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Dollars on Decks: Dance Music's Businessman DJs

They're doing DIY better than you.

Do you remember when music became free?

After that, it didn't take long for labels, major and independent alike, to cut their corners—stripping their businesses down to tiny facsimiles of their former selves, avoiding risky investments on up-and-coming artists, slicing promotional budgets. As of 2013, there's a puny percentage of independent record labels that can even afford to rent themselves an office, and the current model is lean and lithe, relying heavily on touring and live shows as a primary revenue source.


However, the rise of electronic music in the US has revealed a handful of clever entrepreneurs who managed to find fame and funding in this brave new world by straddling the line between artist, performer, and businessman. We here at THUMP have taken it upon ourselves to learn up on these industry behemoths who are doing DIY better than the rest of them, so get out your notepads:

Pete Tong: The Tastemaker
Pete Tong has worn so many hats in his career that he's run out of haberdasheries. He's electronic music's original jack-of-all-trades. Tong was a key figure in the early 1990s acid house explosion in the UK, and his Essential Mix series is widely recognized as one the most important platforms for electronic music. "Most people know me as a DJ," he told THUMP,  "but I've always had a day job of one shape or another."

He started off as a music journalist and then moved into terrestrial radio as a disc jockey, followed by concert promotion and music supervision for such seminal rave classics The Beach, Human Traffic, and It's All Gone Pete Tong—all whlie bouncing around the Balearic party circuit. After moving half of his numerous progeny to sunny Los Angeles, he's continued The Essential Selection on satellite radio and has an office at William Morris. He has his hands in pretty much every psuedo-electronic pie in the shop.

"When Napster started in 2000-2001," says Tong, "That's when the record business stopped being the biggest business in the world. A lot of DJs that were principally earning money from making music were suddenly not… no advances, no big checks for remixes. It all became a live model. The electronic space was forced into that thanks to the Internet. It's progress. It's evolution." Tong can afford to be so accepting of the change—his income has always been so diversified that he could bend with the changing winds.


Despite the storied career, Tong has kept his production and song-writing credits to a minimum, a common pattern among guys who are able to make a lot of money and last a long time. Being a successful producer is an absolute minefield of a profession—if your tracks are out of touch, then you're shit. A DJ is insulated by playing largely other people's music. If you play a track and the reaction is bad, you just ditch it. Pete's success is also owed to the fact that it's predicated on exposing the artistry of others, so whatever they tell you, it was never all Pete Tong.

Steve Aoki: The Brand
The story goes that Steve and his six sibling heirs to the multi-million dollar Benihana empire weren't given a penny by their crabby-but-efficient father, who instead chose to show them the value of hard work by suing four of them after a failed coup on his assets. Starting with a $300 investment while doubling up on a Social Science bachelors at UCSB, Steve started up Dim Mak records in 1996.

Dim Mak's sound started off releasing screamy guitar music like his band This Machine Kills before roving around the millennial indie dance scene with Aoki as ubiquitous CEO. By 2008, the EDM vibe was crystallizing and, Aoki, ever the showman, took the plunge from label boss to DJ and released an electro mix of his own. He proved to be a technically passable DJ with a captivating live presence and got caught up in the wave of crossover electro that brought acts like Justice and MSTRKRFT to the Top 40 Charts.


Since that point Steve Aoki has become one of the most recognizable figures in EDM. But in his whole career, he's only released one album and 12 singles, all of which were co-produced by a contemporary. DJ's can't get the big-money bookings without relevant singles, but the technical skill, creativity, and hours it takes to be a successful producer don't vibe with the rigorous touring schedule required to be profitable. Because of this, more and more of the top-level acts have less and less of a hands-on relationship with the music they sell.

It's no secret that Steve Aoki isn't a musician. He's the frontman for a medio-cultural empire. In addition to helming the label and DJing 250 nights a year, he's in some part responsible for Dim Mak Studios (the venue), 2 Beverly Hills-adjacent restaurants (Goldie's and Eveleigh), a clothing line, and an artist management company. Even Aoki's most fervent detractors can't fault his work ethic and application of marketing. The mere silhouette of his head has been memed and monetized. Every time somebody so much as thinks about cake, Aoki makes 5 cents.

Gary Richard aka Destructo: The Mogul
Gary Richards is not a name your casual listener is familiar with, but he's played an essential hand in shaping the current milieu of electronic music in the US as the brains behind the HARD concert promotion brand. He helped launch the careers of Skrillex and Dillon Francis and was a central figure in pushing that twacked out electro sound that yanked rave culture into the mainstream. Oh, and he also DJ's under the name Destructo.


Richards is a dyed-in-the-wool industry guy. His father was a radio disc jockey and Gary earned his chops as a promoter in the mid-nineties by throwing after-after-hours warehouse parties in Los Angeles named The Sermon that opened doors at 6AM.  He and his partner would dress as priests and promote all night long at nearby raves and then DJ until the afternoon.

After handing off his nascent EDC brand to a plucky kid from the West Side named Pasquale Rotella and trying his hand at the corporate music game, Gary watched from the inside as the CD selling business disintegrated and then went back to his old job of concert promoting. It clicked. HARD Summer, Haunted Mansion, and the festival cruise Holy Ship!!! are benchmark events in whatever is hot in electronic music. The real key to their success is finding the perfect aesthetic amalgam of hipster, raver, and frat boy. HARD's stamp of approval goes a long way to getting an act some mainstream rub and a bit of that rub has been self-reflexive.

It's only polite to DJ your own party, especially when 10,000 of your closest friends have shown up, and Richards has been happy to oblige. Destructo sets are a late afternoon main stage fixture at HARD events. It would be easy to blast the guy if he was a shitty DJ, but Richards has always been about that the rowdy tear-out electro sound and that's what he spins. Also, how many movies have you seen in which the director makes a cameo? Exactly. HARD was recently been purchased by Live Nation and Richards is now playing ball with some of the deepest pockets in media. That considered, Destructo might be considered one of the most successful side gigs going.


Wesley Pentz aka Diplo: The Anthropologist
Diplo was studying Anthropology at Temple University when he and partner DJ Low Budget started throwing parties under the name Hooked on Hollertronix. Even then, his penchant for cheeky culture-jamming was evident. Their Never Scared mixtape was a 2003 game-changer, featuring transitions from The Clash to Missy Elliott to Debby Deb's "Lookout Weekend."

Pentz was first and foremost a DJ until a fated meeting with M.I.A at Fabric in London in 2004. Their collaboration on the lo-fi mashup mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1 rendered them both hipster hotstuff and Diplo became a sought-after producer even though, at that point, he was by no means a technical production wizard.

In 2007, he and Switch produced M.I.A's undeniable radio hit "Paper Planes" and Diplo was a made man. He launched Mad Decent and began garnering a reputation for bringing in under-appreciated international sounds like favela funk, zef, kuduro and dancehall into the burgeoning US dance scene. While the dude received flack for neglecting to properly credit  a number of the artists he recorded with during his time abroad, he's unphased by his detractors.

It wasn't until Major Lazer, though, that things really took off for Diplo and Mad Decent. It seemed to be all coming up roses, especially when Baauer's single "Harlem Shake" memed hard all over the world, setting off a dance craze with hundreds of millions of collective youtube plays. It was one of the few memes that seemed purposefully constructed to do what it did, but it worked. Everybody from Regis Philbin to my fucking grandfather were trying it out. It was this generation's "Macarena."

Here's the telling part, though: Despite hobnobbing with Justin Bieber and Usher, Pentz's Mad Decent was on the verge of going bankrupt before the Harlem Shake went viral. In his own words: "Honestly, that record was the thing that saved the label, because a year ago we were going to fold because we couldn't figure out how to make money. Then we just started giving music out for free and it worked out." The label has since confronted not one, but two, legal disputes over unauthorized sampling in the 2013 hit single, so here's hoping those coffers are still stuffed.

There's a  pattern in these stories this that pervades all media. The real stuff of any artistic endeavor, the content, is undervalued. None of these guys made much of their big money from the actual making of music. They made it through clever manipulations of the culture surrounding it. And because the American music industry is no longer the juggernaut that it was in the 90s—when label A&Rs and talent scouts had limo drivers—today's most successful artists are those who can do the jobs that used to belong to ten other people.