Diagnose the Dance Floor

Tao Group music director Sol Shafer sheds some light on how to grade Vegas’ DJ talent

Having booked such top talent as the world’s No. 1 DJ Armin van Buuren and America’s Best DJ two years running with Kaskade and Markus Schulz, Sol Shafer has an ear for the best. Hailing from Montreal, with a lengthy résumé that includes Godskitchen, After Hour Power at Avalon Hollywood and Perfecto at Rain, Shafer is the director of special operations and music for Marquee, Tao and Lavo nightclubs in addition to working with Insomniac Events. Even after more than a decade in the industry, Shafer still gets that spark in his eye when the topic turns to electronic music and events. Shafer briefs us on what he looks for from DJs to make the dance floor “SMB”—shake, move and bounce.

When you’re considering a DJ for a booking, what are the key professional and personality characteristics that tell you if it will be a good fit?

Music is the most important thing for setting up the right mood for any kind of event. No. 1 is music selection—which is the obvious. Playing the right songs at the right time is absolutely crucial. No. 2 would be the ability to read the crowd. It’s very important because if certain things aren’t working for whatever reason, the DJ will always find a way of taking it into a different direction. Being able to adapt on the fly is key for sure. The third thing would be mixing skills and transitions. This is absolutely crucial to any dance-music event. People need to be taken on a journey that is smooth and flawless. Any other way would be grounds for immediate termination in my books.

A fourth thing would be showmanship. DJs are the main focal point of any dance-music event. In today’s age, it’s unacceptable to be playing with your head down, frowning, not moving, or just standing there like a deer in the headlights. DJs are the conductor of the event and must control the room and all the elements of the space. At the end of the day, the best DJs can walk into a room, control the experience and leave an impression on people that they will never forget. That is when you know you have the right DJ for the event.

How can new dance-music fans determine if the person up there is any good?

It’s kind of hard to see true talent from the dance floor. I can tell if someone is really a good DJ by looking at people’s feet. As crazy as that may be, you can always tell a good DJ if people are hearing the music from a different room or different area and they’re making people’s feet move. I also look for smiling faces. The more people that are smiling, the better time everyone is having, which resolves to the better the DJ talent is. It’s the simple things. As much as you ask about technical, it’s not so much about being technical nowadays; it’s more about curating that perfect moment.

When you sift through tracks for potential DJs, what are you keeping an ear out for?

A track that gets me is something that when I listen to it, I can visualize the entire club going off at that moment. And you know when you hear it. There are very few lines between something that’s really good and something that’s really bad.

Who are your all-time favorite producers?

That’s kind of a tough question, but at the end of the day, Tiësto and Armin van Buuren are definitely top notch for me. The reason for this is really simple: These guys are always putting out quality music that appeals to a mass audience. The energy levels at their events are always astronomical, and more importantly, these guys are always staying very current with what’s happening. There has never really been a bad Tiësto or Armin van Buuren event that I’ve gone to.

What’s the key to identifying the best emerging producers on the scene?

Have your finger on the pulse. You have to get out. You have to go to these events where these young kids are attending. You have to watch how a DJ or a producer does with these young kids. A way to seek these new producers is to listen to satellite radio. Read and listen to the playlists that other big producers are playing. Really digging into people that are veterans and looking to them to tell us what’s going on and what’s going to be hot in the future is a great way to find out who’s up and coming.

What do you think was the best thing to happen to EDM in 2012?

Watching a lot of my friends and people that I’ve worked with finally reaping the rewards for putting in the long hours in the trenches for something that we believed in for the last decade when everybody said this was never going to work and we’re all crazy. As much as I have competition, I’m really proud of everybody with where they’ve come and where they’re from, and that is just so gratifying in itself. Another thing that was really big was Kaskade making us all proud for being the first dance artist to sell out the Staples Center—not to mention turning 50 percent of the U.S. female population into dance-music enthusiasts. [Laughs.] There’s nothing like a party with Kaskade.

How about the worst?

Paris Hilton. Every time I see her DJ I just want to shut her off. And then something I want to touch on is how people are complaining about how dance music is too pop or mainstream. We’ve all been working really hard for a long time, and now that we’ve finally made it, I keep hearing people say, “It’s too mainstream, this artist is selling out, how can certain people do that to those fans.” People just need to shut up, smile and keep dancing. We should be really happy with all that we’ve achieved and be grateful that no matter what or where that we’ve all made a difference one way or another.

Who are going to be the breakthrough artists of 2013?

Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano are definitely breakthrough artists in my eyes. Their sound is warm, sexy, bumping music. They get the party feeling ooey and gooey and just SMB—shake, move, bounce. Also Krewella; I’ve been watching these kids for a while now and they seem to have the complete package: They’re young, they put on a great show and their musical style crosses over between genres, which makes everyone like them in their own way. Another one to keep an eye on is Zedd. He’s obviously a musical genius who’s very young and really talented. He just seems to be having a lot going on for him. One of my true favorites for next year, who’s broken through on the other side of the pond and hopefully catches some movement here is Example. He caught my eye in 2009, and for some reason I just knew he was going to be huge.

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