It’s no secret that dance music is bigger than its ever been – as the seven Grammy nominations for this week’s Billboard cover stars, Skrillex, A-Trak and Diplo demonstrate. Here’s a look at nine of the biggest executives in the game.
Manager to the new breed of multifaceted EDM artist, Kusatsu’s company Teamwork (with partner Andrew McInnes, @captainmcinnes) boasts Diplo, A-Trak, Duck Sauce and dubstep pioneers Skream and Benga on its growing roster. “The [artists’] diversity makes the management role more fun, because you’re learning new businesses, discovering new ways to conduct business and meeting new artists in all mediums weekly,” he says. “But the main focus is always on the core of what spawns the business: the creative.” Kusatsu’s persistence and vision got Diplo his BlackBerry partnership (yes, both he and the artist use the devices), and his work ethic makes it possible for him to maintain his senior VP of A&R post at Warner Bros. while building his Teamwork artists.
A three-day dance party on a boat? HARD Events founder Gary Richards saw only opportunity, not adversity. Holy Ship! set sail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 6 with 2,500 revelers and more than 30 artists (including this issue’s cover stars), forever changing the idea of what a multi-day festival could be. Richards, a former music executive (he was an A&R rep at A&M, and for Rick Rubin at Def American, before founding his own label, Nitrus) and current DJ (he spins under the name Destructo), is taking his yen for artist discovery and development to the event circuit, using his many annual shindigs to launch new faces. That includes the HARD Festival, which drew 30,000 attendees in Los Angeles last year and will add Miami and New York events in 2012.
Video: Hard Festival’s Gary Richards on Why Electronic Music Is Hot, How He Keeps His Events Safe
Veteran event promoter Donnie Estopinal specializes in bringing dance music to the world outside of the major cities–i.e., the majority of the United States. “If an artist can sell 2,000 tickets in Columbus, Ohio, then you know the guy’s big,” he says. In addition to his own weekly local shows all over the country, Estopinal books high-capacity festivals for event promoters Insomniac, including the Puerto Rico and Orlando, Fla. editions of its signature Electric Daisy Carnival, as well as Nocturnal Wonderland in Texas. “On Halloween 2010, Skrillex played a festival for me for $1,500,” Estopinal says. “Three months later he sold out the Austin Music Hall, which holds 4,000 people, with no radio airplay. As a promoter, that’s the most exciting stuff for me.”
Jimmy Iovine’s “right-hand man” made an EDM name for himself by lobbying for dance acts in the halls of the majors, first in the remix department, and then in the promised lands: the roster and the studio. “I started in remix commissioning three years ago. Normally that position’s parent is the promo department, so it was all more need-based, where some mixshow DJs would say, ‘I need this track in uptempo, four-on-the-floor commercial,'” he says. “I thought, ‘Man, I would love to have producers who are doing this correctly start doing our remixes and make it more of an A&R exercise.'” Skrillex’s first remixes-for Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and La Roux’s “In for the Kill,” commissioned by Rene-resulted, according to his manager Tim Smith, in “putting him on the map.” Now, Rene has placed DJ/producer Laidback Luke and Swedish House Mafia’s Steve Angello in the studio with artists like Will.i.am and Nicole Scherzinger, and just added Skrillex associate Zedd ( @zedd)-that’s Rene’s voice on recent single “Shave It”-to the Interscope roster, joining dubstep band Nero ( @nerouk)
Wynn Las Vegas
As co-owner/managing partner of two of Wynn Las Vegas’ elegant nightlife venues -Encore Beach Club and Surrender Nightclub-veteran promoter Sean Christie commands one of the most powerful and lucrative platforms for DJs in the country. The clubs don’t just boast residencies with some of the world’s top talent, including Tiësto (who just announced an exclusive joint deal with Encore, Surrender and additional Wynn venue XS), Skrillex and Deadmau5, they’ve also become a central part of EDM’s creative process. DJ/producers and residents R3HAB and Sidney Samson have named remixes after Surrender, and Christie built a studio in the Wynn to accommodate all the impromptu collaborations that the destination city inspired. “I watched Afrojack and Steve Aoki make [their 2011 collaboration] ‘No Beef’ in our studio,” he says. “They’d try edits out on the crowd, then go back to tweak it more.” Plus, the Surrender podcast is one of iTunes’ top 10 most-downloaded music shows.
For years, DJ/producer Kaskade’s longtime manager Stephanie LaFera was a one-woman show, as evidenced by her company name: Little Empire. But in 2011, she gave up the single life and joined a pretty rarefied crew: Atom Factory, Troy Carter’s management company, built around Lady Gaga but rapidly expanding to include other artists (like Q-Tip) and initiatives-like Atom Empire, an electronic music division founded by LaFera and Kaskade. “It’s been an education process going both ways,” she says. “We’re teaching them about a culture and kind of music that’s not known to big pop-music entities. And we get access to people who’ve been through this process on a much bigger scale, who can help us transition from being at the top of the electronic music game to the top of the music game.” LaFera is also charged with signing new talent, but isn’t “in a frenzy,” she says. “Whoever we sign has to be able to perform on all fronts for the long term. I wouldn’t work with an artist I couldn’t see myself managing in 10 or more years.”
Influence doesn’t always come in business packages: DJ/producer Afrojack, born Nick van de Wall, has caught a lot of recent press for linking up with Paris Hilton-and not just to (reportedly) executive-produce her next album. The pair has partied its way through Las Vegas, Miami and Ibiza, planting the DJ’s jet-setting, celeb-posse lifestyle in the mainstream tabloids. Afrojack’s production star is rising too: He co-produced four tracks on David Guetta’s Nothing But the Beat and Pitbull’s mega-hit “Give Me Everything.” And after winning a Grammy Award in 2011 (for his and Guetta’s remix of “Revolver”), he’s nominated for two more this year, for his remix of Leona Lewis’ “Collide” (best remix, non-classical) and his songwriting work (with Diplo) on Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” (best rap song). But what fans really want to know: Will he bring Hilton to the ceremony?
The man behind 22-year-old sensation Avicii is Ash Pournouri, a Swedish lawyer who discovered the then-18-year-old DJ/producer while moonlighting as a nightclub owner. Under his guidance, Avicii, born Tim Berg, got so big so fast that he was able to donate $1 million-part of the proceeds from his January House for Hunger tour -to charity Feeding America. Pournouri’s legal prowess has also served the young star well: A fight over a sample used without permission in Leona Lewis’ “Collide” ended out of court, with Avicii receiving equal billing on the track. And Pournouri cut a worldwide deal with Universal to release Avicii’s Etta James-sampling anthem “Le7els,” the most omnipresent dance track of last year, with no options-a particular point of pride for him. “We did all of this without signing any long-term deals with major labels,” he says. The charismatic manager makes it a point to get his own name in press releases and on production credits, building his profile along with his artist’s. Just call him the Scooter Braun of EDM.
The longtime leader in DJ booking became even more dominant this year. Paul Morris forged a joint venture between AM Only, the booking agency he founded in 1996, and Paradigm, home to Dave Matthews Band, Phish and the Black Eyed Peas. The partnership gives AM Only access to Paradigm’s connections in TV, film, publishing and endorsements, supporting its long-stated desire to develop clients as brands, not just touring properties. And Paradigm gets instant heft in dance music, through what New York event promoter Rob Fernandez calls “the most powerful roster in EDM,” including such established names as Tiësto, David Guetta and Skrillex, and kinetic upstarts like Dada Life, Porter Robinson and Zedd. “Paul doesn’t make the quick-and-easy decision,” says Fernandez, who books Pacha New York and Governors Island. “He’s always thinking about the long term for his artists, which sets him apart from other agents.”