"The Mount Everest of EDM."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators, label folks and industry insiders involved.
Avicii’s “Levels” was already a hit when Per Sundin signed it to Universal Music in 2011. The Swedish artist born Tim Bergling and his manager Ash Pournouri had built a groundswell of enthusiasm around the track -- an undeniably infectious amalgamation of synths and an Etta James vocal sample -- via social media, using footage from shows, travel and studio time to reach worldwide fans ravenous for the fresh, massive and unabashedly pop-oriented electronic dance music Bergling, then just 21 years old, was creating.
The millions of streams gleaned through these efforts gave Pournouri the metric fuel to leverage major deals for “Levels,” with Sundin, the President of Universal Music in the Nordic Region, ultimately paying $500,000 for rights to the song in his territory.
“I wanted them to be super invested,” Pournouri says of this-then astronomical sum, “and so committed that this could not be anything but a hit for them.”
Another deal brokered by Lady Gaga’s then-manager Troy Carter brought “Levels” to the States, where it delivered on its investment and then some. It became one of the decade’s first EDM crossover hits, and helped introduce the genre and its neon-clad, glowstick-wielding culture to audiences in the United States and beyond -- at the same time that U.S. dance music festivals like Ultra Music Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival were scaling up in size and popularity.
The song spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2011 and 2012, and led to Flo Rida's "Good Feeling" -- which used the same Etta James sample and credited Avicii as a co-writer -- becoming a top 5 hit in 2012. It took Sundin all of six weeks to recoup his investment. “People were tired of pop music, and there was no rock scene,” Sundin says of the sonic void filled by “Levels.” “I think the drop in EDM songs replaced the electric guitar. It was edgier than traditional pop music. It wasn’t tailor-made for radio.”
But it was easy to access, with “Levels” hitting alongside Spotify’s rise in prominence after the platform debuted in Sweden in 2008 and in the US three years later. Such streaming technology created new access to dance music, delivering it from underground clubs to the masses with unprecedented ease. “Spotify was perfect for people who don’t go out and buy 12-inch dance vinyl,” Sundin says. “They didn’t have to pay anything. It was just in front of them.”
But the song also created controversy, as it -- alongside hits from fellow EDM stars like Swedish House Mafia and Kaskade -- pushed dance music into the commercial realm, where many veteran scenesters thought it had no place. “They were the one percent,” Pournouri says of these gatekeepers. “I’d tell Tim that we were making music for the 99 percent, for the people who really loved and appreciated it.”
As “Levels” revealed the EDM generation gap, it also became ubiquitous, getting played in sets by every major DJ and at every major festival of the era, being used in a 2012 Budweiser Super Bowl commercial, collecting fans between the ages of two and 92 and paving the way for acts like Marshmello and The Chainsmokers. Now considered a classic of the genre –“the Mount Everest of EDM,” says Sundin – “Levels” gave Avicii the leverage to build a worldwide brand, push performance paychecks into the high six figures, and become one of the era’s defining stars. Eight years later the song remains beloved, once again getting worldwide play when Avicii tragically passed away in 2018, at the age of 28.
“That track works today, and it will work in ten years,” Pournouri says. “It’s one of those songs that will be around forever.”