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Dutch DJs spinning tunes from home to beat lockdown blues

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - In normal times, Dutch disc jockey Oliver Heldens performs for thousands of fans at electronic dance shows around the world.

But with festivals cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 25-year-old has spent most of 2020 in lockdown producing music and streaming sets online.

Heldens, ranked by DJ Mag as the world’s No. 8 for 2020, is one of a growing number of Dutch DJs to become household names. The global dance music industry is worth billions of dollars annually, including concerts, royalties and equipment.

An estimated half a million people tuned in to Heldens’ set before the Austrian Formula 1 Grand Prix in July, while fellow Dutch DJ Tiesto performed at the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Athens in 2004.

In 2013, Dutch King Willem-Alexander joined Armin van Buuren, another top DJ, on stage during a concert marking his coronation as monarch.

Such big-ticket events present a stark contrast to the dance business of today, with social distancing curbs forcing the closure of dance venues, many of which are struggling to survive.

“The whole year basically got cancelled,” Heldens told Reuters at his home studio in Amsterdam, where more than 400,000 people visited the world’s largest electronic dance festival, ADE, last year, and clubs are now seeking state aid.

“I see a lot of people around me having a hard time. For the whole industry it’s very difficult,” he said.

Instead of touring, Heldens has released new songs, started another record label, hosted a weekly podcast and livestreamed from Amsterdam’s prestigious 19th century Concertgebouw.

Dutch DJ Oliver Heldens performs during the Ultra Music Festival Miami, Miami, U.S. March 31, 2019. Milk & Honey Ultra Music Festival Miami/Handout via REUTERS

“I definitely miss the shows and the festivals and travelling, but at the same time, luckily, I haven’t been bored at all,” he said, detailing remix projects for Jamiroquai, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake.

By staying in touch with fans, who have held stay-at-home raves while he played online sets, Heldens hopes to keep spirits up during hard times.

“I am very happy to contribute in any way to that.”

‘PUNCHING ABOVE ITS WEIGHT’

Heldens, whose songs have been streamed online more than 2 billion times, recalled embarking on his musical career when he was studying Greek and Latin at high school in Rotterdam.

“On the day of finishing my final exam, I flew straight to New York to play a main stage set at Mysteryland on the Woodstock grounds. That was a pretty epic contrast,” he said.

Mysteryland, which attracts around 100,000 revellers to an annual 3-day festival, was one of the first major Dutch dance events to go international.

Last year, Dutch DJs exported more than 150 million euros’ worth of business, said Marten van Garderen, the principal economist at ING bank who follows the industry.

“We saw exports grow fourfold in 10 years. ..and this year had been looking like another good year until COVID-19 emerged,” he added.

Van Garderen calculated that the top 10 DJs make roughly 200 million euros ($237 million) per year, half of them coming from the Netherlands for nine years running.

“This is a good example of how a small country can punch above its weight,” he said. “We have the right climate for festivals, in which a culture was created for DJs and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

While 2021 is unpredictable, there is hope that electronic dance events will spring back to life. If not, “there will still be a lot of new creative music to listen to,” Van Garderen said.

($1 = 0.8457 euros)

Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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