Every year, an annual two day EDM and pop music festival called Utopia comes to my hometown of Stavanger, Norway. The festival is held in the city center, on a series of concrete risers next to a newly built symphonic hall. Behind the main stage, the port of Stavanger looks like a postcard photo of an early industrial fishing village. Although the name would hint towards a concept similar to Instagram influencer-friendly festivals like TomorrowWorld, or Burning Man, Utopia is Norwegian to its core: simple, pragmatic, and business-like. Most of the 6,000 to 7,000-ish people in attendance were dressed in rain gear, the ultimate utilitarian clothing choice.
This year’s headlining acts were the Norwegian EDM superstar KYGO and Swedish House Mafia member Steve Angello, the latter of whom took the stage just before 10pm on the final night of the festival. A long DJ table bifurcated his appearance above and below the torso. A massive LED video screen behind him alternated between prepared footage—think black and white video of models dancing around in a kind of post-apocalyptic desert—and live close-ups of Angello working. Before that night, I assumed Angello was more of a clean cut, Armin Van Buuren scandi dad type. Instead, he gave off more of a Southern European hitman at fashion week vibe: long black braided hair, a black beard, gold chains, and, if not exactly a leather jacket, something that communicated as such. Although he looked dazed and more than a little worn down, I was down for it.
During Angello's set, I got to talking to some friends I’d run into in the crowd. The conversation started with gossip of his recent arrival in Stavanger (on private jet!) and quickly arrived at the question: "But ... what is he actually ... doing up there?" This question—along with the related statement, "my kids could do that!"—is one that I’m reluctantly familiar with, as it’s often lobbed at my work as an artist. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what Angello was doing, and what we were appreciating, were not tied explicitly to what we were witnessing in the crowd at Utopia. Angello, hard at work on stage, was not only performing, he was fulfilling a demand. As an EDM superstar, he is both the business and the product, and an unlikely representation of this particular economic moment.
This wasn’t a conclusion I arrived at immediately. My first reaction to the “what is he doing” line of inquiry was to get tense and a bit defensive, just like I do when the question is directed at me. This is for two reasons: The first is, it’s a shit ton of work being an artist, and it’s exhausting having to justify it all the time. The other is that sometimes, though not always, I can make a work in three seconds, with very little effort, and then that work becomes popular and I can ride on it for years. So,"my kids could do that!" is hard to hear because it hits close to home! SMDH.
In the case of Angello, I also get it. We were standing around on concrete risers, along with 7,000 other people, all staring at a middle aged man behind a standing desk. It made me think about a famous video of David Guetta—2011 DJ Mag’s #1 Dj in the world—zoning out during Tomorrowland 2014.
So, broadly speaking, what exactly was Steve Angello doing? An artist does two things. One is the work. This can manifest as an idea, song, text, painting, mix, performance...I can go on and on. And the edge cases here can be fun. Air can be work (Duchamp, Air de Paris), or work can be work (Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ artist residency at New York’s Department of Sanitation), or lack of work can be the work (Nam June Paik, Zen for Film). I love this kinda stuff.
The other thing an artist does is showbiz. Showbiz is anything that happens once the work "leaves the studio." These two sides of an artist form something like a mobius strip—they are related and continuous, and also completely dependent on each other. So when considering an artist broadly, one needs to take both things into account. In Angello's case, we can consider the work (i.e. the music) and the showbiz (i.e. everything else).
Despite being a casual fan of EDM, I can't tell you literally what Steve Angello was doing on stage. Perhaps he was mixing tracks in the traditional sense, one after another, shifting with the crowd's reaction, or in accordance with some other long perfected and practiced metric. Or maybe not. Maybe he was just playing his iPod, and every once in a while, turning the volume down, and tiredly yelling to the crowd. I really couldn’t say. But I have noticed a difference between older EDM stars and younger ones: For olds like Guetta and Angello, I get a sense that they have spent a considerable amount of their pre-fame life working clubs. Their sets have a kind of narrative and propulsion that seems learned. The younger EDM stars, such as KYGO, don't have this training, and mainly play their own songs one after the other. So, brass tacks: Angello brought Stavanger a proper audio set. Whether he was doing anything in real-time, or playing a prerecorded track, I am not sure. And I’m also not sure it matters.
The showbiz myth of a rock star is a never-ending near-death party. Think of the famous picture of Motley Crew shattered on heroin in a hot tub. In contrast, a mid-period hip-hop mogul might sell themselves on their business acumen. This is summed up best by Jay Z's, line, "I'm Not A Businessman, I'm A Business, Man." Meanwhile the EDM star is sold as the ultimate "always on" worker—polite, "business class," and 24/7 caked in the glow of a laptop screen. Skrillex famously played 322 shows one year alone (while still managing to produce and record!). In one scene of the Steve Aoki documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Aoki gets in a fight with his manager because the manager forgot to schedule sleep into his calendar. Imagine a life with hundreds of shows, sometimes two or three in a single day, and where a studio session with Will.i.am, is given priority over sleeping. Damn! The saddest of all was AVICII (R.I.P.), who worked (and partied) himself into sickness, eventually retiring from performing in 2016. In one of his last interviews — before taking his own life in 2018 — he comments, “Why didn’t I stop the ship earlier?”
When Guetta came to Stavanger to headline the Utopia festival in 2017, I heard he flew a private jet from Ibiza to Stavanger with only 15 minutes to spare til his set-time. And after the show he flew directly to Las Vegas, which we knew because he announced it on the mic! Angello had a similar schedule. In fact, the Utopia festival was one of three shows he played on August 25th, 2018. He also played Vital in Belfast and Creamfield in Cheshire.
If the question of what Angello was doing on stage reminded me of similar questioning toward my own artistic practice, the answer—primarily, get transported from place to place in order to meet the demand associated with his name—led me to a much different association. It made me think of Tim Cook’s major contribution to Apple, which was making it an "asset light" company. While Steve Jobs and Jony Ive dreamed ever-thinner metallic and glass addiction widgets, Cook squeezed the manufacturing on the back end so the hundreds of parts could come together and magically appear at the Apple Store as fast and efficiently as possible. Calling inventory “fundamentally evil” as soon as he arrived at Apple, he immediately started shuttering warehouses and initiating relationships with contact manufacturers. As a result, Apple’s balance sheet inventory fell from months to days. Products were shipped directly to consumers and to the Apple Stores warehouses. The stores rake in cash, and all the trouble of sorting this out is footed by the suppliers, who operate on a just-in-time basis.
This always “on” economy is present almost everywhere these days, not just with the world's most valuable company. Once, my studio in New York ordered AAA batteries on Amazon with next day delivery. I’d love to say we were optimizing our inventory to increase cash flow, but really we were just too lazy to go across the street to buy them (happy to go to hell for this FYI). Similarly, consider Angello's performance at Utopia. His team had three identical DJ tables, LED walls, and sound systems set up in three different countries: Ireland, UK, and Norway. In between these locations, Angello was not touring as we would normally think of it, with buses, 18-wheelers full of equipment, and roadies. Instead, he—his literal, physical self—was being shipped around, with minutes to spare, as part of an intricate just-in-time supply chain. Like Apple’s, this supply chain is also exceedingly light—Angello is the only asset required.
I often hear the phrase art reflects its time. But I like to think of it more as the inverse: that we relate to art because we can see our own experiences, and our own era, in it. In this way, even though it’s a bit past its prime, EDM is the perfect reflection of 2018. It is intense, adrenaline-fueled, all-night music made by hyper efficient, work-a-holic, laptop bureaucrats. At Utopia, as Angello stood behind his DJ table, those 7,000 people in the audience were celebrating the work, defined here as his audio set. But they were also appreciating his showbiz—the braids, the gold chains, Angello’s aura of Swedish House Mafia star, and also Angello as a representation of the ultimate just-in-time, carbon-guzzling cog. He’s a drone-delivered, next day package from Amazon, or a nomadic freelancer behind a standing desk in a rented office share. This is what the crowd—iPhones held high to record—could intuitively recognize. This, I now realize, is what he was doing.