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It doesn't hurt Country Thunder's leverage that it's owned by a production company based in Nashville that has two other festivals it books.
"It is all about the acts," stresses Sound Wave founder Steve LeVine. "People have . . . only so much spendable cash. They pick and choose what they do with it, so it's important to give them quality . . . entertainment."
The lineup feels especially important to LeVine because he still hasn't finalized a Sound Wave location. The past three years, the single-day dance-music event has been held at Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe, but even if it doesn't return there, LeVine plans to keep it around a body of water in keeping with the Sound Wave name.
LeVine's been able to trade on years of performing and booking dance music to pick rising EDM stars for his bills just before they broke big. Diplo, Kaskade, and Porter Robinson headlined in previous years. And last year, two breakthrough artists — Dutch house DJ R3hab and Calvin Harris, who was still riding the success of his 2011 Rihanna single "We Found Love" — helmed the bill.
Says LeVine, "I think we wowed everybody big-time last time — so we really have to do it right this time."
This is a big year for him, and not just because it typically takes festivals three to four years to get their footing and build a brand. Now into its fourth year, Sound Wave is following its most successful iteration (just under 10,000 concert-goers). Still booking the fall lineup and choosing a venue, LeVine's feeling under the gun. He considered putting Sound Wave on this spring, but it didn't come together. Some of the pressure is because he feels this music's moment is now.
"With the music and the entertainment value, the DJ is this new iconic movement. You talk about different eras of music, and we're in the DJ era right now," LeVine says. "There are a lot of special effects. A lot of the old riders were about what was in the dressing room of a star, the classic green M&Ms or rugs; the new riders are the Cryo guns shooting into the audience, or the confetti — the visual aspect is so important as part of the show."
Between Skrillex's winning six Grammys over the past two years and Swedish House Mafia's becoming the first dance act to sell out Madison Square Garden, it's hard to ignore the style's youth culture ascendance. Then, again, we've been waiting for Europe's dance music furor to translate stateside for nearly two decades now. (Wags might even see foreboding in the fact that the phenomenally popular SHM called it quits in March after five years, with a final show at Miami's big dance-industry conference, Ultra Music Fest.)
Multimillionaire promoter Robert Sillerman's placing his bets. Sillerman made his fortune buying up regional rock promoters (and sports agencies) in the '90s and folding them into powerhouse promotion group SFX. He sold it to Clear Channel in 2000 for $4.4 billion. Over the past year, he's made deals to purchase or buy stakes in MMG and The Opium Group, which operate many of South Beach's hottest clubs. (The latter deal fell through last month.)
He's also bought up several dance promoters in what's becoming a growing bidding war as bigger promoters get wise to this underground breakthrough. The dollar amounts offered these longtime independent dance promoters are obscene, reaching between $20 million and $60 million, according to a New York Times story last spring. Last year, Live Nation bought English promoter Cream Holdings, which has staged Creamfields events around the world.
Last month, it was announced that Sillerman had bought a 75 percent stake in the Dutch firm ID&T, behind Belgium's TomorrowLand electronic music festival, the largest in the world. This will mean bringing a festival called TomorrowWorld (because of Disney's American copyrights) to some fields outside Atlanta. He also spent $50 million for the world's biggest EDM music retailer, Beatport.
"EDM is rising, there's no doubt, and a lot of the mainstream promoters now are paying a lot of attention to it," say Bongiovanni. "At one time, it was pretty much the domain of the insomniac among promoters."
Festivals like Electric Zoo (New York), Electric Forest (Rothbury, Michigan), and Electric Daisy (Las Vegas) already have taken off. The latter set a North American record for attendance at a dance festival with more than 300,000 attendees over three days. Estimates put ticket sales in excess of $20 million. The popularity of the style ramped up rates to where top DJs — such as Deadmau5, Afrojack, and Tiesto — can make more than $1 million for a festival appearance and 10 times that for a Vegas residency.
The growth of dance music and outdoor festivals mirrors trends in Europe with longer traditions. England has several historic outdoor events, such as the Reading, Leeds, and Glastonbury festivals. They have been in existence since the early '60s and '70s. The Glastonbury Festival draws more than 175,000 a day, though it took it wasn't held in 2012.
Such fervor has taken time to cross the pond. In England, live music has outsold recorded music since 2008.