EDC’s ability to draw a huge dance crowd in Vegas may not be surprising, the fest has also spawned iterations in Dallas, Denver and Puerto Rico, with countless smaller events filling out Insomniac’s calendar.

Which is not to say there aren’t still problems that are perhaps inherent to the genre in particular and large gatherings of fans at music fests in general.

Most notably, EDC’s move to Vegas was sparked in part by L.A. officials’ concern over the drug-related death of a 15-year-old girl at the 2010 event, and the genre’s roots in the rough-and-tumble world of permitless warehouse and desert generator parties has given it a hard image to shake.

“Look, at this point everyone knows there’s a drug culture that follows this kind of music,” says Cohen, “but hip-hop shows have their own issues, and rock shows have their own issues too.” Indeed, many promoters have pointed out that Tennessee’s rock fest Bonnaroo has seen 10 onsite deaths in its decade-long history without ever drawing similar ire.

Another issue involves the unusually performative emphasis of the music. While some DJs, like Tiesto or French producer David Guetta (whose “Nothing but the Beat” hit No. 5 on the Billboard album chart last month) can move album units commensurate with their pop peers, many others draw huge live crowds while hardly releasing any material of their own, and that can require a certain educational period with bookers.

“A rock band has cycles,” notes Cohen. “Put out an album, tour behind it for a year, then go away for a while. That doesn’t work for a DJ.”

It makes sense, then, that so many top-tier DJs have found homes in Las Vegas casino residencies, tapping a market whose biggest musical draws have rarely conformed to the touring patterns in other U.S. cities.

“Miami used to be the epicenter of dance music for years,” notes Tiesto, who has a residency at Vegas’ Hard Rock. “Vegas has taken over, especially in the last year. All the DJs go there, and they get crazy a
mounts of money.”

But that bull market creates a new worry in itself, especially from those who remember dance music’s “next big thing” status from the past decade. “There are so many options there that there’s a fear of overkill,” cautions Cohen. “Sometimes it feels like (the casinos) are just booking anything that moves.”

Rotella hasn’t found that to be the case with his flagship fest’s move to Sin City, though fear of saturation is on his mind as well. “Actually, it feels like Southern California is pretty close to getting maxed out,” he says. “We’ve even thought of moving another one of our festivals to Vegas, just to give So Cal a little room to breathe.”

Wherever its epicenter may lie, if dance music is to permanently root itself to the U.S. market, it will need a vibrant emerging scene, and there’s plenty of promise among the younger DJ ranks. L.A.-bred youngster Skrillex graces this month’s Spin magazine cover, while 24-year-old newjack Afrojack was a featured performer on rapper Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this summer. That dance crowds embrace these young rabble-rousers at raves while still dutifully lionizing the fortysomethings like Moby and Benny Benassi is also a promising sign, indicating that auds are beginning to transcend the often dizzying array of dance music subgenres that may have thrown up barriers for entry in the past.

Tiesto finds the lack of clearly demarcated boundaries a quality unique to the U.S.

“In Europe, they have such a history with dance music, so they put you in a certain corner. Where in the U.S. everything is so new that you can get away with a lot more in your set. Here, I can go harder, and more eclectic even.”

Plus, striking a low-profile has an appeal of its own.

“If you’re into the hip-hop scene or the rock scene, you probably don’t know what I look like,” he says. “I kind of like it actually — I can just walk around here, and no one really bothers me in the airport.”

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