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The World's Highest-Paid DJs

By Zack O'Malley Greenburg

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 (above) headlined 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.

Bing: Deadmau5 vs. Madonna

"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 and Jay-Z, EDM's practitioners have been cleaning up of late, prompting Forbes to release its first-ever Electronic Cash Kings list. Over the past 12 months, the world's 10 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.

More: Full List: The World's Highest-Paid DJs

"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 crossover "Nothing But The Beat" and endorsements with Renault 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" star 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.

Dance Dance Revolution

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."

Also: Video Premiere from Deadmau5: 'The Veldt'

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."

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Aug 7, 2012 7:55AM
Hey, whatever happened to King Britt(Philly)?
Aug 5, 2012 2:13PM
It is a real shame that underground EDM doesn't get the credit it deserves.  EDM is not just about artists like Skrillex, Avicii, David Guetta, Deadmau5, and Swedish House Mafia.  These dudes are only the tip of the iceberg of what is EDM.

There are Goa, psytrance and progressive trance artists that have lots of fans without being overtly publicized.  Artifact303, Antares, E-Mantra, Afgin, Trinodia, Nova Fractal, PharaOm, Ovnimoon, Mindwave, Liquid Soul, Vertex, etc...all these guys have a huge following without the need for mass publicity to remain popular.  These artists also use real synthesizer hardware along with their laptop or PC, unlike the top DJs & producers who rely mostly on digital synthesizer software to do the work for them.
Aug 2, 2012 9:21AM
Support DJs who _started_ this electronic movement.  Big UPS to Dave Aude, founder of Moonshine Records, Kimball Collins, who brought AHHZ to Orlando in the _early_ 90s, Jon Bishop who did the same in San Diego, LTJ Bukem who plays REAL Jungle and not this dubstep crap, Robert Oleysyck who is keeping it going in Las Vegas with DJ Speedy.  give it up to DJs that actually touch vinyl, that's more talent in one pinky finger than pushining a button on a freaking Pioneer 'vritual' Turntable.   Deadmau5 is a talented kid and i love 'Strobe' but the dude said himself he hates DJs, so don't lump him in with them.  he is an electronic music production specialist and he is damned good at it but let's call a spade a spade and not a DJ.  give me aTechniques 1200, some dubplates and good Rane mixer any day over some dude with his iTunes playlist and a Mac.
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