Every so often, the tectonic plates of mainstream musical taste shift. In the 1960s, there was the British Invasion, followed by disco in the 1970s and the rise of glam metal in the 1980s. The 1990s saw the advent of grunge and the resurgence of boy bands, followed by hip-hop’s hegemony in the 2000s. Now, the tables are turning again.
Electronic dance music, better known as EDM, has finally surged from its underground roots and into mainstream consciousness. One need only look at the recent activities of the genre’s most prominent practitioners: last year, Skrillex was one of the main attractions at Coachella; last month, Deadmau5 ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone; last week, Kaskade became the first electronic act to sell out the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“I think mainly people were just ready to hear something new,” says Kaskade. “My parents listened to rock and roll; that’s their music. And then hip-hop came along. This is the next generation of music.”
Just as international recognition enriched the likes of The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Nirvana andJay-Z, EDM’s practitioners have been cleaning up of late, prompting FORBES to release its first-everElectronic Cash Kings list. Over the past 12 months, the world’s ten highest-paid DJs pulled in $125 million—more than the payroll of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Dutch born DJ Tiesto tops the list with earnings of $22 million, buoyed by an average nightly gross of $250,000 according to concert data provider Pollstar. Grammy-winning California native Skrillex ranks second with $15 million, followed by Scandinavian trio Swedish House Mafia, which recently disbanded despite pulling in an estimated $14 million.
“I’ve been listening to electronic music since I was 12,” says Skrillex. “Even when I played in rock bands, I’ve been making it … This is the first time it’s gotten so big.”
It’s not just the top three acts making all the money. French DJ David Guetta claims the No. 4 spot with $13.5 million, buoyed by last year’s pop crossoverNothing But The Beat and endorsements withRenault and HP; Steve Aoki, who played over 200 shows in the past year, rounds out the top five at $12 million. Other DJs on the top ten include the aforementioned Kaskade and Deadmau5, as well as Afrojack, Avicii and Jersey Shore’s DJ Pauly D.
Though these Electronic Cash Kings hail from all over the globe, they’ve got at least one thing in common: they all make the bulk of their money by touring. Often toting nothing more than a USB stick and a pair of Pioneer CDJs, their production costs are often negligible, unlike rockers and pop stars who typically take home just one-third of gross ticket sales.
Our estimates include earnings from these live shows—for many artists, that often means more than $100,000 for a night’s work—and from recorded music sales, endorsements, merchandise sales and, in the case of DJ Pauly D, television (we included him on this list because, like his fellow Electronic Cash Kings, he makes at least half his cash from DJ gigs). Sources include Pollstar, RIAA, promoters, managers, lawyers and some of the artists themselves.
Though the term “electronic dance music” is relatively new, electronic music has been around for decades, first gaining popularity through influential early acts like Kraftwerk in the 1970s. So what accounts for the recent rise of EDM? Many prominent DJs credit the new avenues of spreading information that have cropped up in the past few years.
“I think what really changed was social media,” says Tiesto. “Twitter, Facebook really helped a lot. It exposed things to a whole new world. Before that you only could hear [electronic dance music] on the radio at night. Day-time radio would never play it.”
Perhaps more importantly, EDM has found a home in the festival circuit. Concert promoters like AEG, the parent company of Coachella producer Goldenvoice, discovered that they could tap into the burgeoning electronic scene by adding top DJs to their lineups—and what started out as a sideshow soon became the main attraction.
“The Coachella music festival served as microcosm in the evolution of electronic dance music from a niche into a mainstream format,” says AEG chief Randy Phillips. “EDM translates more successfully as a consumer experience in the open field festival environment or in a general admission [or] flat floor venue than it does in large arenas with fixed seats. Efforts to tour EDM stars in arenas across North America have proven to yield uneven results outside of a handful of major markets.”
One of those markets is Las Vegas, where casino mogul Steve Wynn has signed a group of Electronic Cash Kings–including Tiesto, Skrillex and David Guetta–to residencies at his properties; he also started a joint label with Ultra Records to release electronic music. Other billionaires including Ron Burkle are said to be keen on getting a slice of the electronic pie as well. And why shouldn’t they try? DJs are quickly becoming the rock stars of their generation—and now they’re getting paid as such, too.
“Dance music is pretty close to where rock was 50 years ago,” says Afrojack, who ranks ninth on our list with $9 million. “And rock has never died. So I’m sure the same [goes for] dance music.”
Additional interviews and reporting by Ryan Mac; additional research by Natalie Robehmed.
Note: An earlier version of this story said that Skrillex headlined Coachella last year. In fact, he was one of the main attractions the festival’s Sahara Tent.