Armin van Buuren Reflects on 20 Years in the EDM Business (Interview)
Armin van Buuren discusses his 20-year DJ career ahead of his Electric Zoo set.
Electric ZooCity: New York
Venue: Randall's Island
Dutch producer and DJ Armin van Buuren has been a fixture on the electronic music circuit for over 20 years. His latest single, "Sunny Days", is a radiant, upbeat tune, featuring vocals by Josh Cumbee (the video features a dancing mime), that could easily find it's way into rotation on Top 40 radio. In a testament to his prowess, he has earned DJ Mag's number one DJ in the world title several times (in a row). On top of his regular touring and family life, van Buuren has been hosting his weekly trance radio show A State of Trance for over 15 years. As a badge of honor for his years of service, van Buuren held a special The Best of Armin Only homecoming show in the Netherlands in May of this year, an event dubbed one of "unprecedented scale".
A couple of months later, van Buuren the globetrotter stopped in New York City to perform at the Electronic Zoo Festival. He has performed on and off again at the EDM fest since its 2009 inception. Of course, he's also played numerous other shows in the city to get to where he is, in venues ranging from small clubs to the now-closed Roseland Ballroom to the world's most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. Ahead of his 2017 EZoo performance, PopMatters spoke with him again (we chatted once before ahead of his MSG show) about his success, challenges he's faced, and the dearth of females in the upper echelons of the EDM scene. Interview has been edited for clarity.
You celebrated your achievement of 20 years in the EDM scene earlier this year with a Best of Armin Only show at Amsterdam Arena. How was that experience? How was the buildup to it because you knew it would be marking 20 years?
Well the expectation was high. Especially in Holland. So we really had to think of something that was going to blow everybody away. I only had four hours, from nine to one, because we didn't have a night permit. So we had to end the show at one, which ended up actually being a great choice because a lot of people didn't really want to go to six in the morning. It was actually a good thing.
But how are you going to cram six albums [and] five tours into a four hour set? That was a challenge because it also meant that I couldn't feature every artist I ever toured with. I did five 'Armin Only' tours since 2005. Every tour was bigger and better and [had] more artists. But because I consciously made the decision to completely renew my artists every tour, I had a big line up to choose from. So we sat down at a table and, from that meeting, came out a very quick list. Of course you have the experience from those tours. So we didn't start from scratch, it was just meant to get everybody together. Everybody had to get their heads around it again.
The great thing about it is that, over the years, since 2005, I was able to build a great team of creative people that support me. It wasn't just me doing the show. It was a gigantic team of people helping me. We had, I think, 45 dancers, 60 drummers, acrobats, everything. It was a gigantic team. It was the biggest operation I've ever done in my career. And it still feels like a dream. Because to play on your home turf in the biggest stadium available, sell it out, two evenings in a row, live on national television, that basically sums up your entire career.
That really must have been a wonderful feeling. Looking back on your career, was there a specific moment where you might recall saying that this, DJing/producing, is going to work for me?
It's hard to say because I've never consciously made the decision to make a living out of DJing. Having said that, I remember DJing in the UK -- I was having a really hard time to get my feet on the ground in Holland because there are so many DJs there, so many festivals. And who was Armin van Buuren, you know? It was actually via the UK that I really got well-known in Holland. So I guess playing in the UK a lot at Cream, Nation and the Courtyard, that was my first gig that I really felt like "it's going". That was February 2000. It was the same month that I released my big hit in the UK called "Communication".
What has been one of your greatest challenges?
Well, the biggest challenge is to balance private life, family life, with a touring life. Also, staying relevant, you know. Dealing with criticism online -- unconstructive criticism.
Being number one, I found that a strange sensation because I didn't feel like number one at all. That wasn't a challenge. But it's funny how, in retrospect, my career only really started after I wasn't number one anymore. 'Cause that's when "This is What it Feels Like" happened. That's when you know Armin Only happened. That's when it really kicked off.
So, I'm glad I was [number one]. If somebody would offer me the number one position again I would definitely grab it with two hands. But, it was weird because it messed my head for a little bit. But actually learning from that made me stronger and made me feel more confident in some of the creative choices I've made over the last couple of years.
Here at Electric Zoo, do you feel nervous?
Yeah absolutely, especially because it's the New York crowd. Expectations are always a bit higher when it's New York. Frank Sinatra will tell you if you can make it there.
I haven't been here for a couple of years, which I always found sad because the New York crowd has always been very, very loyal to me. Having said that, the New York scene has changed over the past couple of years a little bit. But I guess it's coming back. There's a massive love for trance music. If you look just look at it statistically, on my Facebook followers for example, you see that New York and L.A. are fighting for the most fans around the world. The most popular cities. So it's very important to be here. I feel blessed to still be coming here, playing this amazing festival.
I was at the very first edition of Electric Zoo. I was actually involved in the talks with the Mayor. There was a committee with the city to actually -- they were questioning, why they should have this festival. There was this big research and I was part of that. I was in an international call regarding that. So I had to have a close connection with the Electric Zoo Festival.
Now this is maybe a bit off topic but why do you feel, or do you have any idea of why there might be fewer women or minorities in top DJ spots?
That is something I always wondered about actually. I devoted a whole stage to only female DJs/singers. I just did a Trance 500; we had a 'State of Pink' which was only female DJs. It was cool, and it worked in a way but I don't know.
I just feel sad that there aren't many women. If I look at my own wife, she remembers lyrics a lot sooner than I do. Women have a great taste in music and I feel it's a sad thing that they aren't really on top, except for maybe Nervo. I really wish there would be more female DJs for sure.
Any tips or advice you may have for up and coming DJs then?
Oh, I can talk about this for hours. But my quickest answer would be, make a track. Sounds ironic, but if you make a good track that other DJs play, that's your quickest ticket to get to the top. That's how you get invited to other festivals. The more other DJs play your track, on their radio shows, on their stages, [then] the bigger your chances are that you'll get invited because that's when your name gets the name gets noted.
Also ask yourself, how are you going to stand out? Because there's so many DJs and so many aspiring producers. It's a hard battle. Ask yourself, how are you going to impress somebody? How are you going to be better than person X, Y or Z. Everybody copies, everyone looks at another person. But you have to think of something that makes it worth it for people to come out of their homes, to come and see you. So give people a reason to come out and see you. And if you can't give me that reason in two sentences, you may have to rethink what you're doing.
Any surprises for your Electric Zoo set?
We have this -- I did it at Tomorrowland and I'm going to do it again tonight, just to freak everybody out. I'm playing this track, "This is a Test". I'm going to crash the whole system and everybody thinks that everything will fail. But it's a joke.
I'll be paying attention!
AvB at Electric Zoo 2009
AvB at Electric Zoo 2014