Underground Electronic Music Has Gone Mainstream – This Agency Got In On the Ground Floor

When he first started his own agency, Andrew Kelsey worked out of a tiny, windowless office in San Francisco’s Mission District. He had no experience as an agent, but he did have a passion for underground electronic music and an ambition to get bookings for artists who were making it. 

Twenty years later, Kelsey has a staff of 18, offices in San Francisco and Brooklyn — both of which boast natural lighting — and a roster of more than 140 house, techno and indie electronic artists whose “underground” sound has, over the last two decades, become the prevailing style of commercial electronic music in the United States.  

Kelsey’s agency, the independently owned and operated Liaison Artists, now books 5,000 shows a year, including at major festivals like EDC Las Vegas, Ultra Music Festival and Coachella, where this weekend, Liaison artists Carlita, Folamour, The Blessed Madonna, Bicep, ANOTR, Eli & Fur, Ame and Innelea are all slated to play.  

“I thought it was going to be big,” Kelsey tells Billboard over Zoom, “but not this big.” 


As tastes have shifted toward the style of music Liaison has always championed, the agency has grown in tandem. The company doubled in size just before the pandemic, then doubled again when live shows returned. The staff now includes eight agents, including Kelsey and his partner, Mariesa Stephens, who joined the agency in 2008 after meeting Kelsey through the Bay Area nightlife world.  

Following the pandemic, veteran agents Emma Hoser and Meryl Luzzi joined the team, bringing in clients including house titan Jamie Jones, techno pioneers Adam Beyer and Nicole Moudaber and artists from the revered Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep labels. Beyond the agents, Liaison employes four accountants and several coordinators who, Kelsey says, “make the machine run.” 

There was no machine to speak of when Kelsey moved to San Francisco in 1998. He arrived with one bag from his native Buffalo, N.Y., where he’d booked clubs while earning a criminal justice degree and interning at the courthouse. (“I just had a moment of like, ‘this is miserable,’” he now says of the experience. ”) In San Francisco, he found a thriving electronic music culture and knew he had to be a part of it. 

But with minimal experience, there was no clear “in.” Eventually, Kelsey hustled his way into an internship at Urb Magazine, a job for which he’d “bomb the city with materials” like CDs, posters and show flyers. This led to a four-year run doing distribution at Om Records, where – after observing the label’s in-house booking agent – he decided he wanted to be an agent, too.  

When his boss at Om told him no, Kelsey “quit on the spot and started an agency with no experience,” he says. He made inroads by seeking out the music he liked and persuading a few artists that, with his “absolute dedication to working hard and just making it succeed,” he could represent them. Liaison officially launched in 2004, with Kelsey signing his first big artist, Claude VonStroke, in 2006.  


Around that time, Kelsey spent a summer traveling to festivals throughout Europe, then did a five-month stint in Berlin, where he was converted to the religion of techno. (He also opened a Liaison office in Berlin from 2007-2009.) The experience in Europe “just changed my life,” he says. “It was another epiphany of wanting to bring that music to the U.S.” 

At that time in the United States, the house and techno scene mainly existed at warehouse parties and smaller clubs in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Then-nascent festivals like EDC Las Vegas and Ultra Music Festival in Miami were booking the genres, but Kelsey says most festival stages for this music were “1,000 capacity with no production, in the mud, on the side, just a complete afterthought. There wasn’t even any hospitality onstage, just a couple of warm beers in a dirty cooler.”  

Then everything changed. The EDM boom of the early to mid-2010s brought electronic music to mainstream consciousness in the United States, where it became a major economic force. When the boom’s bombastic “mainstage” sound cooled off, it was replaced in popularity by house, techno and the many subgenres that exist under these two styles. That’s when things shifted for Liaison.  

“I’d say in 2015, it really started moving,” says Kelsey. Suddenly, artists who’d previously been playing 500 capacity clubs were getting booked for much larger stages. San Diego’s CRSSD Festival launched in 2014 to service the sound, and Coachella launched its club-style Yuma Stage in 2013, with that space growing from 1,500 to 7,000 capacity over the last 11 years. Anjunadeep showcases used to max out at 500 people; now they happen at Colorado’s 10,000-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheater. 

Andrew Kelsey and Mariesa Stephens
Andrew Kelsey and Mariesa Stephens

Chicago’s ARC Music Festival, which features house and techno exclusively, launched in 2021, with longtime Liaison client Honey Dijon headlining in 2022. This weekend the artist (who won a 2023 Grammy for her work on Beyoncé’s dance-oriented Renaissance) will also play Coachella’s new Quasar Stage, which will host three to four extended dance sets.  

“I remember watching the festival change, with [Coachella co-founder] Paul [Tollett] and company putting underground dance music artists on [the festival’s massive] Sahara stage, which was kind of the next organic step for this music,” says Kelsey. “I feel like all the major promoters have been in lockstep… We used to do 200 capacity shows together and all grew together with this music.” 

With this growth has come revenue, and competition. In the earlier days, Stephens says a $40,000 fee for a bigger name underground artist “was often the ceiling.” These artists were usually relegated to 2,000 capacity rooms and smaller side stages at major festivals. 

Now, “the entire game has changed,” Stephens continues. “Underground artists are selling out Madison Square Garden and 25,000 cap stadiums” and playing festival headlining sets for tens of thousands of people. She says “artist fees have certainly followed suit.” 

Naturally, major agencies have expanded their rosters to include these formerly niche sounds.   

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t deeply competitive,” Stephens says. “For many years, the majors were less of a concern for us, but there has been a major shift recently where the music Liaison has been nurturing since our inception has become wildly popular, and things did change.”  


While some of Liaison’s artists “did leave in search of greener pastures,” she continues, “they were few and far between, and most of our core artists have been very loyal to us.” (With Liaison specializing in North and South America, all of its artists have different agencies in Europe and the rest of the world which Liaison works in partnership with.)  

Kelsey says it’s Liaison’s authenticity and its passion for, commitment to and knowledge of this type of music that inspires artists to stay.  

“Liaison embodies the perfect blend of underground authenticity and mainstream appeal,” says Dominik Ceylan, managing partner of Temporary Secretary, a German artist management group with clients, including Dixon and Ame, who are represented by Liaison in North America. “If you’re passionate about music and see your booking agency as an integral part of an ecosystem dedicated to nurturing artists and helping them thrive, Liaison is your go-to partner.” 

Currently, the agency is particularly focused on developing artists’ brands, with Dixon’s Transmoderna and Bicep’s Chroma – both of which feature custom multimedia experiences — giving Liaison the chance to “bring an artist’s vision to life in a very 360-degree way,” says Stephens. As one of the few Black agents in electronic music, she’s also particularly excited about developing Francis Mercier’s Deep Root Records family of artists. “Going to parties filled with black and brown faces [is] deeply inspirational for me,” she says 

Both Stephens and Kelsey agree that the market for the music they specialize in only seems to be growing, with its name at this point only used for lack of a better word.   

“There’s really,” Kelsey says, “not much underground about it.” 

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