Photo by Nabil Elderkin.
The biggest DJ in the world is coming to San Jose. At the forefront of a recent American musical revolution, Dutch phenom Tiesto performs at the San Jose State Event Center on March 5, his only Bay Area stop, as part of his sold-out College Invasion tour.
With Electronic Dance Music (EDM) tied to the live, dance floor experience, a DJ’s notoriety stems more from the high-profile parties they’ve rocked than the singles they’ve released. Still, Tiësto’s cover of “Adagio for Strings” is likely the song that launched him into the dance stratosphere. It’s the track that caught the ear of the Olympic Committee, leading to a literal appearance on the world’s stage when he played the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games.
He’s a three-time winner of DJ Mag’s “Top 100” DJ poll (2002-2004); last year, he finished second behind fellow Dutchman Armin Van Buuren. While David Guetta and Calvin Harris have been making significant strides stateside, crafting dance pop collaborations with artists like Usher, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, Tiësto maintains a line that straddles mainstream visibility and underground respect.
For those unaware of the clout he commands, a few facts: his weekly radio show, Tiësto’s Club Life, is the most popular music podcast on iTunes. He has garnered more than 300 million views on YouTube, 11 million likes on Facebook and one and a half million followers on Twitter.
In 2011, he performed before a crowd of over 26,000 inside LA’s Home Depot Center, the largest U.S. audience for a headline EDM gig. A few days before his San Jose gig, he’s back in LA to headline the 18,000-capacity Staples Center.
As for why Tiësto, a man who can play anywhere he pleases—he once turned down a gig at Madison Square Garden because it wouldn’t accommodate enough dancers on the floor—has chosen to tour American colleges, he explains they’re the key to EDM’s continued success.
“I think the college crowd is very important,” he says in a phone interview. “They are very energetic and into the music. That’s inspiring to play for. No matter how old you are, you always will remember your time in college. To be a part of that culture is amazing to me.”
Stateside, his crowd skews young—he says the demographic is “90 percent under 21”—but their youth offers him the opportunity to act as a gateway for newcomers. He calls the domestic EDM-obsessed crowd “very open-minded,” citing continually enthusiastic crowds despite diverse bills.
“They’re not pigeonholed into one style,” he says. “It’s very refreshing to play for [American] crowds because they are so into the music. In Europe, EDM has been there for many years so people are more used to it. It’s more new and exciting to play here.”
Though dance music was created in America, with offshoots of house and techno rising out of Chicago and Detroit, respectively, the music never grew outside of a passionate niche audience. “Electronica” had a wave of success stateside in the late 90s when the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers and Moby enjoyed radio play, but the rave explosion felt in Europe never fully crossed back over the pond.
In 2011, Spin proclaimed America had finally been conquered by EDM. Dubstep, thanks to acts like San Jose native Bassnectar and Skrillex, has become huge and crossed over into the mainstream with fan base of mostly young music listeners.
Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest dance festival in North America, drew over 300,000 people to the outskirts of Las Vegas last year. Miami’s Ultra Music Festival (165,000) and New York’s Electric Zoo (110,000) experienced similar success. With ever-growing attendance numbers, downloads and chart successes, it seems EDM has finally returned home.
Recent term “EDM,” coined as a catch-all for dance music’s countless subgenres, has helped. In the past, new listeners would grow increasingly confused wading through terms like liquid drum and bass, deep house, progressive trance and electro. Though the new tag can be similarly confusing as a qualifier for a spectrum of sound and rhythm, Tiësto thinks the simplified terminology has aided its rise, equalizing the term with similarly vague titles jazz and rock.
Yet, dance music has always come with negative baggage, specifically the scene’s ties to recreational drug use. The rave boom almost goes hand-in-hand with the prevalent recreational use of ecstasy, which continues today with pure MDMA variant “molly”—a drug also referenced in most rap radio hits these days. Tiësto has long taken issue with the connection, symbolizing his stance by banning glow sticks, a rave staple, at his shows.
“I just wanted to show my crowd that I’m not part of that,” he says. “Obviously, some people will always do it, but the image of the glow sticks at the parties was really bad, especially in Europe. In comedy movies, you would see a traditional raver, and they would always show that he’s on drugs with glow sticks in his hands and in his mouth. I think we deserve a better image than that.”
For this tour, Tiësto has hand-selected a supporting bill that includes Australian electro DJ Tommy Trash and Dutch newcomers Alvaro and Quintino. Past tours included Avicii, Dada Life and Hardwell, whose stars all rose after gaining the Tiësto co-sign. “I think it’s something to be proud of,” he says. “It’s nice to see that I can help develop the scene.”
Asked why he’s endured over the years, Tiësto credits his steadfast belief in the scene he’s had a large hand in shaping into a global force. “I never really sold out,” he says, drawing a link to contemporaries with pop aspirations. “I’ve always stayed true to myself. People see it’s pure and it’s real.”
As for his recently-announced follow-up to 2009’s Kaleidoscope, he said he’s “probably eight tracks” into the release thanks to added studio time in the wake of a recent back injury.
“Try to make the best dance album ever—that’s my goal,” he offers before letting out a small laugh, aware of the loftiness of such a mark yet delivered with enough determination to suggest he’s not joking.
The set times are out for Tiësto’s show in San Jose:
Tiësto • 9:30 – 11:30
Tommy Trash • 8:30 – 9:30
Quintino • 7:30 – 8:30
Alvaro • 6:45 – 7:30
John Beaver • 6:00 – 6:45
A list of prohibited items at the show (Is this a going a little overboard or fair for this type of event? ~ ed.):