The World’s Highest-Paid DJs: Electronic Cash Kings 2015

Forbes - August 24, 2015

It’s been a year to remember for Calvin Harris. Over the past twelve months, the Scottish DJ earned $66 million, dropped an album that rocketed to the top of the U.S. dance charts and started dating Taylor Swift, in the process dethroning Jay Z and Beyoncé as music’s top-earning couple.

The fact that he’s the world’s top-earning EDM act—tying the record for annual earnings by a DJ, which he set last year—is almost a footnote. Harris is once again the top name on our Electronic Cash Kings list, nearly doubling the total of second-ranked David Guetta, who pulled in $37 million. Not bad for a guy who’s roughly a decade removed from being a supermarket stockboy in a remote town in Scotland.

“The rise of dance music has been astronomical … I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he told FORBES.

Harris and Guetta are followed on the list by Tiësto. Though the Dutch DJ is one of the older names on the circuit, he played over 100 dates in our scoring period and out-earned twentysomething whippersnappers from Avicii (No. 6, $19 million) to Zedd (No. 8, $17 million).

Skrillex and Steve Aoki round out the top five, tied at $24 million apiece, the highest figure of any American DJs on the list. The former played more than 95 shows during our scoring period while the latter tallied 216 shows, down from 277 gigs last year. Both are among a surprising number of DJs who run their own record labels—OWSLA for Skrillex, Dim Mak for Aoki.

“At the end of the day,” says Aoki, “I want to have as much flexibility as possible on the economic side … When we think about how to maintain and sustain the culture, we ultimately make more money.”

That total has soared in recent years. Over the past 12 months, the top ten DJs took in $274 million, more than double the $116 million total for the top ten in 2012. But the pace is slowing. After a 108% increase from 2012 to 2013, the number grew 11% from 2013 to 2014, and only 2.5% from 2014 to 2015.

Part of the reason: as the market for EDM acts become more saturated, fees aren’t rising at the rate they were a few years ago. And many DJs are engaging in a costly arms race to pack their shows with visual effects to distinguish themselves from their rivals. That means the genre whose practitioners need little more than a USB drive and a pair of CDJs now often put 30-40% of their fees toward production.

“The cost that comes with taking responsibility for your appearance, and for your shows, and for your company … it’s a whole different level,” says Afrojack, who ranks 10th with $16 million in earnings.

Afrojack is one of seven foreign-born DJs among our top twelve—and one of three from the Netherlands—but the highest paid electronic acts aren’t such a diverse group in other ways. There isn’t a single female on the list; only sister duos Nervo and Krewella come close.

“In the techno scene there’s a lot more girls,” said Miriam Nervo in an interview with FORBES last year. “In the big room scene there aren’t as many girls, but there are more and more coming up every year.”

Indeed, there are more up-and-coming DJs of all stripes vying to step into the top tier, including near misses for this list including Alesso, Hardwell, Armin Van Buuren, DJ Snake and the former members of Swedish House Mafia.

They’ll undoubtedly keep trying to find new ways to raise their profiles—but dating the world’s biggest pop star is one option that appears to be off the table for all but one DJ.

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The World’s Highest-Paid DJs: Electronic Cash Kings 2015

It’s been a year to remember for Calvin Harris. Over the past twelve months, the Scottish DJ earned $66 million, dropped an album that rocketed to the top of the U.S. dance charts and started dating Taylor Swift.

The fact that he’s the world’s top-earning EDM act—tying the record for annual earnings by a DJ, which he set last year—is almost a footnote. Harris is once again the top name on our Electronic Cash Kings list, nearly doubling the total of second-ranked David Guetta, who pulled in $37 million. Not bad for a guy who’s roughly a decade removed from being a supermarket stockboy in a remote town in Scotland. Read more.

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