Evolution of EDM
OCTOBER 20, 2016
"Vegas is the new Ibiza.”
That's what iconic DJ Paul Oakenfold told us in 2008, and it’s been coming true ever since.
What began as an underground scene with below-the-radar desert parties, is now the home of the Electronic Daisy Carnival and a four-mile stretch of land that hosts all ten of the world’s highest paid DJs on a weekly basis.
We’re regarded by many as the heart of all things electronic music. Vegas is the place you can come see Kaskade play a 12-hour set, or to party just a few feet away from iconic DJs on any given night. But this all didn’t happen overnight—here's a brief history of the electronic music scene in Vegas and how it became a destination for EDM.
MOVIN' IN THE DESERT
Throughout the 1990s, there were parties here and there at unconventional locations around town, but the true catalyst of the now booming electronic music scene in Vegas comes from the Desert Move party in 1996.
Desert Move was the first party of its kind in Las Vegas. This was the first time a dance music-focused party had big brand sponsors and radio station support; the ability to purchase tickets through Ticketmaster; and a stacked lineup featuring dance music legends like Josh Wink, Derrick May, Dmitry from Deee-Lite, WestBam, and more.
Partygoers took a bus into the desert about an hour outside of town until they reached Desert Move. Organizers orchestrated a pop-up production involving impressive sound systems and transformative lighting and lasers. This was the party that every key player in the dance music scene attended—from Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella, to iconic local DJ Robert Oleysyck.
"It really changed my life,” said Oleysyck. “This was definitely an element to the kindling of Utopia.”
Inspired by Desert Move and the dance music culture in San Francisco, Gino LoPinto and the late Aaron Britt went on later to create Vegas’ first large-scale electronic music-focused nightclub, Utopia.
A DJ'S UTOPIA
Utopia is strongly regarded as the last Vegas electronic-focused nightclub of the pre-casino nightlife era. It was a stand-alone club located on the Strip, tucked behind where Hard Rock Cafe is today. It incorporated “indoor pyrotechnics, a high-wattage sound system and an ‘anything goes’ mentality.” (Las Vegas Weekly 2008)
During Oleysyck’s time as Utopia’s full-time resident DJ, he recalls iconic performances at the club including: John Digweed, Electric Sky Church, Sandra Collins and Goldie. Paul Oakenfold and Sasha spent their first trips to Vegas performing at Utopia.
"In any nightlife discussion, you can’t deny the impact Utopia had,” said Oleysyck. “It was a jewel in the nightlife scene. Not just in Vegas, but in America. People were flying from every coast to come on Saturday night. You can’t deny that they were influenced by that one way or another.”
What set Utopia apart from traditional nightlife at the time was the production. There was incredible forethought that went into creating its notable atmosphere of adult freedom.
"The venue itself and anything-goes experience transported you out of the city,” said Oleysyck.
PRODUCING THE RIGHT VIBES
A Way Of Life Productions (AWOL) helped produce parties at Utopia and hosted its own dance music events as well.
AWOL was known for taking advantage of unconventional locations, such as industrial warehouse Candie Factorie or a local RC track, to host parties with several areas or rooms that played a wide range of electronic music genres (drum and bass, acid techno and more). On top of that, they took care of elaborate decor, light shows, visuals, and anything else that added to the transformation.
Oftentimes, locations weren’t featured on fliers or online, so partygoers had to call an information hotline on the night-of to get the location.
Some of AWOL’s signature recurring parties were One, the Halloween-themed Devils Night, and Monkey Biz, which attracted international talent in the acid-techno scene. DJ Speedy, DJ Ira, and Dig Dug were just some of the iconic local talent at these AWOL events.
"I like to make stuff,” said Chad Craig, owner and proprietor of AWOL. “The only outlet for me to make a monkey out of chicken wire and foil was through electronic music.”
This is the common theme throughout the EDM scene in Vegas; it was place for anybody to express themselves in many ways. Whether it’s through décor, music, art, costumes, records—it was all important and crucial to the inclusive nature of EDM culture.
Where would people get this underground music without the same digital options we have today? The EDM culture converged at Liquid303 (currently Arts Factory), one of the only places in Vegas that you could buy electronic music records at the time.
PUT A RECORD ON
Liquid303 owner and local DJ John Torres established the record store in mid-1997 because he saw a need to make fresh, underground dance music available in Vegas.
It wasn’t that Liquid303 was the only record store in Vegas to sell dance music—it was unique because it sold exclusively dance music and was the local expert in the genre.
"It became an obsession for me to learn about every artist, label, distributor, genre, subgenre and associated history,” said Torres. “That's what made us unique. It was a store for DJs by DJs.”
Having a record store dedicated to electronic music created a hub to all things underground in Vegas. If you wanted to know what was going on that night, you went to Liquid303. If you wanted tickets to a desert party going on that weekend, it sold presale tickets for it.
"The timing was perfect,” said Torres. “Utopia was in full swing, Chad from AWOL was throwing legit warehouse parties, after hours were starting to pop up. The scene was growing quickly, but it was still considered ‘underground’ back then.”
KINDLING TO THE MEGA-CLUB
With the trend in electronic music ramping up in off-Strip nightclubs and record stores, casino executives saw the potential. Properties on the Strip started incorporating more big-name DJ bookings for holiday weekends, industry nights, etc.
Former clubs like Ra (Luxor), C2K (Venetian) and Baby’s (Hard Rock) were among the first Las Vegas property nightclubs to book nationally recognized house DJs on a regular basis. These typically had separate industry nights or special rooms dedicated to underground electronic.
While dance music was ramping up in the casinos in the early 2000s, Ice was the off-Strip, stand-alone club most known for hosting a long list of world-class DJs on a weekly basis, including: Donald Glaude, Paul Oakenfold, DJ Dan, Tiesto and Armin Van Buuren. Ice was also on Spike TV’s reality show The Club.
To accommodate these headliners, AWOL was brought in to transform these venues into EDM-ready spaces.
"There were 15 of us guys in a hallway waiting to change a former Chippendale’s show into a club in a matter of minutes,” said Craig. “We had a truck full of speakers because no one at the time had the type of sound system we needed.”
THE RESIDENCY THAT CHANGED IT ALL
These relatively small build-up and tear-down dance music events continued through the 2000s. At this point there wasn’t a mega-resident formula on Vegas property clubs until Paul Oakenfold arrived with Perfecto at Rain (Palms) in 2008 and changed the game entirely.
Oakenfold broke through the mainstream sounds of hip-hop and top 40 when he introduced Perfecto at Rain. What made Oakenfold’s residency different was that it was a fleshed-out production. Musically, he was exposing attendees to new and noncommercial tracks. Visually, the big-budget light shows, aerialists, stilt walkers, and more are what made it unique.
In an interview from 2008, Oakenfold told us that the bar has been raised since Perfecto at Rain, and that every new Las Vegas nightlife venture keeps getting better than the last.
"It has become an adult playground,” said Oakenfold. “The next nightclub, the next brand that tries to do what we’re doing is going to say ‘we’ve got something different from Perfecto’ and that’s good for Vegas.”
Oakenfold changed the dance music landscape in Vegas for good with Perfecto at Rain. It was so successful that his one-year residency was extended, and other properties incorporated this high-profile DJ residency model.
EDM CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Light Group, Tao Group, Wynn Resorts and Play Management arrived on the dance music scene creating groundbreaking venues, and showing that the sky’s the limit with this new high-profile DJ-centric nightlife experience. These groups pushed the nightlife boundaries throughout the 2010s, making Vegas the EDM Capital of the World it is today.
These EDM-focused clubs popped up one after another: XS in 2008 (Encore at Wynn), Marquee in 2010 (The Cosmopolitan), Surrender in 2010 (Encore at Wynn), Hakkasan in 2013 (MGM Grand), LIGHT in 2013 (Mandalay Bay), Omnia in 2015 (Caesars Palace), and Jewel in 2016 (ARIA).
These clubs are known for high-profile DJs and performers, cutting-edge sound systems, special visual effects like pyrotechnics and video mapping, avant-garde costumed dancers, aerialists, and more.
Tao Nightclub (Venetian) was first to incorporate the dayclub pool party experience. Hakkasan Group acquired Angel Management and Light Group, aggressively expanding their Vegas nightlife portfolio. Between these two groups and Wynn Resorts, they now dominate five of the six highest grossing nightlife venues in the U.S. according to the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Top 100 list.
Why are EDM and high-profile residencies such a good fit for Vegas? Co-founder and co-owner of Tao Group Jason Strauss says it’s because Las Vegas has always been about personalities that are high-profile.
"The city and those who travel here are drawn to people and places that seem bigger than life,” said Strauss.
For Strauss, he recalls one particular moment that he knew EDM was the future of nightlife in Vegas.
"One morning on a holiday weekend, we had a packed venue at TAO with partygoers still dancing to Erick Morillo as the sun came up,” said Strauss. “The TAO Group partners saw the potential in EDM and wanted to be the first to open a club that focused on the style of music on the Strip in Vegas.”
At the same time that these new EDM-centric clubs were opening, the Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) moved from Los Angeles to Vegas in 2011 and truly put us on the map as an EDM destination.
UNDER THE ELECTRIC SKY
Founder and creator of Insomniac Pasquale Rotella told us that Vegas was the perfect fit for EDC. He said it was not only large enough to accommodate the numbers he envisioned for EDC, but that it was already the Entertainment Capital of the World.
"Las Vegas has always had an underground dance music scene,” said Rotella. “Once EDC happened in Vegas, dance music really changed in Vegas.”
EDC is unique among music festivals because it’s a massive production. Every year has a theme that is expressed through performers, costumes and decor. You can explore art cars and carnival rides, as well as a wide variety of talent on 8 stages. Pyrotechnics and fireworks are also crucial to the experience—in its first three years, fireworks went off for a total of 108 minutes.
"We focus on the experience,” said Rotella. “We want to create a fantasy world for people. We’re a pop-up theme park. People who are there are just as important. … It’s a real community, which is different than other mass gatherings.”
EDC is estimated to have contributed $1.3 billion to the Vegas economy over the past five years. In addition, Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas drew more than 400,000 people over three days to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2015, shattering the previous year’s attendance numbers and garnering the title of North America’s largest music festival.
"I love Las Vegas; EDC wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for its support,” said Rotella. “I speak for the entire dance community who goes out there every year. There should be more places like Vegas in world.”
Since EDC has arrived in Vegas, the norm for nightclubs on the Strip is to host high-profile DJs. According to Forbes, the top nine highest earning DJs all have a Las Vegas club residency, including: Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Avicii, Tiesto, Steve Aoki, Afrojack, Zedd, Kaskade and Skrillex.
The global electronic music industry is now worth $7.1 billion—60 percent more than three years ago, according to the International Music Summit’s 2016 Business Report.
As for the future of EDM, Rotella says it’s here to stay.
EDM has become pop music; what started as an underground subculture is now dominating the top 40 charts with artists like Major Lazer and The Chainsmokers.
With epic pool parties extending to all seasons, and even more high-profile nightclub collaborations between electronic producers and performers like Drake and Selena Gomez, Las Vegas continues to make bigger and better entertainment experiences.
"Las Vegas will continue to find innovative ways to remain the Entertainment Capital of the World, and dance music will always be a part of that,” said Rotella.
The future of EDM in Vegas is bright as the lights. ✨