At Work With Stephanie LaFera, WME’s Resident Rave Expert and Head of Electronic Music
In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
If it weren’t for the unusual events of 2020, Stephanie LaFera would be spending her days at dance shows till the early hours of the morning, trying to catch a vibe. “Friends of mine who I’ve met through my kids, the moms, can never believe the hours these artists keep when they’re going to club shows” the music executive and lifelong EDM fan tells Rolling Stone. “I joke that you’re going to have to wheel me onto the dance floor.”
Since March, LaFera — the founder and former CEO of EDM management group Little Empire Music — has been at talent agency WME as the company’s head of electronic music, working with high-profile EDM artists including Calvin Harris and Steve Aoki. Previously, she managed the careers of prominent electronic acts like Galantis and CID. LaFera spoke with Rolling Stone about helping electronic music shift into livestreaming, what the return will be like for EDM shows, and how her love of the electronic music scene influences her work.
How do your days usually start?
It can really depend on my two-year-old’s mood. I wake up any time between 5 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. and I can start working around 7 a.m. I’ve got teams in Sydney, London, New York, LA.
We tend to listen to Radio 1 most mornings over breakfast — I find the programming to be really relevant and current. I still enjoy regular radio. If not that, we’ll put on a playlist of something I need to check out, some fresh finds. We listen to music at all times. My neighbors here might wonder what’s going on in my house when we have an Adele High Contrast remix bumping at 7 o’clock in the morning. But my kids, husband, and I like listening to music as much as we can. It varies, we’ll listen to anything all over the board. We try to educate our kids, we listen to a lot of Billie Holiday and Etta James at dinner.
Have your kids taken to EDM too?
They love it — they love to dance. Although my six-year-old is super into Dua Lipa; that’s her first pop-star she’s gotten super attached to, and I’m not mad, she’s amazing. She told me the other day — she’s doing virtual kindergarten — they had a dance break where they all get up to move their bodies. They were playing Kidz Bop versions of songs and she refused to dance. She was like “I like the regular versions of songs, mom.”
“The electronic music community was already doing [livestreaming] — that’s why it feels natural. It’s been natural for our artists to go full-force into it.”
You were announced for the role at WME in early March, so nearly your entire tenure at the company has been in the quarantine era. How has that shaped what your job is?
They announced that I was coming on a Monday, and I went in for a couple meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. One of the first meetings I sat in was about what was happening worldwide with the pandemic and what could be coming to the states. By Thursday, the offices were all closed. So I’m yet to be working in an office. I’m doing this job purely as a virtual role, which is a trip. It’s been an interesting journey finding camaraderie through a screen, that’s a challenge, but with my background in management I’m forward in putting myself out there.
When you started, the mentality was that it was going to be a booming year for live music, and that quickly halted. How did you shift gears?
A lot of the things I intended to do, we’re still doing. One of the goals they had in bringing me in was bringing the global team closer together and strengthening the core team that we have, and of course every company has faced disruption, but what we’ve been doing to serve our clients right now has been stellar. We’ve been pivoting into virtual appearance groups to help clients and their teams understand the landscape of what it means to be in livestreaming, and how to champion it. It’s about thinking fast and on your feet to mobilize our team and getting around our clients and management teams to support them in a time where we don’t know the future.
EDM artists and DJs seemed to be some of the quickest to take to livestreaming. Why is that?
The electronic music community was already doing it — that’s why it feels natural. It’s been natural for our artists to go full-force into it. There were already people streaming on Twitch on a regular basis. So for us, it’s down to the artists’ needs and what they want to do. Not every artist wants to do something with the highly technical lights and visuals in a livestream environment. So we’re trying to figure out what each client is comfortable with and how they want to be presented and helping them find a way to either monetize or get involved with charities or donating to special causes.
Will the return for EDM shows will be harder or easier than for other genres like rock or hip-hop?
There’s a little bit of a difference, not necessarily in the festivals or hard shows, but when you speak to nightclubs and those businesses. I’m not a mindreader, but I do think it’s a little bit easier to translate social distancing and those measures for concert experiences into ticketed events in venues rather than in nightclubs where it’s one wide-open floor.
I think the part that’s easier in electronic is that our artists are more willing and able to get in the car or on a plane and don’t require a guitar tech, or as much of a crew to mobilize and move place to place, so it’s a bit easier for us to jump and start moving when they say they can go.
“I was taught pretty early on not to burn bridges, to be respectful of people at all levels — whether it’s an assistant, an intern or the head of the company — and that’s served me very well. I try to move through this business with as much grace as possible.”
You grew up going to raves and EDM shows. Does working in the scene change your view of it?
I’ve been consuming and loving this music since I was 13. Opening up the curtain and seeing what’s behind it hasn’t made me feel different. I still love the feeling of being on a dance floor and you’re in one big group hug. The energy you get from the music, the crowd and everyone being connected, still speaks to me. Being in the role I’m in now helps me find people and not lose touch of what we’re doing. It’s a business, but it’s 100% a business of culture. I joke that you’re going to have to wheel me onto the dance floor. I love being a part of it and still actively go out. If I love an artist, I’m still paying for a ticket, and some of that goes back to being an old raver.
Before the pandemic, were you still heading to the late night shows?
Before I switched jobs, I was finishing up the Galantis tour, and they would do late, late shows. I don’t mind it, to me the shows are the cherry on top. That’s where you go to resew the energy and to feel that excitement. It’s challenging for all of us who work in live music right now to not get to tap into that. But, you know, I watched Tomorrowland on my screen with my six-year-old, bouncing around the kitchen trying to catch a vibe. We’re all finding our way, but I really do go out to the shows working or not. There are plenty of people that will get me up out of my house to catch a good show and have a good dance.
Do you think executives who didn’t grow up on the EDM culture can run the business?
I always say that it’s just in your bones, you can’t shake it. During what we call the “EDM boom,” the big heyday of the Vegas deals and EDC moving to Las Vegas and it just going crazy in North America, a lot of people got involved who weren’t as culturally connected to it. There’s room for everybody — but I don’t think the core collective of people who dedicate their lives to this will ever change from people who are passionate about it. I didn’t get into dance music because of big money or people doing big corporate deals. I got into it because I loved it. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a place where it won’t feel authentic. I ask even our assistants at WME here, “Who’s about it?” I want to know who really loves it, what they’re listening to. Even if it’s not EDM, that’s cool — what are you into? If you aren’t passionate about music, that’s maybe a different story.
The shows are getting bigger and there’s a new corporate element, but it doesn’t seem like electronic music has completely taken over.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why that’s the case. But if a party starts at 7 p.m. and ends at 6 a.m., that’s probably going to eliminate a large group of people. The nighttime aspect may keep it away from certain types of people who love a concert that starts at 8 p.m. ends at 11 p.m. and you’re asleep by midnight. Some electronic acts playing concerts or festivals will go by those hours, but a lot of those artists will still play that after show till 4 a.m. because it’s fun.
In your own career as a music executive, what has been the best advice you’ve received?
I was taught pretty early on not to burn bridges, to be respectful of people at all levels — whether it’s an assistant, an intern or the head of the company — and that’s served me very well. I try to move through this business with as much grace as possible. We want to get the best deals for our artists and be the best at our jobs, but I also want to show humility and kindness. That’s something I’ve always held very close to me.