The Big Money Behind Electronic Music

As electronic music goes mainstream, Vancouver takes the spotlight for its internationally recognized mix-masters.

Electronic music concert | BCBusiness
Concert-goers pack the Commodore Ballroom in downtown Vancouver.

As electronic music goes mainstream, Vancouver takes the spotlight for its internationally recognized mix-masters.

“Aim the cannons high,” Alvaro Prol tells an animated man with an afro and bushy beard who runs into one of the backstage lounges at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom to tell us the show is about to begin. Cannons? “You’re going to want to see this, with the confetti and CO2 cannons, the lights, the LED screens. People are gonna go crazy,” Prol says with a grin, which soon fades as he thinks of another reality. “Every time they press a button it’s hundreds of dollars.”

With that, Prol, founder and CEO of event promoter Blueprint Events, his black hair cropped short and spiked, runs out to make sure the stage setup is ready for Sweden’s Sebastian Ingrosso, a man best known for his work with Scandinavian DJ crew Swedish House Mafia, but who is playing Vancouver solo on this cold mid-January night. Ingrosso had requested that the stage toys be fired in various patterns throughout the show. And when you can command $25,000 to play a two-hour set, you get what you want.

I chase after Prol, but can’t find him backstage, so I head out to the dance floor. It’s after midnight and the place is starting to pulse with the essentials of house music: uptempo 4/4 bass drum beats and recorded synthesizers pounding out distorted chords of a repetitive melody. As promised, as the extravaganza progresses, there are intermittent volleys of confetti fire, laser sniper shots and fat white columns of carbon dioxide clouds hissing in time with the beat. In a quintessential Vancouver concert moment, a waft of marijuana smoke precedes a brisk security response and a protesting reveler is escorted out of the building. The rest of the young crowd is a typical snapshot of today’s Granville Street entertainment district, with barely 20-something women in short skirts dancing around while men in sweaty V-neck T-shirts pretend to dance, but mostly watch the women and nurse Heinekens.

I flash my VIP wristband to the security guard and head backstage to find shelter from the massive wall of speakers molesting my ears with bass explosions. I find Prol just off-stage, studying the DJ and the crowd. “Good show?” I venture. “I think so,” he yells back, shrugging his shoulders. “The Commodore never looks busy, but we’ll have close to 1,000 people here,” he says, scanning the crowd. “They’re smiling, they’re happy, but they’re not going completely nuts,” he says, blaming a perennial post-holiday slump in energy levels at dance parties.

Still, the Commodore is near capacity, with most of the partiers having paid the $75 ticket price. (A few lucky ones, including a talkative brunette in the beer line, grabbed tickets for $60 apiece from scalpers hawking last-minute extras outside the front door.) Prol will do some $75,000 in sales tonight, but expenses add up quickly: renting the Commodore from operator Live Nation costs $5,000. Prol is also on the hook for the costs of the stage setup, sound, lights, the pricey touring DJ and all the papery and gaseous party projectiles the artist will fire into the crowd before packing up his laptop and heading to the airport to fly to another party.

“A show like this is tight because the expenses are high and the room is small,” Prol says back in the relative quiet of an upstairs backstage suite. “But I will probably make five or six thousand. I’d have to see the door,” he says, referring to the final count of paid tickets.

Chasing after cover charges has been the bread and butter of Prol’s Blueprint empire for the past 14 years. Before that, he spent his teenage years sneaking into club shows with a fake ID after coming to Vancouver from Buenos Aires. “I threw my first party in 1997 and I made more money that night than I ever did working my ass off in retail,” he says, inviting me to root around in a fridge filled with Heineken bottles and Red Bull cans, swag provided by some of Blueprint’s sponsors. “I do very well now. I have a big staff and we do a lot of big business,” he says, cracking the seal on a bottle of water.


Image: Adam and Kev
Alvaro Prol, CEO of Blueprint Events, is the man
behind the curtain at many of Vancouver’s
electronic music shows.

Vancouver’s wealth of electronic mix masters

This is a typical night at the office for Prol, whose company, he claims, does “millions” in sales every year. On a good month, he will repeat this sort of affair several times a week while planning the year’s really big DJ parties (though the performers formerly known as DJs now prefer to be called producers, stressing their focus on songwriting instead of remixing other people’s music). Many of the producers now selling out stadiums and arenas while watching their songs climb the mainstream charts are the same acts Prol first hurled through a club circuit in Vancouver.

One such producer is 24-year-old Californian Sonny Moore, better known as Skrillex. Today, Skrillex is the reigning king of dubstep – a genre of electronic dance music rife with layers of deep syncopated bass lines – but just last year he was playing club gigs for Prol. “We had done him at Celebrities and we paid him $1,200,” says Prol. “Now he just got nominated for five Grammys. And this is something I’ve never seen in dance music: he got nominated for the best new artist award. This is something that Lady Gaga has won in the past, so he’s actually right up there with any pop star now. If he wins that award, I will fall out of my chair.” (He didn’t; folk band Bon Iver got the nod at the February 12 ceremony, but Skrillex nabbed three other Grammys, including one for best dance album.)

Prol has also worked with Toronto-based Deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”), known off-stage as Joel Zimmerman, a 31-year-old Niagara Falls native now selling out arenas and nominated for three Grammy awards in 2012. “When I first hired Deadmau5, he didn’t have a credit card,” says Prol with a laugh. “We sold 100 tickets for him at Celebrities and I had to pay for his incidentals because he was just getting started. Now he’s banking $10 million a year.”

Prol recently booked Skrillex again, this time at the PNE Forum for back-to-back shows (4,000 tickets sold each night) and brought Deadmau5 back to Vancouver to play UBC’s Thunderbird Arena. Prol was also the first promoter to throw a dance event in the main ballroom at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The biggest event he held there was 6,500 strong, but he imagines the modular space could fit 10,000 guests. “It’s really becoming a big merger of pop music and electronic music now and DJs are becoming big players,” says Prol. “It’s fun to watch.”

My search for one of these “big players” leads me to a 30th-storey living room in the Woodward’s development in the Downtown Eastside, the home of New Westminster native Taelor Deitcher. Known to international dance music fans as electro-producer Felix Cartal, he signed on with producer Steve Aoki’s L.A.-based label Dim Mak Records, also home to celebrated electronic act The Bloody Beetroots and Canadian electronic duo MSTRKRFT. Deitcher’s apartment offers a great view east across Strathcona and deeper into east Vancouver. The friendly 24-year-old has thick black eyebrows and dresses in a black T-shirt and black jeans. We’re sitting at his Mac desktop and he’s playing me bits of the latest single off his second album, one of five tracks planned for a video release on MTV. A record player sits on the shelf, but he tells me it’s only used for playing Beatles vinyl.

“I DJ on my laptop,” he explains. “I am mixing the songs live and it’s not going to be the same thing every night, but am I modifying the tracks that already exist there? No,” he tells me when I ask about a night’s work. He takes pains to clarify the distinction between DJs merely remixing other people’s music and artists creating their own beats: “The reason I’m getting paid is not because I’m a good DJ, but because I’m putting out music people legitimately like,” he says.

Deitcher got into electronic music through a high school class that exposed him to sound-editing software such as Cubase and Reason. He applied the musical theory he picked up from playing bass in a punk band and kept playing around on the software and posting dance songs online while half-heartedly pursuing a UBC English degree on exchange in Glasgow, Scotland. The Internet masses liked the tracks and soon enough he was getting small club gigs. When international shows came with some regularity, he dropped out of university.

Today Deitcher bills himself as an international DJ, a reputation he has carefully maintained in Vancouver by refusing to play his hometown more than three times a year. Instead, he’s spent the last three years flying most weekends to play parties across North America, charging between $3,000 and $5,000 for a two-hour set, plus travel expenses. Last year he went to Europe for five two-week tours and also played the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, an event billed as the largest electronic music festival in the world, with 230,000 people attending its 15th annual edition.

Deitcher is modest about his mainstream success, but admits he likes how efficient the process of creating and sharing electronic tracks with collaborators has become thanks to today’s recording, producing and file-sharing tools. “It’s weird how I did these, just sending out an instrumental and they’d send the vocal track back and then we’d just tweak it via email, just attach the new MP3,” he says. “It’s still mind-blowing to me that something I just made in my room is floating around on kids’ iPods as they’re going on the bus to school.”


Image: Adam and Kev
A performer at the annual Shambhala electronic
music festival in Nelson redefines country music.

Electronic’s Rural Reach

Electronic music is even reaching rural B.C. For six days every August, the Shambhala electronic music festival turns a 500-acre farm in Salmo, B.C., into the largest city in the Kootenays. Last year the event, a family business that’s been running for 15 years, sold 10,000 tickets and had an operating budget of approximately $3 million. Most of that money comes from ticket sales, as organizers choose to forego corporate advertising on festival grounds.

Sisters Anna Bundschuh, 33, and Corrine Zawaduk, 36, the festival’s executive producers, are already hard at work leading a team of 15 full-time employees – including carpenters, marketers, project managers, buyers, producers and social media types – planning this year’s festival, scheduled for August 8 to 13. Come festival time, their staff and crew will number about 2,500, looking after 300 performers and providing food, lodging and a safe party atmosphere for thousands of visitors.

“We have people coming from all over the world,” Zawaduk tells me over the phone from her home in Nelson. “We sell tickets in Japan, France, Mexico, Sweden, Australia. Nelson is really being put on the map as a cultural destination.”

Bundschuh, the sister who manages festival finances, says profit margins fluctuate between five and 20 per cent, but have been slowly getting fatter as electronic music and festival culture grows. The event had its first sellout in 2009, she tells me, with the last ticket going the day before the event. “In 2010 we sold out in May,” she continues, then adds, “This year, our online tickets were released in October and sold out in 17 days.”

The other reality is that with electronic music entering the mainstream, prices are going up for talent, but the pair tell me that Shambhala focuses on pampering the audience rather than the performers. “It’s about culture creation, creating the environment, creating the community and giving people a really amazing experience whether they’re at a stage or standing in line for food,” says Zawaduk. “Shambhala is bigger than Christmas for some people.”

Image: Adam and Kev
Post-party at the Commodore, revelers are
reluctant to face the dawn’s early light.

Back in Vancouver, it’s another Saturday night on the eastern edge of Mount Pleasant. It’s approaching midnight on a busy dance floor at the Biltmore Cabaret. The average person here is a little older than the typical Commodore customer, and this is also a scruffier affair, with numerous beards and lots of flannel dancing among the funky faux-crystal chandeliers, textured red velvet wallpaper and mounted deer heads. Some 200 people paid the $10 cover to mingle and drink $3.75 beers. This is where I meet Jason Sulyma, a smiling man in a baggy hoodie and baseball cap who spends much of the evening hiding behind massive headphones while mixing the night’s playlist.

By day, Sulyma is entertainment director for Vancouver’s Donnelly Group, a holding and management company overseeing the operation of 13 bars and clubs around the city. But he also calls himself a tastemaker, a DJ sourcing obscure tracks and playing them at watering holes across town. Tonight he is here performing as My!Gay!Husband!, a household name in dance circles on the east side of the city for the better part of the past decade. We grab our coats and head outside to talk. Sulyma explains that at Donnelly he’s in charge of all pub and club music, including all the canned recordings and a stable of more than 40 resident DJs. He tells me that the arrival of electronic music into mainstream nightlife means many club and pub owners now count on DJs rather than rock bands to fill their bars with thirsty dancers. “The only thing that makes money is rave,” he says, referring to one of the longest-enduring sub-genres of electronic music. He goes on to disparage a typical hold-over from the bygone era of guitar-bass-drum bands: “All those people that sound like Theory of a Deadman that want to sell out the Commodore and they kiss ass and can’t sell 200 tickets at the Media Club. And you bring in a half-assed raver from Paris and he’s selling 1,000 tickets.”

The mainstream success of electronic music has recently ushered in a change in strategy for event-promotion behemoth Live Nation. On January 1 this year, the company unveiled Electronic Nation Canada, the newest arm of its Canadian operation, and appointed long-time Toronto dance music promoter Ryan Kruger as its managing director. I catch Kruger on his cell phone on a business trip to Vancouver, one of three cities that form the backbone of Live Nation’s Canadian business (alongside Toronto and Montreal). He says he’s in town scouting possible venues for future dance events.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time; it’s just a question of bringing everything under one roof and creating a national strategy,” he says. “Based on the way the popularity of the genre has gone, no venue is off limits anymore.” He says Live Nation is looking to become a dominant player in electronic music, a slice of the industry that company executives see as dominating the future. It would like to bring to Vancouver the kinds of shows it’s been throwing in Toronto, such as a recent Deadmau5 production that sold 21,000 tickets. “Not only was it the largest electronic event in the history of Canada, but it was also the first time a Canadian had headlined the Rogers Centre since it was built,” claims Kruger.

The next day, I visit Prol at the Blueprint office to ask him how he feels about Live Nation getting into the electronic music business. He greets me with a smile and waves me around the busy office in a quick tour of framed photographs of famous producers and the company’s many award trophies from well-known Vancouver nightclub guide Back at the Commodore he had told me international promoters such as Live Nation are busy buying whatever dance acts they can get their hands on as they try to catch up to smaller regional players long immersed in electronic sound. Now, after a weekend meeting with Kruger, Prol is more positive about Live Nation muscling in, but when pressed he concedes that the international giant could easily outbid Blueprint for the most popular acts. Still, he says he’s not worried he’ll be squeezed out of the game.

“They might look for a partnership with us, or maybe not. There’s always going to be competition in any business, especially when the pie gets bigger and bigger,” he says. “They might get this guy, they might get that guy, but then I might find a new guy they don’t know about yet and run him through the club circuit like I always do.”

In an effort to diversify Blueprint and to get in on the liquor tab of electronic music events, Prol just bought half of Celebrities Night Club on Davie Street, a club long celebrated as a stronghold of electronic music. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says, “To own a room and do things my way.”