The debut of ZHU's NightDay Experience in New York City
How much time does it take for a gifted producer to go from obscurity to celebrity? In the case of ZHU, it took less than ten months. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of other producers angrily gnashing their teeth. But those who dismiss the success of ZHU as dumb luck couldn't be more wrong. His meteoric rise to become one of today's most buzzed-about dance music artists would not have been possible without two things: sheer talent and a brilliant marketing campaign. Both were on full display last weekend at two highly secretive, sold-out shows in New York City.
In order to get a portrait of the young producer as a highly successful brand, we have to start in the beginning. A few years ago, Steven Zhu, who goes by the alias ZHU, was just another unknown producer in Southern California. Somewhere down the line, he got connected to his current manager Jake Udell of TH3RD BRAIN—a business and marketing whiz who previously guided Krewella to superstar status. A new persona was created for Zhu to help him stand out in the crowded dance music market. Zhu would brand himself as an anonymous DJ, keeping his real identity under wraps and avoiding interviews with the media. Zhu's only representation would be a Z-shaped logo—just call him the house music version of the masked swashbuckler Zorro. "We live in 2014; everybody has something to say. There is more power in being silent," Udell told LA Weekly. Keeping Zhu anonymous would build public interest while keeping the focus on the strength of his music—or so they hoped.
So in order for Zhu to evolve into the mystery-cloaked producer he is today, he had to first become a ghost. That meant scrubbing his entire online presence from the Internet. The songs he'd uploaded to YouTube turned into dead links. Blog posts that featured his music were deleted. Content was removed from his website. Even his Last.fm account was wiped. Then in February, Zhu made his debut with "Moves Like Ms. Jackson." A mashup of three iconic Outkast songs, "Moves Like Ms. Jackson" was the first indication of what would become Zhu's signature sound: languid grooves, pitched-down vocals and sultry melodies, with his own falsetto floating above it all like wisps of smoke.
The song was strategically placed across prominent EDM blogs, and started spreading like wildfire. Buzzing readers speculated over who Zhu could be—Disclosure was the leading guess. Alas, whoever tried to delete Zhu from the Internet didn't do a perfect job. Following digital footprints like stray tweets and cached versions of websites, one particular sleuth going by the username @thejoelmcrae managed to dig up clues about Zhu's identity—including his real name and location.
Regardless of this hiccup, what Zhu and his team did next is a study in perfectly-timed moves, scientifically calculated to generate a snowball of hype. A day after "Moves Like Ms. Jackson," he followed up with "Superfriends," an equally catchy track that proved Zhu wasn't going down as a one-hit wonder. On April 20th—yes, that's 4/20— Zhu dropped his debut EP The Nightday. By this time, the hype had built to a feverish frenzy, and a third track "Faded" received heavy rotation on the influential Australian radio station Triple J—eventually topping the UK Dance Chart. A few weeks later, the music video for "Faded" was released, showcasing Zhu's trademark aesthetic. Filmed in a Parisian nightclub, the video featured a black-and-white color palette, lots of smoky, abstract shapes, and that ubiquitous blog house cliché: seductive female figures gyrating seductively.
Finally, Zhu made his live debuts at the Listen Out Festival in Sydney and HARD's Day of the Dead in Los Angeles. Both shows were buzzy, but neither compared to what came next: the debut of Zhu's "NightDay Experience" in New York City, presented by MeanRed. Again, the concert was executed perfectly for maximum impact. Mysterious posters starting appearing all over the city. Then, an extremely limited run of tickets were exclusively sold at the super-hip fashion outlet Opening Ceremony. Fans swarmed the store, waiting in line for hours to snag a pair of tickets. Once they sold out, tickets appeared on Craigslist for as much as $150.
One the big night, the secret location was unveiled: a cavernous warehouse in East Williamsburg. Just the night before, Joy Orbison and Ben UFO headlined a rave in the warehouse next door. After walking down a long, dark corridor, you arrived in an outdoor courtyard where a row of staffers, bundled up against the freezing cold, had formed a barricade with plastic bins. "Tonight is a phone-free experience!" said one staffer cheerfully, blithely oblivious to the fact that she was essential asking guests to chop off one of their limbs. Cellphones were placed into a locked pouch that could not be unlocked until you stepped out of the venue.
Again, this calculated move was all part of a brilliant master plan. Without a phone, you're unable to take photos or videos of the show—thus preserving the mysterious allure that trails Zhu wherever he goes. Plus, the astounding audio-visual experience would not be tarnished by glowing cellphones waving in the air. Once the show started, the silhouette of Zhu appeared behind a giant white screen stretched in front of the DJ booth—which was designed in his signature Z-shaped logo. "New York, I am so happy to be here right now," he said, as the crowd exploded in cheers. The screen flickered to life with black-and-white video projections of slinky women and abstract shapes—like a softcore porno directed by an art school student broken up by stabs of lasers and lights. Cycling from one of his hits to the next, Zhu's track selections kept the mood elegant and sensuous, never venturing too far into fist-pumping ratchetness. Judging from the number of couples swaying to the grooves in each other's arms, the crowd was definitely feeling the sexy.
Ultimately, Zhu's NightDay Experience is a microcosm for what makes Zhu work so well as an artist in today's dance music landscape. By pairing hook-loaded house music up with slick, artistic visuals, rolling it out with perfectly-timed marketing, and embellishing everything with a sense of mystery, Zhu has created an alchemical potion that's earning him an ever-widening fanbase. If The Wizard of Oz has taught us anything, it's that there's no need to pull back the curtain—the man standing in the shadows is far more interesting.