Caligula Would Have Blushed: Las Vegas' EDM Rulers Try to Rewrite Dance-Music History

Superstar DJs, number-crunching clubs congratulate themselves for milking the golden calf

Cirque du Soleil aerial performers entertain the crowd at Light Nightclub inside Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on July 5, 2013.
Cirque du Soleil aerial performers entertain the crowd at Light Nightclub inside Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on July 5, 2013. Photo by Leila Navidi
Philip Sherburne WRITTEN BY
Philip Sherburne

For anyone who can't resist rubbernecking while the over-leveraged EDM boom drives itself off a cliff, The New Yorker last week published a fascinating peek at how big money, and the 30-liter bottles of champagne that it can buy, is reshaping American dance-music culture.

The Dutch DJ Afrojack was the story's nominal subject, but the key takeaways were economic. For instance, Afrojack earns $150,000 for a night's work at Las Vegas' XS nightclub, one of four venues housed in Steve Wynn's Encore and Wynn resorts. That, apparently, is chump change: Over at the recently opened Hakkasan, Calvin Harris is getting an estimated $300,000 per show; Deadmau5, something north of that. (Afrojack, choosing to remain loyal to Wynn, says that he turned down $250,000 a night, and more bookings, offered by Hakkasan.) Factor in all the other superstar resident DJs employed by Vegas' nightclubs, and it adds up to an astronomical talent spend, but the return on investment is practically extra-dimensional by comparison.

SPIN's Andrea Dominick reported that Vegas' ten biggest EDM-centric nightclubs are estimated to have grossed a combined $700 million last year, and according to The New Yorker article, the four dance clubs at Steve Wynn's Encore and Wynn resorts reportedly took in more money last year than the resorts' slot machines — mainly, thanks to alcohol sales. "Last year, XS earned more than 80 percent of its revenue from alcohol sales," writes The New Yorker's Josh Eells. (As for Afrojack, we also learned that he spends $5,000 to charter a private jet from his home in Los Angeles to his gigs in Las Vegas — plus a $500 cleaning fee that lets him smoke on the 45-minute flight.)

But the economic takeaways are also, by implication, cultural. Because what kind of culture can thrive under these circumstances?

Coincidentally, Kaskade recently published a blog post arguing that dance-music culture is, in fact, thriving in Vegas — and not just monetarily, but rather in experiential, communal, and even aesthetic terms. Contrasting "yesterday's Vegas" — fake, gaudy, overindulgent — with the current state of affairs (and taking a few potshots at "your Grandmother's Ibiza" in the process), Kaskade writes, "Las Vegas seems to have accidentally created the most fertile and nurturing home that Electronic Music has seen in the past two decades."

Of course, any DJ earning Vegas dollars — Kaskade does Saturday nights at Marquee and Sunday afternoons at their poolside "dayclub," part of the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel (and vividly chronicled in GQ's 2012 article, "The Best Night that $500,000 Can Buy") — would probably find the place pretty "nurturing." But "fertile"?

Kaskade argues that "the landscapes that Vegas has built for its DJs and their audiences are lush. The clubs have the best, top-of-the-line sound systems. Music sounds better in Vegas. It just does. The light programming is beyond what most places will even dream of a decade from now. Not only the nearby states but continents across every ocean. The setting creates a place where a DJ can stretch out and push the boundaries of where they usually go. This setting provides a previously unimaginable training ground for the up-and-comer looking to cut their teeth in style."

Let's go through these, point by point. As for the sound systems, sure: It's entirely plausible that Vegas' club owners have installed some killer rigs, and if you like the kind of music that gets played in Vegas clubs — a big if — then it'll sound better there. If we're being generous, we could say the same about those ahead-of-their-time lighting systems. Lights are fun! A kinetic laser show can make sober people feel fucked up, and fucked-up people feel really fucked up. As Daft Punk proved with their 2006 Coachella appearance, and every major EDM festival has banked on since, lots of people seem to really love eye candy. Sure, some people prefer a single strobe in a blackened room, and others think the apex of lighting technology is when the Panorama Bar's shutters are opened, flooding the room with daylight. Vegas probably isn't for them (and nor, for that matter, the glitzy superclubs of "Grandma Ibiza").

But a few of Kaskade's points just don't hold water. Those international crowds? That a rotating door filling the clubs with weekend warriors would equate to "a place where a DJ can stretch out and push the boundaries" just doesn't make sense. There's a reason that tourist joints serve sub-standard, overpriced food: Most tourists will never eat there again. And the club owners, for their part, are interested only in maximizing profit. If a DJ takes too many risks and clears the floor, the cash registers at the bar stop ringing. (Keep in mind, too, that Vegas is a place where DJs can expect to field requests from the crowd.)

And as for that "previously unimaginable training ground for the up-and-comers to cut their teeth in style" — which up-and-comers are we talking about, exactly? Vegas doesn't do up-and-comers. (There's a poignant moment in The New Yorker article where the XS DJ Warren Peace, a local resident, takes the stage after Tiësto wraps his headlining set, and the crowd immediately begins filing out.) The Wynn clubs' programming this month includes Dillon Francis, Norman Doray, David Guetta, Avicii, Cedric Gervais, Eric Prydz, Sultan and Ned Shepard, Showtek, Chris Lake, Afrojack, Wolfgang Gartner, Akon, LA Riots, Deniz Koyu, will.i.am, Jermaine Dupri, Diplo, Borgore, Madeon, Redfoo, Kaskade, and a handful of local residents. At Marquee, you can see Chuckie, ATB, Armin van Buuren, Sander van Doorn, Gareth Emery, Cosmic Gate, W&W, Benny Benassi, Tritonal, Mord Fustang, Erick Morillo; at the Hakkasan, you get Calvin Harris, Tiësto, Michael Woods, Dada Life, Moby, Steve Aoki, Bingo Players. None of these are exactly unfamiliar names.

Yes, Ibiza has its share of cheese — Kaskade uses Paris Hilton's residency there as evidence of the island's apparently post-lapsarian status — but it also has diversity. This weekend and next week alone, you could catch Sven Väth, Ricardo Villalobos, Raresh, Tania Vulcano, Seth Troxler, the Martinez Brothers, Jamie Jones, Margaret Dygas, Eats Everything, Deetron, Baby Ford, Soulphiction, Shlomi Aber, Guy Gerber, Magda, dOP, Maayan Nidam, Levon Vincent, DVS1, Martyn, Shed, and, yes, Chuckie, Arty, and David Guetta. Hell, even the Berlin avant-techno godfather Moritz von Oswald is playing Circoloco's closing party, while We Love at Space manages to bring together Fatboy Slim, 2ManyDJs, Simian Mobile Disco, Blawan, Machinedrum, Paul Woolford, and Balearic disco legend Alfredo all under one roof. There's plenty to complain about in Ibiza — the prices, the drunken louts, the frequency with which tourists fall from hotel balconies — but monoculture is not one of them.

As evidence that Vegas can "go deep," Kaskade offers a recording of a set he played "coming off the apex of a Big Room night… sometime between 4am – 6am" earlier this summer. Mid-tempo and heavy on melody, it features tracks from Two Door Cinema Club, Mark Knight, and Hot Since 82, and it's a fine set; Justin Martin's "The Sad Piano (Charles Webster Mix)," released on Buzzin' Fly way back in 2004, is a stunning tune, and certainly not what anyone would expect from a Vegas superclub. (There's also Purple Disco Machine's "My House," a low point in revivalist deep house at its most mannered and trite.) Again, it's a fine set, but to hold it up as a paragon of dance-music progressivism that could only happen in Vegas — just, no.

But one point in particular is likely to stick in the historically-minded clubber's craw. "Here is the truth," writes Kaskade. "America has been owning this culture, scene, sound and community since we breathed life into it back in Chicago and Detroit. Somewhere along the way, the rest of the world adopted it, and it grew in millions of directions. So now there are names that nobody can agree upon to describe what we've done. House, Electronica, EDM, Techno. It doesn't matter. Call it Fred. I don't care. What matters is this. America is taking it back and giving it a proper home."

Who is this "we" we're talking about? Because last I checked, disco came predominantly from the gay community, and the house and techno that followed have their roots in overlapping subcultures which were variously black, Latino, Italian-American, gay, and almost overwhelmingly working- or middle-class. Dance music evolved as an expression of these cultures. And, yes, it changed as it traveled to Europe and the U.K., adapting itself to the experience of local identity groups, from former East and West Berliners creating a new techno utopia after the fall of the Wall, to black kids in London inventing grime on their Playstations. This is the diversity that has made dance music so exciting and resilient over the years, and none of it is represented in Las Vegas' Disney-fied boozing-and-groping emporiums.

To say that "we breathed life into it back in Chicago and Detroit" is a borderline offensive simplification of history, particularly considering that the Mormon church, of which Kaskade is a member, didn't even begin letting in black people until 1978. By no means should Kaskade be held responsible for the past mistakes of his religion's leaders, but he might consider how problematic the term "we" is, especially in the context of "owning" a culture created largely in marginalized communities. "We" didn't make shit.

Kaskade seems to think dance music is a competition: Vegas versus Ibiza, the United States versus Europe. Maybe that's because in Vegas, it is. The main narrative of The New Yorker article is the battle between Wynn's clubs and Hakkasan to secure top-shelf talent, and then rake in the bucks to justify the expenditure. And as money continues to pour into the EDM festival space, that competition plays out on a grand scale. Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra Music Fest, Electric Zoo, HARD, Sensation, Tomorrowland, the dance tents at Coachella and Lollapalooza — the American festival scene is flooded with big-ticket weekenders, all of them featuring a grab bag of mostly the same DJs, and all of them with ticket prices that creep inexorably upwards, year after year.

Even accounting for America's geographical expanse, how many festivals can we really support? As Michaelangelo Matos wrote of the Electric Zoo festival in Do Androids Dance this week: "Attending Friday and Saturday evenings of this year, I saw a significant loss of energy from EZoo 2013 and last year’s edition, and at the time I put it down to general exhaustion. There are a lot of festivals out there now — more all the time — and lots of fans hit as many as possible. By the time Labor Day comes around, everyone’s tired. Also, you are aware that MDMA depletes your serotonin and leaves you bone-tired if you use too much of it, right?"

Last week, Robert F.X. Sillerman's promotions conglomerate SFX filed the terms of its initial public offering with the SEC; Billboard reports that it hopes to raise $200 million by offering 16.7 million shares at a price range of $11 to $13, giving the company an overall market capitalization of $1.1 billion. Rebranding EDM as "EMC" (electronic music culture), the prospectus paints a rosy picture of dance music's future, although it also acknowledges the industry's inherent risks, including this one: "The number of EMC festivals and events may grow faster than the public's demand."

One way to counteract that risk would be to create "demand" the old-school way, by nurturing local and regional scenes. But that's something that neither Vegas nor the big festivals can do, and it's probably not something that a prospective public company like SFX would be any good at either — there's too much risk involved, and not a high enough margin.

The most fascinating revelation in Eells' New Yorker piece is a dry-erase board in the office of Sean Christie, a manager of Wynn's clubs. "The square for each day contained two numbers: the first, in red, was the d.j.'s fee for the night; the second, in black, was the club's expected take. To determine how much Wynn could pay a d.j. and still turn a profit, Christie and Waits used a formula that included everything from the number of a d.j.'s Instagram followers to the weather forecast."

That kind of moneyball might have worked for the Oakland A's, but dance-music's history is a chain of happy accidents: The misfires of the TB-303; the warble of a pitched-up a cappella; the specific gravity of a needle being dragged backwards through the groove; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the resilience of Detroit's disenfranchised; the persistence of Europe's free partiers. Even the particular effects of a drug invented by Merck in 1912 as a blood-clotting agent, and rediscovered by Alexander Shulgin six decades later as an empathogen. There's no dry-erase board in the world that could contain these variables — and that's the beauty of the whole thing.

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