The list of the world’s richest DJs, published yesterday by Forbes, makes for surprising reading. In it, we learn that Dutch-born DJ Tiësto earned £14m in the last year, noise terrorist Skrillex made £9.7m and dance music’s Monsieur Fromage, David Guetta £8.7m. Over the past year, the world’s ten highest-paid DJs have earned a combined $125m.
Compare these to some of the year’s most successful artists: the all-conquering Adele earned £23m between May 2011 and May 2012, Katy Perry made £29m in the same period and Justin Bieber pocketed £35.6m. The take-home pay for DJs isn’t quite as much, but then, how many Skrillex songs can your mum whistle?
It got us wondering: just how are they earning so much money? Where is it all coming from? And why is it happening now? Here’s what the experts say.
America ‘gets’ dance music (finally)
“Electronic dance music is a phenomenon in the States right now,” says Music Week editor Tim Ingham. “Swedish House Mafia stole the show with a visually stunning performance at this year’s Coachella, which is traditionally a rock festival, and that was a tipping point. It’s opened up a massive market for dance music, and it’s happening in South America too.” Europe remains dance-friendly too. “Dance music is still huge in Europe, and money in Ibiza keeps growing for the biggest names,” says Mixmag’s Sean Griffiths.
The vast majority of a DJ’s earnings come from live appearances, and the fees being offered are on the increase. Tiesto, for one, can expect to receive up to $250,000 for a night in the booth. “The demand from new markets is the main driver of rising DJ fees,” says Duncan Dick, deputy editor of Mixmag. “The annual DJ scrum in Ibiza makes for a big payday but new festivals and tours in the US and South America are increasingly where the big money is earned.”
To take a band on tour requires roadies, tour managers, rigging, soundchecks, flight cases full of equipment and more. At the extreme, a DJ could turn up with a laptop and plug straight in. Not only is it simpler, there are fewer people to pay too. “That’s the best part from the label’s perspective,” says Tim Ingham. “You can have your DJ playing a private gig for a Middle Eastern sheik one night, fly them to New York for a gig the day after and have them playing Hyde Park the night after that. It’s just not possible to do that with a band.” In addition, says Ingham, there’s less expectation for DJs to put on a big show. “Pop artists will often surround themselves with session musicians in a bid to appear credible, but there’s no need with an EDM act. The downside is that you get called a mobile disco man, something that David Guetta is often accused of. Ultimately, you are often paying to see a bloke in headphones pressing play.”
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In a time when sales of albums are slowing, record labels have found a new revenue stream in DJs: they’re easier to manage, as they tend to operate alone (Swedish House Mafia being the obvious exception), they don’t rely on sales and they can gig non-stop – perfect for one of the increasingly common 360 degree deals, which tend to include a slice of merchandise profits too.
French Coca Cola drinkers could recently drink from a David Guetta branded bottle of Coca Cola. The DJ has also signed sponsorship deals with Renault and Hewlett Packard. “In rock music, there’s historically been a stigma attached to ‘selling out’ but in EDM there seems to be a greater acceptance that it’s a commercial entity,” says Tim Ingham. “It makes sense that brands are desperate to align themselves with music that drives 16 to 25 year-olds crazy, and it helps that dance music is often instrumental, euphoric and suspenseful, which lends itself to soundtracking commercials too.” See Deadmau5’s illuminating take on branding here.
Everybody wants to be their friend
Not only do DJs put their own records and remixes out, other artists fall over themselves to work with them. “EDM artists are seen as being cool, so pop artists will pay through the nose to align with them,” says Tim Ingham. “It helps them get on Radio 1 and makes them look more modern. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – the Calvin Harris and Rihanna collaboration was great.”
Earning money is in a DJ’s blood. “It shouldn’t be surprising that DJs are earning decent sums because it’s quite an entrepreneurially-driven branch of music: it tends to be driven by a single person looking to get their music to as many people as possible,” says Tim Ingham.
Record sales aren’t what they once were, but a DJ can score a big hit with a single and be quids in. “I heard of a prominent dance act being offered £1m for a single, which is just crazy,” says Tim Ingham.
The combined effect of all this equals some minted mobile disco men. But one other thing leaps out from Forbes’s “Electronic Cash Kings” list – where are the Electronic Cash Queens?