The night sky flashes white with a Zeus-ian crash over the tiny town of Boom in Belgium, but it’s unclear what’s making the light and sound. Is it the countless beams firing upward from the massive festival stage, the fireworks that periodically explode without warning, or the storm that’s been threatening all day?
They’re all one to the teeming crowd of 40,000 crammed before the stage, a functioning volcano spewing LED-colored fog and foamy water. It’s Saturday night at Tomorrowland, a three-day fantasy-themed festival (July 26-28) that draws 180,000 to Boom each year, and Avicii is at the decks for the weekend’s marquee set, nestled safely at the base of the mighty mountain.
The 23-year-old DJ/producer, his high Swedish cheekbones projected above the crowd on three mega-sized screens, is doing what he’s done more than a thousand times in his young life: playing a mix dominated by music he himself has produced for an enthusiastic crowd. But Tomorrowland is different from any other gig. Fans from more than 214 countries fill the audience, a real-time global test panel for new music. The YouTube live stream is being watched by more than 16.8 million throughout the world, hanging on every track. In a world of big EDM stages — Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), Ultra Music Festival (UMF), the entire city of Las Vegas — it’s the biggest.
“There’s so much pressure to get everything right for that show, my mind is almost blank when I’m playing,” says Avicii, born Tim Bergling, a month later. “Then afterward you see all the benefits.”
Undoubtedly compounding that stress: The memory of UMF in March. During his headlining set, Avicii debuted several tracks off his bionic new album “True” (PRMD/Island Def Jam) with a full band of accomplished yet not-very-neon musicians, including a banjo player and folk singer. The sudden removal of repetitive beats sent thousands of ravers scuttling to other stages, and unleashed an online fury against what the Twitterverse dubbed “country house.” Bloggers and other self-appointed pundits proclaimed that Avicii had lost the plot.
But by the time of Tomorrowland, something has changed. Avicii plays his usual festival fodder for the Boom crowd: mashups of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Pharoahe Monch and Eurythmics favorites with EDM bangers, and his own hits, like “I Could Be the One” and “Le7els,” the Etta James-sampling track that launched his career. By the time he gets to “True” first single “Wake Me Up!,” there’s no doubt the lights in the sky are from God, not man. Thunder cracks with the bass and rain comes in a torrent, soaking everyone instantly and turning the main stage valley into a mud pit — and setting up another potential festival disaster.
Except that no one rushes to the sidelines or seeks shelter. The track’s acoustic guitar riff has instantly changed the tenor of the party, adding human warmth to all the synthetic bluster. The revelers, many wrapped in the flags of their countries, raise their arms and voices and sing along: “So wake me up when it’s all over/When I’m wiser and I’m older.” Some might not understand the words, but they feel the vibe: It’s about youth, hope, desire. This very moment.
The magic of “Wake Me Up!” doesn’t require an epic setting. The track, co-written (with Avicii and his manager Ash Pournouri) and performed by soul singer Aloe Blacc and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger, is No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 1.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While EDM fans might have needed a few listens to get used to the orgo-beat cocktail, others are drinking it up. It’s the most Shazamed track in the United States, with the lyric video garnering more than 70 million views-already surpassing “Le7els.”
“It’s one of those songs that, the moment you hear it in a store or truck stop, just stands out from the noise,” Island Def Jam president/COO Steve Bartels says. “It taps you on the shoulder. You want to know what it is.”
Those stores and truck stops are what make “Wake Me Up!” so exciting to the industry. The single is an open invitation to the EDM party for those who wouldn’t be caught dead twirling a glowstick or dancing in the Belgian mud, and its crossover potential is clear to everyone who hears it. According to Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for Clear Channel Radio, programmers at the Clear Channel Music Summit in July immediately gravitated toward the song, some leaving the room to instantly add it to their stations. (It’s charting at both triple A and alternative.)
“It has just enough EDM to make you feel like you’re cool without trying too hard,” Poleman says. “When you can take the listener to a place where they feel like they’re on the edge, but it’s very palatable and easy to listen to — that’s sort of the secret sauce.” Country cable station CMT added the video. Island Records president David Massey calls it “an EDM version of ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman.” When Bartels first heard it, he locked the Avicii team in his office and wouldn’t let them leave until the rest of his colleagues could get a listen.
“[Avicii has] stepped up and out of dance with this current body of work,” Bartels says. “It’s not niche anymore. It’s relevant in a much broader way.”
All the tracks on “True,” out Sept. 17 on Pournouri’s newly founded label PRMD through Island Def Jam, have a similar formula: They blend an authentic slice of an earthier genre — bluegrass, soul, rock, even rockabilly — with the beats and euphoria of the global dance movement. Instead of pop stars dialing in toplines over prefab beats, it’s based on musicians writing songs, together in a room. That small distinction, that kernel of truth, could be what catapults Avicii from superstar DJ to flat-out superstar, and carries EDM into a longer-term future.
Avicii was only 20 when his meteoric rise began. Pournouri discovered the fresh-faced producer in their native Sweden and molded him into a star — the first of the overnight sensations that have come to define the EDM movement. Before Avicii had a hit, he had buses shrink-wrapped with his visage driving around Miami during UMF. Pournouri’s stated strategy was to “make him seem bigger than he was.” Soon, perception was reality, and Avicii was headlining UMF, EDC and festivals all over the world. “Le7els” has sold 1.5 million copies through a one-off deal with Interscope, was featured in a Bud Light Super Bowl ad and became a wedding DJ staple. Ralph Lauren Denim & Supply inked a far-reaching partnership with the photogenic star, including an international ad campaign.
It wasn’t all easy. An ill-planned arena tour backfired in 2011, forcing Avicii to cancel dates and play to half-filled rooms. An unflattering GQ profile painted him as an opportunistic upstart, without respect for the heritage of DJ’ing. Avicii landed in the hospital several times with undisclosed ailments, reported as something between exhaustion and malnutrition. If anything, the kid seemed out of control of his own life.
But the Avicii who speaks from his collaborator and new buddy Nile Rodgers’ East Hampton, N.Y., studio in August -= where he’s already working on “True”‘s follow-up — is different. His usually clipped answers have become monologues. There’s an energy and confidence to his voice. He sounds like a guy who finally, at long last, feels ready to drink his own Kool-Aid.
“If you want to make a hit song, all you really need to do is rewrite an old hit song. That’s how everyone works,” he says. “But that’s a very short-term way of thinking. It’s not going to make something that really makes an impact on people.”
The desire to break through, to make music that stands the time test, has been echoed recently by EDM stars from Porter Robinson (reportedly sitting on a musically expansive album of his own) to Zedd to Steve Aoki. Artists who once dutifully pumped out singles — most of them catchy yet disposable — are now fetishizing the idea of the album, and all the discipline, control and craftsmanship it requires. Perhaps Daft Punk’s well-documented obsession with the LP’s golden age, resulting in the unexpected and often strange “Random Access Memories,” is what lit the fire.
But despite Rodgers’ presence on both Avicii’s and Daft Punk’s albums, Pournouri doesn’t see the connection. Rather, he chalks it up to one of those instances of synchronicity, like when fashion designers suddenly all decide at once that purple animal prints are the next direction. “When we put ‘True’ together, nothing was known of the Daft Punk album,” he says. “A lot of people see similarities, but we did our work way before anyone saw anything, even before they revealed the artwork on the website. It’s incredible how things are so similar in attitude and mentality.”
Whatever the case, after three years of blithe fist-pumping with the converted, it makes sense that EDM artists might be ready for something deeper — and, in terms of audience reach, wider. For Avicii, that meant time off the road and in the studio. He spent about two months in Los Angeles at the start of the year, working on what would become “True.” From the start, the sessions were different from the EDM norm. “The only way I’d worked before was remotely,” he says. “I usually had a song already, a backing track. I’d send it to someone and they’d write a vocal on top of it. But here, every song was written from scratch in the studio.”
Pournouri had reached out to his powerful network to source songwriting and vocal talent, including Sony/ATV’s Stockholm-based executive Johnny Tennander (who co-A&R’d the album) and Interscope senior VP of A&R Neil Jacobson. He shuttled them all off to Avicii’s studio with clear terms: co-writing credits, yes, but no features. Every track would be credited to Avicii only.
“I’ve always had that strategy,” he says. “I wanted to make Avicii a huge artist, not a DJ. Therefore, I did not allow any features on our own records. Obviously everyone didn’t accept this, long before the album, but I stood firm. Before going into sessions I would state these terms and if they weren’t agreed to, we’d turn down the opportunity to collaborate.”
Avicii says John Legend and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda were some of his first collaborators. They didn’t make the album’s final cut, but a parade of unknowns and unlikelys did, culled from all corners of the musical universe. Dan Tyminski, who memorably sang “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” picks up where he and George Clooney left off with the just-as-jangly “Hey Brother.” Swedish “Idol” contestant Linnea Henriksson plays the haunted heroine on the soaring “Hope There’s Someone,” which sounds like a trance remix of a Lana Del Ray torch song. Rodgers and his new favorite voice, Adam Lambert, get disco-funky on “Lay Me Down.” Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds closes the album with the high-drama vocal and aggressive string section of “Heart Upon My Sleeve.” Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter Audra Mae, who is Judy Garland’s great-great niece, sings on two tracks, including standout “Addicted to You,” co-written by 71-year-old Mac Davis, who penned “A Little Less Conversation” for Elvis Presley.
Some sessions happened in Sweden, and Rodgers joined the project in late March, when his work with Daft Punk was about to arrive. But in about three months, Avicii had an album — one that didn’t sound like anything else. “I wasn’t even intending to use acoustic instruments at first. The only reason we did that was for songwriting purposes,” he says. “My first thought was to take all these a cappellas and make a new track with electronic stuff. But when I removed the guitars and the piano, it felt like I had taken out something important from the songs. I fell in love with those sounds.”
The public first heard the new songs at UMF, where Avicii had always made a splash: Madonna joined him onstage the previous year, scandalously asking the young audience if they were on drugs (but in raver code: “Has anybody seen Molly?”). This year, he had some stiff competition for attention: Ultra was two weekends instead of its usual one, and Swedish House Mafia was playing its last gig ever on Sunday.
“We had to break through the noise,” Pournouri says.
After playing an abbreviated but expected EDM set, Avicii left the main stage, making way for a live band of his collaborators: Einziger with Incubus bandmates Ben Kenney and Jose Pasillas, plus Blacc, Davis, Mae and Tyminski. They performed acoustic versions of “Wake Me Up!,” “Addicted to You” and some other album tracks — causing the now-infamous mass exodus.
“We obviously knew we were going to provoke people. That was the whole point of doing it the way we did,” Pournouri says. “We expected some heat for that, but not what we got.”
Later that week, when Avicii leaked snippets of the fully produced tracks with warm, comforting four-on-the-floor beats, audience opinion started to shift. But within the industry, everyone immediately knew what they were hearing, and several different labels were already vying to release “True.” Pournouri has licensed the album to Universal worldwide, and set to selecting which of its U.S. labels would get the nod. He had released one-off Avicii singles through Interscope (“Le7els”) and Republic (“I Could Be the One”), and an album from his other artist Cazzette through Island Def Jam, with the partial goal of testing each label’s performance.
“We felt that Island was the most hungry and synchronized as a team. In the end that’s what tipped it,” he says. “They made the best impression on us.”
Working together, Island and the PRMD team — Pournouri, Carl Vernersson and newly hired COO Victor Lee, an industry vet formerly of Tommy Boy — set the marketing plan in motion. Launching Aug. 12, the #truereveal campaign instructed fans to use the hashtag in a social post that shared a personal secret. Once a certain number of posts was reached, the glass cover on a fabricated box — located somewhere in Stockholm, but transmitted via live stream — shattered, revealing the True album art for the first time. Another activation, allowing fans to become “ambassadors” of their favorite “True” track by creating an Instagram video for it, will run through release day.
Avicii was named a Vevo Lift artist for seven weeks, securing him such benefits as front-page world premieres of the videos for “Wake Me Up!” and second single “You Make Me” (which rolls out Sept. 16). Spotify and iTunes will stream snippets of the album prerelease, and each will get two additional exclusive tracks.
The Avicii Wake Me Up Mobile Cafe distributed free iced coffee (courtesy of illy, a Coca-Cola brand — Avicii has a Coke Burn sponsorship in Europe) at Lollapalooza, and will make other appearances in Los Angeles during release week. A media campaign including in-cinema and TV advertising, digital media and billboards in Los Angeles and New York will launch the week prior to street date.
Ralph Lauren Denim & Supply is continuing its support of Avicii behind the album. The flagship Union Square location in New York will host a meet-and-greet on release date, and on Oct. 10, fans who purchase an Avicii-branded T-shirt will be able to attend an exclusive show at Roseland Ballroom, hosted by the brand. The clothier is also adding tags for the album and single to its pre-existing advertising featuring Avicii in magazines and online, and purchasing additional media on Spotify, iHeartRadio, Facebook and Vevo.
The next nut to crack is touring, but Avicii’s not ready to go there just yet. “For the past four years I’ve been on a nonstop tour, more or less,” he says. “This year has been a little bit slower because it got to a point where it was ridiculous. I wasn’t able to deal with it.”
He says he’d rather focus on “bigger, profile-building shows,” like his Las Vegas residencies (he plays at both Marquee and Wynn venues), and big-time one-offs like a planned winter set at the Hollywood Bowl.
“I consider myself a producer and songwriter. I was never a DJ first,” he says. “My passion has always been in the studio. That’s where I love being the most. I get antsy when I don’t get to make music.”
Walking away from guaranteed six-figure paydays for the uncertainty of studio sessions is already an artistic commitment — one many current EDM stars aren’t willing to make. But according to Massey, that could be Avicii’s destiny. “We’re just getting started with Avicii,” he says. “I see him developing a whole career in records. The performance side is important, but he’s very motivated to be an incredible record-maker. That makes me really happy, because that’s where we can really support him.”
“Every artist tries to find their own way, their own signature, and that’s the hardest thing for sure to find, because everything’s been done,” Avicii says. “That’s what I tried to do the most with this project. It’s the first time I’ve done something like this, and I didn’t foresee the success at all, which makes me super-excited for the future. Because some of the best songs are still to come.”