Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, you know who 3LAU is. Over the past four years I have seen Justin Blau go from internet mashup artist, to side stage performer, to main stage headliner. My journey all started about two years ago. I was attending EDC New York and I found myself where many of us have been before, in front of the main stage, one friend by my side and three missing. As I stood there waiting for my remaining friends to make an appearance, the crowd went silent, and I heard those ten words I would come to know very, very well throughout the next few years, “Welcome, you just stepped into 3LAU's HAUS, enjoy the ride!” See, I didn't know it at that point, but I would get to know who Justin Blau really is behind the scenes just a few years later. As the intro to 3LAU's set finished and the beat dropped I turned my head. At the time I had heard of 3LAU but had never seen him perform live. Those first five minutes peaked my interest so much that I decided to stay. I, my friend Scott, and a few others enjoyed our first live 3LAU set.
After the weekend had ended and I was back home I decided to do a little digging and listen to a few more 3LAU sets I found online. Needless to say I was hooked. His mashup style and taste for all genres made his music great for any setting. Club, Festival, House Party, it didn't matter, his music was a great fit. Fast forward from 2012 to November 2014, at this point I had pursued my passion for music photography and was trying to capture every festival or club event that came my way. I got a text from a friend of mine and suggested we go see 3LAU in Philly. We all agreed it had to be done. I sent a few emails, got clearance to photo and that weekend couldn't come fast enough. Friday finally came and we packed the car and headed into Philadelphia. We made it to the club and posted up in the front. Luckily for me there was no photo pit, and being the only photographer (with the exception of Rory Kramer, who I also met for the first time that night, but that's a whole different story) at the show that night, I was allowed to photo on stage. After the show I sent the photos over to Justin's team and that was that.
Over the next few months I ended up photo’ing for Justin at Ultra and a few other shows. His team was always amazing to work with but this summer I got to really spend time with all of them. One day in July I was invited to photo three shows in three states in eleven hours with 3LAU. When you’re with someone for that long you start to learn about them, and start to really get a sense of who they are. Now keep in mind at this point in my photo career I have talked to, interviewed, and photo’d my fair share of artists, so I truly thought nothing would surprise me. I expected it to be just another day, but I was wrong. Over the next eleven hours I learned a few things about 3LAU that I believe make him stand out in a sea of ever growing artists.
1.) His Team:
When I arrived in Vegas I met up with his team (Nick: Tour Manager, and Rory: his Videographer). We caught up and then headed into the venue, as we were walking in Justin turned around, accounted for Rory and Nick then said “wait, where’s Joe.” He makes sure everyone was together before we all head in. During his set it started to rain. After about three drops he stepped back and leaned to me and said, “yo man, don't damage your equipment, put your gear away until the weather clears up.” To me that meant a lot. Many artists want one thing when hiring a photographer; great photos. Whether it’s rain or shine that camera is expected to be out and shooting, but with Justin he treated my equipment like it was his own. Later on in the day after three shows completed we went back to the green room at Dada Land and took a little breather. I came out of the bathroom and he and the team were holding champagne and waiting to make a toast. He was waiting for ALL of us before toasting and to say thank you for a great day. Justin made it known that there are many parts to making a show a success, not just him showing up. Before that day I had said maybe ten words to 3LAU max. And like any artist that hires you to photo their show, they could easily do nothing more than say “Hi, thanks for coming,” and that's it. But throughout the day I found that is not who Justin is. Over the course of the day he asked me about who I was, where im from, what I do, and treated me like we had known each other for a long time.
2.) Friends and Family:
Justin travels around the world touring almost year round. Last year alone he did well over one hundred shows. For any artist, not only 3LAU, this means that there isn't much time to see family and friends. When he was performing at Drais in Las Vegas he had three long time family friends visit him to watch the show. Sure they could have been given a VIP wristband and stood in the crowd but that wasn't the case here. Justin saw them and immediately hugged them and brought all three into the booth. For the next two hours he kept them in there with him and made sure all three were having a blast. At the end of the show 3LAU even brought them on stage and they all sprayed the crowed with champagne.
3.) Vegas is Home:
Traveling is part of any DJ's job, and doing over one hundred shows a year means that your home could essentially be where your suitcase is that day. But 3LAU made it very clear that Vegas was home. Throughout the day he talked about his time there growing up, his family, and different venues he likes to play there. At one point we sat down to eat some sandwiches while traveling to the next show, I took a bite and didn't think much more than, “cool, he got us all lunch.” Then midway through the sandwich he smiled and started talking about how much he loved the store where they got the sandwiches. Justin told us about how he and his friends would go there for lunch during high school and which types of sandwich were the best. 3LAU may have not been born in Vegas but he loved the city, and he was proud to call it home.
4.) Social Media and His Fans:
For eleven hours straight Justin's hands constantly moved from three things: his phone, to his laptop, to his controllers. Being a fan of a lot of different artists out there I was always curious about who handles their social media accounts. Is it the artist, is it the manager, is it some intern on the other side of the country? In this case it was all Justin Blau. The man absolutely loves to communicate with fans. If there was a free moment, Justin was on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram communicating with fans. At one point between venues he even hopped on Periscope to chat with fans live about his journey that day to his three different shows. At one point both Nick and Rory were seeing how many times they could say his name before he noticed, he was that involved in communicating with his fans. The most important thing I saw from this was not that he loves to spend time Tweeting, but that communicating with his fans means so much to him. Every spare second he had he spent answering fans questions, retweeting comments, chatting with fans about his set, and posting pictures from the day. To me he’s an artist who really understands that without the fans, there may not be a 3LAU. In eleven hours I didn't see him turn down one fan for a photo or hello. Later in the day we ran into some trouble getting to the last venue due to road closures in San Bernardino. His hour long set was cut short to a little under forty minutes. He was absolutely devastated. For the hour and a half long drive back to LA he didn’t say a word. He spent the entire time single handedly apologizing to every fan he could on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Not just a generic status update, full individual apologies to each comment. To Justin doing a thirty minute show isn’t what he signed up for, he wants to make sure every fan has just as much fun in the crowd as he has on stage.
5.) The Set is Never Perfect:
Over the years I have seen so many different artists perform a total of over 600 sets. Yes, I’ve kept track of every single concert and set I have seen live. With all these different performances I've had a lot of different thoughts go through my head over the years, but there is always one that constantly stands out, “Does the artist re-use the same set or parts of a set?” We have all seen an artist live and been stunned at how great their set was, just to hear an almost identical set weeks later at another venue or festival. So naturally I wanted to know if 3LAU was the type of artist who “regifted” his sets, or strived to create an original experience each time he steps onto that stage. What I found out that day made me realize just how hard some of these artists work on a day to day basis. In eleven hours Justin had to perform three shows. Being that each show was in a different state it would have been incredibly easy to play the same set three times in a row. But taking the easy way out just isn’t 3LAU's style. The second we left the first venue the laptop opened and it was off to work. He worked on creating a new unique set for each venue. The second set he created for the Red Rocks show he ended up tweaking just three minutes before the show because he had some last minute ideas. Even exhausted after the first two shows he put on his headphones and blocked us out for an hour to finish his last set for Dada Land, figuring out what he wanted to play and when all the way up to the time the SUV parked and we ran to the stage.
When all was said and done that night I put it very simply to his team. It was a pleasure to be in their world for a day and see how everyone operated. It isn't often you get a chance to do something like that and really see what it takes for a DJ to cross the finish line after a show. You can learn a lot about a person when you see them doing what they love, and to me these five things were what I really learned that day with Justin, Rory, and Nick. There is a reason 3LAU keeps getting bigger and bigger, and that is due to his constant effort to keep evolving. Justin doesn’t just find what works and then sticks to that formula, he finds what works and then says, “Ok now how can I take this to the next level,” and to me, that is what a great artist is.