Whether they’re mounting festivals in Australia and China — or sending artists like Diplo and Steve Aoki to Kazakhstan and Uganda and into the studio with K-poppers — the principals at these five companies are, as one says, “making the world smaller by making the party bigger.”
John Shahidi, co-founder/CEO
Sam Shahidi, co-founder/chief creative officer
“This is the year of music for us,” says Shots Studios CEO John Shahidi, 38. He and his brother Sam, 34, the company’s chief creative officer, have just returned to their Los Angeles headquarters from Carnival in Brazil, which doubled as a nonstop week of shows for Swedish hitmaker Alesso and Brazilian singer Anitta, two musical artists who joined the company’s roster of YouTube talents in 2017, expanding Shots’ reach to other shores.
Founded by the Shahidis in 2011, Shots Studios doubles as a management firm and production studio, with a growing roster of digital creators that includes YouTube stars Lele Pons, Rudy Mancuso and Hannah Stocking. According to John, Shots’ millennial-targeting videos collectively “average roughly 50 million minutes daily” on YouTube, with a peak of 432 million minutes watched the week of Dec. 18, 2017.
“The vision from the start was content creation,” says John of his company’s evolution. “We always knew that the mobile phone would take over as the primary screen.”
Alesso was drawn to the Shots model when he sought new management in 2017. “He’s fascinated by the internet,” says John. “He said, ‘I’m willing to take the risk on working with you guys: You don’t know the EDM world, but you know the internet world.’”
With the company’s expansion into music, cross-pollination has become the watchword.
Anitta’s first collaboration with Alesso, “Is That for Me,” introduced him to the Brazilian market and her fan base — including 27 million followers on Instagram — and he raised her profile with dance audiences in the United States and Europe. The music video for “Is That for Me” has clocked over 62.6 million views.
Alesso also functions as a tastemaker and consultant for Shots as Pons and Mancuso attempt to branch out into music. “We’re sending each song Lele records to Alesso, and he says if he loves it or hates it,” says John. ”Just because you have 20 million followers on Instagram doesn’t mean you can make music.”
True to its digital-first ethos, Shots creates its content in-house for quick turnaround and complete control. Its digital strategy includes creating “alternate videos” to maximize a song’s reach, exemplified recently by Anitta and J Balvin’s collaboration, “Downtown.” After releasing the official music video last November, Shots created a lyrics clip starring Pons and uploaded it to her YouTube channel, which boasts 8.5 million subscribers. With 184 million views to date, it has outperformed the original video.
It’s a collaborative vision that, says John, is fundamental to Shots’ operations. “Each one of our creators is a storyteller,” he says. “Every one of our songs has a visual, and every visual tells a story.” — JACK TREGONING
Matt Colon, partner/founder
Lawrence Vavra, partner/founder
Few DJs can rival Steve Aoki on air miles. A longtime friend and client of Deckstar Management founders Matt Colon and Lawrence Vavra, Aoki is always looking to play new markets, which has raised the artist-management firm’s global profile.
“Steve is the hardest-working man on the planet,” says Colon, 40, who manages the DJ-producer. “He plays up to 250 shows a year, and you can’t do that only in major markets.” The touring page on Aoki’s website features calendars for close to 50 countries, including China, where he has performed in Guangzhou, Macau and Shanghai, among other cities. Over the last two years he has also targeted such far-flung destinations as Kazakhstan, Beirut and Nepal. “A lot of new markets can’t afford what [top-tier DJs] are used to making, but Steve understands the long term,” says Vavra, 40. And he’s not limiting his global outreach to live shows. Aoki’s remix of BTS’ “Mic Drop” (featuring Desiigner) became the highest-charting Billboard Hot 100 song for a K-pop group. The track hit No. 28 and spent 10 weeks on the chart. (Aoki has also teased new original music with BTS.)
The DJ-producer began 2018 with his first Spanish-language track, “Azukita,” co-produced by Play-N-Skillz and featuring Latin stars Daddy Yankee and Elvis Crespo. The experiment was overdue: Over half of Aoki’s social media audience is Spanish-speaking, according to an analysis conducted by theAudience. Not that his recent streak of cross-cultural collaborations was a boardroom decision. “I wish I could tell you it was strategically planned, but he’s just so prolific,” says Colon.
Los Angeles-based Deckstar’s roster is a rare split between dance artists, including Aoki and Deorro, and rock bands like Rancid and blink-182 — a mix that has spurred cross-genre collaboration, including a likely Aoki/blink-182 team-up. These opportunities should expand in the wake of Deckstar’s acquisition by another management firm, James Grant Group, which brings acts including Morrissey and Bush into the Deckstar family.
Meanwhile, Aoki, who turned 40 in 2017, is eyeing new challenges. One is playing Cuba, where Deckstar is awaiting the right opportunity. “With too much time off, Steve gets an itchy trigger finger, wondering when the next show is,” says Colon. “He’s an animal built for the road.” — J.T.
Pasquale Rotella, founder/CEO
“There’s a special energy in Asia,” says Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella, 43, regarding his decision to bring the wildly popular Electric Daisy Carnival to China in 2018 on the heels of last year’s successful EDC debut in Japan. The latter attracted 84,000 fans and returns for a second outing May 12-13. But Rotella insists it’s about more than just expanding the EDC brand in a burgeoning Asian market.
Mounting a festival of EDC’s size in China — it will run for two days in late April in Shanghai, a city of roughly 24 million — came with logistical challenges that Rotella had not previously encountered. “The government limits the capacity for large gatherings very differently than anywhere else we’ve been so far. They also need to approve the talent lineup,” he says. “Every market has different ways of doing things, and we respect that.”
China is the sixth international destination for EDC — Insomniac has also brought the festival to India, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Mexico — and Rotella tries to make each unique and reflective of the host city. All EDC events have the same over-the-top stages, such as kineticTEMPLE, circuitGROUNDS and bassPOD, but each city has its own personality. “EDC Japan features an awesome seaside location that allows us to set up one of our largest stages on the beach,” says Rotella. “In Las Vegas we’re able to go from dusk till dawn, which allows us to use the best in special effects and technology. These two events have completely different vibes about them.” Vegas remains the home turf for EDC — it’s where the festival began and is still the biggest draw, with over 400,000 attending in some years — but Rotella predicts Insomniac’s global expansion will only continue. As proof, he points to the festival’s run in Mexico, which just wrapped its fifth and largest event in late February, pulling in a record attendance of over 200,000. “It’s all about bringing this positive experience to as many places as we can,” he says. “Dance music culture is thriving, and the way it has been adopted by different cultures is so exciting to see.” — ERIC SPITZNAGEL
Kevin Kusatsu, founder
Andrew McInnes, founder
Renee Brodeur, executive vp
Nick Palmacci, executive vp
TMWRK (pronounced “teamwork”) keeps a scratch-off world map in its New York office to tally all the countries visited by the management company’s main man, Diplo. While Antarctica and North Korea remain unmarked for now, “the map’s pretty scratched up,” says TMWRK co-founder Andrew McInnes, 34, who tracks Diplo alongside executive vp Renee Brodeur, 32, as their marquee artist travels the globe.
McInnes co-founded TMWRK with Kevin Kusatsu, 38, in 2011, bringing on Diplo and his Mad Decent family as early clients. (Kusatsu heads business development out of Los Angeles.)
Diplo’s worldwide ambitions have accelerated in recent years. Last spring, he skipped Coachella to tour Africa, with stops in Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. In February 2018, he brought his Mad Decent Block Party to Islamabad, Pakistan. “He has a very anthropological inquisitiveness about music,” says McInnes.
Major Lazer, Diplo’s chart-topping trio with Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, is also a proudly global band. “Their ethos is making the world smaller by making the party bigger,” says Brodeur — a mindset that took the group to Cuba for a historic 2016 concert that was captured in the Apple Music documentary Give Me Future.
Diplo’s globe-trotting has schooled TMWRK in the nuances of international markets. Safety of the artists, fans and staff is a priority — “we don’t want anyone getting kidnapped,” says McInnes — and understanding local streaming services, such as Saavn in India or Patari in Pakistan, is crucial. But music blurs borders, too. McInnes recalls the reaction at Islamabad’s Mad Decent Block Party when a DJ dropped Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves).” “Everyone there knew every word,” he says. “That’s super cool to me.”
Executive vp Palmacci, 33, works closely with TMWRK artist Dillon Francis, who recently traveled to Mexico City and the Dominican Republic to record a Spanish-language album. And the company’s acquisition of Yebo Music’s management arm has added acts like Chrome Sparks, who joined Diplo in Islamabad. “Dillon and Chrome Sparks are not just tourists,” says McInnes. “They’re [traveling] to learn about the music and to contribute to it.”
Meanwhile, Diplo hopes to add Haiti and a USO tour to Iraq and Afghanistan to his scratch-off map. “He’ll probably go around the world five more times before the year is through,” says McInnes. — J.T.
Russell Faibisch, president/CEO
Adam Russakoff, director of business affairs
Russell Faibisch was just 21 years old when, in 1999, he and the late Alex Omes staged the first Ultra Music Festival in Miami. (The name was inspired by the 1997 album of the same name by his favorite band, Depeche Mode.) Even back then, he intended the festival to expand beyond U.S. borders. “Creating something truly global was always my vision,” says Faibisch, 40.
His plan paid off. Since 2008, when Ultra first went international with a two-day festival in Brazil, it has grown to become the largest independent electronic music festival brand in the world. In 2017, Ultra staged 45 events — 23 of them debuts — in 20 countries across five continents, with a total attendance well over 1 million. Its reach has expanded again in 2018, with Australia becoming the sixth continent on Ultra’s already global roster of festival locations.
Faibisch scouted Australia in 2012, but, “I knew then that it wasn’t the right time,” he says. “It can sometimes take years for us to do our homework on entering a new market.” The Road to Ultra event finally made its Australian debut in Melbourne in February, and Adam Russakoff, 47, who partnered with Faibisch in 2005, calls it “one of our most successful Road to Ultra — single-day, single-stage — events to date. The sold-out show welcomed 20,000 fans from all over the world.” Plans are already afoot for full-scale festivals in both Sydney and Melbourne in 2019.
Asia has also been a big part of Ultra’s global strategy, and Faibisch calls the continent “dance music’s fastest-growing market.” The company’s first foray there was also in 2012, with the launch of Ultra Korea in Seoul. In 2017, the number of Asian events had grown to 17 in nine countries, with a combined attendance of over 400,000 fans and 25 million livestream viewers. The first edition of Ultra China, five years in the making, premiered in Shanghai last September, and a Beijing event is planned for this coming June. “Each country has to be handled in a unique way,” says Russakoff of Ultra’s Asian strategy. “Our approach in Korea is, for example, completely different to that of Japan, Singapore, China, India and so on.”
Back home, Ultra’s highly anticipated 20th anniversary comes to Miami’s Bayfront Park March 23-25. The festival will feature performances by The Chainsmokers, David Guetta and Steve Aoki, and all but a handful of VIP tickets have sold. Although Faibisch is proud of the milestone, he’s less interested in nostalgia than where to take his international festival next. “The hunger for electronic music and for large-scale events like Ultra is unprecedented,” he says. — E.S.
This article originally appeared in the March 24 issue of Billboard.