Techno Capitalism: The Globalization of Electronic Music

GROOVE's most successful story isn't about music but its marketing. In 2015, we analyzed how we grew from being a onetime underground phenomenon to a million-euro business.

GROOVE Magazin Berlin

Club Zouk in Singapur by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

House and techno have gone global. Smaller clubs and festivals can no longer afford big DJ names. Traditional events compete with new festivals in Brazil or Korea. Ibiza is a marketplace which even determines the value of underground DJs.

Tomorrowland festival in 2018 by Diana y KarolGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The scene now functions as professionally as the big pop music business. Ideals once held have been left by the wayside. And quite a few activists of the nineties and noughties say that this isn't why they started organizing parties in the first place. 

Solomun by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

For a number of years many DJ fees have risen at a pace previously unheard of. For one New Year's party at an Italian club Richie Hawtin received 100,000 euros (roughly 118,000 US dollars) to be the headliner—despite the financial crisis. One promoter booked Solomun for 1,500 euros. Eight months later he had to fork out five times that amount.

Kappa FuturFestival 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Up-and-coming DJs announce that they won't play for less than 3,000 euros. It's not uncommon that the maximum fee one year becomes the minimum the next. Jamie Jones is a star DJ in the United Kingdom and on Ibiza and can get 40,000 to 50,000 euros there for a two-hour DJ set. These prices are his international yardstick—even if he hasn't established himself in the slightest elsewhere.

Awakenings Festival by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

With these fees, demands are also growing. For a semi-famous DJ, a club is expected to pay for four additional flights for their team. A festival is asked to book 10 hotel rooms and a private jet for a DJ's entourage. For a time, one DJ wanted 50 guest list spots and a coach for his black-clad techno goths at every single party. Another stated in his contract that a hotel room with a certain square footage had to be guaranteed, as well as a certain brand of espresso.

Kappa FuturFestival 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

It would be absurd to demand that these DJs—symbols of pleasure and hedonism—live a life of protestant austerity. It's understandable to want someone trustworthy by your side trip after trip. As well as wanting to bring in your own people when you're performing in front of 10,000 people And that you still want something to eat after the gig, so you'd like to be hosted in a hotel with 24-hour room service. But the right brand of espresso?

Elrow party at Club Amnesia in Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

These demands are typical for pop stars like Rihanna and Justin Timberlake. Someone like Marco Carola doesn't operate on such a level. But as Steffen Charles, creator of Time Warp, explains: "These DJs are in the position to have a setup arranged for them that delivers their show in the best way." Large shows are now set up like concerts. DJs travel with an entourage made up of a tour manager and sound, light, and filming people. At home, bookers and managers negotiate dates and arrangements with event organizers.

Sven Väth and Richie Hawtin at Club Amnesia in 2016 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

There are agencies who just take care of the travel aspect and negotiate special deals with airlines. There are specialist lawyers, artist PR agencies, and social media experts who take care of the artist's Facebook page. Basically, not posting any spelling mistakes. A photographer took part on Richie Hawtin's tour and traveled with him just to take photos for social networks.

Solomun at Club Pacha on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Booking has become a long, often nerve-wracking process with a lot of risk-taking and haggling. The fee is just one aspect. It's about guest list spots, hotel quality, the number of flights, and the equipment. And especially so-called billing—where the DJ's name is on the festival flyer. DJ X has this many followers and this many Boiler Room hits, why should they be listed under DJ Y? There are hardly any contracts less than six pages.

Boomfestival by RetinafunkGROOVE Magazin Berlin

If the name on the flyer is spelled incorrectly? A 5,000 euro fine for breach of contract. But if the DJ can't appear at a gig due to force majeure? The fee still applies. A prestigious club may be able to redact these clauses from the contract. Starry-eyed event organizers may be put off by these business practices.

Solomun at Club Pacha on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Almost all of them are swept into this vortex of becoming bigger, faster, and better. Those who've just installed Ableton are already striving for SoundCloud plays. And, yes, there are even agencies for that. They generate clicks on your SoundCloud page. Newcomers want to be treated like stars. Stars establish their own booking and event agencies.

Club Tresor in Berlin by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

This extreme situation has existed since club music has become more global than ever before. Over the past ten years, it's had unimaginable success, even without including the examples of trance and mainstream house. Techno and house were invented in the US. But the music there had virtually no success until three years ago. In the nineties, techno and house mainly existed in German-speaking countries, the United Kingdom, the Benelux countries, France, and Japan.

Warung Beach Club in Brasil by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

With minimalist sound and DJs like Ricardo Villalobos, Southern Europe began to party. South America then followed, along with the US two years ago. Developments that took years before were now happening in months. Katrin Schlotfeldt of booking agency Artist Alife, booker of Tale Of Us among others, describes the situation as follows: "France is currently strong, and the UK is increasingly opening itself up to music from the continent. South America has been a booming market for a number of years. Recently artists have been touring twice a year around the US."

Cocoon's closing party at Club Amnesia on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Karney von Grade, manager of artists like Seth Troxler, Jackmaster, and Eats Everything, adds: "Locations like Australia and even Brazil were always three to four years behind. That's now changed. These scenes are developing a lot faster. Brazil's economy is booming. The new middle class wants to go out and enjoy themselves. Sasha and Steve Lawler were big in South America previously. Then came Cocoon, and now many others are taking hold."

Watergate's party in Barcelona in 2016 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The internet and travel have brought club music to places too remote for vinyl distributors and music magazines. In Brazil there's now a fully functioning scene with local stars. International DJs meet an audience there who've known about their music for years. Club music has since become possible almost everywhere on earth.

Seth Troxler at Warung Beach Club in Brasil by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"Nick Warren just played in Angola. The last time I left that country there was a civil war raging," says Ed Karney. Seth Troxler adds: "Friends of mine are holding parties in Iraq. In countries like those, the passion and love for our music is still virtually unheard of, but it's wonderful to bring them a glimmer of hope through music."

Fusion festival in 2011 by RetinafunkGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Of course, bookings in far-off countries present agencies with a number of challenges. Who takes care of the well-being and safety of the DJ in that country? Often, bookers work with a sub-agency which helps overcome the language barrier and can assess whether an event organizer can be trusted or not. Who you cooperate with and in which countries you play is also a political issue.

Solomun at Club Pacha on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

In many emerging states such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Korea, for example, tobacco sponsorship is still legal. The respective industry there plays a decisive role in club and festival events. How do you position yourself as an artist and booker? Manager Ed Karney states: "We don't work with cigarette manufacturers. That's a moral and ethical issue. We also don't work in Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries. We reject their politics." With this opinion, though, he represents a minority in the scene.

Club Amnesia's terrace in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

One of the biggest catalysts of electronic music of the last 10 years has been Ibiza. The younger generations tend not to learn about house and techno as much in their local club anymore but on the island instead. "My whole scene is built on relationships that came out of Ibiza," says Karney. "Like many English tourists, Jamie Jones went to DC10 as a guest week after week for seven years. And he paid the entry fee. On this island you have an oversaturated capitalism that's boiling over."

Seth Troxler by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Seth Troxler says: "On Ibiza, you're no longer playing just for the people from one city. The 3,000 people in DC10 really come from across the whole world to enjoy the sun, the collective culture, and the clubbing. Word gets around everywhere." Ibiza has changed a lot: clubbing is no longer just to do with the place you live.

Fusion festival in 2009 by RetinafunkGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Clubbing and tourism go hand in hand. And money plays a bigger role. Michael Mayer himself refused to play at a club where water cost eight euros, at the price of reduced visibility. Maybe that's one of the reasons why so many young DJs are career-savvy. The bohemians accept this poverty. Tourists have no other option.

Solomun at Club Pacha on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

There are countless DJs around nowadays. But an event organizer can grow a huge party with only around 40 or 50 names. These are the so-called headliners. They define the scene. For bookers, headliners and all other DJs are two different classes of artist. Event organizers would prefer to pay out more money for a huge star than less for several small ones. The most successful artists represent the entire genre for those who don't know it as well. As annoyed as it might make scene fans, for the masses, techno is synonymous with Richie Hawtin. The top 50 is the tangible face of this music.

Kappa FuturFestival im Jahr 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

DJs have a reputation of being drug-abusing hedonists. This doesn't prevent them from promoting themselves to be as visible as possible in a relatively rational and business-like manner. More and more DJs are building their own infrastructure. The others are looking for booking agencies that take them to their desired events. There's been a fundamental change in the world of bookers over the past few years. Before, most artists were represented by agencies from the club scene. Now, however, incomparably wealthy US firms are discovering house and techno for themselves.

Seth Troxler by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Ryan Crosson, for example, is represented by Creative Artists—just like Kanye West and Scarlett Johansson. Seth Troxler's agency is called William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and even distributes scientific lectures and Christian rock music. In the scene, these agencies have a reputation for stifling smaller competition. Troxler explains why he is represented by one of these global players:

Seth Troxler by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"William Morris opened a lot of doors for so many in our scene. Without them I never would have played at certain big festivals. At the same time, I still always play for 600 or 700 euros at Robert Johnson. And my booker at William Morris, Steve Hogan, also understands that that's how it needs to be."

Sven Väth at club Amnesia on Ibiza in 2016 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The DJ career of a headliner is often the same. It starts with an economy flight. Then the DJ flies business class, then comes a second flight for the tour manager, and finally the private jet. It took years before Sven Väth, Ricardo Villalobos, and Luciano stepped onto their first business flight. New acts can now achieve this in two years, and sometimes even one.

Amelie Lens playing at Awakenings festival in 2018 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Here, the power of the agency is often key. It's standard practice to book a few smaller artists along with the headliner. Previously it was the dream of any young DJ to get a residency at a local club. Today there's another potential dream: a SoundCloud hit can bring in a powerful agency and set the wind in your sails towards the global festival stages.

Fusion festival in 2015 by MontecruzGROOVE Magazin Berlin

There's an established pattern for newcomer careers: a label becomes aware of an artist via SoundCloud or another similar site. If their releases there are successful, the label puts them through to the booking agency which organizes events with the label even at this early stage. The musician is then earning up to 1,500 euros per appearance in almost no time at all. Because the big agencies don't take on all tasks, a manager and/or promoter is often added soon after.

Solomun at club Pacha in 2017 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

A manager also tries to prevent the artist from being neglected by the agency, which sometimes represents several hundred musicians at once. Before, a few magazines and radio broadcasters would sample artists with promos. Today, social media channels and countless blogs and online media need to be managed.

Club Amnesia's terrace on Ibiza by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

DJs follow similar predetermined paths to the top: when one DJ starts doing their own parties on Ibiza, sooner or later, many others feel compelled to join in. Billing positions, who's playing at which festival on which stage, the size of the private jet—it all plays a role in the DJ's ego. A top DJ earns an extreme amount—but the system still often determines the next moves.

Elrow closing party at club Amnesia on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Today, big DJs (and their booking agencies) control the scene because major events can't function without them. So it's obvious that DJs would go independent. The DJ organizes their own parties. They no longer control just their own music but the whole line-up, the decoration, the dancers, the drinks, and more. They free themselves from the head honcho whose herd they once belonged to.

Kappa FuturFestival in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

At the same time they move up from being a service provider to being a business owner. They're no longer the best-paid employee but the boss of everything. It's a clash of artistic emancipation and economics. It makes more sense for DJs than for other musicians—they are moderators, curators, negotiators, and entertainers all at once. Sven Väth showed everyone how to do it. Chris Liebing, Loco Dice, Luciano, and Jamie Jones followed suit.

Queue at Berghain's entrance by Ben KadenGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Most big DJs put their career more or less ahead of their extravagant desire for excess. At the same time, their careers are more stable and long-lived. They are the winners of the current situation. The losers are the small event organizers—and finally the fans, but more on them later.

Kappa FuturFestival in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Apart from that, large events often have local exclusivity. As such, some artists no longer perform in these locations. Some DJs are aware of the issue and try to steer clear of it.

Kappa FuturFestival in 2020 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Through social media, music can no longer be separated from photos, videos, and event announcements. DJs make us grow weary with Off to X posts. Even the Berghain DJs let themselves be photographed in a Jesus pose in front of 5,000 people who reach their arms towards them—a visual image that trance DJs often used before. "I come from an era of faceless artists. When I listened to records from Germany in Detroit, I had the most absurd ideas of who could be behind them," according to Seth Troxler.

Club Berghain in Berlin by Michael MayerGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"Some Detroit artists like Moodymann still remain hidden behind the curtain. But even that's an image, and the image is created and conceived, like Ostgut Ton being a classic, strong techno image. I use social media more to get out of my shell. For me, it's another side to my art. It's about creating an image that shows who you are as an artist and how you're perceived."

Solomun at club Pacha on Ibiza by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"It's crucial, whether you're Theo Parrish or Steve Aoki. Artists without a clearly defined image are lost, regardless of how good they are. They have nothing they can use to connect with their fans. They define their lives through this personal connection. And they can also be masked, whether that's Daft Punk or now Redshape."

Tomorrowland festival in 2019 by YuriguGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Bookers and promoters are in agreement that, since the big names are focusing on the big events and many of them are traveling outside Europe, in Germany, young artists still have a chance. And one thing is certain: fans generally come face to face with their favorite DJs less often. Certainly one of the biggest issues within the scene is that, beyond high-ranking clubs and a few small festivals, promoters almost exclusively still need the big names.

Fusion festival in 2009 by RetinafunkGROOVE Magazin Berlin

If someone manages to put together an attractive package of productions and personality, they can start a music career much quicker than ever before. You can give off the image of a cutesy bumpy house music bear like Eats Everything, or merge together the Brooklyn hipster look, Detroit esoteric sound, and punk antagonism like the L.I.E.S. label. Some see it as a full multimedia work of art. Others see it as a key marketing concept.

Kappa FuturFestival in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Musicians having to follow the system and its movements as much as possible is the price of global visibility. One thing's for sure: a city like Plauen won't be seeing another Luciano anytime soon. But maybe they'll be seeing a young DJ who still has to earn his stripes, or an old-timer who couldn't manage to stay in the spotlight anymore.

Fusion festival in 2013 by RetinafunkGROOVE Magazin Berlin

That doesn't mean the music we hear is getting worse and worse, because the filter-created network is working. Something has changed, however. Previously, as a fan, you had to look for your DJ. Today, they're looking for you instead. For the DJ to tour through your city, you have to offer them something. Either you belong to the high-spending and aspiring middle class of a second-world country who can afford the high entry fees.

Seth Troxler by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Or you're lucky enough to be part of the crowd of a figurehead like Robert Johnson or Output. Otherwise, the only remaining option is to join the ranks of the festival proletariat. You can hardly get mad at your favorite headliner DJ. Everyone—DJs as well as fans—are more or less tourists nowadays. Seth Troxler tells it as it is:

Queue at Elrow closing party in front of club Amnesia on Ibiza in 2019 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"For almost the same amount of money I can party at the club in my backyard or catch a train to visit my grandma. Or fly to Berlin and party there from Friday right through to Sunday. That's insane. But these are the modern times we live in. That's what youth culture is today. You couldn't have imagined it would be like this 10 years ago. Everything was much more local."

Credits: Story

Alexis Waltz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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