On the Monday of Memorial Day weekend last year, Joel Zimmerman staged a nightlife coup. With Afrojack and Sharam of Deep Dish in tow, he stormed XS nightclub’s DJ booth, replacing the hip-hop DJ with his companions. “We threw on a Deadmau5 track, and the place turned into a big party and went crazy,” recalls the head of booking agency William Morris’ Electronic division. Somewhere in Zimmerman’s head a light turned on. “That was the standout moment. It wasn’t a gig; it was a little bit of a science experiment.”
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Pete Tong’s revelation came on a Sunday a few months later and just down the hall. He was at Encore Beach Club, spinning with resident DJ Kaskade on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and Tong was seeing a side of Vegas he hadn’t known over a decade of playing the Strip: a pool party, packed with thousands of people starting midday, all moving to electronic dance music. “That’s why I’m here,” he says, sitting inside Switch restaurant at Encore nearly a year later, waiting for the launch of his own EBC residency, Pete’s Pool Party. “I’m going to try it.”
A glance at the ads in this magazine or a quick drive past 1-15’s billboards confirms what Zimmerman and Tong realized: This is electronic dance music’s American close-up. And nowhere is the genre’s booming popularity more apparent than in Las Vegas. On any given weekend, the biggest names in EDM are flocking to the Strip, playing to packed clubs for high paychecks. But despite the crowds lining up outside EDM-focused clubs like Surrender and Marquee, the syllables I-bi-za still taunt us like a cooler older sister we can never quite emulate. And there’s a question lingering above the dancefloor. Are we there yet?
Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” thumps in the background as Pete Tong remembers his first Vegas show. Ten years ago. Ra at the Luxor. “We stayed at the Mandalay Bay. The plane’s nose seemed to almost touch the hotel when we landed.”
The show itself was, as Tong puts it, “interesting. There were 1,500 or 2,000 people in the club, so it was busy. But you got the impression that the people didn’t really know why you were there or who you were,” says Tong, who by that time had hosted a show on BBC Radio 1 for about a decade and was well known internationally. He estimates 10 percent of the crowd that first night in Vegas were from abroad and were there to see him perform; 80 percent were ambivalent tourists; and the final 10 percent were “the Vegas people. It was literally the dancers, the strippers, the sons of the hotel owners. They were quite hardcore, and they were very into the music and very, very overwhelmed by the fact that you came and played for them. That’s all I ever need when I go and play around the world.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to keep Tong coming back. While the British DJ/producer was a staple on the club-heavy isle of Ibiza, Spain, Vegas wasn’t on his schedule. “I could take Vegas or leave it,” he says of the last decade, “’cause your music was always going to be appreciated by the minority. But something happened a few years ago and the balance started to change.”
That something was Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto residency at the Palms’ Rain nightclub.
“I think Vegas is the new Ibiza,” Oakenfold told the Weekly before his party’s August 30, 2008 launch. “We’ve got to get Vegas on the map internationally. This club can benefit Vegas in terms of a global, international scene, and I think it’s about time Vegas had that. It’s a grown-up city now. It’s now time to take part on a global level.”
At the time we might have viewed those words with a bit of skepticism. While Perfecto was an epic addition to local nightlife—complete with Cirque-style performers, otherworldly costumes, a beloved grinder girl who ran construction equipment along a metal bodysuit and a reported $60,000 nightly price tag—it was still an anomaly. The party was, after all, only one weekend EDM event in a club schedule packed with celebrity appearances and Top 40 setlists. House music parties, like the long-running Godskitchen, were usually kept to mid-week nights, back rooms or afterhours, catering to Tong’s “Vegas people,” not the Saturday primetime tourist contingent.
Today, Oakenfold seems almost clairvoyant.
“Paul Oakenfold was the first,” booking agent Zimmerman says. “He was the first guy in Ibiza back in the late ’80s, and he’s the first guy into Vegas. The guy’s still calling what’s the next hot thing before anyone.”
Of course, it took a while for the rest of Las Vegas to jump on the bandwagon. But last year, just as the summer party season approached, a new venue opened its doors at Encore Las Vegas. And at the center of its marketing campaign was a summer-long Sunday daytime residency from a deep house DJ—Kaskade.
“Last year everybody was kinda saying under their breath, ‘Will this work? Will people actually show up?,’” recalls Ryan “Kaskade” Raddon, by phone from his SoCal studio. “A lot of my peers were like, ‘You’re crazy to do Vegas. It’s not ready for this. You’re nuts, dude. This is going to be a flop. It’s going to hurt you.’ This year it’s like, ‘Woo! Bring more speakers in; we’ve got 4,000 people here!’”
If Oakenfold introduced Las Vegas to the concept of an EDM residency bringing in big crowds and big dollars, Kaskade made it a household name. His Sunday pool party at Encore Beach Club became a high point in the summer lineup, delivering bodies and confirming what the club’s owners had anticipated when they started crafting a venue built around EDM and the DJ as a performer.
“The biggest thing in my gut was I felt like this is America’s time for dance music,” Kaskade explains. “People are really getting it now. When I saw the plans [for Encore Beach Club] I was really convinced that this was the right time and the right place to do it and kind of blow it out.”
In the wake of Kaskade’s success, Encore Beach Club and Surrender have signed on new residents like Afrojack, Feed Me and Pete Tong, whose pool party next arrives on July 24. XS, the club Zimmerman bum rushed with house music in 2010, is now spending high dollars to land artists like Deadmau5 and Manufactured Superstars on its schedule. Up and down the Strip, the casino marketing machine has gone to work behind DJs who would have been relegated to secondary slots just a few years ago. In January, Tiësto kicked off a residency at the Joint. This summer, Wet Republic welcomed David Guetta’s famed Ibiza party F*** Me I’m Famous to Sundays at the MGM party pool. N9NE Group continues to emphasize EDM with its Love Festival over Memorial Day weekend and the ongoing Perfecto party. And last December, the Cosmopolitan’s Marquee nightclub opened with an explicit emphasis on EDM and a space crafted to deliver it with unparalleled intensity.
“That was the goal from Day 1,” says Jason Strauss, co-owner of Tao Group, which operates Marquee. “We were seeing a trend happening at festivals and the trends that were happening online and in Europe with these really big DJs. We really thought the time was right to make the commitment to electronic dance music. We built [Marquee] specifically for house music, meaning we bought a sound system that the country’s never seen. We bought a DJ booth stage that the world has never seen. And we created an environment that would really cater to that music.”
The main room of Marquee is often devoted to artists playing house, electro and other EDM styles, while a smaller side room called the BoomBox focuses on open format DJs or those spinning hip-hop or Top 40.
Strauss says local industry leaders told him he was crazy to book EDM artists on Fridays and Saturdays, but a quick visit to Cosmo’s second floor suggests the programming is working. Lines of guests in their best mini-dresses and skinny suits stretch down the hall, while hosts steer the thousands of partiers into the club a few at a time. Strauss says Marquee has been at capacity every Friday and Saturday for three months.
And the club has brought in a steady stream of international DJs to draw those crowds, people like Kaskade, BT, the EC Twins, Avicii and Sander Van Dorn. Strauss says the lineup is based in part on which acts do well with “feeder market people” from Southern California and Arizona.
“We have people in those markets giving us feedback. You can’t just open up a magazine or see who the Top 20 DJ list is on a blog. You’ll have a recipe to fail,” he says.
Now, with the summer pool season in full swing and the country’s largest dance music festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, predicted to draw up to 250,000 people to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, Vegas isn’t just finding its place on the EDM map; it’s the American capital.
“Last year we had three or four residencies. This year we have 15,” says Zimmerman, who estimates that his company represents 75 percent of the market for top-level DJs and electronic groups, including The Crystal Method, Axwell and Fatboy Slim. “In 2008 we had 24 artists consistently working at any point in time. Now we have 79. There’s been a 150 percent increase in attendance in shows in Vegas. There’s been over $10 million spent in residencies.” And he cites Kaskade as the poster boy for EDM’s sudden Strip boom. “A year ago he was a really well-respected artist. But now he’s, like, the biggest DJ in America. Just from focusing on this one market.”
Even as Vegas celebrates its ascension to the top of North American DJ destinations, there’s a beat of doubt beneath the basslines. The rise of EDM has happened so fast here, the scene might be missing some of the signs of more organic growth.
Pete Tong sees it as another trend in a long history of Las Vegas entertainment fads. The Rat Pack. The rapid-fire succession of Cirque du Soleil shows. Celebrity chefs. The latest Strip status symbol? A megaclub or party pool with big-name DJs behind the decks.
Now, Tong says, it’s time to diversify. He wants to see the more underground side of EDM find a home in Vegas—and build an audience to embrace it. “It’s got to evolve. It’s got to get a bit cleverer. … I hope Vegas can enjoy the darker side of things. That’s the challenge of Vegas.” Tong pauses to reconsider, before continuing, almost to himself. “Is it a challenge? Do they give a f*ck?”
That might be the hardest question to answer for a veteran artist watching Vegas’ shiny new love for EDM. While club owners like Strauss and the folks behind Encore Beach Club and Surrender are putting their money and primetime slots behind the music, whether the crowd appreciates it is the subject of considerable debate.
“We’re in the toddler stage of this process,” Zimmerman says. “For now, you’ve gotta play to the market. I’m assuming that 75 percent of the people going to these events don’t really know the music that well and need a gateway.”
After another year with the current programming, he expects to see an audience that will mature and start to seek out Tong’s darker elements. “Not everyone in Ibiza was listening to underground techno. It takes time for things to get a bit more sophisticated.”
Strauss sees things quite differently. “I think Vegas is Ibiza on steroids. You can see the same level of talent in nightclubs that are much more sophisticated, have much higher technology and design,” he says. “The clubs here are doing more people through the door for electronic music and we’re year-round. They’re three months.”
But Zimmerman stops short of drawing the trans-Atlantic comparison. “It’s never going to be [Ibiza]. It’s always going to be Vegas. It’s not taking Ibiza’s place. It won’t ever.”
It’s midafternoon on a mild may Sunday and Pete Tong has just stepped into the Encore Beach Club DJ booth. It’s the weekend before Memorial Day, so the venue is busy but not packed. People chat, sway and let out an occasional whoop as bottles of vodka and champagne are delivered to tables of barely dressed partygoers.
At 50, Tong is a legend in the world of EDM, one of its true pioneers, known for his skill behind the decks, his record label, his radio show and his parties at Ibiza’s iconic Pacha nightclub. Still, there’s barely an acknowledgment from the revelers as Tong takes over from the day’s opener. A few people glance up and cheer, everyone else goes on with conversations and vodka sodas. Not quite the reaction that a headlining band receives when it steps onstage; Tong has started his Vegas residency almost incognito.
As the set continues it’s hard not to think back to Tong’s first local show at Ra, where most people had come for the party, not the man spinning the soundtrack. But a few minutes later, he starts putting the crowd through its paces. He’s building momentum with an unfamiliar track, and there’s a perceptible mood shift as the song progresses. When the tune breaks into its shimmering climax the crowd is suddenly dancing, screaming and paying attention.
“To me the art of great DJing is getting a great groove going and getting people to peak by the way you’re playing, instead of just waiting for the next big hit,” Tong says. “Vegas is in that mentality right now: It’s cocaine DJing—here’s another hit, here’s another hit, here’s another hit. … It can’t just be about the hits. It’s got to be about something more than that.”
And it seems to be moving in that direction. Tong mentions Luciano—a Pacha resident with an underground sound—whom Zimmerman calls “the biggest DJ in Ibiza.” Luciano’s beach parties draw up to 16,000 people at a time, and Zimmerman is already working on lining him up for a 2012 Vegas residency.
“I believe this is just the beginning,” Kaskade says. “You’re going to have to build bigger nightclubs. … We need a place that holds 9,000, 10,000, 12,000 people.” His voice rises with excitement. “I think those things are on the horizon. I think we’ve surpassed pretty much anywhere in the world, and we’re only just getting started. That’s so Vegas, though. It’s like bigger, better and badder than everybody else.”