The Dutch DJ-producer will close out the three-day festival as the “special guest” in the final main stage slot at 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 27, say three people familiar with the matter.
Hardwell, whose real name is Robbert van de Corput, rose to fame amid the hands-in-the-air commercial explosion of dance music in the U.S. from 2012 to 2018, headlining major festivals like Ultra and TomorrowWorld and holding residencies at top-flight venues like Hakkasan in Las Vegas. He produced a slew of high-energy progressive house and big-room dance hits like “Spaceman” and “Apollo.”
A spokesperson for Ultra did not respond to emails from Billboard. Anna Knaup, Hardwell’s manager, declined to comment.
The Dutch DJ’s Ultra performance has been rumored for months, and the festival hasn’t made it any less obvious, having put a blurred-out name between the letters “G” and “I” on its alphabetical lineup of artists. In announcing the event’s Phase One lineup in February, the organizers said Sunday’s closing act would be filled by “one of the most iconic artists in electronic music history.” DJs Kura and Timmy Trumpet, who has released tracks on Hardwell’s Revealed Recordings label, have also hyped up a possible comeback show for Hardwell on Twitter.
Hardwell was in discussions with Ultra about making his comeback, with new music, at the 2020 edition of the festival, which was canceled, along with the 2021 event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one source says. Knaup says Hardwell was “never ever confirmed at the previous Ultra.” (With the pandemic raging, a lineup for the 2021 Ultra was never announced and artist managers and agents told Billboard that booking offers for the show were not made.)
Sources say Hardwell will debut new music at this year’s festival, and that his new sound is a departure — or evolution — from his previous, commercially focused work. Hardwell’s friend and fellow Dutch DJ, Laidback Luke, told Billboard in October that he had heard some of the new music, saying he was “so proud of him, and his new album is going to be incredible.” (Knaup would not comment on the new music.)
Songs on which Hardwell is credited as the lead artist have drawn 240.3 million official U.S. streams, according to Luminate, formerly MRC Data. He has four top 10s on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic albums chart and six entries on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, with “Dare You” featuring Matthew Koma peaking at No. 16 in 2014.
In September 2018, in a surprise move, Hardwell, at age 30, told his followers on Instagram that he was taking a hiatus from touring and other music obligations to spend more time with his friends and family. He hails from Breda, Netherlands, which is also the hometown of Tiësto, who helped mentor Hardwell early in his career.
In his Instagram post, Hardwell said he had decided to “clear [his] schedule indefinitely” because the pressures of heavy touring had come to feel like “a never-ending rollercoaster ride.”
Laidback Luke told Billboard that Hardwell “was just not happy with what he was doing anymore. To him, it just felt like the same old thing over and over again. And he wanted to break free from that.”
Hardwell’s decision to step away from being a touring DJ roughly coincided with the creation of a DJ support group by fellow Dutchman Armin van Buuren. The group has met twice monthly on Zoom during the pandemic, in English and Dutch-language groupings that have included mostly male DJs, including Laidback Luke, Don Diablo, Dave Dresden (of Gabriel & Dresden) and the Brazilian DJ Alok, sources say. The support groups were intended to deal with mental health issues, including the stresses of fame and touring, say three people involved in the groups.
What is less clear about Hardwell’s Ultra show is whether it represents a comeback or a one-off. Knaup declined to say whether the DJ planned to tour the rest of the year or had lined up any residencies at major clubs.
If it’s the beginning of a comeback, it won’t be the first time Ultra has acted as a launching pad for a major act’s rebirth. In 2018, after retiring five years earlier, Swedish House Mafia closed out Ultra with a surprise performance, with Axwell declaring to the crowd from the Ultra stage that “It’s Swedish House Mafia for life, this time.”
After a three-year absence, Ultra is back this year with a sold-out Miami event at Bayfront Park. Like most festival companies, Ultra suffered substantial losses from the pandemic cancellations and was hit in May of 2020 by a class-action lawsuit over its refusal to issue ticket refunds.
Taking place in March, Ultra has acted as a festival where dance artists frequently debut new music early in the year. In addition to Swedish House Mafia, it has welcomed surprise guests before, including Madonna, Slash and Deadmau5, who replaced a hospital-stricken Avicii on the lineup in 2014.