If there was any doubt about the mushrooming success of electronic dance music – or EDM – consider this: Scottish multihyphenate Calvin Harris earned more money in a recent 12-month period than Toby Keith or Jay Z, according to a Forbes Magazine’s ranking of the highest-paid DJs.
Absent from that elite list – but noteworthy for ticket sales nonetheless – is Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival veteran Bassnectar, a project from DJ and record producer Lorin Ashton.
Bassnectar’s “Noise vs. Beauty Tour” arrives at the Memorial Auditorium on Friday , Ashton’s second Sacramento show in two years. (He previously played here in 2012 as part of his Vava Voom tour.) His upcoming appearance arrives on the heels of a 22-track remix album titled “NVSB Remixes,” which is a companion record to his June release, “Noise vs. Beauty.”
An integral part of the concert is Ashton’s nonprofit, Dollar Per Bass Head, which collects $1 from every Bassnectar ticket sold and donates it to nonprofit organizations selected by Ashton and his fans, known as Bass Heads.
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“I don’t think it’s any new concept to do it,” said Ashton, who started the program in 2010. “But it feels like the right thing to do and a synergistic win-win. You get to help people and inspire others. It brings the fan base together and makes us all feel like a team.”
While EDM characteristically features bass-heavy tracks and state-of-the-art lighting and laser effects to entertain audiences at shows, Bassnectar sets itself apart by weaving well-known socio-political voices into its music, sampling speeches from Noam Chomsky, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Fred Hampton and Martin Luther King Jr.
The Dollar Per Bass Head effort is activism focused on net neutrality, independent media and free speech, mental health and voter registration. Ashton said Bass Heads are well informed and motivated, treating Bassnectar concerts like a modern-day Grateful Dead tour, with fans attending multiple dates.
It’s a phenomena Ashton never could have envisioned.
“At this point it blows my mind,” he said. “But it also feels perfectly natural.”
Originally from the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, Ashton, 36, spent time on a commune and performed in metal bands in the early ’90s. In 1995, he attended his first rave and never looked back. While his danceable bass-synth-and-sample songs fit the EMD category, his music shows a clear metal appreciation with songs that reference bands such as Pennywise and Megadeth.
A fixture at large-scale gatherings such as Burning Man, Bassnectar’s popularity grew in the 2000s, with Ashton becoming an established name in EDM. As his ticket sales grew, so did his charitable work.
Since its inception, Ashton’s Dollar Per Bass Head has raised more than $500,000, according to his website. This year, his campaign is set to donate $75,000 shared among five charities (Khan Academy, Headcount, the Center for Media Justice, Center for Rights and National Alliance on Mental Illness).
Ashton said he sees his charitable work as a natural reflex developed from his experiences in counter-culture communities.
“In whatever scene, whether it’s punk or death metal or rave culture, intertwined with the music is something powerful about that community,” he said.
Ashton’s original give-back concept was a website providing comprehensive information about mental health, treating it as less of a “crisis response” and focusing more on “life enrichment.”
“(The website) would be an interactive Wikipedia where people from any kind of background could access real-time advice,” he said. “It could handle a crisis, but it would be more geared toward someone who feels their life is a B-plus and they’d like to take it an A or A-minus.”
Ashton’s interest in mental health began in high school, when he took advanced-placement psychology classes. Before the stage became his office, he had planned to be a guidance counselor or high school teacher. “I would probably be doing that professionally if I wasn’t doing music now,” he said.