Sundown was no relief from the heavy heat of Miami in March, and the press of nearly 50,000 bodies in front of Ultra Music Festival’s towering main stage only added to the swelter. It was Saturday, March 24, UMF’s second and most sweat-packed day, and the night’s headliner — then-22-year-old Swedish phenom Avicii — was about to perform. Throughout the crowd, teens and 20-somethings decked in neon — from backpacks to tutus — buzzed in impatience, sensitive to even 10 minutes of relative silence after two full days of constant, pummeling bass.
Behind the scenes there was a different type of clamor. Media, support staff and artist hangers-on were being hustled out of lounges and green rooms. Extra security teams were stepping into place. Since the festival opened that afternoon, the backstage buzz had been about a high-profile special guest, slated to join Avicii during his set. Whoever they were, they were making their presence known.
Out front, the revelers let out a roar as the main stage’s massive video screens finally came to life. A short clip revealed the guest in all but name, featuring EDM stars like Afrojack and Avicii himself singing her praises, while her greatest hits played in the background. Then, there she was: Madonna, standing midstage in black-and-white striped arm warmers, a half-up bouffant and a black shirt emblazoned with MDNA, the name of her new album and the reason for this visit.
But even as she told the crowd that “a DJ saved her life,” that in her world “the words ‘music’ and ‘dance’ are not separated” and dropped a now infamous party drug reference (“How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”), the kids were unmoved. There was no swooning, no real fervor. Instead, midway through her speech, they started chanting one thing: “A-vi-cii.”
The Beatles proclaimed themselves “more popular than Jesus” in 1966, just two years after invading the United States. In the same amount of time, Avicii, aka Tim Bergling, has become bigger than Madonna. He has the massive international hit “Le7els” under his belt, which has sold 1 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 3.5 million worldwide, according to his manager, Ash Pournouri. (“Le7els” is also the basis of Flo Rida’s 3.5 million-selling “Good Feeling,” for which Avicii shares publishing.) He’s headlined Lollapalooza and Electric Daisy Carnival and played a marquee set at Coachella. He recently sold out two shows each at Santa Monica (Calif.) Civic Auditorium and New York’s Radio City Music Hall. And he’s the new face of Denim & Supply Ralph Lauren, the luxury house’s Bohemian youth-focused line (exclusive to Macy’s in the States), and its first global campaign featuring a musician.
“We’ve all had ‘Le7els’ stuck in our heads for the past year,” Ralph Lauren executive VP of advertising, marketing and corporate communications David Lauren says. “Denim & Supply Ralph Lauren is based on the concept of ‘warehouse’ and artist communities working together to generate a creative spirit. Avicii expresses this same spirit through his dynamic music, positivity and love for his fans. This is a very special partnership and an important step for us.” The global program’s centerpiece is a Mark Seliger-shot ad campaign featuring Avicii, which will appear all over the world, in in-store signage and fashion and lifestyle publications and on billboards and RalphLauren.com.
While a fair part of Avicii’s rise can be attributed to social media and the unstoppable tide of EDM — not to mention his blond good looks and singalong brand of dance music — a lot of it has to do with old-fashioned chutzpah and the disruptive vision of the manager who discovered him, Pournouri.
At 31, Pournouri is himself young. But the former Stockholm nightclub promoter hasn’t let that keep him from defying long-standing music industry norms, or as he explains it, “not making anyone too comfortable. Unless you keep someone on their toes, they’re going to relax.”
That philosophy has kept Avicii without a long-term label deal, a single booking agent for the States (he currently has two, from different agencies), or that multimillion-dollar jewel in every EDM artist’s crown, an exclusive residency in Las Vegas. (He plays a different major club each time he comes through town.) But it’s also given Pournouri the opportunity to do things exactly his way — and that’s brought his client practically overnight success and seemingly made his partners happy despite their discomfort.
“Ash is a personality unto himself, with his own ideas and his own way he wants to see things done. He is not going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” says David Brady of Spin Artist Agency, Avicii’s booking agent from the beginning who currently shares duties with Joel Zimmerman of William Morris Endeavor.
“I’m really lucky to be in business with Ash,” says Steve Berman, vice chairman of Interscope, which released Avicii’s mega-hit “Le7els” in North America. “He sees what the future is and is not afraid to go out and get it.”
Pournouri first met Avicii in their native Sweden, when Avicii was an 18-year-old bedroom producer. His dad, a guitar player, listened to soul and blues; his siblings favored rock. “I was always between everything,” he says, “but so focused on melody I forgot the other stuff. I just got lost in the melodies.”
He discovered digital production when a friend downloaded a simple program that didn’t require pre-existing know-how to make music. “I got so into it. I was producing a track a day. If I only did two tracks in a week I would feel bad, like, ‘Oh, I need to work harder.’ I was almost OCD.”
Pournouri says Avicii’s early work was “super-rough, unfinished. But what got to me was that this guy could produce.”
The pair joined forces — Pournouri even supplied musical direction in the early days — and started playing gigs throughout Sweden, eventually setting their sights on America. Avicii’s first U.S. gigs were small club shows during Miami Music Week in 2010. But Pournouri saw a bigger opportunity. “I started thinking what a platform [Miami] was and how people weren’t using it to its full potential,” he says. “They’re not thinking creatively around the marketing. They just go and party.”
Pournouri immediately started planning for 2011, with a bold question guiding him: “How do we make Avicii appear bigger than he is?” His first order of business: securing a visible time slot at UMF. “I met [UMF co-founder] Adam [Russakoff] and asked how I could get Avicii a good spot. I promised him to deliver,” Pournouri says. “We came to an agreement: Avicii would be billed at a higher level than he would have been, based on his current profile. But by the time Ultra came about, he was placed rightly on the bill.”
Avicii played a 5 p.m. set on the main stage, and Pournouri made good on his promise: The audience was full of kids bearing Avicii swag like nameplate-style necklaces reading “Bromance,” after his track “Seeking Bromance.” Then there were the “bromobiles,” four super-sized buses wrapped in Avicii’s face, distributing swag and shuttling partiers from the hotels of South Beach to Ultra downtown for free. A year later, Avicii was headlining the same stage and upstaging the Material Girl.
“It just confirmed what I believed,” Pournouri says. “Miami is a perfect ground for marketing and creating awareness around a brand.”
Pournouri’s dogged determination has had its ups and downs. “Le7els” — the most popular track of the EDM movement thus far — was a landmark deal, reportedly worth close to $1 million in total for the world, which Universal paid upfront and without options.
“I was never after the money. But the money was a way to guarantee commitment,” Pournouri says. “If I had a label invest more money into this song than ever before, without any security to recoup beyond the track, I knew that they would have to prioritize it globally.”
Thanks to Berman and Translation CEO Steve Stoute, “Le7els” got a big look in Bud Light’s Super Bowl spot, which also featured Avicii. “It was all a connected idea for Stoute,” Berman says. “He wanted to bring that level of dance culture to the mainstream. When he pitched the idea to me, it was all about, ‘What’s the song, and who’s the guy?'” Sources say that Universal has already recouped its investment in “Le7els.”
But Avicii’s first big tour this past summer was widely regarded as a flop. The AEG-backed outing hit super-sized venues like the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh and American Airlines Arena in Miami, shortly after Avicii had played many of those markets on the House for Hunger tour, which raised money for the Feeding America charity. “The House for Hunger stop in Pittsburgh sold out 2,500 tickets in 14 minutes, so we estimated the next time around we would sell 6,500,” Spin Artist Agency’s Brady says. “The ticket prices weren’t much different, but maybe we came back too soon.” The show went off, but most seats were empty. Other dates, like New Orleans and Atlanta, were canceled outright.
Pournouri says his attention was elsewhere, focused on big shows overseas, like at London’s O2 Arena and Avicii’s Ibiza residency in Spain. “We were partnering with AEG, one of the biggest promoters in the world,” he says. “I said, ‘I can’t babysit you on this. Do it yourself, present me with the routing, and I’ll sign off on it.’ But no one had done their homework.”
Pournouri was unhappy with a lot of the tour’s marketing, and “that they omitted a basic thing that was a requirement: I wanted all the local promoters to be involved in all the markets.” But, lesson learned: “I won’t give control to anyone regardless of how experienced they are or how big their firm is. I never want to cancel another show because they’re not selling.”
Nearly six months after UMF, Avicii returned the favor to Madonna, opening both Yankee Stadium dates in New York on her international MDNA tour. While he has reached the summit of EDM, he still hasn’t cracked the so-big-your-grandma-knows-him mainstream. But that might be just fine with him.
“One of the benefits now is that I don’t feel the same pressure I felt before,” Avicii says. “When you’re completely undiscovered, you never feel satisfied with yourself, you want to push more and more. But now I’m not going to try to make another hit. I care if a track is successful, but not in that sense — successful to me. It’s good for my stress levels to just relax and do the music that I want to do, and everything else will follow.”
His output as of late — all vocal, which is unique in EDM — bears this out. “Silhouettes” featured quirkily soulful and androgynous vocals by Swedish singer/songwriter Salem Al Fakir; “Stay With You,” the first in a series of new works with American hip-pop crooner Mike Posner, just debuted on some choice blogs. “Superlove” was a remix of a Lenny Kravitz song, but billed as Avicii vs. Lenny Kravitz. “I’m a huge Kravitz fan and I knew he had to come back modern, so I used our leverage to make it look like a collaboration,” Pournouri says. Avicii also says he’s open to production work for other artists that would “take my name out of the equation,” but current touring makes that impossible right now. He’s back on the road with more strategic routing that winds through college campuses during the week and major markets on the weekends, including those Santa Monica and Radio City dates. So far, it’s working: The first Radio City show sold out within the hour.
Meanwhile, Pournouri is nearly ready to focus on his next project, which he hints isn’t necessarily artist-related. “It’s more about using my experience from here, my creative mind-set, to install in other businesses within music in general — not EDM per se. I’m working on a deal with another genre of music that I hope to be able to create something in the same way as I did with Avicii. Hopefully I can make international brands, not necessarily artists.”