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Spin City

Few cities are better suited for reinvention than Las Vegas. At its core, it’s a money vampire, scaling up The Next Big Thing to bloated levels before wearing it out and finding a new trend from which to feed. It happens every couple of decades. When the Rat Pack era grew stale (i.e., old and maybe alcoholic), Vegas embraced family values and became as PG as Disney World. Not long after, it returned to its Sin City roots, proclaiming that “What happens in Vegas . . . .”

            Click for a mix of old faves and new raves to celebrate the ever-growing EDM scene.

The city’s latest iteration fully embraces that unshakable tag line, acknowledging that the desert town is, and likely will always be, the ideal setting for adults to drown their everyday malaise in vodka mixed with Red Bull. Pack said adults in a dark room enlivened by bottle service, lasers and electronic beats played fast and loud by the new gods of youth culture, and you get Vegas’ DJ period. In the past five years, it’s become America’s dance music capital, opening sprawling, multimillion-dollar clubs such as XS, Hakkasan and Light to woo Calvin Harris, Tiësto, Afrojack and other world-famous mix masters.

These DJs draw thousands of bouncing, fist-pumping fans to clubs every night and have become so well known that they now appear next to Shania Twain and the Blue Man Group on Vegas billboards. Each plays some variation of “house,” an umbrella term for the genres of dance music that range from funky to noisy to melodramatic. Record execs call it EDM—short for electronic dance music. We call it dumb, fun and theatrical, arena rock for millennials.

Diplo at XS in Las Vegas. Photo by Danny Mahoney.        
Eva Shaw at Hakkasan. Photo: Brenton Ho/Powers Imagery.        

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton were the big draw at Vegas clubs; the DJs who played their entrance music were almost an afterthought. But then a few stars aligned, says Larry Fitzmaurice, music critic for pitchfork.com. “Dance music has been creeping into pop music in general in the last six years or so,” he says, pointing to the now requisite house beats on Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus records. “Take that into account with easing attitudes toward gay culture—which is where dance music originated—and the rise of festivals such as Coachella, where DJs are often headliners, and you end up with the big-money, celebrity DJ culture you have today.”

Ever the city of investors, Vegas eyed this emerging market but took its time before fully committing. “When XS opened at The Wynn resort and casino back in 2008, it was really just a big, beautiful club that played a lot of Top 40 and hip hop,” says Jesse Waits, managing partner of the 40,000-square-foot XS. “Most clubs in Vegas were like that. It wasn’t until 2011, when house was really blowing up, that we started booking big-name DJs and became a destination for that genre.”

The $100 million XS boasts an outdoor pool area with sightlines of the opulent, theater-like interior, where the DJ stands on an altarlike platform above the crowd. When the club changed its focus to house music, it spent another large chunk on LED screens, special decks for DJs and promotional campaigns to market its new stars—everyone from Afrojack to Skrillex to Steve Aoki. Today, its capacity is 5,100, with patrons paying upward of $200 just to get in the door on nights featuring the biggest DJs. Throw in 170 tables and 30 outdoor cabanas dedicated to bottle service and that’s a lot of potential revenue, which is important given the crazy sums that today’s DJs command. “Six figures is a really good night for the top performers,” says Waits.

Calvin Harris at Hakkasan. Photo: Al Powers/Powers Imagery.        

If XS blazed the trail for this new, beat-driven Vegas, Hakkasan has emerged as king of the desert. Built in 2013 at the MGM Grand for more than $100 million, it’s reportedly the largest, most expensive nightclub in America. Think 80,000 square feet, five floors and room for 3,761 guests. Its timing couldn’t be better. According to the Association for Electronic Music, an industry trade group, house and its subgenres ballooned to a $6.2 billion industry last year. Vegas’ stake? A cool $800 million, says AFEMA. That’s a far cry from the billions it made off gambling, but with the city’s gaming revenues decreasing each year since 2007, one wonders if nightclubs will someday compete with the casinos. More proof of house music’s underground-to-mainstream push can be seen in Forbes’ “Electronic Cash Kings” list, which debuted in 2012. Scottish sensation Calvin Harris took the top spot in 2013, raking in $46 million—more than Jay-Z and Katy Perry.

Harris plays most of his shows—high-energy affairs in which he sprinkles in his own poppy productions—at Hakkasan. In 2013, he signed a two-year 70-plus-show contract with the megaclub. To compete with Hakkasan, XS has had to sacrifice a percentage of its profits to retain name talent such as Afrojack and Diplo on its roster. “DJ costs are so high that we’re making the same as we were three years ago, but with less margin,” says Waits. He won’t reveal revenue numbers, but industry watchdog Nightclub & Bar magazine estimates that XS took home some $90 million in 2013, the majority made off alcohol sales.

Eva Shaw, a model turned DJ who frequently plays at Hakkasan, believes that dance music culture will keep growing. “People are saying house is going to blow up and go away, but I disagree,” she says. “That’s the way people make music now—electronically. I think it will become even more mainstream, the way it is in Europe, where you can turn on any station and hear a club song on the radio.”

Waits admits that dance music is overplayed around the country but says it’s not going anywhere. “It’s become an institution, like hip hop,” he says. “And like hip hop, its sounds are really splintered, which is good for the scene. Calvin Harris is doing songs with Rihanna. Avicci is experimenting with bluegrass.”

Even so, XS, Light, Hakkasan, Tao and other Vegas clubs still program hip-hop and Top 40 nights. It’s hard to tell if they’re trying to bring in different crowds or just buying a little insurance for when the winds of pop culture inevitably shift and Vegas hits the reset button one more time.

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