Ten years ago, David Guetta was having a moment. His fifth studio album, Nothing But The Beat delivered a litany of hits upon its Aug. 2011 release, including “Without You,” “Where Them Girls At” and “Turn Me On,” while also setting the stage for the impending EDM explosion. But no song from the album was bigger than the one Guetta was most nervous to release.
The fifth single from Nothing But The Beat, “Titanium,” was a left turn from the R&B and hip-hop-influenced sound of the preceding hits, and Guetta wasn’t sure how audiences would receive it. Yet, the song promptly exploded, not only giving a mainstream platform to its vocalist Sia, but also serving as one of the first EDM crossover hits. “Titaniam” peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100, earned billions of streams, and was covered by everyone from Rick Astley to the cast of Pitch Perfect.
Says Guetta over Zoom: “I don’t think I’ve ever managed to match the quality of ‘Titanium.'”
With an enthusiasm that’s palpable even across a video call, Guetta is happy to reflect on “Titanium,” but revisiting the hits isn’t high on his current to-do list. “I am doing this interview because it’s Billboard,” he says, “but I told my management that I’m not going to do a full campaign to speak about the past, because I’m more interested in the future.”
The anniversary celebrations around “Titanium” have, in fact, been sparse, with Guetta and his producing partner Morten dropping a Future Rave remix at August’s Creamfield’s festival in the UK, Guetta’s first show back after the pandemic. Yet hits like “Titanium” are also helping Guetta step into his future, with the French producer selling his catalog to Warner in a deal announced this past June for an estimated $100 million. The move created a financial peace of mind — and allowed Guetta to focus on making his next round of hits.
Below, Guetta reflects on why he was nervous to release “Titanium,” the decision to sell his catalog, and why he’s feeling so good about where rave is headed.
Now that live events seem to really be coming back amidst the ongoing pandemic, what’s your take on where the dance scene is at and where things are going?
Obviously in my industry it was very hard because a lot of people — technicians and even artists — lost their jobs and had to pick a normal job because they couldn’t survive. Festival organizers also suffered a lot. But I’m telling a lot of clubs and festivals that at the same time, we are going to have the best years we’ve ever had.
I’ve been doing this my entire life, so I’ve seen the different waves with the trends of what’s hot, what’s less hot, and I feel like dance music was going a little bit down, because hip-hop was so strong. Now I feel completely the opposite. In moments of crisis, I always [think] music that makes you feel good and lets you forget everything is winning, and in this moment dance music is back so strong. It’s the strongest it’s been for years, at least in Europe, maybe not here in America, but it’s going to come.
When you see even an artist like Ed Sheeran doing a comeback single that is dance music, this is is no accident. “I Gotta Feeling” with the Black Eyed Peas was also at the end of a massive crisis. It was the 2008 financial crisis, a terrible situation. I’ve been having tons of hits in the UK lately, because I’m just making positive music, feel good music.
I don’t want to say that the dance scene is the opposite of reality, but things have been so —
No, it is! Because you want to escape your reality. That’s what’s happening. Whenever that’s the situation, then people want to party and escape their everyday reality and have a moment. I really feel like people didn’t realize anymore, because of social media being so big, how important it is to be really be together, physically together, you know? After watching Netflix for a year and and spending hours on Instagram every day and TikTok or whatever it is, I feel like people are like, “Okay, we miss something in our life.” So those parties, they become celebrations of a life.
Sure, and you can label that as escapist, but connection is also a human necessity.
Exactly. That’s that’s what I’m trying to say. I think because of the evolution of society people kind of forgot this, and now they’re like, “Wow, we really need to connect and be together.” I’ve done all those shows online that were great. I did shows called United At Home that were very, very successful. It was amazing. But I don’t I don’t know if you saw the video of [my August set at] Creamfields, but nothing can replace that, you know?
So you’re saying the United At Home livestreams didn’t feel the same for you as performing for tens of thousands of people?
No. I’m honest. [United At Home] felt amazing because it was a charity, so it allowed me to bring in millions and give millions of meals to people in that were in need, so I was incredibly happy. I always wanted to do more to give back but never had the time, because my life is so crazy when I’m touring and producing at the same time. So I was happy I could use this time to do United At Home and do something good. I think the last show in Dubai has 20 million views on YouTube. I think Miami’s something like 50 million, it’s crazy.
But it’s not the same. The way I see my job is I come and party with the people. I don’t see myself just delivering a show. I come to party with them, to dance with them. So of course when you do it in front of a camera, it’s not the same as when I can feed off the energy of the people.
There was some backlash to the George Floyd tribute you did during the first United At Home event in New York in May 2020, when you said, “I really hope we can see more unity and more peace when already things are so difficult,” and then offered “a shout-out to [Floyd’s] family” and then sampled Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. What did you make of that backlash?
Honestly, I really didn’t make anything out of that, because I thought it was so insane. First, I’m French, and of course I felt very sorry because I think the words I used were not appropriate, but it was not coming from a wrong place; it was obviously coming from a good place. A lot of people thought that I should not play a Martin Luther King speech because I’m white. That I can’t accept; this is crazy to say that.
I was very sorry if the words I used were considered disrespectful, because it wasn’t. I think a lot of people just saw one little second [of the performance] and not the whole video, because I spoke about this, saying I made a record especially in his honor. So this cannot be considered disrespectful. And the Martin Luther King speech is about being all together and sharing a dream, it’s not about separating cultures. People love creating drama without even knowing what they’re talking about. The mom of my children is Black, so I don’t think they can be accused of being racist, you know?
I think it was ignorance from me in a way that English isn’t my native language, and ignorance from the people talking about a show that they didn’t see. The only answer I gave is that I was at a Black Lives Matter protest with my ex-wife and my children. I posted [a photo from that]. I didn’t make any more comment.
Being at the center of a controversy like that, do you try and ignore it, or does it bother you?
Honestly, I just ignore it. Things like this happened to me a few times. This happened when I was doing United At Home, bringing millions [of dollars] to give to people that couldn’t eat, and this is what you take from what I’m doing? That this is so crazy. I’m not really interested by these types of people that just want to create drama with something that comes from the wrong place. We can all make mistakes, and I definitely made a mistake in the words that I chose, but I still don’t even understand why it made such a big deal, to be honest.
You mentioned that Creamfields show in August where you played “Titanium” and the crowd, which was huge, sang along to every word. What is it like for you to know that that song still hits so hard, 10 years after it came out?
It’s amazing, of course. That is probably the song that makes me the proudest in my career. First, because I think it’s probably the song that really revealed Sia to the world. She was successful, but in a more underground way, a more indie-pop way. She didn’t really cross over so massively before, and it was so incredible for me to discover what I consider probably the biggest talent on the planet.
Also at the time, it was a huge shift in music, including in American pop music. So yeah, it’s something I’m very proud of, and I still love the song. I just made a remix together with my friend Morten, and you see how it connects. It’s almost like it has a new signification when I play it during COVID times, like how you know you can go through bad times.
Did you know it was going to be such a massive hit when you were making it?
It’s one of the biggest record-breakers of my career, but at the time it was so different that we didn’t release it as a first single or as a second single or even as a third.
Right before [Nothing But The Beat], I came with a new sound where I was mixing European electronic culture with urban American culture, and making records like “Sexy Bitch” and “I Gotta Feeling.” So when I came back, I came back with Nicki Minaj, as those were the records that felt most obvious at the time. I first released “Turn Me On” as the single. I think it was the first time Nicki was singing, because she was a very respected rapper, but she didn’t sing yet. Then there was “Without You” with Usher, “Where Them Girls At” with Flo Rida, “Sweat” with Snoop Dogg. It’s actually crazy how many hits are on this record.
But at the end, we decided to release “Titanium.” Like I said, the trend I launched was that urban dance trend, and then I went completely different again with something that was kind of indie-pop and very emotional. I promise you, no one was expecting this record to be so big. We didn’t see it coming. It’s funny because of course today you listen to it and it’s such a smash, but at the time, we didn’t know.
It sounds like you were nervous about the song, given that you released it as the fourth single.
The best thing in my life is when I play a record for the first time on stage, and the worst thing in my life is when I have to decide which song is the next single. I hate this. It makes me anxious. It’s really terrible, but it’s part of my job, so I do it because I have to. Especially in the U.S., because the system is different in America, when you go wrong on this, it’s a really big problem. Here in Europe, if you if you make a single and it doesn’t work as much as you expected, you just move on to the next one. It’s not such a big deal. But in America, it’s so expensive and the campaign is so long that every time it’s a headache for me. I hate it. And yes, absolutely, I remember putting out “Titanium” and being so scared.
Do you remember what the campaign was and what kind of resources were put behind it?
This tells you everything: look at the video. The video is a cheap video, because we didn’t think it was going to be such a big smash. I don’t know how many views has [Ed. note: 1.5 billion YouTube views to date], but it’s probably around a billion views for a video that cost, like, almost nothing.
Do you consider your own legacy — what it will be, and how it stands currently?
It’s interesting that you ask this question, because I just sold my catalog to Warner. Since I sold it, I think I’ve had four records in the top five in the UK, so I’m really focusing on the future.
It’s true that I’m very attached to [Nothing But The Beat], but I really believe that I can make a new catalog that is going to be as good and as important as my previous one. With “Titanium” and “Without You” and “Play Hard” and all those records, it was really a moment where dance music crossed over to pop. In a certain way, because success is so addictive, I started to be obsessed with commercial success, like every artist that has touched that at some point. I feel like for a moment, I kind of lost myself.
Have you found yourself?
In the last two years I was like, “You know what? I just want to focus on my foundations again.” I created this new sound called Future Rave that is festival music, and this alias called Jack Back that is more like underground house music. It’s very interesting, because after doing that, when I came back with pop music again, it was more successful than I’ve been in probably the last five years. It was crazy to have four records in the top 40 at the same time.
So my feeling is it’s like — probably in the same way that in hip hop where they’re doing mixtapes to keep the street credibility — it’s the same in dance music. It’s amazing to cross over, but it’s also dangerous, because you easily can start to live in fear instead of living in passion. You just live in fear of of not being number one anymore.
Whereas, what I love in dance music, you have huge DJs — for example Tiësto who has an amazing career, but I think “The Business” is his first really huge pop hit. What I mean is that you can have a huge career like him without hits, and this is what I’ve been doing in the two last years, and my demand went up incredibly, because my sound was not only credible, but also influential again in my community in terms of inspiring other DJs and producers.
How does that feel for you?
Nothing But The Beat was maybe the peak of my career on a pop level, but after that I was not as happy as before, and I was not as happy as I am now. I think Avicii went through this, and I think probably every big artist that goes to No. 1 at some point is going to go through this. It’s like the biggest achievement of your life, but at the same time, happiness is more about the journey than about the destination. So when you’re there, you like, “OK, and now what?” You know, all you can do is look down.
It was kind of a reset this year for me. I’ve done a kind of a reset of everything, and I feel like I’m in a new dynamic of that whole journey again. It’s fantastic, and it’s very successful, so it’s very exciting. I feel 20 years old again.
It’s interesting what you’re saying about Future Rave reestablishing you in the dance music community, after your previous successes had pushed you so far into pop.
All the other big DJs started to — I can say copy and it’s not even insulting, because I embrace it — copy this sound that we created. It’s amazing, because for me, pop success is very important, but I was always in dance music because dance music was a reaction to pop music. When I started to be a DJ, it was because I didn’t want to play or listen to what was on the radio, I wanted to create my own message. I wanted to create my own style. So for me, being able to do this again is as important as having “Titanium,” you know?
You mentioned selling your catalog. Why was this the right time to do that?
Well, it’s honestly really crazy, because I had no idea it had so much value. I kept my masters, just because I’m a very organized person and I like controlling every aspect of my work. I was never signed as an artist; it was always a license deal since day one, because I would deliver a final product to the company, but I didn’t even want the record label to be able to even pick the singles.
I don’t know if you noticed, or you probably know because you work at Billboard, but a lot of big investment funds are heavily investing in buying catalogs. I had no idea, and I was approached by one of those funds with a huge number and was like, “Huh?” I swear I had no idea this had any value at all. I just happened to own my masters almost by accident.
When they gave that number, I told my partner who does all the business for me, like, “Look around a little bit and see.” Because I was like, “What? This is crazy.” It’s like winning the lottery, because you don’t see it coming. So it was good, because I haven’t been able to tour for a year-and-a-half, so I could still buy some new sneakers.
I mean, when you get a number like that, is it just an automatic ‘yes’?
Oh no, it took us like, a year of negotiation. But again, for me, I’m so confident in the future that I’m really not scared to do that. There was a speech for the entire group of executives around the world; we did a big Zoom call with 50 people or something, and I was like, “See you in seven years for the next one.” It’s even more inspiring to start from scratch again. I love it.
You seem like you’re in a really good place.
Yeah, I mean, amazing place. Amazing place. It’s the 10-year anniversary of Nothing But The Beat and “Titanium,” but it’s the 20-year anniversary of “Just a Little More Love,” which was my first success. Of course, in 20 years, I’ve been through ups and downs, and yeah, I’m in one of the best places I’ve been, because I feel as excited as when I started. I feel super creative. I feel culturally relevant in my community, which is very important for me. The difference is that this time, I don’t have to worry about how am I going to pay my rent if it doesn’t work. It’s amazing to be able to feel creative, feel inspired, make new music, take risks, but at the same time, it’s an easy risk because you know you’re going to eat anyways.
That just sounds like freedom.
Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. I’m as free as it gets.