Construction workers outnumber tourists at the southwest edge of Las Vegas' MGM Grand, one of the world's largest hotels with more than 6,500 rooms. MGM's signature golden lions still guard the facade, but inside, behind temporary walls painted basic black, the crew is gutting the hotel's former nightclub, Studio 54 (the name licensed from the '70s original). Gone will be the industrial grating, the velvet furniture and the vintage celebrity photographs that adorned the old venue, replaced by the latticework, marble and scrims of Hakkasan, the international chain of luxury Chinese restaurants that will soon become Vegas' biggest (at 75,000 square feet) and most expensive (with a reported budget of $200 million) nightclub--a feat in a city that doesn't skimp on its nightlife, especially since the EDM explosion made it one of the world's foremost destinations for dance music.
But those construction workers are stripping way more than an aesthetic. They're also removing the vestiges of a club era that dates back to Studio 54 in New York, when stars were the VIPs and everyone else waited outside the velvet ropes. That same mind-set begat bottle service in recent years, shifting access to the moneyed instead of the famous. But from the thousand-capacity clubs to the 100,000-capacity festivals, the new watchword in EDM is "experience": Value for the ticket price or cover charge, for the average attendee.
"I have my own view on how electronic music will go, and I really believe that [general admission] is key to the survival of it," says Amy Thomson, music/marketing director of Light, a new nightclub opening in April at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. "The value for the money has to come not just in the price of the ticket, but what the ticket gets you."
"Las Vegas is truly the center of excellence when it comes to consumer experience, but certain people have gotten a little bit lazy because it's been so easy to draw the consumer with booking talent," says Neil Moffitt, CEO of Angel Management Group, which is building and managing Hakkasan for MGM. "There's a variety of choice for them now. To go to see DJ X vs. DJ Y, what encourages you to make your choice? Is it the cost to enter or the experience once you're there?"
The emphasis on experience lessens the necessity of relying on talent, which has become the most expensive way of filling the swelling dancefloors of Vegas. And as both the city and EDM continue to go to mass, experience may be more reliable than talent: In 2012 there were failed arena tours from big names like Avicii and Afrojack, but presale sellouts of festivals prior to artist lineups even being released. Festivals like Insomniac Events' Electric Daisy Carnival (with its circus performers and carnival rides) and ID&T's Tomorrowland (with its camping grounds and fantastical sets) are reportedly commanding bids upwards of $100 million for their parent companies. Robert F.X. Sillerman's SFX Entertainment announced that it had entered into a joint venture with ID&T for North American rights to several of its festivals, including Tomorrowland, Q-Dance and Sensation, a white party that had made its American debut with a two-night sold-out stint in October at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, through a one-off deal with Live Nation.
"Will a concept event translate to an American arena? The answer is 'yes,'" says Live Nation New York president Jason Miller, who brokered the Sensation deal. "We did it general admission--it was safe, the seats weren't a problem, the tickets sold. People trusted us. They bought into the brand and the event, more so than relying on the individual talent."
But this new obsession with production value also coincides with a Vegas bidding war. Hakkasan may emphasize service and experience, but it needs to draw in crowds to establish its reputation and future. It's reportedly granting multimillion-dollar contracts to big names, luring them away from major EDM venues Wynn Las Vegas (with its four clubs) and Marquee at the Cosmopolitan. Tiesto and Deadmau5 (two artists who admittedly come complete with their own high-level production) didn't renew their Wynn contracts, each signing with Hakkasan for $65 million over two years, according to an unconfirmed report. (Moffitt won't comment on the resident lineup or compensation.)
"I'm probably in a healthy position to be able to say talent is the key to so many ticket sales, and in turn sometimes that can mean all the budget for that venue is going into talent," Thomson says. "A lot of the creativity a venue can have on a week-to-week basis gets squashed." Thomson-who also manages Swedish House Mafia-has a different strategy for Light. It will be co-created by nightclub impresario Andrew Sasson of the Light Group and Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, and will serve as a laboratory for new production ideas that could end up in a Cirque show. Thomson is selecting DJs who are willing to play a role in a larger performance, and even rehearse prior to a gig. The Light talent pool so far includes SHM's Sebastian Ingrosso, Interscope wunderkind Zedd and trap upstart Baauer. "I'm hoping over the year that the experience of the venue will be the reason people come," Thomson says, "not just where they've chosen to stay or who's playing."
But out in Middle America, a lot of EDM acts are simply touring, and doing it more successfully. "Vegas is Vegas, festivals are festivals, small club plays are small club plays," says agent Kevin Gimble of Circle Talent, which represents mostly middle-tier acts like Excision, Dirtyphonics and Flux Pavilion. "DJs are earning a real living income, playing 100 times a year and working hard for their money in B and C markets. It's exciting that artists like that are becoming hard-ticketed acts."
"The space for us is Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio-the pulse is in these rural markets," Gimble's partner Steve Gordon says. "I'm routing in more markets than ever before and not only am I routing, they're doing great."