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Son of Benihana Founder Earns Millions as a DJ: My Father Didn’t Give Me a Penny

At Pier 94 in New York City, a few lucky fans of electronic dance music (EDM) are about to get ... caked.

Thousands of revelers are gyrating to music spun by superstar DJ Steve Aoki, who will soon perform a ritual his followers eagerly anticipate at each show: smashing 10 sheet cakes onto the faces of audience members. Choosing which “lucky” concertgoer to cake will be tough: “Cake me the hardest” signs are spotted throughout the crowd. Aoki plays 250 shows a year and brings eight to 10 cakes with him per show, so around 2,500 fans will go home sticky with butter cream in 2013.

The 35-year-old Grammy-nominated DJ and California native has become famous for his stage antics, which also include showering the crowd with champagne. But the fun-loving DJ and music producer has a serious side, too: He oversees an empire that includes the indie record label Dim Mak, four restaurants, a fashion line and a charitable fund. Forbes estimates Aoki will earn $14 million in 2013, $2 million more than last year.

That makes Aoki one of the highest-paid DJs in the world (No. 11 to be exact). Calvin Harris, the Scottish DJ and music producer best known for his collaborations with Rihanna, Ellie Goulding and Ne-Yo, tops the 2013 list with $46 million, edging out DJ heavyweights such as Tiesto ($32 million, No. 2), David Guetta ($30 million, No. 3) and Deadmau5 ($21 million, No. 4).

Aoki says becoming a DJ was never a lifelong goal – he graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with degrees in sociology and women's studies and turned down a PhD program to focus on his fledgling record label. The lithe DJ with long black hair and arm tattoos seems genuinely shocked that producing and spinning beats has made him a multimillionaire.

“I work hard at what I do,” he says. “I’m really lucky and fortunate to make money at this.”

Aoki grew up around money – his late father Rocky started the popular Japanese steakhouse chain Benihana and accumulated a net worth of $30 million to $40 million in 2000, according to The New York Times. The elder Aoki (who passed away in 2008) lived a lavish lifestyle that included racing boats, exotic cars and Andy Warhol paintings. Aoki’s parents split the cost of his college tuition but that was the extent of his father’s generosity; Aoki and two friends each chipped in $300 to start Dim Mak. Mr. Aoki even refused to pay for printing and mailing expenses at Kinkos.

“He was never invested in Dim Mak, he never gave me a cent,” says Aoki. “He worked from nothing so he wanted to give that to his kids – that concept. So we all worked. My first job was working at Benihana as kitchen help. In college I was a telemarketer for a company at the same time I was a bike messenger for this greasy fast-food place.”

Aoki says his father’s stingy ways were actually a blessing.

“He taught me the value of money,” Aoki says. “I learned to be humble. I wasn’t sheltered or spoiled. All the money I made, I made myself.”

Aoki, who is currently in the middle of his Aokify America Tour and finishing up his second studio album “Neon Future,” acknowledges that very few DJs reach the heights he has, even though the EDM scene has exploded in popularity in America.

“There’s only a few that make it out there in the entire spectrum of what EMD or dance music is,” he says. “You only get Calvin Harris, Avicii, David Guetta. There’s this whole gray area of growing producers that, if they don’t crack through that ceiling to be part of a bigger culture … a lot of them won’t be able to get gigs even though they’re producing and doing music that’s influencing culture. Those DJs will be affected by a bubble.”

A piece of the market

It may be harder for aspiring DJs to make it to the big leagues but that hasn’t stopped thousands from trying. DJ schools are popping up across the country as more and more people want a piece of the estimated $4.5 billion EDM market. Las Vegas has become the No. 1 destination for EDM lovers and DJs are treated like royalty there: Huge billboards compete for space on the Vegas Strip, each one advertising a different DJ on a different night.

The city also hosts the three-day Electric Daisy Carnival every June, bringing more than 300,000 dance fans to the desert. Casino owners are building new clubs such as Hakkasan, the 80,000 square-foot dance mecca at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino that cost a reported $100 million to construct, to attract not only customers but DJs as well.

Aoki, Harris, Afrojack, Hardwell and Tiesto have signed exclusive multimillion dollar residences at clubs; these DJs can charge six figures for a single two-hour appearance. Not all club owners are willing to give DJs whatever they want, however: The family that owns Pacha, the legendary nightclub in Ibiza, Spain, dismissed its longtime music director this spring and has been reaching out to new talent to spin records.

‘The DJs wanted more money to play less,” Jose Urgell, brother of Pacha patriarch Ricardo Urgell, told The New York Times this April. “It was an abuse. We had to come up with a new plan because the old one was going to explode.”

Regarding the sometimes astronomical salaries of DJs, Aoki says, “I’m sure it’s going to taper off. It’s all economics in the end. You’re not going to pay a DJ unless they’re bringing in the beaucoup bucks.”

Paul Oakenfold, the three-time Grammy nominated DJ and producer who has sold 10 million records worldwide, doesn’t dispute that DJs are making record profits. But he argues the published numbers and rankings are far from accurate.

“Forbes doesn’t have access to Calvin’s bank account … don’t believe the numbers,” Oakenfold says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “If it’s true, good for him. He’s paid well because he’s had hits.”

The tech factor

Oakenfold – who hails from Great Britain and was one of the first DJs to become a household name in Europe and the U.S. – recently launched his North American tour to promote "Trance Mission," a compilation of remixed tracks from the 1990s and 2000s. He’s been producing beats for three decades and says the proliferation of DJs in recent years can be blamed on one factor: Technology.

“The producers are now the DJs,” Oakenfold says. "That’s the big change. But if you want to make it, you have to produce the beats, otherwise DJing is very difficult. The money is only going to a few DJs with hits in the pop world.”

Outsize pay is not the only issue rocking the industry. This September organizers of the Electric Zoo festival in New York City canceled the last day of the three-day outdoor concert after two young fans died from overdosing on ecstasy and molly (slang for pure MDMA). At least seven people attending dance music festivals have overdosed since March. Aoki wants house and trance music fans to know the music and concert experience can be enjoyed without being under the influence – and he’s the perfect example.

“I’ve never done coke or ecstasy or molly,” he says.

After Aoki wraps up his North American tour he’s headed to Asia for two weeks and then begins construction on his new home in Las Vegas; he’s outfitting it to include a foam pit, gym, media room and recording studio. But the animated DJ has no plans to slow down – there are always new fans to cake and spray with champagne.

“I’m excited to see the shows get bigger and bigger,” he says. “This is the sound of this generation and I’m proud to be part of it.”

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