Booming business: EDM goes mainstream

As downtown Miami and Miami Beach throb with the annual dance music celebration of Miami Music Week, led by the massive Ultra Music Festival and the pioneering Winter Music Conference, another kind of boom is taking place. The sound of electronic dance music, or EDM, is fast becoming the sound of sales of everything from electronics to beer.

After years in which dance music aficionados yearningly predicted their music would be recognized by the rest of the world, that dream is coming true. EDM is all over mainstream pop culture and media, in one of those seemingly sudden cultural shifts that was actually years in the making.

Daft Punk won Album of the Year at the 2014 Grammys, and one of the most talked about Super Bowl commercials was a Bud Light clip featuring the Afrojack song Ten Feet Tall in which a regular guy has a surreal string of celebrity encounters. Earlier this month, Rolling Stone put star DJ Skrillex on its cover. Producer/DJ’s like David Guetta increasingly shape the sound of hits for pop and urban stars like Rihanna and The Black Eyed Peas.

Increasingly, the corporate world is realizing that festivals like Ultra, which organizers predict will draw 165,000 people to Bayfront Park this year, are a compelling way to reach what has become a broad audience. The soft drink 7-Up has joined Heineken as one of Ultra’s sponsors, and energy drink Red Bull will turn South Beach’s Gale Hotel into an elite music showcase called the Red Bull Guest House. At the Miami Music Lounge at the W Hotel, where Afrojack will debut his new album, , sponsors include not just Heineken Light but Olay and Fiji water, and Miami-based Razon will launch a line of sunglasses there. Star DJs Kaskade and Avicii have pop-up stores to sell their own lines of self-branded merchandise, and Avicii is also partnering with the luxury SLS Hotel South Beach for a week of exclusive events. Amsterdam-based clothing company G-Star Raw, which recently opened a store on Lincoln Road, has a menswear line with Afrojack.

Ash Pournouri, the manager who engineered Avicii’s rise, compares dance music’s current situation to the moment when the corporate world hesitated before plunging into the hiphop boom in the early 2000s.

“It’s just a matter of time before people realize how much money is being spent on the scene and how big it is, though it hasn’t gone completely commercial yet,” Pournouri said from his office in Sweden. “I think the corporate world is catching on. You have an estimated $4.5 billion generated by this music every year. That turns a lot of heads, and that’s without the potential of commercializing it even more, which will happen.”

Cynthia Sexton, who handles brand partnerships and music licensing for Island, Def Jam and Republic Records, says EDM songs are increasingly in demand for commercials and promos for TV shows. In addition to persuading Bud Light to use the Afrojack song, Sexton has placed Avicii’s megahit Wake Me Up in ads for TV shows The Voice and Inside the NBA, and a track from Tiesto, another top DJ, to sell 7-Up. That EDM acts have been shifting from blissed-out electronica to more pop style songs, with melodies and vocals, has helped make the music more accessible.

“Big brands, whether car companies or alcohol, have been watching the lifestyle and seeing that this genre is no longer a niche on the sidelines,” Sexton says. “Except for Miami, New York and Las Vegas, the country hadn’t really been exposed to EDM culture. If you’re Bud Light you’re thinking of Middle America. It’s just becoming more mainstream.”

The leaders in mainstreaming the music have been festivals like Ultra, launched as a one-day event by Russell Faibisch in 1999 to coincide with the Winter Music Conference, and since expanded to nine countries on five continents. But Ultra is a rare independent holdout in what is rapidly becoming the realm of corporate chains.

Last year billionaire media mogul Bob Sillerman, whose SFX Entertainment transformed the concert business into its current corporate model in the ’90s, began buying EDM enterprises, including Dutch music events company ID&T and heartland festival producer Disco Donnie Presents. In recent months Sillerman has announced a partnership with Clear Channel, the country’s biggest radio chain, to develop EDM programming; and a global marketing deal with Anheuser-Busch InBev. And Live Nation, the dominant U.S. concert producer, has partnered with Pasquale Rotella’s Insomniac Events, the producer of massive Las Vegas festival Electric Daisy Carnival and a host of other events. Many of these executive types fill a Rolling Stone list of EDM’s 50 most important people.

The rush has been so pronounced that corporate bible Forbes Magazine recently advised its business-savvy readers to invest in EDM event companies.

Pournouri, who in 2008 discovered a teenage Avicii through a couple of bedroom-produced tracks on a music blog, has focused on marketing him as a brand almost as much as an act. “I didn’t want the biggest DJ, I wanted the biggest song, the biggest artist,” Pournouri says.

He made Avicii the face of the Ralph Lauren clothing line Denim and Supply and will soon launch an organic Swedish vodka. In previous visits to Miami Music Week, Pournouri created Avicii ice cream trucks and Avicii buses to shuttle people to Ultra.

“The creative part has to be real,” Pournouri says. “But we thought of it as a company rather than an artist on the business side.”

Other EDM figures are also figuring out how to balance business potential with musical appeal. “The money alone is not the integral part,” says Adam Russakoff, Ultra’s executive producer and director of business affairs. “Is there a cool factor to it?”

That cool factor is a key reason that Heineken’s first partnered with Ultra seven years ago. This week the Dutch beer company, which has also worked with DJs Armin Van Buren and Tiesto, will construct a multistory temporary club on the festival grounds, with outdoor viewing platforms, live audio and video streams — and of course, plenty of its beer.

“We know [EDM] is a key passion point for our … consumer target,” says Leanne Maciel, Heineken’s brand manager for sponsorship and events. Who’s the target? A man interested in music, technology and art, Maciel says.

“We see it as a testament to our vision that other folks are coming into the [EDM] space now.”

Miami Herald writer Anthony Cave contributed to this report.