When the pandemic hit and gatherings were banned worldwide, many musicians who yearned to be back on tour said they’d do just about anything to play a show in front of fans, whether it was at a shabby dive bar or in a parking lot.
“It was pretty special to go from nothing into Red Rocks. Weatherwise, it was pretty unpredictable,” the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist born Steven Zhu tells Pollstar of his May 2021 gigs at Red Rocks, which were highlighted by a mix of snow, clear blue skies and pouring rain against the vibrant sandstone. “It was one of the most memorable runs I’ve done at Red Rocks.”
The May 3-5 and 9-11 run, dubbed “Dreamrocks,” kicked off just a few days after the release of Dreamland 2021, Zhu’s third studio album and his first for Astralwerks. While the mood of the 12-track collection of techno and house has a dark edge, with tales of doomed love affairs and addiction, it also provides a vision of a joyful, post-COVID future, and features industrial beats, Zhu’s signature falsetto and pulsating bass lines that beg to be enjoyed while dancing alongside fellow sweaty revelers. As the spoken-word outro lyrics from the second track “Distant Lights” declare: “I don’t believe that music, dancing, the freedom of expression will be suppressed for much longer. It can’t, that’s against human nature I believe that the future is near.”
The Dreamrocks shows, which were reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, featured different artists opening each night, including Manic Focus, Marvel Years, Kill Paris, OG Nixin, and partywithray (who is featured on the Dreamland track “Zhudio54”). The run wrapped with a guest appearance from R&B singer Tinashe, who joined Zhu to show off her Dreamland featured track, “ONLY,” and to perform her single “2 On.”
“His show really has it all – it’s visually stunning, he has an incredibly talented band,” says WME’s Scott Schreiber, who represents Zhu. “The show is full of very poignant and cinematic and dramatic moments.”
Along with mesmerizing production, Zhu’s live show is highlighted by his backing band, which includes longtime guitarist Mitch Bell, saxophonist Aaron Leibowitz and – new in 2021 – drummer Vince Fossett, with Zhu on vocals and keys.
As a forward-thinker and true artist at heart, it’s not surprising that Zhu has embraced NFTs. To celebrate his return to the stage and thank his supporters, Zhu gifted Dreamrocks ticketholders with a limited-edition NFT token featuring exclusive content from the show they attended, issued by Night After Night and YellowHeart, with an announcement from YellowHeart noting that Zhu is “the first artist to issue free community tokens tied to a live experience.” An open Zhuman Community token was also made available to all fans.
Zhu’s team at WME also includes Brian Ahern, co-head of London music, and Samuel Wald in WME’s Sydney office. He’s been a client with WME since 2014, when he made his live U.S. debut at HARD Day of the Dead in Pomona, Calif.
The opportunity to play one of his first sets in front of tens of thousands was born out of the mystique surrounding Zhu’s early career. After building buzz by anonymously posting a mashup of Outkast songs called “Moves Like Ms. Jackson,” Zhu released his debut EP, The Nightday, in April 2014. The EP included the Grammy-nominated single “Faded,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s US Dance Club songs and charted worldwide, even as Zhu eschewed interviews and sharing photographs.
Zhu, who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, explained, “When I grew up, a lot of times I never knew who the artist was before I liked the music. It wasn’t until way later I even connected the dots. I wanted to make sure that people liked my music before having any other context of who I was or this or that. And just keep it pretty pure.”
By fall 2014, he was ready to take the stage. Zhu played a set at Australia’s Listen Out Festival in September and then in November he performed at HARD Day of the Dead, delivering a set the Los Angeles Times called the highlight of the festival.
“Zhu played before Deadmau5 and Eric Prydz and got a one-of-a-kind positioning for a new artist and really delivered on an incredible show and set the tone for the way that fans reacted and the way that the industry reacted for the next few years,” Schreiber says.
“Zhu is one of the artists that really went from zero to 100,” he continues. “His first ever real L.A. headline play was the Shrine [a 2016 show that sold 4,800 tickets and grossed $178,230]. Most people have to build up to that. The way that he presented himself creatively and the quality of the music basically got him to that level way faster than most artists, and what takes most artists years to achieve. So it all started with that first show.”
Although agents often talk about never skipping steps when it comes to routing tour dates, Schreiber clarifies that if an artist has achieved a level of appeal, you need to build on and take advantage of it.
From the start, Zhu “made such a splash and the music resonated so strongly that really there was no other option but to present him in such a big way because that was how the world wanted to see him,” Schreiber explains.
The 2016 “Neon City” North American tour in support of Zhu’s debut studio album, Generationwhy, kicked off with appearances at Coachella and featured a stop at Denver’s Ogden Theatre (1,600 tickets sold and $50,004 grossed) and two shows at New York’s Terminal 5 (5,552 tickets; $166,560 grossed).
Highlights of Zhu’s 2018 headline tour in support of his sophomore release, Ringos Desert, included two nights at Los Angeles’ Shrine Expo Hall and San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (8,500 tickets; $382,500 grossed).
In 2019, Zhu started working with manager Izvor “Izzy” Zivkovic, owner/CEO of Split Second.
“In our first meeting, which is the first time I had ever talked to him or really learned anything about him, except for the music that he had released into the universe, it became very clear that he is a polymath,” Zivkovic says. “He’s an artist at the core of his DNA and his art manifests in multiple ways. I’ve found that to be fascinating. The most exciting part of the possibility of working with him was not only being able to work with an artist that makes great music, but an artist that has really incredible product-facing ideas.”
Zhu says the pairing felt natural, pointing to Zivkovic having formerly managed Kanye West.
“I’m doing touring stuff to video stuff to music to fashion and all types of stuff,” Zhu says. “[Zivkovic] really understands multi-dimensional artists. And I think that we have a lot of similarities in the way we approach music and business. We’re … focused on the larger picture and cultivating culture.”
With the bulk of their manager-artist relationship taking place during the COVID era, Zivkovic explains that his recent strategy has been to focus on helping support Zhu in creating the best music he could during the pandemic.
“His live business is so robust that we felt very confident that as long as we were able to give him whatever support we could for him to create, when we came out on the other side of the pandemic, the appetite, we assumed, would be voracious,” Zivkovic says. “And that was evident in his comeback moment [at] Red Rocks.”
With touring on hold in 2020, Zhu hit the open road in search of movement and “driving on as many open roads as possible.” Road tripping through “Utah and Montana and a bunch of different states” while blasting music, the DJ/producer found inspiration in the liberating energy he wanted to bring to his new album. He logged time recording Dreamland on the road, and traveled to unique, remote locations for the select livestreams he played. From a performance for EDC Las Vegas’ Virtual Rave-A-Thon inside a warehouse filled with mannequins to a show from the Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park in Utah for Lollapalooza’s virtual edition, Zhu went above and beyond to make his sets exceptional.
Meanwhile, the pandemic gave Zhu extra time to work with his label Astralwerks to expand his fanbase with a variety of singles.
“We tried lots of different features. We kept the creative very consistent. He and his team are brilliant at just keeping the visual side on point the whole time,” says Toby Andrews, general manager at Astralwerks, giving a shout out to creative director Emmy Slattery, photographer Joey Vitalari and tour manager Kristin Schaefer. “Music-wise, it was great that we got to discover and try different things, try and reach new audiences and overall build his global listenership.”
Andrews added that Zhu has the “ability to bounce in and out of his core fanbase, you know, an underground club/house scene, and then also go to different names in the hip-hop and R&B world.”
During the past year Zhu has released a mix of tracks from Dreamland 2021 (including tunes featuring Yuna and Arctic Lake) along with non-album singles such as “Follow” with Kito and Jeremih and “I Admit It,” with 24kGoldn. The video with 24kGoldn gave Zhu a chance to show off his 2020 fall/winter merchandise line and he also hosted an “I Admit It Experience” event complete with a fashion runway show.
Zhu’s appeal to fans across the spectrum carries over to his upcoming festival appearances. Schreiber notes that in 2021 he’s “booked on Outside Lands with Lizzo, The Strokes, Tame Impala … But he’s also a headliner on Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, which speaks to his roots in the electronic world.”
The multi-talented performer has just announced a handful of fall headline dates with two nights at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles Oct. 10-11 and two gigs at The Great Hall at Avant Gardner in New York Nov. 24 and 26.
“Zhu has never stopped growing as an artist,” Schreiber says. “All the decisions that we make as his team are made to reflect this, always with an eye towards continued growth, creating bigger and better experiences for fans and staying true to his creative vision as it continues to evolve.”
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