There are looks of confusion all around Madison Square Garden.
It’s a bitterly cold February night, and an impressively diverse crowd has packed the arena to see the
LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE
Of course, there has always been a DJ culture in America, and it has been though many ups, downs and iterations. The Cliff Notes version goes something like this: Disco exploded in the ’70s, but true house music, most experts agree, didn’t start showing up until the early ’80s in Chicago and Detroit. A number of hip-hop artists sampled the beats, and while some received minor airplay, it was mostly confined to the clubs.
Meanwhile, the U.K. dance scene exploded in the late ’80s, in part because DJs from Ibiza started playing at clubs in London and Manchester. While DJs became superstars in the United Kingdom and Europe, they rarely broke out in America until the late ’90s, when alternative radio suddenly embraced Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers. The biggest star of them all was Moby, who sold 2.7 million copies of his 1999 album, “Play,” in addition to licensing every track from the album and winning the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll. And as Moby and his contemporaries rose to prominence, millions of ecstasy-addled kids traipsed around fields and danced till dawn at raves.
But just as quickly as electronica rose, it fell again, crushed on the charts by boy bands and nu-metal. While DJ culture remained a force overseas and moved back underground stateside, it stayed off pop radio until recently.
Pilat says dance’s re-emergence on radio happened gradually. “Traditional-sounding dance music had sort of bottomed out at radio around 2003, 2004,” she says. “At the same time, Jamaican rhythms blew up. Sean Paul, Lumidee and even Rihanna’s early records were reggae- and hip-hop-based but still great for the clubs. Dance music always has had a core fan base but I think it started getting mainstream attention again in 2007 when Kanye West released ‘Stronger,’ which sampled Daft Punk.”
Just as dance music was beginning its descent in the States, Guetta was beginning his ascent in Europe. Although he says he started scratching records at age 3 (his parents, he notes, were “pretty pissed off”), he got his start DJ’ing at clubs around Paris in the ’90s. By 2001, his first single, “Just a Little More Love,” a collaboration with American gospel singer Chris Willis, was making waves in Europe, and his album of the same name sold 300,000 copies, according to EMI. In the States, the album sold 4,500 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
His streak continued with 2007’s “Pop Life”; it sold 530,000 copies worldwide and 18,000 copies in the States. That album featured the single “Love Is Gone,” another collaboration with Will.i.am that would eventually help Guetta break stateside.
“The crazy thing was that they started to play ‘Love Is Gone’ in the hip-hop clubs in America,” Guetta says. “That was totally unexpected, and I thought it was very strange, since the beats were so different. It got played on the radio in New York and Miami, and it turned into one of the biggest club records in years.”
That record also led to a chance encounter that would change the course of Guetta’s career. He was DJ’ing at a club in Ibiza when he handed the mic to a man who had wandered in and asked to freestyle; it turned out to be Will.i.am, who came to Guetta a year later asking him to collaborate on some new music.
“Will called me up, and he said he wanted a song like ‘Love Is Gone,’ ” Guetta recalls. “At the time, I don’t think he knew that we’d met earlier. But I remembered him, and I sent him a beat, and it turned into ‘I Gotta Feeling.’ ” The song was nominated for a record of the year Grammy Award, and Guetta was also nominated for best electronic/dance recording. He wound up winning best remixed recording, non-classical for “When Love Takes Over,” his pairing with Kelly Rowland.
Guetta and Will.i.am ended up working on two tracks for the Peas’ album, “I Gotta Feeling” and “Rock That Body.” In return, Guetta asked Will.i.am to appear on two tracks on his album, “One Love,” and he agreed. “We were creating this bridge between European electronic culture and American urban culture,” Guetta says. “We were having so much fun in the studio, dancing like two little kids. We kept making songs, even though our albums were finished, just for the fun of it.”
That attitude seems to sum up Guetta’s approach to his album. Take the track “When Love Takes Over,” which hit No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 320,000 copies.
“I met Kelly in a club and after I played the instrumental version of ‘When Love Takes Over,’ she came to me with tears in her eyes,” he says. “She told me she wanted to sing on it, and I decided to go for it. I was worried at that point because I thought a project with all these collaborators would be a nightmare to organize with the labels and lawyers, but it all came together very easily.”
Rowland says she was impressed by Guetta’s passion. “My friends and I went to see him in Ibiza, and he spun until eight in the morning,” she recalls. “When I heard him play ‘When Love Takes Over,’ it just hit me hard. And I was excited to work with him because no one expected me to do something like this. We did some dance stuff with Destiny’s Child, but nothing like this.”
Like his encounter with Rowland, Guetta’s meeting with Akon was happenstance. “I played a festival in the U.K., and after I got off the stage, Akon was standing there. He said ‘Love Is Gone’ was one of his favorite songs, and he wanted to work with me. So many times, artists say they want to work with you and then it never happens, so I told him if he was serious, we should go get a bite to eat and then go the studio and make it happen. And in one night, we had ‘Sexy Bitch.’ ” The track, which charted on the Hot 100 as “Sexy Chick,” peaked at No. 5 and has sold 2.3 million copies.
Guetta may be the producer on every pop star’s wish list, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of his career is now smooth sailing.
For one, Guetta’s own album, “One Love,” which Astralwerks released in late August 2009, has sold 90,000 copies in the United States. That’s more than three times the total of his previous album, but still not a number one would expect from someone who has sold several million singles.
Overseas, the album has done well. Bart Cools, EMI executive VP of marketing for Europe, says “One Love” greatly expanded Guetta’s appeal as an album artist. Outside of the States, the album has sold 1.3 million copies.
“Before this album, he’d had quite a few hits everywhere in Europe, but it’s on this album that he’s started to sell albums [outside] France,” he says. “That’s the big jump we’ve made. Previously he was a singles artist; he had hits in the U.K. and Germany, and big-selling albums in France and its neighbors like Belgium and Switzerland, and on this album that turned around into big album sales in the U.K., Germany, Australia and South Africa.”
In the States, the situation is a bit trickier. “We still have to work on establishing the notion of the DJ as an artist,” says Billy Mann, EMI president of new music international and global artist management. Guetta agrees. As he’s leaving the airport and about to go through security, he turns around and says passionately, “People don’t think DJs are artists, but yet they think singers who don’t write their own songs are artists. It’s frustrating.”
Astralwerks senior VP/GM Glenn Mendlinger says that the marketing campaign surrounding the album has focused on directing fans to Guetta’s place as an artist. “In all our digital marketing, we’re pointing people toward the album,” he says. “We still have a long way to go with this record-we are rolling out a new version of the track ‘Getting Over’ to radio in late March, and then we’ll have another single in the summer that we’ll work through the holidays. I think we’ll cruise through 100,000 sales no problem and there will still be lots of life in the album.”
The life of the album will also be extended through almost nonstop touring. Guetta’s tour manager, Jean-Guillaume Charvet, spent most of the trip to and from the airport poring over a schedule that has him jumping from continent to continent, festival to festival and arenas to clubs. He is already thinking about Guetta’s New Year’s Eve plans, and it’s only March.
One reason Guetta can afford to sell fewer albums is that his touring overhead is much lower than a traditional rock band or pop act. “I’m making tracks on my laptop when I’m on the plane or in my hotel room,” he says. “When I collaborate with people I go into the studio, but I don’t need to be in there all the time. The Black Eyed Peas travel with a crew of 118 people on the road; I pretty much just have myself and a few others.”
Will.i.am likens DJs to roaches, saying, “They’ll survive the nuclear fallout of the music industry.”
He adds, “In my experience, DJs make the most money. A reasonably well-known DJ can make half a million dollars a year; a superstar can make several million. How many rock musicians can say the same?”
Guetta is also adamant about continuing to play clubs and maintaining his Fuck Me I’m Famous summertime parties in Ibiza. “David walks a tightrope,” says his manager of nine years, Caroline Prothero. “He will always stay connected to club culture. He can do small clubs and events like Love Parade, which draws a million people.”
Prothero adds that Guetta distances himself from celebrity DJs, the occasionally record-spinning but mostly headline-making Hollywood breed that has emerged during the past few years. “David doesn’t play straight-up VIP clubs,” she says. “He won’t play celebrity after-parties. If celebrities show up at his show, great-he wants to bring people together and welcome them. But they have to come to him.”
But even as he works to maintain his cred, some of his hardcore club fans find themselves alienated. In the car on the way back from the airport, after Guetta had managed to catch a flight out, the driver turns to Charvet. A hardcore clubber and longtime Guetta fan who works as a driver for Pasha, he wasn’t terribly happy with the previous night’s performance. “Will.i.am was on for way too long,” he says. “People were complaining and starting to leave. We wanted to hear David spin, not Will rapping.”
Additional reporting by Mark Sutherland in London.