In the southern tip of Nevada, Las Vegas stretches for miles in a dusty valley. It’s a city that shouldn’t exist. A desert oasis founded in 1905 along a railroad route that has, over its nearly 115 year history, become what could best be described as “Disneyland for adults.” It’s been everything from a Mafia goldmine of riches to a backdrop for nuclear testing to the go-to source for aging musicians seeking a second wind for their ailing careers. It is also my hometown, which has admittedly made researching the exhaustive history of how it came to be the musical mecca for millennials a very strange assignment.
The Las Vegas Strip’s shimmering stretch of hotels, casinos, and incredibly intoxicated tourists is no longer the musical domain of Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, and Reba McEntire. It’s as if the phrase “out with the old and in with the new” has just been invented in response to the music residency renaissance happening across Sin City. Alongside ongoing residencies from Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, and The Backstreet Boys, this year alone will see musical residencies from the likes of Cardi B, Drake, Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, Migos, French Montana, and Lil Wayne.
It’s no wonder that millennials made up 38% of all visitors to Las Vegas in 2017 – the first time they’ve ever surpassed Generation X as the largest tourist demographic. New casinos and clubs are sprouting like desert flowers in the cracked earth and interiors are being designed for optimal #selfies. Even established Vegas staples like the towering Stratosphere are getting a corporate facelift and rebrand—the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States will now be called The STRAT.
So how did the dusty desert rose that won the hearts of chain-smoking, gambling grandparents and 40-somethings in the midst of a midlife crisis manage to turn into a youth hotspot worthy of Cardi B and Drake? Like most of the city’s history, it has been a strange and surreal journey. A journey involving a seminal college radio station called Word Up, a Spike TV show, Celine Dion, Electric Daisy Carnival, and enough pyrotechnics to blow up Earth. But before all that, it begins with a man named Władziu Valentino Liberace, or Liberace for short.
Rat Packs, Swingin’ Hips, and “Mr. Showmanship”
In 1944, an up-and-coming young gay singer by the name of Liberace performed a week of shows at Last Frontier Hotel for $750. The shows were so popular that, by the very next week, his fee doubled. It was the first musical residency in the city’s history and marked the start of a long, illustrious career in Vegas for the extravagant singer known as “Mr. Showmanship.” By the mid-1970s, his reign as the king of The Strip was cemented with a $300,000 a week payday, or roughly $1,500,000 a week adjusted for inflation.
Liberace wasn’t alone in bringing his signature sound to these early decades of Vegas residencies. In 1956, Elvis Presley did a two-week engagement at the New Frontier Hotel that bombed with the middle-aged audience (and was described as being “like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party" by a Newsweek critic) but brought in $15,000. The King of Rock and Roll eventually returned for a seven-year residency in 1969 but not before the landscape of the Strip was changed in the 1960s by the music supergroup known as The Rat Pack, whose membership included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.
For decades, Vegas became the favored destination for musicians on their last leg. “The place where singers went to die, where they could earn a crust in their twilight years entertaining tourists,” explained Caesar’s Palace VP Kurt Melien. It wasn’t until the 1990s that, for the first time, the seeds of modernity were planted in the crisscrossed wires of the local college radio station.
‘Word Up’ Radio, Desert Dance Parties, and Drai’s After Hours
Before everyone from Jermaine Dupri and Questlove to 50 Cent came to town, two University of Nevada Las Vegas students began to shift the city’s sonic needle towards hip-hop. While Larry Larr DJed around campus, his friend Warren Peace began a show called ‘Word Up’ on UNLV’s award-winning KUNV. Throughout the '90s, the hip-hop show became an underground hit among locals clamoring for more than the usual crusty music residencies.
Alongside Warren Peace’s homegrown hip-hop renaissance, another genre of music was finding its footing in the desert an hour outside Vegas. In 1996, the same year Tupac Shakur was shot and killed just off the Strip, buses full of partiers were being taken north of the city for the dance music party Desert Move. With a lineup that included WestBam, Josh Wink, and other nationally recognized DJs, the party attracted big brand sponsors and radio station support. It also serves as the catalyst for Gino LoPinto and Aaron Britt to create Utopia, one of the most important nightclubs in the pre-casino nightclub era. During its five-year run from 1996 to 2001, the “indoor pyrotechnics, high-wattage sound system, and 'anything goes' mentality” attracted a roster of dance music heavyweights like Paul Oakenfold – a DJ whose historic importance to the city’s music scene would come a decade later.
Hip-hop wasn’t solely confined to the radio waves at the end of the '90s during the rise of dance music. At Utopia, DJ Larry Larry’s Sunday night party, ‘Hip Hop 101,’ attracted massive crowds every week, while 1997’s opening of Drai’s After Hours by entrepreneur Victor Drai served as a prologue to the genre’s eventual dominance in Vegas. As the millennium shifted and dance and hip-hop music spread through the valley, it was an aging singer outside of these genres that provided the cash-filled wrecking ball that finally toppled the city’s geriatric music residency roster.
Celine Dion, Spike TV, and the Oakenfold Residency
The 2000s were a strange time in America, but in Vegas, this was the decade that changed everything. While Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s double denim award show outfits were going viral before viral was a thing, the Vegas residency rulebook was being thrown out the proverbial window thanks to two very different but equally important events in 2003. On the strip, Celine Dion began ‘A New Day,’ a four-year residency that became the most profitable stint in Vegas history after grossing $385 million.
Meanwhile, off the Strip, a nightclub called Ice opened that became the centerpiece of Spike TV’s short-lived series The Club. The show ran from 2004 to 2006 as everyone from Tiesto to Armin Van Buuren took a turn behind the decks. It was also here that Paul Oakenfold tracked one last blip on the music radar before changing the game in 2008 thanks to an unprecedented two-year DJ residency called Perfecto at the new Rain nightclub at the Palms hotel and casino.
Before this moment, big-name residencies on the Strip had eluded dance music DJs, and to say it was a risk would be a massive understatement given the time period. The country had just slid into the Great Recession and Vegas had been hit especially hard as cash-strapped Americans abandoned tourism and unemployment rates in the state peaked at 14.7% – the highest in the country. A financial bomb had dropped on the Las Vegas Valley, but somehow it was another bomb, a 126 BPM bombastic explosion of sound, that would help the city venture into a brave new millennial-focused world.
EDM Everywhere, Drai’s Beachclub, and Britney, Bitch
Paul Oakenfold walked so that EDM could run in Las Vegas. In a clairvoyant move that would rival Miss Cleo, the DJ famously said that “I think Vegas is the new Ibiza” a week before his party’s August 2008 launch. Within four years, electronic dance music had exploded. In 2010, Kaskade and Afrojack began residencies and a year later, Calvin Harris joined them alongside the arrival of EDM festival Electric Daisy Carnival. By 2012, the steady stream of dance music became a flood as the Wynn announced an unprecedented lineup of 34 EDM DJ residencies for their clubs – including Harris, David Guetta, Deadmau5, Steve Aoki, Tiësto, and Skrillex.
Within four years, Oakenfold’s prediction had turned into a reality. Las Vegas was, by all metrics, the new Ibizia. But it wasn’t just dance music that began to fight back against the roster of middle-aged musicians still booking residencies. Years after the seeds had been planted, 2013 and 2014 marked the two-year stretch where EDM, hip-hop, and millennial-tailored music finally flipped the script for good.
It was in 2013, as Beyoncé performed her iconic Super Bowl set, that Britney Spears began a Vegas residency that would stretch four years and signal that you didn’t have to be Olivia Newton John or Tim McGraw to get booked. A year later, in 2014, hip-hop found its home at Drai’s Beachclub & Nightclub—a worthy spiritual successor to the late 90s’ Drai’s After Hours venue.
The rest, as they say, is history. With EDM and hip-hop firmly locked into place and Britney Spears making big-name residencies cool again after decades of dusty old performances, the stage was set for Vegas to bring back the youth. With arguably the biggest female and male rappers in the game making the money move to Las Vegas, the future is looking as bright as the neon-drenched streets.
In a way, the ascent to a Las Vegas residency for young, show-stopping artists has been a return to form. Long before music residencies became the domain of middle-aged singers, its earliest stars were people with flourishing careers, people like Elvis Presley or Liberace. It’s only natural that a city situated in the middle of the desert would take inspiration from its sandy surroundings. After a long drought of talent, the proverbial rains have come (with the rain, of course, being bank notes).
As millennials continue to overtake every other age group in tourism dollars, Las Vegas is becoming the entertainment capital of the country once again. Hotels are stuffing their halls with art by Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst and celebrity chefs including Bobby Flay and Michael Symon are setting up shop in glimmering kitchens. With all that on tap before you even hit a show, what better place is there young people to go than a city where you can see Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, Backstreet Boys, 50 Cent, and Migos perform while taking a selfie of yourself sipping on massive margaritas shaped like the Eiffel Tower?