VIVA LAS VEGAS: Drawing a youthful, affluent, hard-partying crowd, electronic-dance-music stars like Kaskade, who played the Cosmopolitan casino's Chelsea Ballroom over Memorial Day weekend, are bringing new life to the Strip.
A tall, tanned girl in a tiny, light-brown fringed bikini can't stop dancing. Her pneumatic breasts undulate to the beat of explosive drums, synthetic blares, and well-timed drops. She's gyrated her way to the front of the 3,000-strong sun-drenched crowd that has piled into Encore Beach Club, inside the luxe Encore Resort in Las Vegas. Behind her, two tiers of ivory-colored cabanas rim a trio of swimming pools; to her left and right, tables cordoned off by velvet ropes are well stocked with Grey Goose and Patrón on ice. Sandwiched between guys in stylish swim trunks and an array of bronzed females with buff bodies, the girl in the fringes wags two index fingers to rhythms that originated in the brain of the Swedish House Mafia cofounder Sebastian Ingrosso. He stands atop a stage six feet above her, pumping well-inked arms in the air.
Up on the shallow riser dominated by a four-channel mixer as wide and as long as a carry-on suitcase, Ingrosso smiles like he's having more fun than anyone else in the place. With four memory cards plugged in, he pushes dials up and down and twiddles knobs, sending out demented whoops, beats, and bleeps. The 29-year-old dance-music savant downs shots of Jägermeister and coaxes the sweaty crowd to party harder at this start of Memorial Day Weekend, a four-day electronic-music extravaganza at Encore and its parent casino, Wynn Las Vegas, owned by the billionaire gaming mogul Steve Wynn.
Soon Ingrosso is joined by a pair of A-list exes—Reggie Bush (Kim Kardashian's former paramour) and Afrojack (Paris Hilton's recent flame), like Ingrosso a member of the international brotherhood of superstar DJs. They in turn hoist a couple of girls as a roar rises from the crowd and a fresh round of Jäger shots get drained. Afrojack does an enthusiastic shout-out, and Bush basks in the moment. A frequent presence on the Vegas club scene, the Miami Dolphins running back has tried to master the mixer, and he's been heard to joke, "Football is coming to an end and soon I'm going to be DJ'ing."
When Ingrosso finishes his two-hour-plus set, at around 5 p.m., the brown-haired, blue-jeans-clad Swede relaxes at a banquette backstage. One eye on the clock, he says, "In a few minutes, we head to the airport and take a private jet to San Francisco. Once we land, we'll get a police escort to a festival there. I do my set and then it's right back to Vegas."
Who could blame him for the quick turnaround? These days, top international DJs—reinvented nerds with monikers that sound more like computer-gaming handles than carefully crafted stage names—compete to get in on Las Vegas' gold rush, currently dominated by dance-floor aces like Kaskade, Afrojack, Tiësto, and Skrillex. Reports indicate that in-demand performers are paid $100,000 per hour. The truth, according to an insider with knowledge of the deals, is that the top rate is $100,000 for 20 minutes—$300,000 an hour. And more and more DJs are signing on for year-long residencies. According to Jesse Waits, the managing partner at the Wynn's $100 million dance club XS, this year's contracts add up to "almost as much as building a nightclub." These astronomical fees are being driven by sellout crowds, millions of dollars in bottle-service revenues, and a bidding war that aligns a quartet of Wynn's clubs against two outlets at the hipster casino farther down the Strip, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
Taken together, these six venues have made Vegas the bright, shining center of the electronic-music universe, exerting a magnetic pull on young, ultra-wealthy revelers who are known to party till 5 a.m. and fire it up at high-stakes gaming tables the next afternoon. As one devotee, a heavily tattooed 39-year-old physician from Denver who obsessively follows his hometown pals, the spacesuit-wearing mash-up artists Manufactured Superstars, explains: "I come here to escape the pressure of life. It calms the beast and makes nothing else matter." Later, at a table at the club Surrender dominated by a group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Dr. Tattoo gestures toward his hosts and shouts to be heard over the music: "Three of these guys are already worth more than $100 million."
It's no wonder then that the perma-tanned Steve Wynn invites deadmau5, the 31-year-old Canadian DJ of the moment, as famous for his moody disposition as for the giant mouse head that he wears on stage, to dine in his villa and test-drive his new 3-D flat-screen. This cadre of fleet-fingered artists aren't just the new rock stars—they're bigger than that. Transformed into spending machines who demand private jets, employ personal drivers, and gamble as hard as the whales they're hired to attract, Vegas' masters of electronic dance music have become casino royalty, like Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, and David Copperfield before them. Only more lucrative. "When we booked Sinatra, we lost money on the shows and we hoped to make it up through gambling," says one longtime gaming executive. "With the DJs, we're making it both ways."
David Guetta, the 44-year-old French DJ who contributed his dance-club beats to make hits for the Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna, and Akon, is not in town to gamble this weekend, but you'd never know it from his 3,400-square-foot high-roller suite at Encore Resort. He seems pleased to hear that his digs dwarf those of his friend the Dutch DJ Tiësto. "This was my first time playing for Encore Beach," Guetta says, smiling wanly. "Maybe that's the reason why. They want to make sure I'm happy." It's a couple of hours before his second set of the holiday weekend, this one at XS, the Wynn Las Vegas club that cannily features VIP seating on stage. When Guetta learns that he will be opening for the Swedish superstar Avicii, he stops smiling and exchanges some terse words in French with his manager. Later, sounding peeved, he says, "I wouldn't call it opening for Avicii. But I am going on first. I don't mind going first and will stay for his set. We're friends. We have a record together. If this was a concert, it would be different, but for a club it doesn't mean one is less than the other."
And yet, as in any gold rush, the competition can be fierce. Beyond hotel rooms, the DJs (or at least their managers) angle for everything from billboards near the airport to placement of branded goods in the souvenir shop. Guetta, however, prefers to float above all that. An outlier, he's made the decision to not rely heavily on Vegas. "I receive around 500 requests per week," Guetta says with a shrug. "The world is big. It's not possible to be here every month."
While Sin City may be the American Ibiza, a beacon for hot DJs, sex, and partying, Guetta seems to recognize that it is also the place where culture goes not to die, exactly, but to live out its golden-nugget years in well-compensated irrelevance. Though electronic dance music is now the hottest thing going, the casinos' clubs attract deep-pocketed patrons who view the scene as one more amenity. Reminded of how Skinny Elvis became Fat Elvis, Rod Stewart transitioned from rocker to crooner, and Elton John jelled into a lounge act with diva-worthy production values, Guetta is well aware of Vegas' effect on artists. "It happens to people," he says. "That's why I won't come here more than twice a year."
Guetta's friend Tiësto has no such reservations. He is in love with Vegas, and the feeling appears to be mutual. That much is evident on Memorial Day afternoon, when he cruises through Encore Beach Club. More entrenched in the local scene than Guetta, the 43-year-old Tiësto ranks as one of electronic music's elder statesmen and is still perhaps the most revered DJ on the circuit. He has come down from his suite to watch deadmau5, who delivers a stellar performance. Although Tiësto chooses a quiet spot at the side of the stage, all eyes are on the Dutch legend, who stands six feet two with a chiseled physique and a blinding smile, as he sips a Heineken. Every time he turns around, another alluring female vies for his attention. Tiësto welcomes it all, surely recognizing that the fame and financial rewards of this moment will not go on forever. Nor will he. "You need to give up your life for it," he says of the grind. "You have to be willing to spend a lot of time in the studio and to listen to a lot of tracks by younger DJs in order to keep up with what's happening. People think I play for two hours and that is it, that's my job. They don't know what goes into putting together a set. And when you keep coming back here every month, it needs to be switched up all the time."