By BEN SISARIO NY Times 08/28/12
THE roar of 10,000 dance-music fans echoed backstage at Red Rocks Amphitheater near here one evening this month as Skrillex, the 24-year-old prince of dubstep, gave a brotherly bearhug to his protégé and opening act, Zedd.
Two years ago Zedd, whose real name is Anton Zaslavski, was making beats in obscurity in Germany. Now, riding the dance world’s accelerated career track, he’s recording with Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, and the crowd at Red Rocks obediently followed his every fist-pumping dance command.
“It’s crazy,” said Zedd, who is 22 but could pass for 16 if not for the fuzz along his jaw. “I’ve always been making music. But suddenly I’m on the other side of the world touring with people like Deadmau5 and Skrillex.”
To most people over 30 those names might not mean much. But electronic dance music, or E.D.M., is having its day as the sound of young America. Festivals like Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival draw crowds of 100,000 or more, and dance beats fill high-rolling nightclubs up and down the Las Vegas Strip. Forbes recently ranked the annual earnings of top D.J.’s, topped by Tiësto with $22 million. Naturally the music industry is taking notice.
“The record labels now are all saying, ‘We’ve got to find the next Skrillex,’ ” said Gary Richards, the promoter behind the Hard festival franchise.
Aside from Zedd, who was courted by Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records (Eminem, Lady Gaga, U2), the contenders include D.J. prodigies like Madeon and Porter Robinson, and the Chicago group Krewella, which just signed with Columbia.
Yet the rise of E.D.M. also reflects the shifting ground of the music industry, in which big record labels are no longer the primary career makers, and a young, hyperdigital generation of acts has its eyes on more distant and prestigious prizes like film scoring. Their hoped-for career trajectory would be not unlike that of, say, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, but accomplished in a year or two instead of decades.
“It’s not the ’90s; we have the Internet,” said Mr. Robinson, 20, who lives with his parents in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Record labels are not as important or influential as they used to be. They’re less capable of puppet-mastering the whole scene.”
Mr. Robinson, along with Zedd, Skrillex and star D.J.’s like Tiësto, David Guetta, Martin Solveig and Steve Aoki, are on the bill for the Electric Zoo festival from Friday to next Sunday at Randalls Island in New York.
Zedd’s rise is typical of the new wave, even if his talent is extraordinary. Growing up in Kaiserslautern, Germany, he studied classical piano and played drums in a rock band before tinkering with electronica, and developed an intricate variant of the electro house style. He is a compositional wonk, starting his songwriting at the piano and then translating chords and melodies into the computerized zips and skull-rattling bass that fill a dance floor.
“What I don’t like to hear in music is something has not been thought through, that a sound is just there randomly,” he said in an interview before his show. “I want to make sure that every single little noise that’s in my song is there because it’s supposed to be there.”
In 2010 Zedd won two remix contests sponsored by the digital music store Beatport — E.D.M.’s iTunes — and, in a blind pitch, sent a track to Skrillex. Struck by its sophistication, Skrillex used the track in his D.J. set that night and brought Zedd under his wing.
“We both come from a band background, where a lot of the songs are based on riffs, and you can hear that in the production,” said Skrillex (real name: Sonny Moore), whose own style is a bombardment of thumps, crashes and sonic squiggles, like a futuristic instrument picking up bits of alien dance music.
Singles, remixes and inspired oddities by Zedd followed, among them a remake of the theme to the vintage Nintendo video game The Legend of Zelda. Interscope offered him a studio at the label’s offices in Santa Monica, Calif., and teamed him up with various acts on its roster. “Jimmy threw the building at him,” said Dave Rene, an artists and repertory executive at Interscope who is also one of Zedd’s two managers.
He toured Asia with Lady Gaga in the spring, signed with Interscope in May, and his debut album, “Clarity,” is due on Oct. 9. Though no one will confirm it, it is an open secret in the industry that Zedd has also been recording with Lady Gaga.
Mr. Robinson and Madeon — a dazzlingly skilled 18-year-old French D.J. — have also had what seem to be superfast beginnings. Just a year out of high school, Mr. Robinson has already toured widely and done all the right remixes, and he boasts about his earning power on the road. (When asked for specifics about money, though, he said, “I don’t think my dad would want me talking about that publicly.”)
Their ascent has been sped along by online incubators like Beatport, where D.J.’s essentially sell songs to other D.J.’s. A hot new track, whether by a brand-name producer or a 16-year-old with a laptop, can instantly turn up on playlists around the world and ricochet through social media, then make its way to Hollywood, Madison Avenue and all the scattered scouts of the music industry.
“The dance-music market is a microcosm of what’s happening to media in general,” said Matthew Adell, Beatport’s chief executive. “It’s becoming less localized, it’s becoming more mobile, and it’s becoming more global in terms of people accepting art and commerce and communication from other parts of the planet.”
It’s hard not to see boy-genius signs everywhere here. Mr. Robinson had never seen a live D.J. until the night before his own first gig, at the age of 15. Madeon, a k a Hugo Leclercq, performs in a dark blazer that only partly conceals his tiny frame. But for E.D.M. purists, chops trump everything, and a video showing Madeon’s prestidigitation on the Novation Launchpad — an audio control panel with 64 blinking buttons — made him a sensation.
Mr. Robinson argues that his generation’s seemingly instantaneous arrival is an illusion caused by the relatively recent embrace of dance music by mainstream American audiences.
“If you’ve been writing dance music for a long time, like me and Zedd and Skrillex have, you’re well positioned to take advantage of this scene,” he said. “We’ve been paying dues since we were young teenagers, but all of a sudden our music is wanted. So that’s what creates the impression of a quick rise.”
For Zedd the migration from rock was an eye-opening change toward a less competitive and infinitely more popular genre. Despite lots of touring in Europe, he said, his band’s album sold a total of 888 copies; at his first night opening for Lady Gaga, in Seoul, South Korea, he played for 60,000 people.
“When I played in a band, people just stand there and look at you and criticize what they didn’t like,” he said. “But if you watch a D.J. show, people go crazy from beginning to end. Say what you want against D.J.’s, but you can’t deny that the energy level in the audience is for the most part far above what rock bands have.”
Outside the stage door at Red Rocks two 16-year-old boys from Kansas City, Kan., waited patiently for Zedd’s autograph, and finally got it, as their hero made his way to a meet and greet with radio programmers.
“I first listened to him when he was on tour with Skrillex last year,” said one of them, Justin Tresner. “I watched him on YouTube live, and the lights and the bass were just amazing. He also remixed the Zelda song, and Zelda’s, like, my favorite video game.”
Where all of this fits within the traditional music industry is unclear. Record companies still play an important role, but the relationship has changed from the days when a label controlled most aspects of an artist’s career. Short-term, high-value record contracts are common, a sign both of how attractive E.D.M. hits can be as well as of a certain ambivalence about that genre’s long-term prospects.
Last year Universal paid an extraordinary $750,000 to release “Levels,” a hit single by the Swedish D.J. Avicii, without the standard contractual options for more material. On the other hand, Avicii, who is 22, just did an endorsement deal with Ralph Lauren that his manager, Ash Pournouri, described as open ended.
Another example is Krewella, a trio of two singing sisters, Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf, and a male noisemaker, Kris Trindl. The group exploded onto the scene this year in all the latter-day ways — YouTube, Beatport and the audio site Soundcloud — and Columbia signed it to a deal that includes albums but not the other rights that labels often demand of new acts, like a share of touring or merchandising income.
“Maybe it was different 10 years ago, but nowadays the labels want you to build your own fan base, create your own style, your own sound,” said Jahan Yousaf. “It feels really amazing to be completely in control of your music and your branding, but also have the support of the label.”
E.D.M.’s business outlook is much debated in the industry, and some acts, like Zedd and Madeon, are looking beyond a career as simply a performing artist, to producing other acts and working in film. (Skrillex is already scoring for Disney.)
“It is risky long-term to base your career around a narrow style that may turn out to be a fad,” Madeon wrote in an e-mail. “I’m currently producing records for other bands and artists that are not in the electronic world, and it’s extremely fun and fulfilling. It’s something I’ll probably do more of in the future.”
Earlier in the day Zedd and Skrillex visited Beatport’s Denver offices, mingled with employees and checked out the staff D.J. station. In his backpack Zedd carried a laptop, spare computer drives and a tangle of cables: all the gear he would need to perform.
Not long ago he had never been away from home for more than two weeks. Then it was six weeks, then two months, then six months. He, and his parents, are still coming to grips with the frenzied pace of his new life, he said.
“But I would never complain,” Zedd added. “My biggest dream is coming true.” Then he made his way to Red Rocks.