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For years, Richards had tried to get rock and electronic dance music to meld, signing techno acts to Rick Rubin's American label in the 1990s. But it was an outsider, Aoki, who finally showed the way.
"What I like about Steve is his energy and his attitude is kind of punk rock," Richards says. "And I look at HARD as like that. Booking Crystal Castles, Justice, it's totally different than deep house. I've always tried to figure out how to blend rock into electronic."
After losing money during its first few years on the festival circuit, HARD eventually became so successful that last year it was sold to Live Nation for an undisclosed amount. With that purchase, it joins the $50 million sale of dance-music online retailer Beatport to SFX Entertainment and the many suitors eyeing Insomniac, organizer of Electric Daisy Carnival, as part of a wave of corporate interest in EDM.
The sometime home to many of the world's top DJs, from Steve Angello of Swedish House Mafia to Tiësto, Los Angeles has become the epicenter of American EDM, thanks in no small part to Richards, Aoki and locally based Insomniac.
"I think that I can safely say L.A. is the biggest market in the United States for dance and electronic music," Ultra's Moxey says.
Experts say the biggest sign of success for an EDM act is "hard ticket" sales — as in, selling out a big show, solo. Having your name alone on the marquee is a different game from playing a festival crowd. Few DJs — Swedish House Mafia, in the midst of a farewell tour, Tiësto, Armin Van Buuren — can do it.
Aoki did it in November, selling out a 5,000-capacity Shrine Auditorium show billed as "Steve Aoki's Birthday Bash."
Zimmerman of the Morris agency hints that his client will headline a number of "credible ... crossover festivals" this summer before heading out on a solo tour of big venues in the fall. "I think he's got a pretty big year ahead," he says.
In 2007, Aoki experienced baptism by fire, going to Ibiza and encountering what Billboard's Kerri Mason calls a "hostile environment": house heads hoping to explore the deeper shades of legendary spinner Danny Tenaglia, for whom Aoki opened.
Ibiza had become the mecca of DJs' DJs, home to dance-till-dawn performances from the likes of Tenaglia, Dubfire and Loco Dice. It was no place for a fly-by-night wannabe with an hour's worth of material in his record box.
But the L.A. DJ won them over. Aoki walked away with the Spanish isle's annual "Set of the Season" prize.
It was a year later that Aoki's father died at 69 after suffering from diabetes, hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. Soon after, Aoki dropped his Kid Millionaire moniker. (The next year, his hero, DJ AM, died of a reported drug overdose in New York.)
Since then, dance music in the United States has shifted radically from a club-based scene that revolved around aural pleasure on the dance floor to a hands-in-the-air community addicted to massive festivals like EDC, which boasted 100,000 customers a day during its three-day event in Las Vegas last summer.
Before the festival takeover, the most revered DJs in dance music were "marathon men" like Tenaglia, John Digweed and Sasha, snake charmers whose shifts in mood and energy, sometimes during four- to eight-hour sets, comprised mesmerizing aural journeys — multicourse, omakase meals for the EDM connoisseur. What was happening in the booth was irrelevant because the music was the show.
In Europe, solo DJ concerts still happen on a massive scale (and Tiësto, Armin Van Buuren and Sven Väth don't stage dive). But America has held club DJs at arm's length since the homophobic days of "disco sucks."
"America wants its EDM in a big, rock & roll way," Ireland says. "American style is all about the lights and the shows and the festivals. The consumer has come to expect that."
What's more, top American acts are one-hour jocks because that's often all the time they can get at the ever-growing number of EDM festivals nationwide. The slots are maximized with outlandish crossover antics (Flavor Flav joined David Guetta onstage at EDC in 2011). Aoki represents the Americanization of global dance music.
"You can't expect kids who were converted to this in this era to sit around for Danny Tenaglia for hours to do something genius," Billboard's Mason says. "It's not an underground experience anymore. It's a concert experience."
But the club scene benefits from the trickle-down economics of thousands of festival aficionados who want to keep the party going week to week. Thus, Aoki's Vegas club residency and the newfound vibrancy of medium-size venues such as L.A.'s Playhouse and Sound, which can book the likes of Sander Kleinenberg, DJ Dan and Jamie Jones without having to worry too much about stage production.
And if Aoki is the new face of EDM, he's also part of a new wave of business-savvy artists (Avicii, Afrojack, Morgan Page) who keep a tight rein on marketing and imagery.
In 2011 Aoki became an equity partner in Cinespace, Dim Mak's longtime Tuesday-night home. The club was rechristened Dim Mak Studios and given a new, backstreet address.