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 established dance stars like GTA or Hardwell. But the actual artist was Dutch producer Martin Garrix, 17, and "Animals" became the breakout single of the electronic dance music circuit last year.
Today the "Animals" official YouTube video has more than 200 million views. It hit the top of the Beatport charts in June, making Garrix the youngest artist to cap the EDM-focused download site.
His 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 just co-headlined the Ultra Music Festival in Miami and has a top slot in the dance tent at this weekend's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
It was a remarkable rise, from a relatively unknown teenage 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 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 has hit a chord with young dance and pop audiences, though, and made fans out of established Dutch EDM peers like 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 legally buy cigarettes in America.
"I don't see it like a burden," Garrix wrote via email. "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 23 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 definitely not pop music in the traditional verse-chorus sense. Yet its online ubiquity and mainstream chart success suggests that the EDM wave has transformed the definition of what counts as "popular music" in America.
"I think it's recognizable because of the melody. It just gets stuck in your head quite quickly," Garrix said. "Besides that I think the buzz around the release also helped in this process. I intentionally made the track to be a club banger, never imagined it to 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 like "BFAM" and "Torrent" and newer ones like "Wizard" show an ear perfectly 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), but won't say who.
But the instant-hit status of "Animals" transformed his career from an intriguing teen prodigy to genuine 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 — have to figure out how to make that stick.
"It's that kind of record which everybody loves, from DJ's to ravers, top-40 listeners and the kids," said Van Kooten. "He was 16 when we met him for the first time, and when he played his new tracks, they sounded fresh and original, with strong melody lines and producer talent. That talent combined with the extreme 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 Androids 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 said. " 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, he's 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 said.
To his credit, he's already made powerful allies among his ascendant Dutch peers, and major countrymen-stars like Afrojack, Tiesto and Hardwell have vouched for him with collaborations, single releases and social-media touts. He's toured the U.S. as a headliner already, but Coachella will be one of his largest American shows to date, the kind of gig that changes expectations — for better or worse, depending on the set.
While his career is just a few years old, he already knows the stakes at hand. You can only come out of the blue with an anonymous single once. Now he'll have all of Indio looking to see what he does next.
"Playing Coachella was one of my dreams, so it's extremely meaningful to me," he said. "I really can't wait."