It would be easy to discount the concept behind the new Light nightclub, opening in April at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, as a gimmick. Cirque du Soleil, synonymous with Las Vegas over the company's twenty years in the city, will try their hand at “theatrical clubbing” by reopening a defunct club space -- Light was formerly RumJungle, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010 -- with the aim of creating a mini-Cirque experience. By doing so, the club ducks the DJ bidding wars plaguing the town since original competitors Wynn (with four venues) and Cosmopolitan (Marquee) were sucker-punched by the fat checkbook and 6,500-rooms of the MGM Grand and its under-construction mega-club Hakkassan.
"Gimmicky" could have been a fair estimation -- if it weren’t for Amy Thomson.
A proven rainmaker, Thomson is the manager of Swedish House Mafia and the instinctual marketing mind behind the DJ trio’s explosive success. Through her obsessive focus on the fans, what she refers to as “the GA" (general admission), through presales for the most dedicated; gigs crafted with their experience in mind; and coded, scavenger hunt-like event reveals that only the committed would follow, she helped SHM win a devoted fanbase and a sell-out of Madison Square Garden in December 2011, the first for a DJ act. The group decided to disband last year, but its farewell tour, dubbed One Last Tour, launches in the U.S. on Feb. 13 in San Francisco. It will play 15 gigs at seven mega-venues nationwide, each one sold out.
At Light, Thomson –- who started her career at legendary London nightclub Ministry of Sound -– is music/marketing director, branding the club and booking its DJs. But instead of joining the citywide race for exclusive residencies from the biggest talent, or taking the other obvious route of booking affordable unknowns to complement the Cirque spectacle, she’s attempting something riskier. She’s what you might call "Moneyballing", building a roster of role players and select superstars willing to sacrifice a sole focus on them (the hallmark of a Vegas residency) for the sake of the show, thus creating a truly new experience in not only nightlife, but DJ performance.
The idea of giving up anything -– especially a big paycheck –- is antithetical to the current ethos of EDM touring, particularly in Vegas. But Thomson’s pitch has convinced four very different, well-known DJs to come aboard: Sebastian Ingrosso, one-third of Swedish House Mafia (that one you may call obvious, though SHM's members have been very protective of their solo careers); Zedd, Interscope’s biggest EDM project and slated producer of Lady Gaga’s next album; trap maven Baauer, who has exploded across the Internet this week thanks to a video meme inspired by his “Harlem Shake"; and the biggest get of all, Skrillex, who left a lucrative home at the Wynn to try something different. More artist announcements are expected over the coming weeks.
Whenever Billboard has spoken with Thomson on the eve of a new project, she’s got the apprehension of a true risk-taker: She was afraid no one would come to SHM’s first solo gig, going head-to-head with Ultra Music Festival in a beachside tent in Miami in 2011 (its 12,500 tickets sold out within minutes). She worried that MSG was too much, too fast – and it sold out in nine minutes. And now, as she gets set to launch Light, she has similar trepidations.
“There’s so much competition in Vegas,” she says. “I just want to try it and see it if works.”
We spoke with Thomson in late January about the "GA," SHM, VIP and why all the world’s a film.
With your varied background, why did you want to do a nightclub?
Amy Thompson: For me, since working at Ministry of Sound at the beginning, we’ve been looking for ways to create a show in a small space. It’s extremely difficult. The special effects we now see in clubs -- CO2 and all that -- you can’t put a festival show in a club, it’s too aggressive. And to really create a show takes expertise; you need years of experience in how to deliver it. Using the space, creating costumes, the whole thing. So when Cirque du Soleil and Andrew [Sasson, head of venue developer Light Group] said they would come together -- they actually said it to me over dinner -- I literally didn’t leave them alone from that point.
I have my own view on how electronic music will go, and I really believe that the GA is key to the survival of it. The value for money has to come not just in the price of the ticket, but what the ticket gets you. 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. A lot of the creativity a venue can have on a week-to-week basis gets squashed.
And to have an opportunity to work with Guy [Laliberté, co-founder and CEO of Cirque] –- who has basically said Light is his lab now, that new experiences for Cirque will come from this, that it’s an experimental space –- to be able to work with him is amazing.
What do you make of this talk of a residency bidding war in Las Vegas?
If there’s a war... look, residencies are limiting to a venue. You end up with a very stiff lineup for a year. If a great new act comes through, multiple new acts, I’m not sure venues can accommodate grabbing that talent, which is a shame. For us, because our venue’s so technical, it was important that DJs committed to some time. It’s not choreographed, it’s very free moving. But you still need to learn and be comfortable enough with [the production]. I literally handpicked layers of DJs, new talent to absolute headliner arena acts, and stuff in the middle including more house genres. You’ll see when the lineups get announced, but we’re often doing two DJs in one night; something leftfield going into a house sound, blending it a little bit to give you a different experience.
I’m hoping, over the year, that the experience of the venue will be the reason people come, not just where they’ve chosen to stay or who’s playing. I picked newer talent that would blow up across the year, but the biggest names have to be special to play in that space, to give me the time to work with Cirque [to develop the shows]. They’ve all seen presentations for feedback; to see the different looks. DJs are busy; to give me that time was really hard, but they all agreed. I chose guys who were really comfortable with the show being the main thing. They’re the masters of the show, for sure, but don’t have any issue with Light being the headliner for 10 minutes -- for a visual show, or acrobats. And also importantly, they wanted to come because we have the largest GA dance floor in Vegas. They were really into the GA having a fantastic experience.
I didn’t realize that about the size of Light’s dance floor.
I’m a big fan of every other club on The Strip but, as I experienced it, I didn't find my journey around venues very easy; a lot of ropes and pens of people. Light reminded me of Brixton Academy: a big area right in front of the DJ, VIP in the back of the round.
It sounds a little like an old-school New York club.
It is, kind of like the Ministry [main room] The Box in the ‘80s, when [New York DJ legend Danny] Tenaglia came and spun for the first time, plus the fantasy of Cirque.
One of your first bookings was Baauer, who’s an upstart known for the trap sound -- that will be new to Vegas. Why did you pick him?
He’s not the only one in that genre either. Because it’s fucking great music and Vegas can’t live on house alone. I love the blend the trap guys are playing. It’s extremely female friendly, which [in clubs] is what it’s all about. I want to move to it.
With Baauer, I wanted to redefine the warm-up [DJ]: I don’t want a guy playing from 11 to 1 a.m. who can’t play any big records because the headliner’s coming, so you have elevator music. It’s not fair to him or to anyone else. I wanted to skew it a bit and have a journey we can all enjoy. Also, Vegas is a global destination but this is still a West Coast America town, and [trap] is really alive on the West Coast.
I saw “Zero Dark Thirty” in New York over the holidays, and there was a commercial for Light before the movie. What informed that media buy?
The final frame of the first teaser campaign was done like a movie. I really wanted to put across that this is a live "film" every night and there’s a story to be told, and that everyone’s a part of it. In the credits for the teaser, if you freeze it on YouTube, it reads, “produced by Cirque, in collaboration with [creative media agency] Moment Factory, starring you.” The energy of Light is GA, and we want it to be welcoming. Doing a movie trailer was more to get everyone’s frame of mind to be that they’re going to be in this. That movie theme will continue with the marketing in February and be a big part of how we unveil our New Year’s Eve and Halloween events.
The focus on GA is a big part of how you positioned Swedish House Mafia. Is that almost a personal platform?
Obviously I’ve worked with Swedish House Mafia for 10 years, and myself and the boys are extremely protective of the GA. We always have been and always will be, and yes, that’s where I think when I do marketing, and it’s absolutely a magnifying glass of how that band feels about their fan base. When we did MSG and it sold out in seven minutes the first time around, we had a 24-hour helpline for people who couldn’t get tickets. It was me in a room with guys manning phones. If you forget that and you only focus on the VIP... if the party is good, the VIP comes. They’re very welcome and we don’t want them to feel like they’re not cool, but the GA is the reason why we’re all here. They are the people with their hands in the air, the people who create the vibe, buy the tickets. When they’re passed by, it makes me very angry.