Before regularly scoring six-figure nightly fees spinning thumpy electronic tunes, Zedd got his start playing classical music at age 4. He learned how to plan performances with meticulous detail, an ability that’s obvious in his carefully choreographed shows today, which feature less of the freewheeling song selection used by most popular DJs. “I see myself as an artist who presents a show,” says Zedd, who earned $19 million this year and $85 million over the past five. “It’s almost like when you go to the movies. You’re not going to buy your ticket and see a movie and, if you don’t like it, expect the movie to change in real time.”
Zedd has produced hits for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and released solo smashes like last year’s multiplatinum “Stay”- while becoming the anti-DJ of the DJ universe. To distinguish himself from competitors, he created a graphics-heavy live show that feels like watching a videogame projected onto a movie screen with a custom visual for each song. A cable runs from his computer to the front of the house, where a team of technicians makes sure everything syncs up, including the program’s lasers and pyrotechnics. “It used to be really cheap to make a show – I used to be able to keep all the money,” Zedd recalls. “Now the shows cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
As costs continue to escalate in a musical arms race, Zedd is flirting with the idea of reinventing the DJ model again by turning to something with which he’s very familiar: live instrumentation. “I think I will one day go unplugged.”
Forbes senior editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg sat down with Zedd at the 30 Under 30 Summit in October. Here’s the interview for the first time, with a few light edits for clarity and brevity.
ZOG: The first time I interviewed you, about four years ago, you said, “You know, I don’t want to say I’ll be a producer, and a DJ, for the rest of my life. I can totally see myself being in another band in five years, if that’s what my heart and soul wants to do. If that’s what will make me happy, I’m totally happy just to not DJ anymore.” So, it’s been almost five years, how are you feeling about that? Are you going to go unplugged? Or are you going to do the current thing a little while longer?
Zedd: I think I will one day go unplugged or change my show somehow. Or my show form, I’ll say that. Currently I am still DJing, yet I think I have a way more dramatic show, and a much for dynamic show than I’ve ever had, that involves a lot of planning… the nature of the DJ is to go up there, and play a song, look at the crowd, feel it out, and then play whatever you think people want to hear. That’s very difficult for me, because I see myself as a musician in the first place, and I [challenge you to] name any artist who’d want to think they’d go on stage, and look at the crowd, and say, “Maybe let’s play this song. I don’t think people will like that one.” You present the show, you prepare, you rehearse for weeks, and then this is what you present to the crowd. And there’s always a section that is staying flexible to mix stuff up, if you have to, or if you want to. But I would say the majority of my set is pre-planned; it’s a show that I want to present. I want people to see something that I spent a lot of time working on.
ZOG: And the live element in your show, it’s obviously the core of the electronic music experience. But also streaming being the way the music gets out, the economics have changed a ton, even in the last few years. Talk a little bit about that, and how it’s starting to change for artists.
Zedd: I think that streaming became a huge part of every musician’s career. Even for, or especially for, unsigned artists. I have a friend who is a singer, and she just makes music at home and she puts it up on SoundCloud, and puts it up on Spotify, and she makes a really decent living off of people streaming her music. I think there’s a lot of artists who actually make more money now, streaming their music, than they did selling their music prior. And I was one of those people who was really scared of that whole streaming world, because you see all these numbers, and I don’t know what exactly the numbers [are], but it’s a fraction of a cent that you make per stream. And then in your mind it’s, “Oh my God, people are going to listen to my song once, and then that’s all I’m going to get.” But the reality is, that you can have millions of people stream your song, or songs, every single day. You can have 10 million streams on your album daily. Over a really long time that becomes a lot of money. So, I think that the streaming section that sounded so scary to me, and probably many others, is actually a really good thing.
ZOG: Before, artists would put out new albums so that they could have new stuff to put in the concerts. But maybe [it will soon] flip back so that you do concerts just to raise awareness about the new music?
Zedd: Yeah, I mean, I think the music industry is changing really fast. So it’s hard to predict where things are going to go. I know a lot of artists don’t like touring. They do not like not having any sleep every day, being stressed every day. They like being at home, waking up, doing their thing, and then making music whenever they want to. There is much less of a schedule to create music than being on tour, and having to open the doors on time, and having a curfew.
And there’s artists that are the exact opposite, they hate being at home. And they feel frustrated, and they want to get out there and play music. I think that if anything, the streaming world may open the door for people who don’t want to tour, to actually not have to tour. There’s a great living you can make off of being creative and not having a schedule at all. And working when you want to work, and putting up music the next day. There use to be two or three months in the lead time to when you could release an album. And here you can just release your music the next day, if you want to.
ZOG: Tell me a little bit about your live show, what goes into it. I think a lot of people have a preconceived notion about what that entails.
Zedd: So my live show is not a DJ show at all. My platform is Djing, and I can change my music, and my selection of songs anytime. But essentially, what’s most important for me is for the crowd to go home and think that was an incredible experience. And to think that they can’t get that same experience from anybody else. And that involves, of course, the music choice, but also the visuals you see: the lights you see, the lasers, the special effects, and that’s all very choreographed. And that’s still all made live. So the way we do it is I DJ, and then there’s a cable running from my computer to the front of the house, with three screens so everybody is always aware of what I am playing, if I decide to change something last minute. Every song that I’ve ever played has a specific visual that goes with the song. And my team can, in real time, see what I am about to play, and adjust and create the visuals, and the lighting looks, and the colors, that we rehearsed for each song. Sometimes I play a song that has a visual that is also assigned to another song, then they can decide to, on the spot, change it, or whatever fits that moment. So, we essentially have a show that looks really rehearsed, and almost pre-made. Yet I have the flexibility to change anything, at any point in time.
ZOG: It’s more like a theater production than a movie, although you said it could be like a movie in some ways too.
Zedd: Yeah … it’s almost like when you go to the movies. You’re not going to buy your ticket and see a movie and if you don’t like it, you expect the movie to change in real time. That’s kind of how I see it. I am not going to go on stage, and look at the people, and if someone’s unhappy I’m going to change the music for that person. I spend way too much time … creating a theatrical show, to then adjust it on the spot, and make it something that’s not perfect. In my mind, this is what I want to present as an artist, and if people see me on tour, this is what they’re going to get. And if I, on the fly, decide to change something, that becomes part of the show. … Every moment is really planned out, every single light is planned out. So when people go to the show they should expect a real experience, not just me deciding on the fly what song I want to play.
ZOG: What sort of instance would cause you to change something on the fly?
Zedd: Well, for example, a few days ago I didn’t play one song, and what made me do that was just a mistake. I just forgot that I didn’t play that song. I thought I had already queued that song up, but I didn’t. And I was already mixed into another key … I’m trying to be very musical about the song choices I make, and I can’t just mix keys back and forth all the time, because that just doesn’t feel musical to me. So at that point, I was too far ahead. And I didn’t have any more songs that could lead into the key of that song that I missed. So I just left it out for the entire show.
What else could happen is that one part of my production is not working. There’s certain songs that … are not particularly exciting songs just by themselves, and I would never listen to them, because they’re not musical at all. But they give you the sense of lasers. Literally. You hear it and you think of something space flavored … and if we don’t have those lasers working, I’m not going to play that song, because it’s all senses that come together into one experience.
It’s not just about what you hear, but it’s the combination of what you see, and what you hear. And if you hear that sound of lasers, and then you see that right over you, and you feel like you can touch it, that’s the experience I want people to experience, and not just a song by itself. So, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong that would make me not play a certain song.
ZOG: What are some things that you do in your live set that nobody else does at all?
Zedd: I think the preparation that goes into my sets is something that most DJs are embarrassed of. And I’ve had a conversation with an amazing DJ, one of the best DJs in that sense, he could go up there and play six hours. I don’t even have enough music to play six hours. I could never do that. Neither do I think there are six hours of incredible music that I’d want to play. But, he was under the impression that it’s not real DJ’ing if you go up there and you already have something prepared, if you have a list that you plan on playing. To me, that may be true for a DJ. But I just don’t consider myself a DJ. I see myself an artist who presents a show. So, to me there is nothing embarrassing about being perfectly prepared in knowing exactly what you’re about to do, but I think that most DJs have an issue with that. … A lot of people back five, six years ago thought, “You don’t even use headphones; so you’re not a real DJ.” [I say], “Yeah maybe?” I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a need to use headphones if you’re well prepared.
ZOG: You don’t always use headphones, but you have your own headphone line. Tell me a little about that.
Zedd: Yeah. So my headphone line is essentially a headphone that is for everyday use. I wanted it to look nice, because a lot of headphones that look great, don’t sound great. So, in Tokyo I met with the people who make the headphones, and they had created a version of a Transformers type headphone … I don’t know how to make the parts, so it was dozens of parts, and you essentially build it as you go, and then you put on the headphone, and it looked terrible, but it sounded incredible. So I asked them, “Why don’t we both come together and make a headphone that looks incredible but also sounds incredible?” And so we started the process, and it was far over a year from the first drawings, to the first renderings, to the first design, then to changing the shape. And I just wanted everyone to have a headphone that is really pretty, and good-looking, and sounds incredible, but most importantly is really comfortable to wear for a long period of time, because as somebody who sometimes has to mix something on the road, it was important for me to have a tool that I can trust. So some headphones that I know: this is exactly what I make my music like in the studios, so this is what it sounds like on the road. And just to have that connection was really important for me.
ZOG: What’s next for you?
Zedd: What’s next for me is I just started my tour, so I will be touring for a while. And I am, for the first time, trying out to not spend two years working on one single album and then put it out at the same time. But I essentially want to finish a song. I will try to release it pretty quickly. And I started that with “Stay,” that was the first time I finished a song essentially, and put it out right away … it sounded fresh. I don’t know how fresh “Stay” would have sounded if I released it two years from now, when the rest of my album is done. I want to try that for a little while. Then next year I will probably take some time and make an album, and I don’t know what that will mean yet and whether that will be a concept album, but I’m starting to want to make one again.
ZOG: Have you seen costs go up dramatically for your show? What are some of the things that have changed over time, in that regard?
Zedd: Yeah, I mean, I remember my first tour I ever played as a DJ was with Skrillex, and back then, my production, as an opening act, was just a folding table. And between me and the next DJ, who was Porter Robinson, I looped the song, and he came on stage, and while the song was looping, we switched tables into his laptop, and then I was like, “Thanks, guys!” And I’d walk off the stage and he’d start. That is not the thing anymore today. Everything is really professional. From the change over music, from what you hear and see, between each DJ, to the cost you spend on a show. I mean it used to be really cheap to make a show, I used to be able to keep all the money, and now the shows cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, just to put on one show, because the special effects are expensive, and you have to get all these licenses … the expenses have gone up dramatically.