DJs are the new rock stars? Maybe. (Although chefs are already the new rock stars.) Still, the big name DJs do seem to be living pretty large, what with the constant travel to exotic locations, goofily-clad fans, eager women, drugs and parties. Just swap MacBooks for guitars and it doesn't look so different from the way Zeppelin rolled in 1973.
What's missing, however, are album sales. Despite the genre's re-emergence in recent years to gargantuan crowds, you won't find most electronic artists on the mainstream charts, at least outside of the marquee names like Skrillex, Deadmau5, and Swedish House Mafia. Albums and singles are rarely certified at the gold and platinum levels. (Skrillex's “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” which introduced a whole generation to dubstep, just recently passed a million in sales — more than two years after its release!) And while streaming services like Spotify and Rdio are earning artists a few dimes here and there, much electronic music is given away for free online.
And yet, many EDM DJs are richer than God. From SF Weekly's Ian Port in his (excellent) story on Bassnectar:
Local promoters estimate the act earns around $75,000 to $100,000 per show, and Bassnectar plays about 150 shows a year. “I'm in the 1 percent, for sure,” [he] says. “I pay a fucking sickening amount of taxes — sickening.”
While the shitty state of today's music industry has artists in most genres struggling to pay their rents, EDM is healthy — in fact thriving. It's not just because the music is increasingly popular, it's because the players are milking live shows for all they're worth. Promoters and booking agents know that name DJs will sell out festivals and clubs, and the DJs can thus charge big fees for appearances.
But that's not all: DJs can moonlight at smaller clubs, after parties and private events. Diplo, for example told Rolling Stone that he pulled “like, $75,000 for an hour set” at a private event for a video game company. Then there are licensing deals and endorsements.
“Before DJs were touring mainstage acts, they were entertainment for clubs,” says Matt Goldman, founder of long running downtown Los Angeles club night Dance Right and a partner in Production Club, the company behind Skrillex' stage production. “If you were a good DJ, you made that bar tons of cash because you kept people there spending money. With a band, it's all about ticket sales. With a DJ it's about playing the kind of music that holds people in the room.”
Las Vegas especially has been on the the forefront of the EDM trend, with clubs booking artists including Deadmau5, Diplo, Avicii and Steve Aoki for weekly residencies, thus basically guaranteeing their venues fill up week after week. Creating the parties that fans consistently want is one of the primary reason DJs can charge big money for sets.
“If you're going to play for a thousand people and those thousand people are buying bottles and drinking,” Goldman says, “that building is going to make ten times more money than if they're just selling tickets and rum and cokes while people stand and watch a show.”
Even DJs without big names can often make a profit, simply because they have less overhead than a standard band. An artist with a plane ticket, a laptop and a friend's couch to crash on are basically a one-person show.
In this atmosphere, younger acts can make money and create a name for themselves without signing a record deal. The deals that do exist often sidestep the trappings of the old music industry. Mad Decent imprint Jeffree's, for example, gives its artists' music away for free and then keeps a percentage of each artist's licensing deals.
“The thing that will always prevail, especially in this scene,” Goldman says, “is a DIY situation where someone is a breakout artist, makes a great tune, puts it on the Internet, people find it, and then people want to fuck with that person.”
Of course, the game changes when your act blows up, and you're expected to have compelling visuals as well — think Deadmau5' LED cube, and Skrillex' spaceship.
“When you're at the top of the DJ world, [much] of your guarantee is going towards massive, incredible productions,” Goldman says “Skrillex is an example of that, Boys Noize, Swedish House Mafia, Avicii. All of the top guys have these huge productions they bring with them; that is becoming a big part of the game. “
As such, there is an increasing amount of overhead for top tier producers. This trend is also trickling down as smaller acts try and keep up. “It's funny, because of the stigma of the button pushing thing and because DJs are so ubiquitous now, smaller and smaller acts are working out deals to get productions going.”
And while big touring DJs can still move units, record sales are more of a perk than a goal.
“The industry isn't about album sales anymore,” Goldman says, “so revenues are not directly benefiting the record labels as much as they're benefiting everybody who's involved with the actual live shows themselves.” This includes managers and crew members. Furthermore, many of the top DJs have started their own labels, like Deadmau5' Mau5trap, Fool's Gold, and Steve Aoki's Dim Mak.
“At a certain point,” Goldman says, “you just become an industry.”
Here's hoping it doesn't repeat the mistakes of the old music industry.
Editor's note: Matt Goldman now says two statistics he gave us for this story regarding the cost of live shows were incorrect, so they have been removed.