If we needed evidence that electronic dance music is a force in pop culture, last weekend’s Ultra Music Festival held downtown here provided it. Some 150,000 tickets were sold to the three-day event—about equal to the total for last year’s Coachella Music & Arts Festival in the desert town of Indio, Calif., and about twice the number for June’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.
Whereas Coachella 2011, next month, will feature Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Kings of Leon and the Strokes as its rock and pop headliners, and Bonnaroo will offer Eminem, Robert Plant & Band of Joy and a reunited Buffalo Springfield (as well as Arcade Fire and the Strokes), the biggest name at Ultra Music—at least to a mainstream audience—was Duran Duran, which was here to promote its new album. But traditional measurements for rock-and-pop success are irrelevant in the electronic-dance culture. Witness Tiësto, the stage name of the Dutch disc jockey, producer and composer Tijs Michiel Verwest, the headliner on Friday, Ultra’s opening night. Though he’s never had a crossover radio hit and his solo albums sell modestly, Tiësto is a major international star, as confirmed by one familiar evaluation: His annual income apparently exceeds $20 million.
“Yeah. Could be that,” he said without a trace of affect recently by phone. “Before taxes and costs.”
On tour, Tiësto is relentless. In March he performed in El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru and Argentina on consecutive nights. The week prior to Ultra he was on stage in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and two nights later in Utrecht, the Netherlands, about an hour from Breda, his birthplace. After leaving Miami, he performed on Saturday at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., and he’s booked at U.S. venues every night this week.
“When I tour, I tour hard,” he said. “On some airlines, I’m platinum for life. But now I use a private jet. It makes a big difference. Otherwise, I couldn’t do it.”
Now 42 years old, Tiësto has been performing since the mid 1980s, spinning prerecorded music and creating mixes in clubs. A classically trained pianist, he began releasing his own dance recordings in the early ’90s. “There was no money to be made back then,” he said. “It was to travel the world, to be relevant.” His philosophy is basic: “You must as well enjoy your life. If you can make your hobby a job, you’re in good shape.”
On the basis of his remix albums and his marathon shows—a six-hour solo set was a habit for Tiësto for a while—the British monthly dance publication DJ magazine named him the world’s top DJ for three consecutive years beginning in 2002. (DJ Magazine is now published in 11 languages, including Chinese.) In 2004, Tiësto provided the music for the Parade of Nations during the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, thus introducing his music to a world-wide television audience. Three years later, he played Coachella’s main stage, which is usually reserved for A-list rock stars.
Tiësto’s most recent original music blurs the line between electronic dance music and pop. His 2009 album, “Kaleidoscope,” mixes in midtempo ballads and features vocalists Nelly Furtado, Emily Haines, Jónsi of Sigur Rós and indie rockers Tegan and Sara. “‘Kaleidoscope’ was a shock,” Tiësto said. “It took a while for people to get used to it. It’s been a great transition for me.” If his longtime fans feared Tiësto was abandoning them for a wider audience, they’ll be placated by his new mix compilation, “Club Life, Vol. 1—Las Vegas,” out April 5.
The lineup here at Bicentennial Park also hinted at a common audience for electronic-dance and pop acts: Sharing the bill with superstar DJ-producers Carl Cox, the Chemical Brothers, Deadmau5 and David Guetta were !!!, Holy Ghost! and Cut Copy—disco revivalists that play live. But thus far the crossover seems more wishful than factual; the electronic-dance community, immune to traditional pop-music marketing, didn’t seem concerned by, or very interested in, the creeping presence of song-based pop. When Duran Duran performed on Friday night, more fans were gathered in a tent across the pitch for the relentless tracks of Loco Dice, a German DJ. At a smaller side venue dubbed the Live Stage, Holy Ghost! and !!! failed to draw substantial numbers to their daytime sets; Cut Copy, which appeared on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” Friday, did much better during its Saturday after-sunset show. Perhaps the most successful live act here was Pendulum, an Australian group that mixed big electronic dance beats with industrial rock on the main stage. Hybrid, a quartet from Wales, augmented its electronica with a nine-piece string section.
As for Tiësto—or “The Biggest DJ in the World,” as he was introduced to a vast, rapturous crowd—during his 90-minute set he remixed on the fly big-beat tracks from “Club Life” and sprinkled in pop-flavored tunes from “Kaleidoscope.” Whereas the following night’s headliner, Deadmau5, whipped up the audience with percussion, Tiësto featured songs like “Escape Me” with the Fergie-like prerecorded voice of C.C. Sheffield. He offered his gleeful music in long, seamless portions, bringing the complex, layered sound down to almost zero before he heated it up again. Perched on a riser with his mixing equipment, he wore the same contented expression he had a night earlier when he spun for about 100 fans at an Armani Exchange store on South Beach’s Collins Avenue.
“Good evening, Ultra,” he said an hour into his festival set. “I’m Tiësto.” His toothy smile revealed his satisfaction as his electronic dance-pop blend pulsed and the bouncing, dancing mass reflected the music’s joy.