The cult of the superstar DJ

Private jets, massive pay cheques and huge crowds – the market is still alive and well, but are mega-money DJs worth it?

Jim Butler May 19, 2016

Tomorrow, dance music legend Armin Van Buuren brings the latest iteration of his globally lauded 'Armin Only' parties to Dubai.

When the Dutch EDM (electronic dance music) superstar - a record five-time winner of DJ Mag's influential top 100 list - touches down at the imposing Meydan, he'll be surrounded by opulence on a grand scale.

Whether Van Buuren (below) gives this decadence a moment’s thought is largely irrelevant. For him and other DJs that exist in such a lofty and rarefied stratosphere – think Avicii, David Guetta, Tiësto, Steve Aoki and co – this is their reality. Private jets, mansions, astronomical fees, luxury beyond most people’s imaginations, fame and adulation is an everyday occurrence.

For Van Buuren’s ‘Armin Only Embrace’ show the Meydan is offering exclusive Dining Experiences for a cool AED 1,250. Deluxe and VIP platforms will offer stunning views of Dubai’s skyline. The promoters have understandably left nothing to chance when it comes to enhancing the experience. An experience that will no doubt be documented across social media. 

It’s a far cry from the early days of acid house, EDM’s obvious forebear. In the late 1980s acid house’s seismic cultural shift was predicated on a notion – however short-lived – of hard-earned collectivism. EDM is pure and unapologetic showbiz. No wonder the custodians of acid house’s initial spirit have an uneasy relationship with the glitz and glamour of their scene’s progeny.

And nowhere is this, at best ambivalence, at worst outright antagonism, more keenly felt than when it comes to discussing those individuals at the top of this entertainment tree, the DJs. Or, as some would still have it, the Superstar DJs. 

For some the term Superstar DJs might seem quaint; a relic from a bygone age. In the UK, possibly Europe, the Superstar DJ era died at some point around 2003/04 when the superclubs stopped being so super. But that was the original Superstar DJ period.

That was before America got on board. Once rave culture was rebranded EDM in the late 2000s/early 2010s DJs and producers such as the aforementioned Avicii, Guetta, Tiësto and Van Buuren, plus Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Martin Garrix and Hardwell, went supernova. If the original Superstar DJ wave bordered on unimaginable decadence tipping into ostentatiousness, then these Superstar DJs have propelled it to Last Days-of-Rome excess.

“It’s bigger than ever,” laughs DJ and journalist Tim Sheridan. “Avicii has just announced his forthcoming retirement (apparently later this year) a multi-millionaire, Ibiza is essentially Vegas these days and DJs like Steve Ioki and David Guetta are massive brands. If you thought DJs were overpaid back in the 1990s, then they’re earning 100 times the money these days. It’s all about catering for the super rich.”

Carl Loben, editor of the esteemed dance music bible DJ, the magazine behind the contentious Top 100 poll, concurs. “Superstar DJs do still exist,” he explains, “if not just in their own heads! Some DJs have such a wall of protection around them – managers, PRs, agents, social media gurus etc that their ‘importance’ is constantly reinforced. So they must still be superstars, right?”

Which goes some way to explaining why this remix of Superstar DJ culture – or should that be redux? – is such a good fit in the UAE. If decadence belongs anywhere it’s certainly here. Andy Buchan, editor of Dubai music magazine Infusion, says the region has embraced Superstar DJs – and by extension EDM – with gusto.

“Dubai is a big market for big name DJs, with everyone from Armin Van Buuren to Richie Hawtin all playing here in the last six months. We have a history of paying very well for DJs, so the UAE is a popular market for big names. Avicii, Tiësto and Paul Van Dyk are all frequent visitors, and David Guetta even owns a house here.”

And while the riches on offer in Dubai have made it a favoured destination for these jet-setting, globetrotting entertainers it’s clear where this second wave of Superstar DJs originated – America. It’s often said that when America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold. And so it’s been with EDM. Sheridan notes that America took everything that happened at the commercial end of dance music in the 1990s and multiplied it tenfold.

“If you wanted to be mean you could argue that EDM is the cartoon version of house music,” he says. “What with the pyrotechnics and the visuals it’s all showbiz. There are some mega bucks to be made because on one level it’s all about making oligarchs, or certainly the children of oligarchs, dance. DJs have become like trophies, a prestige thing.”

At the epicentre of America’s illicit relationship with rave culture – or electro house, deep house, dubstep or whatever remodelled version they’re calling it this month – is Las Vegas. According to John Burgess, one of the promoters behind the long-standing Bugged Out! club night, this Hollywood makeover of Superstar DJ culture means the money on offer is bigger than ever before.

“There are residencies in Las Vegas and VIP-centric clubs like Ushuaia where table service for high rollers seems more of a concern than kids on the dance floor,” he says

Sheridan sighs, “It’s like Elvis and Frank Sinatra at Vegas. Minus all the talent. Some of the money being thrown around is obscene. I have a friend who’s a tour manager for one of these DJs. He told me that one particular live show that cost well over $1m and was controlled by an iPad was binned because the DJ couldn’t work out how to use it.”

Such behaviour might sound risible, but then hasn’t such wanton displays of arrogance and excess been part of the entertainment business since time immemorial? Buchan certainly thinks so. “The luxury and excess of the artist has been around since Van Halen and his 'brown M&Ms' in the 80s, and the superstar DJs of the 90s were no different with their private jets and rock star tour buses. I think most people would draw the line at an inflatable raft on a DJ rider though, as Steve Aoki famously requested a few years ago.”

And the crowds are still lapping it up. In an age when the spectacle is everything, these all-immersive shows provide an experience like no other. And when these musical conductors can draw 15,000 (certainly what Van Buuren will play to at Meydan) people together for a communal gathering surely it’s churlish to moan about any hubris or indulgence, perceived or otherwise?

It’s like a rock group,” says Burgess. “If a DJ can sell out London’s Brixton Academy at £25 a ticket then they deserve to get paid £40,000 for doing so like a band would.”

Melissa Maouris, PR for the likes of original Superstar DJ Sasha, Damian Lazarus and Man Power, has an interesting take on the extravagance inherent in the Superstar DJ phenomenon. “There are a lot of artists that enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle,” she explains. “It may feel vulgar to a few, and perhaps it is, but flip the coin and it shows that anyone can achieve the impossible through dedication and hard work.” 

And maybe that’s the rub. The likes of Avicii, Tiesto, Hardwell and even Armin van Buuren might be ignored in underground circles but it’s doubtful something that causes them to lose any sleep. These DJs might be modern day pop stars in all but name, but they have put in the hard work and countless hours at the coalface to get to this enviable position.

They are the cultural canvasses upon which legions of people paint their dreams and desires. And even if the writing is on the wall for EDM in America, as some have suggested, it’s abundantly clear that there’s plenty of air miles left in Superstar DJ culture yet.