Less than a decade ago, Adam Wiles was working the aisles of a Scottish grocery chain. Living out of his parents’ house without a college degree, he had all but given up on his dreams of making it as a musician, consigning himself to stock food items on store shelves for the rest of his life.
Looking back on that bleak outlook today, the man who’s remade himself as Calvin Harris emits a nervous chuckle as he fidgets with the permanent black ink on his right forearm that reads, “Enter With Boldness.”
That’s become the mantra of Calvin Harris, who pulled in an estimated $46 million over the past 12 months to make him the highest-earning DJ in the world. With neck scruff and a thick Scottish accent, the 29-year-old songwriter and producer is the face of the electronic music revolution that has long simmered in Europe and finally made its way to America.
“The rise of dance music has been astronomical in the last three years and I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he says, reclining in a posh lounge at Las Vegas’ Hakkasan nightclub just before his scheduled set at the 2013 Electric Daisy Carnival. “I made that decision completely by accident.”
Accident or not, Harris has latched on to his chance, combining sheer songwriting talent with a marketing strategy that’s dovetailed nicely with the growth of the now $4.5 billion dance music industry. In just the past year, he’s become a massive draw in places like Las Vegas and Miami according to club managers and, with more than 150 performances under his belt in the year period prior to June, he’s added a workman-like attitude that has kept the high-paying gigs flowing.
At more than $45 million, Harris–who didn’t even make FORBES’ inaugural list of the world’s top-earning DJs last year–had a bigger 12-month take than the likes of Jay Z, Katy Perry and frequent collaborator Rihanna. Like many of the world’s top-earning electronic acts, the Scot earns the bulk of his money from his life on the road, where fees in high-end markets like Vegas could hit $300,000 for a single night’s work.
Harris is able to command that much, says one Las Vegas executive, because of the crowd he attracts to clubs. With a DJ style that blends in stronger pop music elements than counterparts like Deadmau5 or Steve Angello, he’s able to cater to both general admission crowd members and higher-spending bottle-service guests, who can spend tens of thousands of dollars for a table and a few bottles of champagne. Harris says he enjoys Vegas because of its pop expectations.
“It’s kind of in that respect challenging as well, because it’s like, if you play too much hardcore club music people aren’t going to like it because it’s a lot of casual club-goers,” he explains. “They’re not all electro EDM-heads.”
Outside of Sin City, Harris’ touring strategy has been methodical, according to his manager Mark Gillespie. Avoiding individual headline tours at traditional concert venues, Harris sticks to clubs and festivals where margins can be higher because of the lack of production and venue costs. On a packed Saturday night at Hakkasan for example, all Harris was responsible for was an SD memory card, which he slid into the DJ decks just past 1 AM before launching into his self-written hit “Awooga.”
That track and others like it serve as a major component of the the Scot’s massive annual earnings. Unlike most of his electronic music colleagues, Harris has a songwriting background that dates back to his first career iteration when he toured with a full band and sang as a frontman. While he’s long left the mic stand behind, he’s carried with him an ability unmatched in the electronic space to pen and produce songs for the likes of Florence Welch, Ellie Goulding and Rihanna. His last album, 18 Months, sold more than 25 million singles in the last year and clocked in with nine Top 10 hits in the United Kingdom, breaking a record previously held by Michael Jackson. Harris picked up a vaunted Ivor Novello Award for “Songwriter of the Year” along the way.
“I like to think I don’t have an ego [that's] like you need to be number one–the best, the DJ of all time,” he says. “I want to be the number one songwriter-producer guy of all time.”
Ironically, his quest for respect in the songwriting world is exactly what propelled him to the top of the top-earning DJ list this year. Recently, he signed a deal with Sony/ATV Music publishing, earning a sizable advance. That combined with endorsements, production deals and song royalties, easily places him above the second-placed Tiësto, who took in $32 million.
“We’ve gone past the point of where a DJ plays someone else’s records and that’s it,” says Moffitt. “Calvin Harris is an international songwriter, record seller, music producer and collaborator.”
Not bad for a guy who worked at a fish factory and supermarkets only a decade ago. After finishing school, Harris set his heart on becoming a musician, saving up money while working in his hometown of Dumfries, Scotland with the aim of eventually relocating to London. He moved there in 2003 with about £4,000 and the hope that he could find singers to accompany instrumentals he’d created from his bedroom. But after a fruitless year where he burned through all his cash, he moved back home at the age of 21 and went back to donning the grocery store uniforms.
“I was just just thinking like, ‘That’s probably it, that’s my attempt,’” he says.
The internet, however, provided a second chance. Harris signed up for Myspace as a creative outlet while living at home, sending off songs and demos to people he thought were loosely connected to the music industry. Gillespie, who had previously worked as a talent buyer for British clubs, was one them. He added Harris as a friend on the social network–and eventually agreed to manage him after the artist scored a deal with EMI music.
“I think within that month I signed a deal and I stacked my last chicken breast on the shelf of Marks and Spencer,” recalls Harris.
Though Harris began his career as a singer and built up a considerable following overseas, he says he never felt comfortable on stage with a backing band. Following two full albums and various tours, he decided to stop everything and return to what made him happy: writing songs and producing music. Around that same time, he started to pick up a few odd DJ sets at a time when the EDM craze was just beginning to emerge across the Atlantic in the states.
“He moved in both folds for a while and felt more comfortable behind a set of turntables than on a stage,” says Gillespie. “He made what felt to everybody what felt like a natural evolution at the perfect time.”
Today, Harris has evolved into an international superstar. He’s won a Grammy, settled in Los Angeles and has his six-story likeness stuck on the side of the Las Vegas MGM Grand, where he is king of the nation’s largest nightclub and has a contract to play there for the next two years. And with $46 million in the bank from last year, it’s safe to say he won’t be returning to his grocery store gig anytime soon.