Avicii: The Billboard Cover Story
With "Wake Me Up!" a million-selling Hot 100 No. 5, he's climbing the rock charts, getting CMT play and delivering EDM's biggest moment yet
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
The night sky flashes white with a Zeus-ian crash over the tiny town of Boom in Belgium, but it's unclear what's making the light and sound. Is it the countless beams firing upward from the massive festival stage, the fireworks that periodically explode without warning, or the storm that's been threatening all day?
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They're all one to the teeming crowd of 40,000 crammed before the stage, a functioning volcano spewing LED-colored fog and foamy water. It's Saturday night at Tomorrowland, a three-day fantasy-themed festival (July 26-28) that draws 180,000 to Boom each year, and Avicii is at the decks for the weekend's marquee set, nestled safely at the base of the mighty mountain.
The 23-year-old DJ/producer, his high Swedish cheekbones projected above the crowd on three mega-sized screens, is doing what he's done more than a thousand times in his young life: playing a mix dominated by music he himself has produced for an enthusiastic crowd. But Tomorrowland is different from any other gig. Fans from more than 214 countries fill the audience, a real-time global test panel for new music. The YouTube live stream is being watched by more than 16.8 million throughout the world, hanging on every track. In a world of big EDM stages-Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), Ultra Music Festival (UMF), the entire city of Las Vegas-it's the biggest.
"There's so much pressure to get everything right for that show, my mind is almost blank when I'm playing," says Avicii, born Tim Bergling, a month later. "Then afterward you see all the benefits."
Undoubtedly compounding that stress: The memory of UMF in March. During his headlining set, Avicii debuted several tracks off his bionic new album "True" (PRMD/Island Def Jam) with a full band of accomplished yet not-very-neon musicians, including a banjo player and folk singer. The sudden removal of repetitive beats sent thousands of ravers scuttling to other stages, and unleashed an online fury against what the Twitterverse dubbed "country house." Bloggers and other self-appointed pundits proclaimed that Avicii had lost the plot.
But by the time of Tomorrowland, something has changed. Avicii plays his usual festival fodder for the Boom crowd: mashups of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Pharoahe Monch and Eurythmics favorites with EDM bangers, and his own hits, like "I Could Be the One" and "Le7els," the Etta James-sampling track that launched his career. By the time he gets to True first single "Wake Me Up!," there's no doubt the lights in the sky are from God, not man. Thunder cracks with the bass and rain comes in a torrent, soaking everyone instantly and turning the main stage valley into a mud pit-and setting up another potential festival disaster.
Except that no one rushes to the sidelines or seeks shelter. The track's acoustic guitar riff has instantly changed the tenor of the party, adding human warmth to all the synthetic bluster. The revelers, many wrapped in the flags of their countries, raise their arms and voices and sing along: "So wake me up when it's all over/When I'm wiser and I'm older." Some might not understand the words, but they feel the vibe: It's about youth, hope, desire. This very moment.
The magic of "Wake Me Up!" doesn't require an epic setting. The track, co-written (with Avicii and his manager Ash Pournouri) and performed by soul singer Aloe Blacc and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger, is No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 1.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While EDM fans might have needed a few listens to get used to the orgo-beat cocktail, others are drinking it up. It's the most Shazamed track in the United States, with the lyric video garnering more than 70 million views-already surpassing "Le7els."
"It's one of those songs that, the moment you hear it in a store or truck stop, just stands out from the noise," Island Def Jam president/COO Steve Bartels says. "It taps you on the shoulder. You want to know what it is."
Those stores and truck stops are what make "Wake Me Up!" so exciting to the industry. The single is an open invitation to the EDM party for those who wouldn't be caught dead twirling a glowstick or dancing in the Belgian mud, and its crossover potential is clear to everyone who hears it. According to Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for Clear Channel Radio, programmers at the Clear Channel Music Summit in July immediately gravitated toward the song, some leaving the room to instantly add it to their stations. (It's charting at both triple A and alternative.)
"It has just enough EDM to make you feel like you're cool without trying too hard," Poleman says. "When you can take the listener to a place where they feel like they're on the edge, but it's very palatable and easy to listen to-that's sort of the secret sauce." Country cable station CMT added the video. Island Records president David Massey calls it "an EDM version of 'Fast Car' by Tracy Chapman." When Bartels first heard it, he locked the Avicii team in his office and wouldn't let them leave until the rest of his colleagues could get a listen.
"[Avicii has] stepped up and out of dance with this current body of work," Bartels says. "It's not niche anymore. It's relevant in a much broader way."
All the tracks on True, out Sept. 17 on Pournouri's newly founded label PRMD through Island Def Jam, have a similar formula: They blend an authentic slice of an earthier genre-bluegrass, soul, rock, even rockabilly-with the beats and euphoria of the global dance movement. Instead of pop stars dialing in toplines over prefab beats, it's based on musicians writing songs, together in a room. That small distinction, that kernel of truth, could be what catapults Avicii from superstar DJ to flat-out superstar, and carries EDM into a longer-term future.
Avicii was only 20 when his meteoric rise began. Pournouri discovered the fresh-faced producer in their native Sweden and molded him into a star-the first of the overnight sensations that have come to define the EDM movement. Before Avicii had a hit, he had buses shrink-wrapped with his visage driving around Miami during UMF. Pournouri's stated strategy was to "make him seem bigger than he was." Soon, perception was reality, and Avicii was headlining UMF, EDC and festivals all over the world. "Le7els" has sold 1.5 million copies through a one-off deal with Interscope, was featured in a Bud Light Super Bowl ad and became a wedding DJ staple. Ralph Lauren Denim & Supply inked a far-reaching partnership with the photogenic star, including an international ad campaign.
It wasn't all easy. An ill-planned arena tour backfired in 2011, forcing Avicii to cancel dates and play to half-filled rooms. An unflattering GQ profile painted him as an opportunistic upstart, without respect for the heritage of DJ'ing. Avicii landed in the hospital several times with undisclosed ailments, reported as something between exhaustion and malnutrition. If anything, the kid seemed out of control of his own life.
But the Avicii who speaks from his collaborator and new buddy Nile Rodgers' East Hampton, N.Y., studio in August-where he's already working on True's follow-up-is different. His usually clipped answers have become monologues. There's an energy and confidence to his voice. He sounds like a guy who finally, at long last, feels ready to drink his own Kool-Aid.
"If you want to make a hit song, all you really need to do is rewrite an old hit song. That's how everyone works," he says. "But that's a very short-term way of thinking. It's not going to make something that really makes an impact on people."
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