Forget Private Jets, Madison Square Garden is the New Status Symbol for the World's Biggest DJs

But what does it mean when even Skrillex and Diplo have a tough time selling out the Garden?

Jan 6 2015, 7:00pm

If you live in New York City and have been unfortunate enough to find yourself stuck in Midtown around New Year's Eve, you've probably seen circles of them huddled on every street corner. Them: the special breed of tourists who are here to spend New Year's Eve with Phish at Madison Square Garden. 

To the naked eye, this stringy-haired tribe of wanderers could be easily confused for friendly Midwestern tourists; some of the druggier ones look one needle away from dirt-crusted gutter punks. But thanks to the beloved hippie jam band's tradition of playing the Garden every New Year's Eve, their dedicated following has made a mass pilgrimage here every December. Until 2014, that is. 

As had been widely reported last year, Phish decided to move their "phamily" to an even bigger stadium to ring in 2015—Miami's American Airlines Arena. That left Madison Square Garden ripe for the taking. In swooped Jack Ü, the dance music main stage leviathan made up of Skrillex and Diplo. If anyone was going to claim the Garden's coveted New Year's Eve throne, it could only be the biggest bromance in the dance music world. 

Phish at Madison Square Garden in 2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

Some Phish fans weren't happy. In fact, one of them, a staff writer for the music section of PolicyMic, was so pained by the shake-up that he wrote a blog post titled "Diplo and Skrillex Can't Do What Phish Does Every New Year's Eve.

We'll save you the read. The gist of the article goes like this: Phish has sold out their string of three or four-show runs at the Garden since 2010. They usually move 72,000 tickets in less than ten minutes. On the other hand, Jack Ü never reached capacity. Thus, "EDM may not be the undeniable future of music that many thought it would be." Oh, and, "Whether or not Phish is as relevant as they once were, it's comforting to know that there's still a higher premium placed on real instruments than on DJ sets."  

Ignoring the "DJs don't play real instruments" hogwash that you've already rehashed over mouthfuls of Christmas ham with your balding uncle, let's quickly run through some of the factors that render this "Phish rules! EDM sucks!" kind of reductive thinking totally moot. 

First, there's the fact that the stadium doesn't have a fixed number of seats. Sneaky promoters sometimes cord off entire sections so that they can call a show "sold out" for promotional purposes. I'm not saying Phish does that. I'm saying that "sold out at Madison Square Garden" doesn't always mean the same thing. 

Second, Phish has been chugging along for almost three decades. That's longer than Skrillex and Diplo combined. That's longer than Skrillex has been alive. This means Phish's fan base stretches over several generations, and they've had time to build an extensive and extremely loyal following. In comparison, Jack Ü is a relatively new act, formed  less than two years ago and adored by a subsection of people who (come on, let's face it!) were born during or after the Clinton administration. 

Third, there's the question of competition. Jam band fans have few other options outside of Phish at Madison Square Garden if they want to ring in the New Year in a glorious blaze of confetti, purple hazes and over-the-top spectacle. But December 31 is the peak party night for dance music people. This year, Jack Ü had to compete with Disclosure at Pier 94, Sebastian Ingrosso at Marquee, Output's 36-hour techno marathon, and countless warehouse raves. In fact, Jack Ü's hit "Take Ü There" was probably played in each of those venues. In other words, dance music fans were like foot fetishists in a stocking store: spoiled for choice. 

So let's jump to the real issue here, which is that Madison Square Garden has become the latest status symbol for top-level DJs thirsting for mainstream acceptance. Over the last six months, a parade of high-profile dance acts have launched themselves at the Garden, including Hardwell, Above & Beyond, Eric Prydz, and Bassnectar. (Armin Van Buuren, Markus Schultz and several others have also played there in previous years.) Out of this group, only Armin, Bassnectar, and Above & Beyond have been able to pack out the house. Another top dog, Steve Aoki, had to quietly reschedule his Garden show back in July after album release date woes and reportedly lackluster ticket sales. 

According to both Skrillex and Diplo's teams, playing at the Garden was meant to be a watershed moment—a sign that "EDM" has finally arrived at the big leagues. (How long have people been saying this, anyway?) Andrew McInnes, a partner in Diplo's management firm TMWRK, admitted to the Wall Street Journal that they were leaving money on the table by not playing at some Las Vegas megaclub on New Year's Eve. But playing at the Garden gave Skrillex and Diplo something far more valuable: cultural caché. Plus, they'll get to make bank in other ways, like all the good press from the New York City media machine that ultimately begets higher DJ fees when they go on tour. Ultimately, Skrillex's manager Tim Smith put it best: "it's more about symbolism than business." 

Still, maybe that Phish fan had a point, in spite of his butthurt. The fact that Jack Ü failed to sell out the Garden is a telling sign that DJ music isn't completely comfortable in giant arenas. Because of their rigid seating arrangements and relatively small dancefloors, stadiums are better suited for genres like rock, pop, country and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show—whereas DJs need space for their audiences to dance. This is why dance music has blossomed at music festivals, clubs and raves instead. If the DJs have set their sights on conquering massive sports arenas like Madison Square Garden next, they're playing a whole new game. And they're going to have to jostle out the competition, some of whom won't take it lightly. Apparently, that includes Phish heads.  

Michelle Lhooq is randomly well-versed in secret Phish hand signals - @MichelleLhooq

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