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Laidback Luke Op-Ed: Avicii's Retirement & The Dark Side of DJ Stardom
Veteran DJ/producer sounds the alarm for dance music culture after his old friend's announcement.
After lingering health issues reportedly related to alcohol and exhaustion forced Avicii, one of the world’s top DJs, to cancel gigs for the second straight year, the Swede surprised the dance music world by announcing his retirement from live performance on March 29.
Realizing he “needed to make the change that [he had] been struggling with for a while,” Avicii, 26, who earned $19 million in 2015, according to Forbes, wrote that he will continue to speak to fans through his music. He recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “It was something I needed to do for my health.” His friend, DJ-producer Laidback Luke (real name: Lucas Cornelis van Scheppingen), writes about wider (and sometimes darker) issues in the dance music touring industry that can contribute to health problems for Djs.
I want to tell a story that may sound all too familiar — the story of another teenage kid making music in his bedroom. There are many guys he looks up to, but only a few are willing to help him improve and get ahead.
The kid’s undeniable talent shines through, and after a few years of hard work and constructive criticism, things start to happen. He releases a few records, and one catches fire.
Soon, there is a demand (and pressure) for him to start performing. This kid, who thrived in the safe environment of his bedroom, is torn from his comfort zone, and airplanes and hotels are his new home. He seldom sees his family or friends, and when he is back in his bedroom, it feels strange.
By now, it’s probably obvious that this story is about Tim Bergling — Avicii — and it may come off like a disaster tourist showing a quick cellphone recap. But I have a long and vested relationship with him. Tim was one of the kids on my website forum back in the day, with whom I would run through demos and give production tips. His first big hit as Avicii was "Ryu" on my label, Mixmash Records, and his first-ever gig was an opening spot at my Super You&Me party during Miami Music Week in 2009. Look at that insane lineup by the way!
The Avicii I know is the kid in the bedroom. And even though this story could be about anyone going through the trials and tribulations of fast-track success, the one I know is about Tim.
The pressure on these kids to perform is intense. But they’re producers — their songs can become known all over the world before they even think about performing. And every week their managers and agents present them with lucrative opportunities, which inevitably involve constant travel and pressure that make it very difficult to get back to producing music.
The first few years of heavy touring can have a major impact on a person’s life, health and sanity. DJs on tour average about four hours of sleep per night, and with drinking, afterparties, adulation and everything that comes with it, it’s easy to lose oneself. They make many new friends — at least for the moment — and some find another new friend: alcohol or whichever vice helps them deal with feeling displaced all the time. The pressures of being on the road as a DJ are constant and relentless. Unlike pop, rock or rap, they don’t tour in cycles — they’re always on tour, virtually every week, sometimes every day.
Tim and his team have been kind enough to book me at his Ushuaïa Hotel parties in Ibiza, most recently in August 2015. He looked terrible. He gave me a very sincere but oh-so-tired smile when he saw me. Soon after, he was onstage playing his amazing music — and that’s when it dawned on me. This wonderful and talented kid might not overcome his struggles.
At that moment, I envisioned my friend, now 26, joining the infamous “27 club” of music and film stars who died at that age. It sounds horrible but it’s the truth, and I can’t take back the overwhelming sense of frustration I felt. It was like watching Amy, the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, and suddenly realizing that you too were laughingly belting out her lyrics — “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no no no” — while we all watched the spectacle, seeing tragedy unfold and not doing a damn thing.
A few months ago, Avicii posted new press shots. “Bro you ages [sic] 15 years in like a year,” one commenter wrote. “Get help.” The public vitriol and ridicule that ensued made it seem like people wanted to push him over the edge. He responded with a lighthearted series of Photoshopped images that took the edge off — but to me it felt like a near-miss.
Thus, I was very relieved by his announcement on March 29 that he’s retiring from touring. Not only was it a brave decision — to walk away from the light, in both figurative and literal senses — but it also shows how much he has grown up. He has decided to focus on producing: That’s where he started, and it’s what makes him happy.
There are countless DJs who think they would kill for a career like Tim’s — and to a lot of them it’s unthinkable he would throw away so much opportunity. In recent months, several artists — Benga, Mat Zo — have discussed the toll that touring has taken on them, while others — Deorro, Feed Me — have given it up altogether. But Tim is the first of his stature to do it so abruptly and so publicly.
Hopefully this will start a conversation about more reasonable expectations and will encourage all of us to be more responsible. We, the generation of seasoned artists, need to recognize our role in guiding the next generation by pointing out the pitfalls, offering an ear, a shoulder and sometimes a kick in the ass too. We all have to stop looking away. It’s often said that the brightest light casts the darkest shadow — so be brave, and don’t be afraid to walk away from that light.
Laidback Luke is a Filipino-Dutch DJ/producer with more than two decades of experience in the dance music industry. Luke owns Mixmash Records and supports rising talent through sub-label Ones to Watch and his production forum, whose users have included the likes of Avicii and Afrojack.
This story originally appeared in the April 9 issue of Billboard.