Armin van Buuren

Sunday, Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., $53 

The Ritz, Raleigh

Armin van Buuren changed the streaming internet.

In 2001, nearly ten years before Femi Adeyemi’s taste-making internet-radio network NTS (alongside outlets like and Red Bull Music Academy) ushered in the reign of curated 2010s web radio, van Buuren created his own radio empire. 

A fledgling DJ with an effusive, preternaturally positive personality, he wanted to capitalize on the nascent internet boom and to broadcast some of the music he was releasing and enjoying. That May, he hosted the first episode of “Into Trance,” later dubbed “A State of Trance,” on Dutch radio. 

From these humble beginnings, ASOT evolved into a sprawling network of shows and one of the longest-running, most-streamed internet music properties to date, now closing in on 1,000 episodes. In 2019, an average episode of ASOT racked up several hundred thousand views on any individual streaming platform, and one of van Buuren’s recent cuts as a producer, “Blah Blah Blah,” is pushing 400 million views on YouTube. 

Call him the Alan Freed of trance music.

“Next month, we are celebrating episode 950 in Utrecht, and it sold out!” van Buuren says by phone in advance of the U.S. tour that brings him to The Ritz in Raleigh on January 26. “Thirty-five thousand tickets, which makes it the world’s largest indoor trance event, which I’m super proud of.” 

Van Buuren’s wide reach might sound shocking if you’ve never heard of him or his genre. Think of it this way. If recent superstars like Marshmello represent the Top-40 crossover moment of dance music, trance is like that scene’s classic rock: Dense, soaring, populist music, rooted in calls to emotion, larger-than-life ASMR triggers, and utopian hedonism, with a spirt of radical acceptance and melodies you could hum in the shower.  

As with many arena-rock bands of yore, this kind of fanbase pluralism means that the trance scene seems cheesy and unfashionable at times—absolutely detestable to some dance heads, like the sonic equivalent of a sentimental Lifetime movie strapped to a repetitive 4/4 beat. 

But that same heart-on-sleeve candor and absence of cool-guy expectation has helped keep trance a staple for decades as other, trendier microgenres have died off.

Trance’s maximalist playbook was folded into the commercial EDM boom of the 2010s. The soaring, melancholy frontline vocals that culminate in a tear-jerking drop, as heard in aughties trance hits like Motorcycle’s “As the Rush Comes,” would later be retrofitted for massive EDM singles like Zedd’s “Clarity” and Porter Robinson’s “Divinity.” And you can hear trance permutated in trendy 2010s EDM subgenres like future bass and tropical house.

Van Buuren laughs when I ask what it’s like to be a trance icon in 2020. 

“The downside of what I do is that my genre is definitely not the most popular music right now,” he says. “But I like it where it is right now. It has its own fanbase that is incredibly loyal. And you see a massive trend right now that a lot of techno guys are flirting with trance.”

This man pays attention.

Despite the stereotype of multimillionaire DJs as pretty faces on empty vessels, van Buuren comes across as a passionate, smart conversationalist, and he is fierce on his causes. We talk about the currently raging Australian wildfires and recent headlines that suggest countless millions of animals have died since they began. Others of his status might use politician tricks to talk around the issue. 

“You cannot turn away from the gravity of climate change,” he says. “It’s happening and it’s affecting the lives of many people and animals. There is no denying it.” 

Van Buuren recently became a celebrity ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund, which he ascribes to being a father of two and to more general existential concerns about using his massive social-media platform for good.

“One of my main concerns that caused me get involved with the WWF is plastic pollution,” he says. “It’s not limited to one country or territory. It’s a global issue that affects us all.” 

He mentions a recent ecological study by the WWF that suggests that we consume a credit-card-size amount of microplastic every week, primarily through bottled and tap water sources. 

So clearly, van Buuren’s passions extend beyond music, and, as you might expect from someone famous for curating a radio show, his musical tastes extend beyond trance. On his latest record, Balance, he tapped Inner City, better known as Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson, to appear.

“I couldn’t be more proud that one of my absolute heroes is featured on my album,” van Buuren says. “He’s one of my favorite DJs of all time.” 

Unbridled enthusiasm has been van Buuren’s secret weapon for staying safe and sane these last three decades.

“I’m really lucky to be a nerd,” he says. “When I started in this industry, I was always more of a nerd than the guy who wants to get crazy and party. I was never into hard drugs. My primary bad habit is wine and champagne, but even now, I stay away from things like vodka.”

Countless EDM-festival-circuit acts see their stars ascend, only to utterly vanish in a haze of drugs and ego. Van Buuren’s success story is a useful one: Discipline is crucial to longevity, even in a musical world known for decadent fantasy. 

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