The phrase “DJs are the new rock stars” has been on lips since the mid-1990s, when British heavy-hitters such as Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold began headlining mainstream festivals and commanding six-figure sums. But it was the 2010s when DJs, riding the breaking crest of America’s newfound “EDM” trend became celebrity royalty.
The latest klaxon announcing electronic music's dominance came this week, when Forbes named Calvin Harris the world's best-paid DJ for the third year running. He banked US$66 million (Dh242.4m) in the past year – more than the world's best-paid actress, Jennifer Lawrence, earned in the same period, up until June 1.
That $66m is identical to Harris’s 2013-14 earnings, and nearly doubles that of his closest electronic competitor, the French DJ David Guetta, who earned $37m.
While he has toured less in the past year, Harris has kept the coffers full with higher performance fees and lucrative streaming agreements. His hit single Summer was Spotify's seventh most-streamed track of 2014, reportedly earning $1.5m from that service alone.
This year’s earnings have also been bolstered by a seven-figure deal that has seen the 31-year-old Scot modelling Armani underpants, in a series of moody, monochrome portraits.
Yet the headlines about Harris's enormous wealth have been left competing for clicks with other, more earth-swelling news. There's said to be three words that can change one's life. And these words – "I love you" – were what his girlfriend, Taylor Swift, appeared to mouth to him a few hours after the Forbes announcement, from the stage in Los Angeles, as the DJ stood watching his flame on Monday night.
Swift, 25, has been busy grabbing headlines of her own this year, most significantly in June when she took on Apple – and won. The multinational backtracked, red-faced, over plans not to pay artists during customers’ trials of the streaming portal Apple Music, and Swift’s status as one of the most influential women on the planet was secured.
The American singer-songwriter has amassed her own $200m fortune, including $80m in the past year alone.
The pair, dubbed “Talvin”, only went public with their relationship in May. Yet those three short words may prove far more than a cute milestone in a blossoming romance. Fuelling growing engagement rumours, those words signal the solidification of a new celebrity power couple, “dethroning” Mr and Mrs Carter; Jay Z and Beyoncé earned a collective $110.5m in the period analysed, less than Harris and Swift’s combined $146m.
This isn’t Harris’s first celebrity romance. In June last year, he announced, via Twitter, the end of a year-long relationship with the British singer Rita Ora.
This time around, it’s Harris whose reputation has more to gain. While his wages come close to those of Swift, she’s in another league of celebrity. On Twitter and Instagram, Harris boasts a combined 10.2 million followers – a fraction of the 106.3 million “Swifties” his better half reaches.
In many ways, Harris presents a textbook case of a 21st-century musical success story: an artist who rose to prominence via the internet, anticipated the mounting wave that gave birth to EDM’s superstar DJs, and cannily manipulated the media on the way.
Harris was born on January 17, 1984, in Dumfries, Scotland, to relatively affluent English parents. He began making bedroom demos in his teens, working low-paid jobs in a fish factory and supermarket to buy equipment. After a brief stint in London, where he failed to make a dent on the capital’s clubbing circuit, Harris returned to Scotland and set about posting early tunes on MySpace. In 2006, he followed Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys as one of a wave of artists signed from the social-networking site.
Harris's promotional single Vegas pre-empted the glitzy DJ culture he now embodies. In a half-spoken drawl, Harris lists all the things any self-respecting party person would want before hitting Sin City – "wheels", "girls", etc. It's ironic that last year Harris was reportedly paid $10m to extend his DJ residency with the Abu Dhabi-owned Hakkasan Las Vegas.
Such figures were still a dream in 2007, when Harris dropped his first album, I Created Disco. Tapping into an ironic hipster revivalist movement, it features the tongue-in-cheek British Top 10 singles Acceptable in the 80s and The Girls, throughout which Harris offers a list of races and nationalities of females he "likes", before repeatedly declaring: "I get all the girls."
However, it was Harris's work for others that would gain a wider limelight first. He was called in to produce two tunes for Kylie Minogue's 2007 album X, including the single In My Arms. A year later, he teamed up with the grime star Dizzee Rascal for the No 1 single Dance wiv Me, and the chart-topping follow-up Holiday, released a year later.
For his second album, 2009's tellingly titled Ready for the Weekend, Harris sidelined the quirkiness to unveil a more commercial, club-centric sound, inspired by international tours, which seemed to sharpen his dance-floor intuition.
A few weeks after the first single, I'm Not Alone, topped the British charts, Harris was booked to play to a few hundred at Dubai's now-defunct club Alpha. Three years later, he would be invited back to perform to thousands at Sandance; in 2013, he was one of the top draws at Creamfields Abu Dhabi.
Harris’s sophomore effort won headlines more than a year before its release, when the producer claimed to have lost the only copy when his bag went missing at Heathrow Airport. It was a lie so outlandish he was later forced to confess.
This was the first of many publicity stunts that have made clear Harris’s talent for manipulating the 21st-century spotlight. Later the same year, Harris invaded the stage when the Irish pop duo Jedward were performing live on British television, brandishing a pineapple. Even his apology was carefully worded to make more headlines, attacking Simon Cowell while supposedly maintaining regret.
In 2011, Harris commanded greater media attention after suddenly cancelling a support slot for Katy Perry, blaming her back-room team. The global headlines and subsequent spat with the American superstar – incidentally, the only female entertainer to top Swift’s earnings in the past year, with $135m – were worth far more than one 30-minute warm-up appearance.
All these antics paid off, as 2011 was the year the world fell for Harris. If Ready for the Weekend spelt out his intentions to infiltrate the dance floor, then the epic, hand-waving euphoria of his new material was going after far bigger game – namely the domination of radio play, music television and streaming platforms.
Strategically replicating what we’ll call the “Guetta formula”, Harris unveiled a series of hook-heavy house-pop singles, each calling on the services of a celebrity vocalist to win a new market.
The biggest was Rihanna's September 2011 smash We Found Love. Alluding to the superstar's abusive relationship with Chris Brown, the song hit No 1 in 27 countries, including a 10-week run atop the American Billboard charts.
His third in a hit hat-trick, following Feel So Close and Bounce (featuring Kelis), Harris's ascent was complete. By the time his third long-player 18 Months arrived in late 2012 – fittingly, a year-and-a-half after its first single – it already featured three more smashes: Let's Go, We'll Be Coming Back and Sweet Nothing, featuring Ne-Yo, Example and Florence Welch respectively.
At the time, The National's reviewer described the release as "less like an album and more like an hour of music chosen at random from any pop-music radio station in the world".
There was more to come – 18 Months chalked up a further three hits, making it the only album ever released to boast nine Top 10 singles in the United Kingdom.
Having penned his own textbook for chart success, Harris rehashed the template with last year's fourth album Motion – the first three of its six singles all hit the UK No 1 spot with laser-guided precision: Under Control, Summer and Blame, featuring John Newman.
After three years atop the Forbes list, the only way is down. And as a growing backlash mounts against the EDM juggernaut, while casual music fans look for something new, can Harris remain flavour of the month for much longer?
But that’s why those three words from Swift could prove decisive. Amid changing musical tides, Harris’s superstar girlfriend will keep the public gagging to hear more – scouring the lyrics of both songwriters for secret messages, analysing photos and tweets for signals of trouble in paradise.
From Kanye and Kim to Posh and Becks, when it comes to celebrity couples, the whole’s influence is greater than the sum of its two halves. So whatever the state of trends and charts, with Swift on his arm, we could hear a lot more of Harris in years to come.
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