Last May, the Dutch dance music label Spinnin' Records quietly uploaded part of a new track to its social media accounts. Animals (Teaser) was an instrumental number, full of evil sing-songy synth riffs and stuttering drums.
Early speculation pegged the song as a new single from dance stars such as GTA or Hardwell, but the artist turned out to be 17-year-old Dutch producer Martin Garrix, and Animals became the breakout single of the electronic dance music (EDM) circuit in 2013.
It hit the top of the Beatport charts in June, making Garrix the youngest artist to cap the EDM-focused download site. Today, the Animals official YouTube video has more than 200 million views.
Garrix's teen-idol good looks and zeitgeisty sound helped him land a deal with Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber's manager, and he joined a stable of fellow internet-hit artists such as Ariana Grande, Psy and Carly Rae Jepsen. He recently co-headlined the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, and had a top slot in the dance tent at last weekend's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California.
It's a remarkable rise from a relatively unknown teen producer to the elite of global dance music after just a few singles and remixes. Some old-guard EDM fans gripe that it's no accident he has hooked up with the pop star-shepherding Braun. The famously snarky producer Deadmau5 once spun Animals ironically during a set, and later tweeted "ban me for playing … animals. ban everyone else who does too, so we can be done with this commercial EDM crap".
Garrix's sound, however, has hit a chord with young dance and pop audiences, and made fans out of established Dutch EDM peers such as Tiesto, Sidney Samson and Hardwell. His next moves will show whether he can become dance music's next major crossover star, or whether audiences will be burned out on Animals - and him - before he can even legally buy cigarettes in the US.
"I don't see it like a burden," Garrix says via e-mail. "It keeps me driven and motivated to get the best out of my producing skills. Of course I hope that I will get more hit singles such as Animals."
The success of Animals is just as remarkable for its musicality as it is for Garrix's age. The song is the highest-charting instrumental track to hit the Billboard singles charts since 1996 (it peaked at No23 on the Hot 100). Unlike the triumphant earnestness of Swedish House Mafia's Don't You Worry Child or Avicii's Wake Me Up, it moves in minor-key fits and starts, from the main single-finger distorted synth riff to percussive hailstorms, crowd-pleasing snare cracks and mangled vocal samples.
It's catchy, but not pop music in the traditional verse-chorus sense. Yet its mainstream chart success and online ubiquity suggest the EDM wave has transformed the definition of what counts as "popular music".
"I think it's recognisable because of the melody. It just gets stuck in your head quite quickly," Garrix says. "The buzz around the release also helped … I made the track to be a club banger [but] never imagined it would turn out this big."
It's far from his first track: he'd previously remixed Christina Aguilera's Your Body for an official release, and early tracks such as BFAM and Torrent, and newer ones like Wizard show an ear tuned to the spiky, melodic sound that drives festival main stages. Garrix has said he "ghost-produced" a popular single for another artist on Spinnin' (which led to his signing there); he won't say who.
The instant-hit status of Animals has transformed his career from an intriguing prodigy to star in a matter of weeks. Now his management firms - Scooter Braun Projects and MusicAllStars, a Dutch firm founded by Spinnin's Eelko van Kooten and Roger de Graaf - must make that stick. "It's that kind of record which everybody loves, from DJs to ravers, top-40 listeners and the kids," says Van Kooten. "He was 16 when we met him and when he played his new tracks, they sounded fresh and original, with strong melody lines and producer talent. That talent combined with the ambition he showed seemed very promising."
The task won't be easy. The usually credulous EDM blogosphere has made a sport of Garrix-grumbling. Some rave sites such as Do Androids Dance have claimed that Animals is a rip-off and that Spinnin' intentionally misled fans with its cryptic release strategy. "Knowing how hard it is to make a lasting break, Spinnin' resorted to the bait-and-switch tactic to grab attention rather than release anything forward-thinking or of stand-out quality," the site wrote.
There's also a question of what exactly to do with a teenage producer who is clearly capable of both pop success and EDM-fest headlining slots. He has diverse tastes and myriad side projects: "I love the sound of Disclosure, for an example," he says. "I like doing cross-over projects with other genres. I would love to make a track with Lana Del Rey, I am a big fan of her voice."
To avoid flash-in-the-pan status - an extra risk because of his youth - Garrix is going to need more hits to secure the validity and seriousness of a long career. "Well, I understand it, but music is music, and my age doesn't change anything about the tracks I make," he says.
To his credit, he's already made allies among his ascendant Dutch peers, and major countrymen-stars including Afrojack, Tiesto and Hardwell have vouched for him with collaborations, single releases and social-media touts.
Although his career is just a few years old, Garrix already knows the stakes at hand. You can only come out of the blue with an anonymous single once. After Coachella, he'll have many eyes watching what he does next. "Playing Coachella was one of my dreams, so it's extremely meaningful to me," he says.
Los Angeles Times