A chill swept through Bonnaroo at 4:50 a.m., the sun rising in Manchester, Tennessee, on June 16, and bringing a faint light that seeped into the campgrounds. A crowd 10,000 fans deep had been at the Where in the Woods stage all night to witness Zeds Dead’s Deadbeats record label’s takeover, where they brought along several artists for a showcase. Zeds Dead, the electronic duo made up of Dylan Mamid and Zachary Rapp-Rovan, was still going strong despite starting their night at 12:45 a.m. with a slot on Thursday night closing out The Other Stage. Harrison Bennett, Deadbeats’ label manager, jumped down from behind to show off a video of the crowd stretching through the woods and declared they were at capacity. Just as the sun broke the horizon, Zeds Dead pressed play on their remix of Blue Foundation’s “Eyes on Fire.”
Cody Chapman, Zeds Dead’s booking agent at Wasserman Music, said in the days following the festival that the set at Where in the Woods has become one of the Canadian duo’s all-time favorites. The performance started with a Bassmentality throwback, harkening back to their weekly parties in the basement of a Toronto bar where the duo got their start 14 years ago. Over the course of the two-hour set, they moved into house music, highlighting their genre-fluid sound and experimentation behind the decks.
In the last few years, Zeds Dead started limiting their tour dates. They no longer pile into a bus and traverse North America. Instead, the duo began modeling their shows after iconic jam bands, returning to the same markets year after year. Their curated lineups have transformed into multi-night runs in Denver, New York City, Toronto, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and more. Zeds Dead has sold an average of 2,815 tickets per show in 2023 with an average gross of $147,219, based on reports submitted to Pollstar between February and June. Highlights include four shows that took place April 20-21 in Madison, Wisconsin, with two performances at The Sylvee that sold 8,502 tickets and grossed $421,840 and two after-party gigs at the Majestic Theatre that sold 1,200 tickets and grossed $38,814.
“The touring inspiration that we’ve taken comes from some of the great jam bands and the cycles they put themselves on every year,” Chapman says. “We’re not necessarily dependent on a full-length album tour. We look at creating annual events specifically with the Deadbeats brand where we can put on the newest artists that the guys are excited about. And the fans in those different regions can expect when shows are gonna come. We’ll do them differently, change venues or scale up or present them as two or three shows instead of just one.”
Jam bands come up frequently throughout talks with the Deadbeats team. Chapman calls while on his way to see Dead & Company’s shows at Citi Field in Queens, New York, and Bennett casually mentions he’s lost count how many times he’s seen Phish after hitting 50 shows.
“We’re obviously fans of The Grateful Dead,” says Zeds Dead’s manager, Adam Gill, CEO and founder of 2+2 Management, as well as president of promotion company Embrace Presents (acquired by Live Nation in 2019). “I think those bands did a really good job of building a connection and long-term relationship with their fans. We go to the same places every year, and we’re doing it because we’re growing with our fans. Just put on a good show, bring in great production, make the shows awesome. Then come back, do it again bigger. Our approach is we want to have a real, long-term relationship with our audience.”
The Deadbeats fanbase has also taken a similar approach. They’ll travel across state lines, planning entire vacations around Zeds Dead dates. Coming across fans who have seen countless shows is not uncommon.
“Sometimes we meet people and they’re like, ‘I’ve been to 35 of your shows,” Mamid tells Pollstar. “I’m like, holy shit.”
Rapp-Rovan adds that “30 used to be an ‘oh my god’ number when I first heard it. Now I feel like there are a lot of people who are over that.”
Both are hyper-conscious of how often fans are coming to see them, and they aim to change up each performance to deliver something fresh. As the duo sits in their trailer ahead of their first set at Bonnaroo, the two plot their upcoming shows in Denver for the long weekend ahead of Independence Day. Zeds Dead returns to the area each year, spending two nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in nearby Morrison, Colorado, on July 2 and 3 for their signature “Deadrocks” show before throwing a Fourth of July Jamboree at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver (with a hot dog eating contest, see here). After nine years, Deadrocks has evolved to become their biggest annual event, considered the crown jewel amongst the team. The two shows at Red Rocks brought in 9,500 fans per night, while the Jamboree brought in 10,000 fans, according to the team. Adding in their set at Mission Ballroom on July 4 to wrap the weekend up, they walked away with 32,354 tickets sold, according to Chapman. Those numbers came a long way considering their first time at Red Rocks in 2014 was a co-headline that didn’t sell out.
“Two years ago, [Deadrocks] was a greatest hits, so to speak,” Rapp-Rovan says. “After we did that, we were like, ‘How can we be different?’ So we went deeper into our catalog with songs we didn’t play out a lot that year. Then, this year, it’s going to be different than both of those. To have that mentality where we can say, ‘We’re going to do something a little more conceptual this year,’ is a pretty crazy thing we get to play with.”
Every Zeds Dead show sees them bringing along artists who release music on their Deadbeats record label, which the duo established in 2016 – the same year the duo released its debut full-length album, Northern Lights. At Bonnaroo, the Where in the Woods stage lineup included Nostalgix, Blanke, IMANU, Saka and SIPPY. Bennett, Mamid, Rapp-Rovan, Chapman and Gill curate the lineups themselves, selecting artists who released with Deadbeats within the last year and figuring out what markets they would fit best in. Keeping with their indie roots, they also come up with a creative angle for the poster and curate the lineup, utilizing the support budget allocated from what local promoters they work with to bring along those who recently released on the label.
“We always try to be as generous as possible with our artists,” Bennett says. “Making sure everybody that’s released with us in the last year or so is able to get on at least two shows with us every year. Because I think that’s what really given our label some drive; that’s always been a major selling point. We will put you on the road, we will put you in front of these audiences. And the Zeds Dead audience is a genuine audience. They’re not just there because it’s a Friday night and they need something to do. They’re there because they love the music, they love Zeds Dead and what they put out there and the artists they support. So these artists come away with fans who are genuine, fans that buy hard tickets to shows, buy merchandise and actually stream their music online.”
Gill describes each Deadbeats event as “the circus coming to town.” Each show turns into its own mini-festival, sometimes boasting multiple stages or lasting two to three nights, with hours upon hours of music presenting a variety of artists reflecting Zeds Dead’s genre-diverse sound. Bennett helps curate the shows based on what sort of vibe they feel like going with, aiming to feature a variety of sounds to provide fans with an entire experience.
“Reflective of how Zeds Dead has always been genre-agnostic, we want the lineups to show that,” Bennett says. “So we always look at the lineups like, we don’t want this to be an open-to-close dubstep party. We don’t want it to just be a house event. We want there to be a little bit more variety and flavor in these different events.”
Zeds Dead maintains their DIY roots across their shows. The core team all got their start together in the basement of a Toronto bar, 751, back in the early-2010s, with their Bassmentality parties. Gill, who was promoting shows around the city, started hearing buzz about the party they had going on and joined in. Chapman began working with Rapp-Rovan and Mamid when they conceptualized their first project producing hip-hop as Mass Productions. Then, in 2009, they pivoted to dance music as Zeds Dead, inspired by a line in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film “Pulp Fiction.” Chapman and Rapp-Rovan are first cousins, and he’s been best friends with Mamid since elementary school. Chapman recalls the first-ever Zeds Dead set taking place at a bar called The Social for one of his birthday parties. Those early Bassmentality shows became a launching pad for some of the biggest names in dance music, with Skrillex, Nero, Boregore and others all dropping in.
Bennett came into the picture later on, first working part-time with the group in 2015. When they launched the Deadbeats record label, he left his office job and transitioned into a full-time role as their label manager.
“We try to approach everything we do with an independent spirit,” Chapman says. “It’s where we all come from, and if we look at some of the musical inspirations the guys have taken on, they are always looking left of center themselves. It’s a big business world, this touring industry, and we try to approach everything with a little TLC. Thinking of the community first and building a world.”
In recent years, Zeds Dead expanded that world. The duo launched the Altered States record label, which featured more down-tempo tracks inspired by 2021’s Catching Z’s mixtape. They’ve started incorporating that sound into their tour by opening up an Altered States stage at larger events and branding shows with that banner. Mamid recognizes their privilege in being able to step out into other genres and have their fanbase go along with them.
“It’s a hard-core fanbase, and a lot of that seems specific for us,” Mamid says. “They’re very interested in what we’re doing. We’ve certainly seen trends in music and dubstep or house and stuff like that. You observe that regardless. But I don’t know if we’ve seen it in our crowd so much. Generally, they’re pretty receptive.”
The team credits the record label as the reason why they’re able to take a weekend warrior approach to their bookings. While Zeds Dead remain festival favorites (topping the bill of Electric Forest two weeks after closing out Thursday night at Bonnaroo, as well as performing at EDC Las Vegas and Electric Zoo in 2023), their headline shows are more selective.
“One of our turning points was creating Deadbeats,” Gill says. “Just taking control of their own events as opposed to being an artist and relying on, ‘Hey, is this festival going to book me?’ or all that stuff which we know can be fickle. Every year things change, so we were just like, let’s create our own ecosystem, our own world, and the label allows us to do that.”
It’s 11 p.m., and Mamid and Rapp-Rovan are sitting in their trailer behind The Other Stage at Bonnaroo planning out what they’re going to play that night. Beside Rapp-Rovan sits a sketchbook with his graffiti-inspired drawings. They’ve settled on a more mainstage set with recent releases and bigger sounds for their first performance of the night. For the second set, which doesn’t start until 3 a.m., they know they can play around with it more.
“There’s a point during the set where I become very relaxed,” Rapp-Rovan says. “It’s not immediate, because I feel like, especially at a festival, you have to win them over a little bit. And there’s a certain point usually, if things go well, where I feel that we’ve won them over and they trust us. It’s a good feeling, I feel very at home up there. And from then you get more experimental.”
Gill finds no surprise in how they’ve chosen the night to go. Zeds Dead has two sets, the first from 12:45 a.m. until 2:00 a.m., and the second scheduled from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., which is not unusual for the team.
“The guys love to play and they will play for hours back to back,” Gill says. “They love it. I think for them, we made a conscious decision not to be defined as dubstep artists and to be really versatile, all-genre artists. … Even in their sets, they wear a lot of different hats.”
The sun had risen in Manchester, and Zeds Dead got off the stage, piling into the van to their hotel. As Bennett climbed inside, he buzzed that they were just in time to grab the hotel’s continental breakfast.