Electronic dance music

Think Ultra Music Fest revelers are living large? Get a load of the SoBe VIP crowd



The roar of the Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park had barely subsided last Sunday night as another kind of dance party was revving up on South Beach. In an enclosed balcony deep inside Story, the area’s of-the-moment extravagant nightlife monument, willowy young women crowded around a glowing table covered with thousands of dollars worth of champagne and liquor, vying to get closer to Tiesto, a towering man who is one of the world’s most famous DJs. Waitresses in polka-dot bodysuits shimmied through the packed throng holding aloft sparkler-bedecked bottles, one a vintage tequila priced at $1,000 — festive supplicants at a shrine of consumption.

The dancefloor below throbbed with partiers who had paid up to $250 to hear white hot DJ Calvin Harris. A few feet away was a still more exclusive sanctum, reserved for wealthy patrons willing to pay thousands for a single bottle of champagne.

“One guy in one night might spend $350,000,” says Haley Dias, a former male model who became a party promoter based on his ability to summon flocks of professionally beautiful women to parties like this one. He shrugs at the extravagance. “Whoever has money has money.”

The spirit and image of dance music are embodied in the tribal gatherings that have dominated downtown Miami and Miami Beach for the past week. Thousands of partiers flocked here for the massive Ultra Music Festival — which expanded from one to two weekends this year and was predicted to draw 400,000 people — and scores of dance parties at clubs and hotels.

But the sound of booming beats increasingly means big bucks. And some of the biggest players in the entertainment industry are joining the party. The biggest is billionaire media mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman, whose SFX Entertainment transformed the regional rock concert business into a national corporate-style enterprise in the ’90s. Now Sillerman has turned his sights on electronic dance music, snapping up some of the genre’s biggest event organizers and companies in recent months. They include ID&T, a $130 million Dutch company that is the world’s biggest dance music promoter; Beatport, the genre’s top online retailer; and Miami Marketing Group, or MMG, which owns Story and the even glitzier Liv at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

Thursday afternoon, the lean, black-clad Sillerman, 64, threaded his way through a poolside gathering at the chic Delano hotel in Miami Beach as eager hipster entrepreneurs decades younger rushed to shake his hand. Among them were Duncan Stutterheim, owner of ID&T, whose announcement on Wednesday that they would bring a version of Tomorrowland, Europe’s biggest dance music festival, to a horse farm in Georgia this September generated sales of 100,000 tickets within six hours. Another Sillerman purchase, North Carolina-based Disco Donnie Presents, fields dance music DJs and events in heartland cities like St. Louis and Indianapolis.

“It’s a seismic cultural shift,” says Sillerman, who predicts electronic dance music, or EDM, will transform popular culture as profoundly as rock ’n’ roll did in the ’50s. “We’re now seeing the impact of music created digitally for digital natives … and these kids out there will be the parents of the future. It’ll be even broader.”

Chris Stephenson, whose music credentials include being CEO of the legendary British club Ministry of Sound and chief marketing officer for record label Interscope, has been tapped by Sillerman to oversee marketing for this new EDM venture. Stephenson says his boss sensed the time was ripe to consolidate the competing dance music fiefdoms into one empire.

“It was out there in the ether,” Stephenson said over a booming speaker at the Delano. “This business was getting so big, but it was so fragmented. There was no central place where brands and advertisers can connect with the audience.”

For some in the world of EDM, Sillerman’s investment is a sign that the music has arrived. “Whoever pulls the whole thing together is going to stand strongest,” says David Grutman, one of the owners of Miami Beach’s MMG. “We’re a growing company, and one reason we wanted to partner with Sillerman is it gives us access to a lot more stuff. I would love to have a stream of marketing dollars from corporate America.”

The marketing money has already started to flow. Ultra featured VIP packages sponsored by Heineken. Tiesto has a clothing line with Guess, and Avicii, another superstar DJ, with Ralph Lauren. But the EDM world is still largely focused on selling blissed-out musical escapism, whether during days-long festivals or DJ-powered nights. The changes Sillerman brought to the concert world led to much higher-priced tickets and even higher-priced VIP packages, a glut of advertising becoming part of the concert experience, and corporations sponsoring the rockers who once symbolized cultural rebellion. Teens and 20-somethings tend to be more tolerant of marketing, as long as it is clever and unobtrusive. But will a more profit-driven corporate model fit with EDM’s anarchic, free-spirited ethos?

“Dance music has always been an underground subculture,” says Ben Sisario, who covers the music business for The New York Times. “Even though it’s gotten very popular, it doesn’t have the same values as the mainstream music industry. If you go to Electric Daisy, the brands are the festival itself and the DJs. You don’t see American Express presents [star DJ] Deadmau5. I think it will be difficult to introduce that into that whole culture.”

Sillerman, who is still shopping for EDM businesses he will not name, indicated the opportunities might lie more in tapping into the way millions of EDM fans bond over the music. “They’ve demonstrated a love for the music and for each other,” he says. “Facebook, Twitter, all that peer-to-peer sharing is in their DNA.”

“My question would be … how would you stay connected to them, but not just to sell more tickets … How do you create new opportunities for fans to enjoy whatever it is that connects them to this music?”

Whereas Sillerman is looking for manna from the masses, dance clubs in Miami Beach have tapped into a more elitist and enormously lucrative side of dance music for years. In the mid ’90s, Eric and Francis Milon broke from the standard gay and alternative dance palaces with The Living Room, a club centered on exclusive VIP sections where admission was based on the ability to pay for high-priced liquor. Since then, the Milons, with partners Mitchell Robinson and Roman Jones, have taken that model to stratospheric levels with The Opium Group, which owns big dance clubs Mansion and Cameo and the more exclusive Mokai and SET, a Lincoln Road showcase that reopened Friday after a glitzy redesign.

News reports earlier this year had Sillerman buying Opium along with rivals MMG, but the deal fell through this month. Sillerman would only say that “things came up which made us think it would be best not to continue,” although he did not rule out a future deal.

In an interview at his elaborate Art Deco era Miami Beach home, cloaked with vines and towering hedges, Jones said a desire to stay independent and “philosophical differences” led them to turn Sillerman down.

The Opium strategy is focused on luring New York financiers, Venezuelan petroleum magnates and wealthy Arabs and Russians, who roll up to SET and Mokai in Ferraris and Rolls Royces surrounded by nubile young women. They can spend tens or even hundreds of thousands in a night on $900 bottles of Dom Perignon or $2,300 bottles of Cristal Rose, their purchases celebrated by parades of waitresses and the DJs announcing their name. “Bottle wars,” in which one customer sees another getting five bottles and outdoes him by buying 10, are common. Servers and bartenders can earn thousands a week.

Jones, whose father Mick Jones is one of the founders of rock group Foreigner and who started hanging out at New York nightclubs in high school, said that where hipness and celebrity clients once drove a club’s cachet, now bacchanalian luxury and six-figure-fee DJs like Bob Sinclar, who headlined the SET reopening last Friday, are the draw.

“It’s changed so much,” Jones says. “Now it’s like, how many bottles can you buy? When you’re rich and have money, people want to express their happiness that way.”

His partner Eric Milon says their operations are just the most recent version of high-end nightlife.

“Tables are a social status symbol, just like driving a nice car or wearing an expensive watch,” Milon wrote in an email. “The music has changed from disco to pop to hip-hop to dance, but the scene remains the same.”

But that luxury scene differs from early dance clubs filled with an eclectic, counter-culture mix of young people focused not on showing off but on dancing all night — just as the warehouse raves of the early ’90s are dwarfed by giants like Ultra.

Carmel Ophir, a ’90s South Beach promoter who now owns Vagabond, a downtown Miami club that caters to a dance-loving crowd and charges $10 to $50 covers to see musically revered DJs like John Digweed, wonders if the massiveness and expense will start to drive people away from the scene.

“It’s getting into this big corporate crescendo,” Ophir says. “Twenty years ago it was places to go and things to do with friends. Now it’s evolved into a juggernaut of an economic model. Commercialism has reached the dance music scene and will play itself out for as long as it can.

“I think it’s going to reach a point where the audience will go, ‘I’m not really feeling this anymore, I need something different’ or looks at their credit card bill and goes ‘I spent a lot of money and for what?’ ”

The Times’ Sisario, who points to Las Vegas casino chains competing for top DJs, says corporate America’s “gold rush” into EDM might end by homogenizing the scene. But he thinks the music will survive.

“There’s no way Bob Sillerman could market people to death so they don’t want to dance anymore,” Sisario says. “This music has been around for a very long time. People will always want to dance all night and go crazy. You can’t kill that.”

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