Swedish House Mafia Turns International Dance Music Biz On Its Head
In the fall of 2010, the international dance music industry was locked in a bitter custody dispute. At risk: ownership of the month of March in Miami.
On Nov. 16, the industry confab Winter Music Conference announced that it was splintering from the Ultra Music Festival, a three-day all-ages concert featuring DJs, live acts and big-name headliners like the Cure and Duran Duran. For more than a decade, the events coexisted during one week, allowing artists, fans and industry people to converge and temporarily turn Miami into dance music's capital city. Now, they'd be separated by two weeks.
Less than a month after WMC's bomb-drop, DJ/producer supergroup Swedish House Mafia -- Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso and Axwell -- made one of its own. Through a press release and social media postings alone, the outfit announced the One Night Stand at the Masquerade Motel, a 10-hour party during what was now UMF week. Going head-to-head with UMF, and disregarding WMC altogether, the move was bold-even more so because SHM didn't have a venue or a lineup yet. The group promised an "extravagant" light and video show, and its usual dose of sex appeal. "Masks On Please," the invite commanded.
But the gag order was part of the plan. "We used the strategy of teasing tiny pieces of info, to create that feeling of adrenaline to go and snag your ticket," SHM manager Amy Thompson says. It worked. The first block of 2,500 Masquerade tickets went on sale in mid-December for $50, sold out in 22 minutes and crashed the website handling the sales. At the end of February, the act revealed the lineup: friends and favorites that included Calvin Harris, Armand Van Helden and Pete Tong. Two weeks later, SHM unveiled the venue: the 11,500-square-foot tent housing Funkshion's Miami Fashion Week events, quite literally on South Beach, just off Ocean Drive. On March 8, the last block of the 12,500 available tickets went on sale at $75 and sold out in 11 minutes.
"I'm not going to lie," Thompson says. "It was a surprise."
Video: "Save the World," Swedish House Mafia
A surprise, and a statement -- about dance music, the changing face of fan-dom and just what music business success looks like in 2011. At the time of the Masquerade sellout, SHM had been known as an entity for less than a year, having signed an international deal with EMI in July 2010. The group released a mere three singles, which have collectively sold 1.3 million copies internationally, according to the act's U.S. label, Astralwerks. A fourth, "Save the World," was released May 17 and is shaping up to be the biggest yet. It's sold 20,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and jumps 40-28 on Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart this week. The video, featuring lovable canines carrying out some street justice on an assortment of bad guys, is at 11 million YouTube views, and was just added to MTV Hits and mtvU.
Despite appearances from artists like Tinie Tempah (on "Miami 2 Ibiza") and Pharrell (on the group's definitive first release, "One"), SHM's music is gloriously big-room club fodder, not mainstream-friendly radio dance. When asked if he'd like to have a Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper, Angello, who spends part of the year in Los Angeles, is dubious. "We bump into people and we end up on a record together. We never plan or request anything. We don't say, 'OK, this release is just for America. Let's put an R&B singer on it.' "
But SHM is more than music; it's a brand. And an international "joint venture" with EMI-the type of multiplatform deal that used to be called "360"-has allowed the members to develop themselves as one, without a hard focus on sales.
"It's a new paradigm: This is an artist that hasn't put out a proper artist album yet," Astralwerks senior marketing director Lawrence Lui says. "The music industry is evolving, and what makes money now is not necessarily recorded music or downloads or sales of actual music products." Lui confirms that EMI shared in the expense and the profit of Masquerade, and has done the same with the group's other outside-the-box projects.
Video: Swedish House Mafia live at the Masquerade Motel 2011
The act has already released a critically lauded documentary film, "Take One"; "Until One," a companion iPad app to its same-named EP; and a free iPhone fan app that pushes out gig information and aggregates the bandmates' tweets. They have nearly 1.5 million Facebook "likes," more than 121,000 Twitter followers and a website that'll soon be updated to include an enhanced store and a travel guide with tips from SHM's members.
Such elements have advanced the perception of these three affable friends as the leaders of a globe-trotting, fabulous lifestyle, nonetheless rooted in a fan-focused populism. And when the first true test of all that brand-building came-Masquerade, a chance for fans to commune with their heroes in an environment created by them-the response was overwhelming.
SHM wasn't born out of necessity: The members were doing well on their own. Angello and Axwell founded Size and Axtone Records, respectively, two of the genre's top tastemaking imprints. Ingrosso is a music-focused vocal specialist with an ear for pop. They could all tour at will internationally. As the name suggests, SHM started as a lark; a chance for the childhood friends to "bro out" in the DJ booths of international hotspots like Pacha Ibiza.
"Each of them have very successful solo careers," Thompson says. "SHM comes last, which is good. It stops it from becoming all-encompassing." But on March 26, it was all that mattered in Miami-even with the 50,000-capacity UMF sold out downtown.
The Miami Fire Department declared Masquerade at-capacity at 5 p.m., causing thousands of revelers to stake out spots on the surrounding beach. In addition to the usual spring breakers and fist-pumpers, the crowd had its fair share of grown-ups with means. Many trudged through the sand in Louboutoin heels and settled into bottle service tables in the elevated VIP section, hosted by exclusive New York-based nightclub brand Provocateur.
"Our fan is anywhere from 18 to 35, equally girl or boy," Thompson says. "They dress well, look good, make an effort. They die for electronic music. We have a saying: 'You are the show.' At Studio 54, you didn't know who the hell DJ'd-the people were the show. We feel our fans are that.
"When the trio took the booth for the day's final set, flanked and backed by massive video screens, it seemed possible that the structure itself would give way from the energy alone. SHM closed with "One"-joined by surprise guest Pharrell-and an explosion of pyrotechnics that seemed to represent the complete destruction of dance music's status quo. The new kings of Miami had been crowned.The members of SHM have no illusions.
"There's being big in America electronically in our genre, then there's being big like Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera]," Thompson says. "We're humble in that regard." But Angello sees only a bright future, for the band and dance music at large.
"There are a lot of doors open to us right now," he says. "But the scene is finally where it should be; it's an amazing genre of music. It brings people together and makes them happy."