“Good morning, Las Vegas!” says Nick van de Wall, better known as Afrojack. It is 1 a.m., but the night still rages at Surrender, a nightclub in Encore. Several hundred revelers have waited two hours for this 23-year-old rising star to appear, chanting “Afrojack! Afrojack!” The warm-up act, DJ Milo “Mighty Mi” Berger, has just finished building anticipation to a frenzy by deftly weaving a contemporary electronic pop mix while dropping remixes and “edits”—old pop chestnuts retrofitted with a post-millennial beat—of classics such as Madonna’s “Holiday.”
With Afrojack’s emergence, the VIP booth behind the DJ decks—really just a nook encircled by velvet ropes—becomes overrun with drunken gawkers and moneyed ballers. And when he drops the beat to resounding cheers, hostesses wave neon green glow sticks and Surrender staff pop off streamer guns, shooting confetti into the dancing mass.
By 3 a.m. it’s all over. After spinning a frenetic mix of progressive house, pop and hip-hop, including his own dance smash “Take Over Control,” Afrojack hustles out of Surrender without pausing to speak to the reporter scheduled to interview him. He’s off to the lucrative international DJ circuit, where gigs await at Austin’s SXSW, Miami’s Ultra Music Festival and the legendary party island of Ibiza, Spain.
Maybe Surrender’s director of marketing, Wayne Crane, sums it up well enough: “DJs are the new rock stars.” It’s the main reason Las Vegas nightclubs, after mostly ignoring the electronic music phenomenon for years, now embrace it with a vengeance, offering contracts worth millions to the biggest and best DJs. Then there’s the recent deal that’s bringing Electric Daisy Carnival here in June. The festival, starring Tiësto and David Guetta, could draw an audience of more than 100,000 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
All of this activity, says Surrender’s director of programming, Jonathan Shecter, “solidifies Vegas as the premier destination for electronic dance music in the world.”
The Evolution of the Art
Since the early days of disco, electronic music and its varied permutations have lapped up over American popular culture. The rave phenomenon of the early ’90s fomented the introduction of the superstar DJ, expert curators who travel the globe and spin records for huge crowds that sometimes number in the hundreds of thousands.
Electronic music festivals never found respectability in the States, thanks to a rock ’n’ roll populace that thinks electronic music isn’t “real” music and politicians and police who are wary of Ecstasy-fueled teenagers partying the night away. Meanwhile, the notion of the DJ as rock star has held firm. And with the rise of pop-dance superstars such as Lady Gaga, whose hits sound like vintage gay Euro House, and Rihanna (“Only Girl in the World”), electronic music is peaking in a way not seen since the late 1980s and the heyday of C&C Music Factory.
Las Vegas is not completely immune to cultural trends. Hipster indie-rock made its impact here in the mid-2000s, most notably with the homegrown band the Killers. Hip-hop moguls can often be found in our prime VIP real estate, holding court amid beautiful women and miscellaneous sycophants. The city has long nurtured a few locales for electronic music, including Drai’s at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon. “Most people come here for the house music,” says the nightclub’s general manager, Marc Snanoudj. “That’s what we were built on from the beginning.” However, open format defines nightlife on the Strip. An industry term for a danceable mix of Top 40 hits, it’s a common denominator format that pleases everyone and impresses no one. The irony is that open-format clubs are increasingly playing electronic music as that sound overtakes the charts, whether it’s Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” or Chris Brown’s “Beautiful People.” And some of the world’s top electronic DJs have key roles in the crossover. Guetta, who launched a version of his decadent Ibiza party “Fuck Me I’m Famous” party at Vegas’ summer bacchanal Wet Republic at MGM Grand, co-produced the Black Eyed Peas’ ubiquitous “I Gotta Feeling.”
However, these DJs’ credibility rests on their ability to mix records into an indelible experience. Tiësto, the Grammy-nominated Dutch producer and recently crowned resident at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel, is considered the biggest DJ on the planet, and when he tours the U.S., he performs in arenas and stadiums. He scintillates fans with elaborate light shows and pulsating trance music, not recognizable pop hits.
Residencies by Tiësto and other top DJs such as Paul Oakenfold (the Palms’ Rain), Kaskade (the Cosmopolitan’s Marquee and Encore’s Beach Club) and DJ Chuckie (Marquee) demonstrate that high-end clubs are cautiously replacing the standard open format in favor of a more adventurous electronic style of music.
Kaskade, whose melancholic remix of David Morales’ “Here I Am” was used in a key scene in The Devil Wears Prada, is known for his sexy and glamorous deep house productions. “The Vegas audience is from all over the place,” he says. “It is a destination place, so up until recently I had to play it a bit safer. But now that dance is so popular, that is not really the case anymore.” Netherlands DJ/producer DJ Chuckie, who calls his hypnotic blend of progressive house, pop vocals and hip-hop braggadocio “Dirty Dutch,” played his first Vegas gig at Drai’s in 2009. Now settled at the Marquee, he notes, “The first time I drew 4,000 people, and the last time [in March] I got 5,000 people, so I definitely see growth. I can tell people appreciate what I’m doing over there.”
The Talent Wars
As electronic music seeps into the zeitgeist, Las Vegas’ high-end nightlife destinations have launched a multimillion-dollar competition to lock up the world’s biggest DJs. Their primary tools are contracts stipulating “residencies” that can last up to a year and usually call for one gig a month.
Surrender’s Shecter explains that top DJs can make six figures per performance, with resident contracts potentially worth millions. “That’s a big benchmark,” he says. “There’s only a very few that get that much.” (A good barometer is DJ magazine’s annual Top 100 DJs chart. Armin van Buuren, who will play at Marquee’s Memorial Day weekend event, headed the 2010 list.) Other major DJs courted as residents make $10,000 to $50,000 per gig.
“The top of the line guys are Tiësto, Deadmau5 [pronounced “dead mouse”], possibly David Guetta, and even Steve Angello is getting higher into that category,” Shecter says. “Deadmau5, for example, is an XS resident, and he’s getting huge money. It’s a business venture that makes sense, because they draw that many people and they are really that hot.” Shecter details a few reasons for extending a residency contract to a DJ. “A key factor is their draw. If you put this guy in [the club], can you determine how many people will show up just to see this guy perform, as opposed to if you didn’t have him? It’s not an exact science. It goes hand-in-hand with their fame and success.”
Zee Zandi is director of electronic talent for Angel Management Group, which teamed with Light Group to bring Guetta’s “Fuck Me I’m Famous” party. It also books Tiësto’s monthly residency at The Joint. However, she’s not a fan of resident contracts. “I liked the way it was until about a year ago, when you just went show by show,” she says. “But now there’s so much more money and competition that everyone’s trying to lock people in. The positive is that there’s some consistency. You know where to go.”
Marquee was created to showcase electronic DJs, says Jason Strauss, a managing partner at Tao at the Venetian and Lavo at the Palazzo. “We saw here in Vegas the popularity of electronic music, and the success of [national festivals such as Coachella] bringing electronic music into their programming.” Initiating a courting process that began a year before the Marquee opened on New Year’s, Strauss and his partners wooed prospective residents with digital renderings of the club’s designs and walk-throughs of the space as it was being built.
“A lot of these agents and bookers take their artists to all of the venues, and then the artists say which is the best fit for them,” Strauss says. “We’ve been blessed that a lot of big-name DJs have decided to make their home at Marquee.” The club’s innovative design, including a 40-foot LED screen backdrop, allows artists to present customized video content and “put on a show, not just a DJ spinning.” It has helped snare residents such as Erick Morillo, Kaskade and Chuckie.
When asked if Vegas’ DJ bidding war is a friendly one, Shecter responds: “That’s an interesting question. It’s generally friendly, but with the increased competition, and the stakes getting higher, there is a bit of boardroom intrigue, so to speak, because people are strategizing against each other.”
Zandi, who is known in local industry circles as “The Queen of House,” says Angel Management has been at this since the early ’90s. “It’s not something we’re picking up because it’s the fad or the hot thing.” Formed by U.K. nightlife veteran Neil Moffitt, the Vegas-based international firm also manages famed European electronic brands such as Global Gathering and Godskitchen, and has decades of experience in event consulting. But she’s grown weary of the rapidly accelerating rivalry. “What has been more difficult this year is that it used to be about relationships,” she says. “But unfortunately, with some of the newer clubs, it’s become more about money. And yes, we have lost some artists because some of the offers have been completely outrageous.”
For now, it appears several Vegas nightclubs can afford to collect DJs like Damien Hirst artwork. In industry magazine Nightclub & Bar’s Top 100 chart, nine of the 10 highest-grossing clubs are local, including Encore’s XS and Tryst at No. 1 with $70 million and No. 9 with $35 million, respectively. (Surrender and Marquee opened less than a year ago, and didn’t qualify for the list.)
“If a DJ plays in San Diego, he’s going to get 30 percent more in Vegas,” Surrender’s Crane says. “It’s not so much about the money, because every hotel has money. But people want the X factor.”
The AM Legacy
“Vegas is kinda like the last stop in the world for dance music, because it’s been accepted everywhere else,” says Steve Aoki, who dramatically lowers his voice for emphasis. It’s two nights after the Afrojack show, and the Los Angeles DJ, producer and tastemaker works intently behind a desk in his Encore suite, preparing for his 1 a.m. Friday set at Surrender by clicking through thousands of tracks on his MacBook. At one point he pauses to play snippets of an unreleased cut he’s developing with Tiësto, tentatively titled “Tornado.” Then Aoki reminisces about his late friend, Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein, whom he calls “the leader of open-format DJ’ing in America.” DJ AM, who collaborated with everyone from Travis Barker to the Black Eyed Peas, launched an “AM Fridays” residency at the Palms’ Rain nightclub before dying from a drug overdose in 2009. “He was the guy everyone looked up to, the DJ that could make a lot of money and be successful, but also be the best party-rocking DJ in the club,” Aoki says. “I was training under him and following him on that Vegas route. I got into the same clubs he got into because I was in his circle.” DJ AM was someone who didn’t just use an open-format style to entertain the masses, but tried to elevate it to a respected musical art.
Much like DJ AM negotiated the hip-hop and pop underground and the celebrity circuit, Aoki deftly weaves among disparate worlds. A self-described rocker whose sister is model Devon Aoki, he launched Dim Mak Records (Japanese for “touch of death”) in 1996, releasing 7-inch singles by local hard-core punk bands. By the mid-2000s, Dim Mak was part of the indie-dance renaissance, thanks to releases from the Gossip and Bloc Party. At the end of the decade, Aoki assumed a role as figurehead for the electro-house movement led by Justice and Daft Punk, a scene that inevitably influenced the current electronic pop ubiquity.
Last year, Shecter hired Aoki as a music director for Surrender, which opened on Memorial Day. “I think Shecky made a big risk coming to me, because the status quo of Vegas before 2010 was ironclad open format. It was really rare for a house DJ to come here. Tiësto will come and he’ll [fill a club]. But besides Tiësto and, say, David Guetta, the big European DJs would play that strange Wednesday house night, but it won’t be the big mega-club Saturday night,” Aoki says. What he wants to do with Surrender is “bring cutting-edge dance music to the forefront.”
Aoki may pride himself on left-of-center tastes, but he’s still a brand name. When he finally descends to Surrender and its spacious outdoor area, where a turntable booth has been placed near the edge of the pool, he is quickly surrounded by women who clamor to snap pictures with him. As he acquiesces, he quickly shoots this reporter a snarky, been-there-done-that shrug.
After a typically bravura opening set from DJ Mighty Mi, Aoki takes over the DJ booth and shouts, “Las Vegas! Are you ready?” For the next two hours he’ll stand atop the decks, blast open a champagne bottle as if it was a garden hose, then spit it from his mouth onto the screaming crowd. He’ll toss black T-shirts adorned with his long-haired visage, and then leap from the decks and crowd-surf atop the arms of his adoring fans, all while mixing a blend of electro, progressive house, dubstep and hip-hop tracks such as LMFAO’s “Shots,” Daft Punk’s “One More Time” and his own “Warp 1.9.” He proves that a DJ set can not only move butts, but turn into a riotous spectacle and performance. Las Vegas may be a latecomer to the electronic music phenomenon, but it’s making up for lost time.