Even from the back wall at a recent Skrillex concert in Austin, Tex., the DJ’s sound clatters and bangs on the brain, an all-out aural assault. Every thump of the bass feels like a punch to the throat, from the inside. Yet the thousands of revelers writhing in unison enjoy the experience with a dreamy fervor generally reserved for religious awakenings, undulating every time Skrillex twists a knob on his elaborate soundboard, with nary a person leaving until the show wraps up a little after 2 a.m.
Electronic dance music, or EDM, is an ascendant genre that is in equal measure a creed, with Skrillex emerging as the high priest. He’s credited with popularizing dubstep, a particularly thumpy variation, and snagged three Grammys for his efforts this year. Over the past 12 months the 24-year-old pulled in an estimated $15 million, the second most of any DJ over that period. And it’s not just pill-popping teenagers fueling his popularity.
“I had a buddy that had a buddy that came out [to my concert] with this lawyer guy,” says Skrillex after the show. “This guy is a lawyer that makes a lot of money, that never does anything like this. … Ten minutes later I see him with his shirt off and his tie off and his shirt around his head.”
That lawyer has a lot of company. Over the last year Skrillex has performed in front of at least 250,000 people, playing his own tunes in over 150 live shows across 19 countries (and a staggering 322 in calendar 2011)—a formula that means millions for him and for his DJ peers who follow a similar schedule.
Rock and pop stars are hurting: Music sales are down, album creation is time-intensive, and elaborate live setups generally result in just one-third of gross ticket sales for the artist while also crimping the number of performances in any given year. DJs don’t need to create their own music—their art is curation and mixing. While Skrillex and his peers have gained popularity by producing their own music, they generally release it free, rendering piracy, the bane of traditional artists, irrelevant.
Instead, they make their money from the road, and because even the best DJs travel light—often toting nothing more than a thumb drive—they take home the bulk of their gross pay, sometimes more than $100,000 for a few hours’ work, repeated nightly if they choose. It’s a volume business and a big one: The ten top-earning DJs pulled in a combined $125 million last year.
“This is the hottest segment of the music industry right now,” says Jonathan Shecter, who books DJs for Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas. “It’s so hot because it’s so cost-effective.”
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As soon as I step out of the elevator on the second floor of Austin’s cowboy-chic Driskill Hotel, I can hear bass booming from Skrillex’s presidential suite. I find him spinning from a makeshift DJ booth in the corner, looking—in a black V-neck, dark jeans and a pair of Adidas Sambas—more like a gaffer than a rock star. Assorted containers of caffeinated and alcoholic beverages are scattered around him in various states of emptiness.
The room’s other inhabitants—publicists, a manager and a half-dozen DJ pals—don’t seem to be paying much attention. Making music, it seems, is Skrillex’s natural state. Upon noticing a new face in the room, though, he shuffles over and offers me a beer, fixing himself a gin-and-Red Bull at the minibar along the way—fuel for the long night ahead of him.
“I’ve got a USB stick and [turntables], and there’s no production cost,” he says. “But you throw a great party and people have the best time.”
Born Sonny Moore in Los Angeles, Skrillex (he picked up his moniker as a teen while he and his friends were making up AOL Instant Messenger screen names) fully appreciates the difference between a star DJ’s life and that of a rocker. At 16 Skrillex caught on as lead singer of From First to Last, a band that practiced a hybrid of punk and emo music known as “screamo.” The group’s first two albums sold 500,000 copies through indie label Epitaph, earning the young rockers a $3.5 million record deal from EMI’s Capitol Records. But after two years of touring the band members were at one another’s throats.
No longer happy as part of a group, Skrillex left the surefire payday in 2007 to focus on his own, electronic, music. Scrounging up solo gigs, he soon found himself living off his credit card, with $1,500 to his name. To save cash he and ten friends rented 10,000 square feet in a crumbling warehouse in downtown Los Angeles.
“I don’t care about having money,” he now says, while lighting his second cigarette. “It’s about being happy, man.”
Like most entrepreneurs, though, Skrillex found that, long term, the latter leads to the former. He started spinning at clubs in Los Angeles in 2008; two years later he recorded an EP called My Name Is Skrillex on his laptop and released it as a free download on MySpace. Music critics weren’t particularly enamored with his work, likening it to everything from “a modem with indigestion” to “Satan belching,” but kids who dance loved it.
As his buzz grew Skrillex sent a track to Deadmau5 (pronounced “deadmouse”), who FORBES estimates made $11.5 million last year spinning in a giant red mouse costume. He in turn quickly signed Skrillex to his label Mau5trap.
In October 2010 Skrillex released an EP called Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, the rare hit for an electronic artist, peaking at No. 49 on the Billboard charts and selling over 1 million copies. His live paychecks surged in lockstep. In 2010 he was pulling in about $5,000 per show—quite a good living. A year later his typical take had increased by a factor of ten, and in 2012, armed with the three Grammys—for Best Dance Recording, Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical—it has doubled again.
Skrillex recently played in front of 5,000 people in Budapest at a superclub with a pyrotechnic-equipped DJ booth; in Oslo he crammed in two shows on the same day at a 6,000-capacity club and then decided to spin at the afterparty as well. The most he’s ever picked up for a gig? “Couple hundred thousand,” he says, after a deep cigarette drag, in a conspiratorial hush.
It’s not lost even on these new rock stars that they’re making huge money largely by playing prerecorded music. Predictably, sniping across this nascent industry has ensued. Deadmau5, the sixth-highest-earning DJ, recently disparaged David Guetta, the fourth-highest earner, telling Rolling Stone, “He just plays tracks,” and generally deriding “button-pushers.” A member of DJ trio Swedish House Mafia, the third-highest-earning act, responded in kind: “That’s exactly what [Deadmau5] does.”
Deadmau5 then countered on his blog with an indictment of the entire genre:
“We all hit play. It’s no secret. … It’s not about performance art, it’s not about talent, either.” He also tweaked his protégé, saying that “even Skrillex isn’t doing anything too technical.”
Skrillex couldn’t help but add his two cents. “It’s not about validating skill or not skill,” he tweeted. “It’s about the effect it has on people and if you enjoy doing it, that’s all.”
Skrillex has an effect on so many people that he’s encountering the problem that most who earn eight figures in any music form encounter—cries from aficionados that he’s taken their underground subgenre and sold it out to the mainstream. Many now deride his music as “bro-step,” invoking the favorite frat-boy term of endearment.
Even Skrillex’s compatriots aren’t above a playful jab—in the middle of our interview they surprise him with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, playing off a sophomoric college ritual known as “Bros Icing Bros,” which requires an empty-handed recipient to immediately chug the exceedingly sweet alcoholic beverage.
Yet Skrillex just shrugs. “It’s different when you look at [my music] through someone else’s eyes,” he says, dutifully sipping his Smirnoff. “It’s good to be in the place we’re at now, because we know what our hearts really tell us really works.”
Wider success means occasionally upping his production budget to host a concert that’s extravagant and unique enough to satisfy both the expanded base and maintain credibility among those who disparage him as a button-pusher. Earlier in the year he shelled out $10,000 for a New York City stunt that involved blindfolding hundreds of audience members and taking them to a secret location for the show. For another gig he decked out a Los Angeles rooftop with a rotating stage and a hot tub.
Meanwhile, he’s pursuing other methods of moneymaking that won’t undermine his brand. Though his retail music is distributed through Atlantic Records, he launched an independent label, OWSLA, in September 2011, with 12 electronic artists already signed. Last year he composed music for a videogame, Mortal Kombat, and this year for a film, Wreck-It Ralph. Skrillex says scoring games and movies could become a bigger part of his career—as long as the conditions are right.
“All we gotta do is keep the music and keep the vibes,” he says. “To continue to make good experiences, man, that’s why we live.”
One thing he hasn’t done yet: a product endorsement. It’s not for lack of opportunity. (One top DJ, Diplo, is now a ubiquitous television presence shilling BlackBerry.) “We turn s–t down every day,” says Tim Smith, Skrillex’s manager since his screamo days.
Indeed, keeping those $15 million takes coming ultimately means protecting the brand. “I don’t care if someone offers me half a million dollars,” says Skrillex. “I’m not going to do a cellphone thing.”
Correction: The initial version of this story stated that Skrillex released an EP through Mau5trap, Deadmau5′s “Atlantic-backed label.” In fact, Mau5trap is not owned by Atlantic; Skrillex’s EP was released in conjunction with Mau5trap and Big Beat Records, a separate label that is a subsidiary of Atlantic.