Before Jesse Kardon became Subtronics and one of the highest-grossing dance artists of 2023 thus far, he spent his days learning how to produce music while stuck at a rehab facility in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Surrounding him were those fighting addictions to harder substances.
Kardon, however, was at the facility because he habitually smoked weed.
“I was working at a grocery store and I got laid off,” Kardon tells Pollstar. “And right when that happened, I went to my first dubstep show ever: Rusko, in 2010. Long story short, I woke up in the hospital on ’shrooms and was sent to rehab for weed. When I got out, I had a bunch of unemployment from my cashier’s job and all the time in the world, because I was in a halfway house. I dove in head-first. That’s when I came up with a silly internet and dubstep name and started uploading some of my terrible, terrible music onto SoundCloud.”
The bass music producer and DJ came up in the Philadelphia music scene, never expecting his “wonky beep boop music” to go anywhere save for some very small circles. He got his associates degree and went on to Temple University with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps as a tour manager, promoter and professor in Philadelphia. Becoming an artist wasn’t in Kardon’s plan. Instead, he hoped to also become a promoter or maybe a booking agent.
When he wasn’t juggling his course load and weekend shows, Kardon worked various odd jobs to make ends meet from customer service at Target and Urban Outfitters to waiting tables and collecting grocery carts. And, sometimes during his shift, he’d look down at his phone and talk to his other friends who were aspiring DJs and music producers, keeping track of where they played and which label compilations they landed a single on.
Kardon says it took him around eight or nine years to figure out and perfect Subtronics, the moniker he’s stuck with since he was 20 years old or so. At first, it was just a fun way for him to pass the time. By the time he turned 23, he had fully dedicated his life to the project.
“It’s crazy how that corner of dubstep popped off,” Kardon says. “It was not something anyone ever expected. We were definitely the weird ones. It was just goofy and fun.”
That “goofy and fun” sound landed Subtronics at No. 75 of Pollstar’s Top 100 North American Tours on June’s mid-year chart. He sold out the Kia Forum in Inglewood, California, Jan. 28, grossing $498,489 and sold out two nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on April 13 – 14, grossing $1.2 million, according to reports submitted to Pollstar Boxoffice. His last tour made history as the first trek promoted by Live Nation subsidiary and major dance music promotion company Insomniac.
“It’s crazy, a lot of these shows,” Kardon says. “I know it’s not the case, but just to me, I think I’m perpetually stuck as a small bedroom artist in Philly. It feels like a crazy Hail Mary. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing here? How? There’s no way.’ And then it’s sold out and we’re like, ‘What?’ There are those shows, and Kia was definitely one of them. There’s been a handful of arena shows over the summer and I can’t believe it. It’s so surreal and I’m so grateful.”
Eric Silver at Red Light Management wasn’t expecting to take on Subtronics. When the two first met, Silver worked as a booking agent and invited another artist out to dinner. That other artist told Kardon to tag along, saying that he was meeting a booking agent and implying Subtronics might get a deal, too. Silver was unaware of the plan. By the end of the meal, Kardon determined Silver would be booking Subtronics, and thanked him for believing in him.
“Apparently, unbeknownst to me, [the artist] told Jesse I was now his booking agent,” Silver says. “Jesse posted on social media, ‘For bookings, reach out to Eric Silver,’ and I started getting inquiries from promoters. So, I was like, ‘I guess there’s something here.’ I picked him up and that’s how it started. Totally by accident. I’d never heard of him, didn’t know anything about him.”
With Silver on board, Subtronics began to pick up the pace. At the time, Kardon was having to figure out his next semester’s course load. He had long struggled with school, taking four years to get his associate’s degree and with a 1.4 GPA while studying Liberal Arts at Temple University. Kardon was late registering for classes and would’ve had to sit through three-hour courses to remain on track for the semester while still traveling and playing shows on the weekends. And so with his father’s approval, he took a gap year.
“I was going to school with the intent of graduating and going into the music industry in some form or another, I wanted to be an agent or a talent buyer,” Kardon says. “I wanted to do what my dad does. I wanted to be a local level promoter, something where I’m able to just make a living because I love music and being involved with music. But being an artist was too much. That was too impossible.”
Silver sat down with Kardon’s father, Rich, to convince him Subtronics had a real shot at becoming successful.
“And so my dad was like, ‘If you want to take a gap year, that would probably be better for your resume considering what you want to do, even more than graduating with a degree.”
Kardon never went back to school. He slept on friends’ couches and made his various odd-jobs work while pursuing his dreams. His father supported him every step of the way.
“It’s unbelievable for me,” Rich Kardon tells Pollstar. “I remember the first time [a band I worked with] played Red Rocks. I was a tour manager for 10 years and did Red Rocks back in the mid-’80s and always loved the venue. It was just so iconic. And then, to see my kid on stage at Red Rocks, it was mind-blowing. For him to end up headlining there, selling out two shows. Every step. And then selling out the Kia Forum in January. Every one of those things, just as a parent, especially one who’s in the music industry, I don’t know how to put it into words. I really don’t. It’s really something … We’re just so proud of him and happy that he’s successful doing what he loves. That’s the key. As a parent, he’s living his dream, and we’re thrilled for that.”
The Subtronics team has grown significantly over the years. Silver switched from being Subtronics’ booking agent to his manager, first with his own management company GRAVEDANCER then joining Red Light Management. He brought on Elyse Young in 2017 to help with Subtronics, the two of them working remotely, Silver primarily clocking in from his garage. Jake Bernstein, then at UTA and now Wasserman Music, became Subtronics’ booking agent in 2017. The team works around the clock, remaining in touch through late nights and early mornings.
“There’s a reason why Jesse is where he is,” Bernstein says. “I credit [it] the most to him. He also never stops. He wakes up at 12 p.m. or whenever he wakes up and he’s up until 5 in the morning the next day. I see him cooking dinner when I’m looking at my Instagram and it’s 10 p.m. for me and 1 a.m. for him. And I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re having dinner at 1 a.m. because you’re still working.’ When he’s not on tour, you see him on Instagram previewing new songs all the time and just working, working, working.”
Kardon’s initial interest from behind the scenes also has him very involved with the rest of the team. He oversees every design, from the album art to merchandise, down to the last detail, working closely to ensure his input is included.
“He’s very much a part of all this process,” Bernstein says. “He’s very hands-on with all the events we book. We all collaborate. We say, ‘Hey Jesse, what do you think of this lineup?’ He’ll say no, yes, whatever. We all talk about every little thing we do. We’re all in communication constantly. When we do our big events like Cyclops Cove [in Florida], it’s all hands on deck. And Jesse’s very involved in that. It’s impressive to see an artist that’s not just like, ‘Oh, my managers and agents can deal with it, whatever.’ He is very dialed in. He’s in the spreadsheets. He really puts his creative mind behind everything. When you see something announced, he had a big part of it.”
Young at Red Light considers the entire team a dream to work with, all of them sharing the same work ethic. She doesn’t believe fate brought them all together but admits that it often feels as if it did. Young had been Silver’s first management hire and she poured her entire heart and soul into the project.
“Everyone we’ve hired has that same passion,” Young says. “By luck we all found each other. It came together and now we are all insane. There are no days off by choice. No one is cracking the whip; we just want to be doing this.”
Ahead of each performance, Kardon aims to spend around 40 hours working on just one set.
“When I get home on Monday, I work 100% of my time,” Kardon says. He’ll send Silver and Young several versions of the same set, and the two admit sometimes they can’t even hear the miniscule differences he’ll include – changes that only other music producers could catch. He’ll perform multiple festivals over the weekend, sometimes squeezing in as many as five sets into three days, with every set curated for each event, and Kardon spending up to 40 hours on all of them.
Backstage at his sold-out headliner at Brooklyn Mirage on July 20, the team gathers together to talk about the upcoming set and crack jokes with one another, with Kardon and his parents, Silver, Young and Bernstein creating a familial atmosphere.
As the team sits down with Pollstar, they’re winding down the 2023 festival season and setting their sights on their winter tour dates.
Subtronics will take the stage at the 21,000-cap Tacoma Dome in Washington on Nov. 24 and 25 and just a handful of months after this issue goes to print, Subtronics will make the huge leap up from the 5,000-capacity Brooklyn Mirage to the 19,000-cap Barclays Center on March 1, with tickets selling fast. A full-fledged tour has also been announced for the winter.
“Announcing Barclays Center in New York, we’re from the East Coast, and that’s very special to us. Being New Yorkers on the management and agent’s side, it’s incredible,” Bernstein says.
The tour features support from Wooli, Jon Casey, Super Ave. and more. A few of the artists tagging along have released with Subtronics’ own record label, Cyclops Recordings. The name comes from an inside joke with his best friend, who had doodled a cyclops logo that caught Kardon’s eye and has remained in his branding ever since. Additional dates from the tour include shows at MGM Music Hall at Fenway and Atlanta’s State Farm Arena (Subtronics will be the first dance artist to headline the arena), as well as theaters including Armory in Minneapolis, The Sylvee in Wisconsin, Stage AE in Pittsburgh and more.
“We look at the data carefully of past performances and how they do, and then we think of new things to do in those markets,” Bernstein says. “We try to break new ground, like our Barclays show that just went up. It’s definitely new territory and we keep things exciting. Like, if the show sold out super-fast last time, it’s time to bump it up.”
Coming this far along with heavy bass music still feels unreal to the team. Even today, they try to wrap their heads around it, Silver saying it only cements how far the music industry has gone in recent years.
“It shows how the modern music business has completely turned on its head from a decade ago,” he says. “We’re on our own record label. That explains modern management. You’re the center wheel in everything. We oversee all facets of Jesse’s business. We’re a merch company, a touring entity, a record label, in conjunction with all our partners that we couldn’t do this without. But you can be your own independent artist. Jesse owns his own masters for the most part. We’re selling out arenas and we’re not on the radio, and we’re selling a tremendous amount of merch. All of this through this new paradigm. I started as an A&R person, I came from the major label system. This is 180 degrees from what things were a decade or two ago.”
Kardon works right alongside Silver and Young on every aspect, helping them helm the record label, merchandise and touring. The team remains incredibly tight-knit, Young emphasizing that is what makes it all work so well.
“You don’t feel like [Kardon] is a client,” Young says. “He feels like he’s your friend and you’re in this together. So that pressure that you can have with other artists you work with, or even just other people in the industry, it’s not there because he views everyone as equal. He’s equal to us.”