By Lauren Clarke-Bennett & Taylor Bennett
When a 14 year old Armin van Buuren started out as a DJ in his native Holland, there were no DJ magazines, no GRAMMY® awards bestowed upon DJ/Producers and few radio stations that played Electronic Dance Music (EDM). For him there was only his passion and a group of friends buying and spinning vinyl records in amiable competition.
“We were trying to find our own identity with music our parents didn’t like,” Armin explains. And so EDM became a joy that sparked a remarkable career for the future five-time No. 1 DJ in the world (according to the readers of DJ Mag’s “Top 100 DJs” poll).
Growing up in Leiden, southwest of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, Armin was influenced by his physician father’s progressive musical taste. Although the somewhat mellow new age music of Jean Michel Jarre, Tomita, Kitaro, and Klaus Schulze was early inspiration, Armin sensed it needed an infusion of youthful vibrancy: “I brought the beat and because my parents didn’t like the beat, that was cool.”
Tapping into a growing EDM movement fueled by a younger generation who loved the club scene and inspired by the Dutch mixer, Ben Liebrand, Armin set the genre on fire and the rest they say, is history.
A skilled pianist from an early age, Armin developed a strong musical base, enhancing his ability to compose songs. His talent gave him an advantage over traditional DJs of the time who solely played and remixed other musicians’ works.
The advent of sound engineering software continued to give Armin an edge as he created his own music: “I have always had a passion for music on one hand and technology on the other. Computers have always interested me, so EDM is the perfect marriage of the two.”
However strong Armin’s passion was for music, a deal was struck with his father that he would finish his law degree as a career safety net. “My dad said, ‘Do whatever you want, but at one point you have to support yourself’.” So in 2003 Armin made good on his commitment and finished his law degree at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Mostly concentrating on copyright law and working in a law firm for a short time, his experience came in handy when he started his own businesses; including his record label ‘Armind’ in 1999. “I had a job offer [after graduation] but took a break to DJ for a year and I am still in that one year!” Armin recalls. “There was never a conscious moment where I decided to be a DJ. I just did.”
For years Armin felt that being a DJ was ‘just for a few more months’ and then he would take the job offer at the law firm. “I always had money, a degree and a great family to fall back on and it gave me such creative freedom.” And with his budding success he bought his first house from a publishing advance, a studio filled with recording equipment and his independence.
In 2001, Armin started hosting a weekly radio show named ‘A State Of Trance’ (ASOT) which now boasts 25 million listeners around the globe each week. ASOT garnered a huge following of fans of this intensely melodic genre of EDM and helped propel him to superstardom.
During the same period, Warner Music asked Armin to create a new track for their label he named, “Four Elements,” Benno De Goeij co-produced. For this he created a new persona he dubbed GAIA.
Ever since, he has released one or two tracks a year as GAIA. Although initially GAIA’s true persona was hidden, fast forward to Ultra Music Festival 2014 where no artist was allowed to play more than once during the three-day festival. Armin was in a quandary; he had his own ASOT stage but was already booked to headline the Main Stage. In a pinch Armin’s management made an emergency decision. Taking a risk, they listed him as GAIA and spawned a critically acclaimed world debut.
“GAIA is almost the opposite of what I do as Armin that is the happy face interacting with the crowd.” Armin reveals. “GAIA is more reserved, an ethereal presence, who always wears a custom-made hooded leather robe.”
“I like to create these new brands, like ‘Who’s Afraid of 138?’ which caters to the harder side of trance or ‘Rising Star’,” Armin said. “I like to keep things fresh creatively.”
After working with violinist Miri Ben-Ari on his 2008 album ‘Imagine’, he realized what a profound impact a real instrument could have on the dynamics of a record. “Dance music will always be dance music but if you mix that with live instruments it can add such an amazing flavor.”
Since earning a Grammy nomination for “Best Dance Recording” because of his single, ‘This Is What It Feels Like’ (with Canadian pop singer, Trevor Guthrie) Armin’s career has been ablaze in the US; his ‘Armin Only: Intense’ world tour is selling out from New York to LA.
Of course, many are waiting for him to release a follow up. “There’s never going to be a follow up. It hurts because [This Is What It Feels Like] was such a worldwide success selling millions of copies. Armin states. “I learned that if you try to do a follow up to a success you will fail, at least for me it is never as good as the first one.” With a winning formula and a reported $40 million net worth from royalties, endorsements and performances commanding upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars per gig, it seems Armin’s destiny is a lucrative one.
“I get a lot of offers to create and brand products under the Armin van Buuren name.” He cites his experience with Philips Consumer Lifestyle (formerly Philips Electronics) as being a positive collaboration on the A5-PRO headphones for DJs, which Armin co-designed with Tim Homewood, and launched in the US at Baoli Miami Beach during the Winter Music Conference/Ultra Music Festival/Miami Music Week.
“With Philips, I could have let them give me the product and just put my name on it but it was important to me to bring my five favorite headphones and sit with the designer to create a product I am proud of,” Armin said.
The result was a handsome looking product with a comfortable shape, easy to carry and maneuver, hard to break but most importantly, the sound quality is excellent.
Though Armin can’t talk about what’s next for him, he does have a wish list of artists he would like to work with: Chris Martin of Coldplay and Pharrell Williams just to name a few.
Looking to the future of EDM, Armin forecasts its staying power will be in its ability to change and grow creatively: “Styles will merge and mix and as long as the music keeps interesting, the genre will grow.”
The ASOT radio show continues to give Armin a platform to build Trance music thanks to the incredible talent on board…Andrew Rayel, Orjan Nilson, David Gravel, Marlo, Jordan Suckly and Brian Kernly. How long will Armin stay in this game?
“As long as I keep feeling that vibe and hearing new sounds and new developments, I will keep doing it or I may go back to being a lawyer,” said Armin.
Long term, Armin’s plans consist of mostly producing, as he has been on the road performing and traveling some 175 days a year. To keep in good shape for his crazy and sometimes brutal schedule, he runs, eats small healthy meals at regular times, drinks lots of water, gets ample rest and surrounds himself with an excellent support staff.
For Armin, being on the road is “a superficial life” but it can be rewarding, after all, the ability to travel and see the world is a privilege. However right now he really wants to spend time with his wife and two young children. “I love it — as soon as I close the door to the house it’s all about poopy diapers, taking out the trash, grocery shopping and putting my daughter to bed — that’s what keeps me in balance,” Armin is proud to say. “For me being at home with my wife and kids — that’s real life and it keeps me grounded.”
“Who is going to be there for me in 20 years?” Armin ponders. “I actually made a track about this concept on my current album, INTENSE, called ‘In Ten Years’.” It is a reference to the documentary he made called ‘A Year with Armin van Buuren’ now on YouTube.
“In the film, I make the statement, ‘I don’t know who will be there for me in 10 years.’ I know my family will be there — I don’t know if my fans will be’.” However as soon as the documentary was released he saw signs in the crowd that said, ‘in 10 years we will still love you!’ Candidly he shares, “It was very emotional for me.”
He stressed that he didn’t mean it as a grievance but as a normal logical progression of life. “I don’t think it is bad that Armin van Buuren was the no. 1 DJ in the world (five times according to DJ Mag’s “Top 100 DJs” annual poll) and now he is No. 2 and next year possibly No. 3,” he observes, “it means that music is progressing, things are moving forward. It’s a natural course of things just like living, breathing and dying. That is the beauty of life.”
No longer having to carry the burden of the fame that comes with being the No. 1 DJ in the world allows the EDM statesman more creative freedom: “I don’t think I would have dared to perform as GAIA if I was still No. 1 because you want to please people. I see myself always making music that inspires me. But I think I have learned now that I want to make music for myself rather than for anybody else.”
When a track leaves his studio now Armin asks; “Do I like it? Is it something I would listen to? Would I dance to it?” If the answer is yes then he is satisfied.