‘Get A Proper Job’ The World’s Highest-Paid DJs 2017! How Much?
Few DJs make it to festival mainstages and Ibiza club gigs–only one has done it as an independent artist dressed like a marshmallow. Perhaps the only thing more absurd than Marshmello’s appearance–the anonymous DJ performs in a puffy white mask–is how much money he makes: $21 million over the past year, thanks to a rigorous touring schedule and six-figure nightly fees. “We were like, ‘How do we create something that’s not driven by who it is, or what it’s about?'” says Moe Shalizi, Marshmello’s manager at Red Light Management, who helped form the act. “We’re creating more of a faceless brand.” His music, a melodic, bubbly synth-scape infused with brief vocal hooks and nods to trap drum programming, sounded mellow to Shalizi–hence the name. Hits have followed: “Alone” has shifted some 800,000 units, according to his management, while his self-released Joytime–an album composed largely of tracks previously uploaded for free–peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic chart. Without a label, Marshmello enjoys bigger take-homes on his tracks and merchandise.
Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is no stranger to the masked marauder--Deadmau5, who last appeared on the list in 2015, performs in a mouse head. But Marshmello’s stratospheric rise is indicative of the music industry’s current state, where marketing and social media have never been more important. “We’re creating more of a faceless brand,” said Marshmello’s manager, Moe Shalizi. “That’s Marshmello … he’s only about two and a half years old and he’s one of the biggest DJs in the world.”
That hasn’t stopped fans speculating about his identity. Many believe Marshmello to be an alias of Chris Comstock, also known as Dotcom, a DJ-producer on Shalizi’s management roster who reportedly shares a first name and tattoo with Marshmello. Further indication comes from royalty monitor ASCAP: Marshmello’s “Silence” lists Comstock as the only songwriter on the track aside from Khalid, who is the featured vocalist–Marshmello is not credited anywhere. (Shalizi declined to comment on Marshmello’s identity.)
That’s good enough for the No. 8 spot on our list of the world’s highest-paid DJs. The group pulled in a collective $298 million, up from $270.5 million in 2016. Much of that increase comes from the two newcomers, Marshmello and the Chainsmokers. The latter clocked 2.2 billion-plus streams over the past year, mostly from crossover hits “Closer” (with Halsey) and “Something Just Like This” (with Coldplay). “We work with artists because it makes sense, because we’re excited about them,” the Chainsmokers’ Alex Pall explained to Forbes earlier this year. “Anytime we work with someone, it’s because they offer something to us creatively that inspires us.”
Yet the highest-paid name on our list for the fifth consecutive year is Calvin Harris, who earned $48.5 million—roughly as much as Marshmello and the Chainsmokers combined. The Scottish DJ tops the Electronic Cash Kings on account of mid-six-figure fees for his Las Vegas performances and seven-figure music festival hauls. He’s also one of the most successful crossover producers on the planet, most recently releasing “Feels,” featuring Pharrell Williams, Big Sean and Katy Perry.
Tiësto, the 48-year-old Dutch DJ who has finished in the top three every year in the Electronic Cash Kings list’s existence, continues to outpace EDM stars half his age, playing 134 gigs in our scoring period en route to a payday of $39 million. The aforementioned Chainsmokers follow close behind at No. 3 with $38 million.
The ranks of the top-earning DJs reveal an unfortunate lack of diversity—among the top ten, there are no women, and all hail from the U.S. or northern Europe. There is, however, a bit of a mix when it comes to age: the oldest, 49-year-old David Guetta (No. 7, $25 million), could easily be the father of Martin Garrix (No. 9, $19.5 million), who just reached legal drinking age.
Guetta still banks millions by combining festival gigs with club shows from Ibiza to Las Vegas. An international draw, he tallied 100-odd performances in 12 months across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. He remains one of a handful of EDM artists to have mainstream pop success, working with the likes of Rihanna, Sia and Usher. Very few artists have been able to straddle both worlds, hitting the top of the charts while maintaining the respect they’ve earned in the dance industry with tastemaking kids, but David Guetta has now been doing just that for well over a decade, and he shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. “When I started, our music was underground,” Guetta reminisced during a recent studio visit. “There was no such thing as DJ music that would be on the radio.”
When David Guetta first stepped into the control room of a New York City recording studio to play some previously-unheard tracks for a handful of journalists, something about the man was different. He didn’t look like the same DJ I had seen perform live at shows or in hundreds of photographs throughout the years. His trademark lengthy locks were gone, he had upped his style game and he was, somewhat surprisingly, visibly both nervous and excited to press play on the tunes that would soon be hitting airwaves around the globe. The world has this man to thank, at least in part, for dance music finally reaching the masses. Around the start of the decade, he ushered in a new era of pop with hit songs of his own like “Sexy Bitch” with Akon, “Without You” featuring Usher and perhaps most memorably, “Titanium,” which highlighted the incredible vocals and songwriting talents of a still relatively unknown pop oddity by the name of Sia. In addition to his own singles, Guetta also produced for artists like the Black Eyed Peas, giving them their 14-week No. 1 hit “I Gotta Feeling,” and further inundating the public with an all-electro sound.
Our rankings of the world’s highest-paid DJs take into account earnings from June 2016 through June 2017. Fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not subtracted. We create our list with the help of data from Nielsen, Pollstar, Bandsintown, Songkick, as well as interviews with industry insiders and some of the DJs themselves. It’s quite possible to earn double-digit millions as a DJ and still fall short of making the Electronic Cash Kings list. A number of well-known names fit that description, including some who had very big years: Steve Aoki, Afrojack, Deadmau5, DJ Snake, Kaskade, and Dmitri Vegas and Like Mike, to name a few. We’ll look out for them in 2018—after all, in the EDM world, a lot can change in a little bit of time.
Edited by Zack O’Malley Greenburg and Natalie Robehmed; additional reporting by Rebecca Lerner. Note: The first two paragraphs of this story appeared in the latest issue of Forbes, alongside names and earnings totals of the top ten highest-paid DJs.