Tiesto: The Billboard Cover Story – Interview from Billboard.com

Before Lady Gaga instructed us to “Just Dance,” David Guetta rethought rap and Deadmau5 sold instrumental electronica to the masses with a cartoon mouse head and DJ cube — there was Tiësto.

When Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta was an 18-year-old New York University sophomore, Tiësto was DJ’ing at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In 2007, when Guetta was a French house DJ searching for his first big radio hit, Tiësto was playing his epic yet pop-wise brand of trance for 250,000 revelers on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Tiësto ‘Club Life’ Song Exclusive “Don’t Ditch”

Throughout the early 2000s, when a stagnant DJ culture couldn’t sustain more than one large dance-dedicated venue per U.S. city, Tiësto was the exception, one of the few artists who could command an audience all over the world, not only with fans but with brand partners. The longevity and scale of his popularity are paying huge dividends: Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported his annual income at around $20 million.

And now that dance is dominating, Tiësto — born Tijs Michiel Verwest — is reasserting his influence, setting out to claim new fans from the torrent of fresh electronic converts. And he’s doing it hand in hand with major brands, which are signing on for not only traditional sponsorships, but symbiotic relationships in which both brand and artist benefit.

On Sept. 15, the DJ/producer will launch Tiësto’s Club Life Campus Invasion tour, a 21-date trek through the outskirts of America, and the largest college tour ever mounted. Axe and Sony PlayStation are sponsoring, adding to a list of active brand partners that includes Heineken, SanDisk and Armani Exchange. It concludes Oct. 8 with a record-breaking stop at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.: The 26,000-capacity show will be the biggest single-headliner DJ concert in U.S. history, according to the organizers.

Tiesto’s L.A. Show to Set a U.S. DJ Record: Exclusive

“There’s clearly a new generation of electronic music fans emerging in the U.S. at the moment, and a lot of them are in college,” Tiësto says. “We get a lot of feedback on our social networks from college kids asking me to come play their school, so here I come. I hope this tour will allow me to reach a new crowd that may not have had the chance to see me before.”

“We’d always thought about the college market,” says Tiësto’s worldwide manager Michael Cohen of Complete Control, a boutique artist management firm that also handles A-Trak and Duck Sauce. “But hip-hop had such a strong hold. Early this year we decided it was time. College kids are really discovering this music and scene for the first time, and they need a test of the Tiësto experience. It’s almost a rite of passage: Whether you like dubstep or techno, whatever your entry point, at some point someone is going to say, ‘Have you seen Tiësto?'”

The Tiësto live experience was one of the first to challenge what an audience could expect from a DJ, making the simple act of blended music playback an event. With immersive video, pyrotechnics and custom stages bathed in color-changing light, all set to his blissed-out yet blistering beats, Tiësto helped hasten DJs down the road from nightclubs to concert venues.

Competing against Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, Tiësto was a finalist for the Breakthrough Award at the 2010 Billboard Touring Conference & Awards. He’s the first electronic act to crack the list of the top 25 touring artists in the world, according to Billboard Boxscore. In 2010, he ranked No. 25 on the year-end tally, grossing $28.6 million and drawing 526,000 concerts-goers to 110 shows.

“The first time I saw Tiësto was during his In Search of Sunrise 2008 tour, and I was blown away by the response from the crowd-all chanting T-I-E-S-T-O,” says Patrick Doddy, senior VP/brand director of Armani Exchange, one of Tiësto’s longtime brand partners. “It was like nothing I had seen before for a DJ.”

Musical Freedom

As he preps for the college tour, Tiësto is savoring his first taste of musical independence. During the course of his 10-year recording career, he has sold 761,000 albums and 1 million tracks in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But in late 2010, after long associations with Ultra Records (dance’s closest thing to a major) and Black Hole (the indie imprint he co-founded), he started his own label, aptly titled Musical Freedom. The label is a vehicle for his original work and mixed compilations, as well as new tracks from up-and-coming producers hand-selected by him. He also self-publishes, with administration by Kobalt, and handles physical distribution in short-term, project-based deals.

“We collectively took the view a few years ago that we wanted to remain independent,” Cohen says. “We saw where the business was headed and felt that to be able to control as much of our own destiny, to move quickly and work with whoever we wanted to work with, this was the way to go. The trade-off of working with a major, or other kinds of major parts of the industry, has never felt worth it to us, for what you have to give up for what you potentially get. So we built our own structure.”

The consortium of Cohen, Complete Control partnership manager Josh Neuman, Musical Freedom GM Cyrus Bader and worldwide booking agent Paul Morris of AM Only is unique, and not just because of how closely they work together. Tiësto might be the only large-scale international act to have a single team covering management, booking and music for the world, allowing him to centralize and leverage his considerable scale behind each of his projects, including those with brand partners-a very seductive bargaining chip.

“He has broad global appeal, as well as a massive presence in the U.S. It’s very well-balanced,” Neuman says. “When you look at his overall numbers, his reach, his history and his continued relevance-the fact that he’s a huge artist, but it’s not like he’s a heritage act, he’s still putting out new exciting music and touring bigger than ever-all those things combined, for a brand to be able to tap into that is very appealing.”

Tiësto has more than 9.6 million Facebook likes, 577,000 Twitter followers and 17.3 million views on his official YouTube channel alone. That considerable platform gets him in the door with big brands, but has also grown as a result of their partnership.

Axe and Playstation

On the Campus Invasion tour, both Axe and PlayStation will have on-site experiences at every date, built to extend beyond the immediate events through social media. The brands are cross-promoting the tour and doing ticket giveaways through their Facebook pages. With PlayStation’s 17.1 million likes and Axe’s 1.7 million, “it’s very beneficial to the artist to be able to tap into those resources as well,” Neuman says.

Axe will support Excite, a line of musky deodorant products, with sampling and a green-screen experience where fans can take pictures with their friends and share them on Facebook. “The brand is trying to grow with their original consumers, who were boys,” Neuman says. “They want to be part of something that’s really relevant with that same consumer as they’re getting older.”

PlayStation is promoting “Everybody Dance,” a new game for PS3 that features “C’Mon,” Tiësto’s recent collaboration with Diplo and Busta Rhymes. Concert-goers will be able to try out the game at stations in venue concourses and share videos of their performances on Facebook. In addition to giving brands a direct touch point with hard-to-reach targets — in this case, men ages 18-24-Tiësto can provide them with something else they crave: content, in the form of offers; access; and yes, music.

“It’s difficult to create continued interest in a brand’s digital platform,” Neuman says. “But if they come forward with the right strategy and collaborate with people who understand how to create compelling content, they’re automatically creating demand and interest and a reason to visit them again, which is tough. When they leverage that with a media campaign for something that’s valuable to the artist, like a record release or tour, then it becomes a really interesting relationship.”

In other words, brand partners take on the traditional role of a label, providing a broad-scale promotional platform with significant investment. Take “Club Life,” Tiësto’s first independently released compilation on Musical Freedom. It has sold 38,000 units since its April release, according to SoundScan, thanks in part to aggressive promotion by Armani Exchange and Heineken.

Armani Exchange

“The relationship between Armani Exchange and Tiësto has transformed into a true partnership,” Armani’s Doddy says. “When we first started working together, it was a standard brand/artist sponsorship. But as the relationship evolved we’ve combined our similar brand assets and united our resources to develop several global initiatives.” These have included media campaigns (Tiësto was the face of Armani Exchange’s wristwatch launch in 2009), VIP and in-store events, exclusive music and memorabilia, and even philanthropic efforts. (In 2008, sales of a limited-edition T-shirt went to support Mercy Corps.)

For “Club Life,” Armani got an exclusive “A|X Music” version of the compilation, containing five exclusive remixes and one exclusive track. It was sold only in Armani Exchange stores and online at ArmaniExchange.com. (These sales weren’t included in the aforementioned SoundScan figure.)

Heineken

For Heineken’s Club Life program, Tiësto created what Neuman calls a “content package,” including a new track, “Green Sky” (inspired by Heineken’s signature bottle), available for download exclusively on Heineken’s site; ticket giveaways, flyaway sweepstakes and meet-and-greets for Heineken VIPs and Facebook fans; and activations at big events, like Tiësto’s 2010 New Year’s bash at Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

Heineken had a stated goal of increasing its Facebook likes, and promoted the offers through that platform and its own media assets like Heineken.com. It started the program in December 2010 with around 750,000 likes; it now has 2.6 million. “They attribute a lot of the growth to this campaign,” Neuman says-further evidenced by the fact that Heineken has extended the program to the Canadian market, and is considering a 2012 renewal.

“It was great to find alternative ways to promote [“Club Life”] at a really high level, since we put it out independently,” Neuman says. “I’d love to see further dialogue between brands and artists, because brands really have the muscle at this point to break an act, or put enough promotion behind campaigns that they can really change the course of an artist’s career, oftentimes more than labels can, with budgets that are far more interesting.”

Branding for Dj’s

As dance artists fight to become more brand-like themselves, nothing helps their cause as much as dedicated record labels of their own. Genre used to be king in electronic music: You either liked trance, house, techno or some subset of them, with little to no crossover. But these days, those lines are starting to break down, making labels less about specific styles and more about the personalities behind them.

Swedish House Mafia’s Steve Angello has Size Records, Deadmau5 has Mau5trap: Both offer releases that might be electro, disco or dubstep, but have the same common thread — the label boss either made it or liked it. While his own sound has evolved through the years — from straightforward, wordless bombs like “Elements of Life” and “Traffic” to singalong, pop-inflected collaborations with acts like Tegan & Sara and Nelly Furtado — Tiësto hopes to use Musical Freedom to further extend the definition of what constitutes “music from Tiësto.”

“It’s a whole other angle on branding,” Musical Freedom’s Bader says. “And it’s a reciprocal thing. You don’t stay at the top as long as Tijs has without being open to how the landscape is changing stylistically and bringing young talent into the fold.”

And while that young talent brings freshness to the label, its head honcho brings visibility to them. “Tiësto is the biggest promotional vehicle I have as a label manager,” Bader says. “It’s just a line of dominos, a chain reaction when he gets behind a track.”

The label’s fifth release, an electro banger called “Mush Mush” by new Dutch production duo Bassjackers, is a case study of how dance hits happen in the new world.

Before he signed it, Tiësto was playing the track as a white label, at live shows and in his “Club Life” podcast. This March, he premiered it by its proper name at Ultra Music Festival in Miami. “These guys pass music around, of course,” Bader says. “So Benny Benassi got behind it, then Diplo. Soon it became one of the biggest tunes of the summer. At Electric Daisy Carnival [in Las Vegas this June], Tiësto played it in his set. As I was walking I heard someone else playing it, and when I got to the stage I was going to, the DJ there was starting it.” The track stayed in online electronic music store DSP Beatport’s top 10 for more than two months.

Bader and the team are playing with ideas on how to present Tiësto’s next body of original work, in line with what Cohen says will be his biggest tour ever, launching in mid-2012.

“I feel like albums have become irrelevant,” Cohen says. “We want the music to coincide with the tour. We’re just not sure what the delivery will look like.”

“The goal before was to build a crowd, build your fan base into a frenzy for a release and have a big bang,” Bader says. “But now with things like Spotify, sustainability of consumption is the goal. How do you get hundreds of thousands of listens consistently over a long time, rather than hundreds of thousands of downloads at the beginning?”

The ability to streamline all of these concerns again comes down to the unique structure of his team, which Cohen says wouldn’t be possible without Tiësto himself. “He’s probably the hardest-working guy that I know,” Cohen says. “Apart from the fact that he plays 150-plus gigs a year, he’s actively involved in all aspects of his business. A lot of artists aren’t interested in doing this: They’d rather have their label, their publishing company, just three or four people to talk to and be done with it. You need an artist who thinks independently to have a structure like this.”

But for Tiësto, it all comes back to the fans. “I’m proud to have been able to touch so many people around the world with my music and to have their continued support for what I do,” he says. “Without them I would not be here.”

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