June 11, 2012
The New Stars in Vegas: D.J.’s and Dance Music
By BEN SISARIO
LAS VEGAS — Steve Wynn, the 70-year-old casino magnate, stood before an invitation-only crowd at the opening of a Japanese restaurant here last week, promising good food and even better music.
“Tonight we’re very lucky,” Mr. Wynn said, flashing his trademark grin. “Afrojack is here.”
He started to explain — “for those of you who are not exactly with it, like me, Afrojack is the coolest D.J.”— but it was unnecessary, as a phalanx of models in little black dresses rushed to a corner booth to watch the music man at work. Only the arrival of Paris Hilton drew them away.
After years on the margins, the blaring, pulsating sound of electronic dance music is ascendant, and Las Vegas has embraced the trend the only way it knows how: by going all in. Casino nightclubs that a few years ago were devoted to hip-hop now compete to sign dance acts to million-dollar contracts, and they market these once invisible musicians as superstars. Along the Las Vegas Strip, billboards advertise top D.J.’s like Tiësto and Steve Aoki, alongside David Copperfield and Cirque du Soleil.
“Las Vegas is the new Ibiza,” said Patrick Moxey, the founder of Ultra Records, a leading independent dance label, referring to the hedonistic dance mecca in Spain. Ultra recently started a joint record label with Wynn’s clubs that will make compilation albums and push the music to hotel guests.
Over the weekend the city was also host to the Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest festival of electronic dance music, or E.D.M., in North America. From Friday to Sunday, more than 300,000 fans — recognizable by their butterfly wings and Day-Glo tutus — descended on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to see Avicii, Calvin Harris, David Guetta and dozens of other acts.
At the same time, artists and music executives gathered for the related EDMbiz conference here last week, debating whether the city can be a test case for the wider appeal of a genre that in the past has stumbled on its way from subculture to mainstream. They also questioned the long-term commitment of a city known for chasing the winds of pop culture.
“Vegas is a reflection of what’s hot, not the driver of what’s to come,” said Marc Geiger, the head of music at the agency WME.
As musicians and promoters tell it, D.J.’s have always been part of Las Vegas night life, but only in the past few years have they earned headline billing and been allowed to play anything more adventurous than Top 40 hits and crowd-pleasing mash-ups.
“I used to consider Las Vegas the most musically ignorant place in the world,” said Mr. Aoki, who spins monthly at Wynn’s Surrender and XS clubs, and is known for antics like leaping onto an inflatable raft in the crowd. “Now it’s completely flipped,” he continued. “People coming into the clubs, they have been educated. They’re aware of the music of that D.J. before they step into the club.”
A turning point came last year when XS celebrated its second anniversary with Deadmau5, who performs in vaudevillian headgear. Held on a Monday night, which usually draws about 3,000 people, the event had 7,500 attendees — “Saturday night numbers,” said Jesse Waits, the club’s managing partner. Mr. Wynn, intrigued, invited Deadmau5 to his villa, and the two became friends.
Loud music to keep people of any nationality dancing all night would seem a perfect fit for a party capital like Las Vegas. But promoters like Jonathan Shecter, the director of original programming at Wynn’s clubs, say it took the combination of several factors for the sound to take hold.
“There’s been a convergence happening,” Mr. Shecter said. “Between the organic growth of E.D.M., the importance of live shows as a way for artists to make money and connect with the public, and the rise of Las Vegas as a nightclub culture — all those things are happening at the same time.”
The city’s huge “superclubs,” most of them attached to casinos along the Strip, are now banking almost entirely on dance music.
According to Nightclub & Bar, a trade publication, 8 of the Top 10 nightclubs in the country are in Las Vegas, with Marquee leading the list, at $70 million to $80 million in annual revenue. That 60,000-square-foot club put in a $3 million sound system and added a D.J. booth that becomes a “drawbridge” over the crowd, said Jason Strauss, a partner in the TAO Group, which manages the club.
Wynn’s four nightclubs have signed 34 D.J.’s to exclusive residencies, and the hotel’s deal with Ultra will involve online video from the clubs, albums released under the name Ultra/Wynn, and even a hotel TV channel. Throughout its casino, Wynn promotes Ultra acts on stanchions and sells Deadmau5 merchandise like T-shirts, CDs and “mau5 ears.”
Last week dance music seemed to be everywhere in Las Vegas. With Electric Daisy Carnival in town, the nightclubs had packed lineups both late at night and at their daytime pool parties, which allow promoters to keep shows going almost any time of day.
The influx to Electric Daisy in its second year here snarled city traffic. On Friday night the 15-mile trip to the speedway took up to three hours, leading to the surreal scene of ravers leaving their vehicles and walking along the dark desert highway in full costume. Heavy winds shut down the festival early on Saturday, but otherwise it seems to have gone on without major incident.
For the music industry, the value of the Vegas E.D.M. explosion is unclear. It has introduced a valuable promotional outlet, and the casinos’ marketing dollars have helped turn faceless D.J.’s into stars who are mobbed for photos at the airport and in hotel lobbies.
“While it’s harder to pinpoint a record breaking out of Las Vegas, what you can count on is an incredible amount of audience exposure there,” said Craig Kallman, the chairman of Atlantic Records. “It’s become a very key promotional destination for new music.”
At the EDMbiz conference, executives discussed the effect of the changes, including escalating artist fees, the dangers of hype and corporate involvement in a historically independent enterprise, like the media executive Robert F. X. Sillerman’s recent announcement of a plan to spend $1 billion on dance companies.
Mr. Geiger of WME, who was a founder of the Lollapalooza tour in the early 1990s, compared dance music’s current moment to the sudden popularity of alternative music at that time. He also warned agents to protect their acts from a bursting bubble or, worse, a repeat of the ’90s, when record labels tried to duplicate the appeal of Nirvana and Pearl Jam with a flood of inferior acts.
“In our business we are planning for what we might call a market correction,” Mr. Geiger said in an interview before the conference. “Not a crash, but a correction. It’s hard for any wave, no matter what it is, to sustain at its high point.”
There is also an inherent danger in one of Las Vegas’s defining characteristics: its fickleness and adaptability to trends. As some executives at EDMbiz noted, if Las Vegas is dance music’s strongest promotional platform, what happens to the genre if the tourist crowds start to crave something else?
As Sean Christie, the managing partner of both Surrender and Encore Beach Club, noted in an interview at a restaurant a stone’s throw from the gambling floor and his clubs, that is always a possibility, but for now the dance beat rules.
“If the crowd wanted country music, country music I would give them,” Mr. Christie said. “But the crowd wants this music now, so this is what we give them.”