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How Electronic Dance Music Came Back and Took Over


Despite the rave scene’s dying out around the turn of the millennium, its soundtrack is everywhere. Electronic dance music record sales are surprisingly healthy, as most other genres languish on life support. Its artists headline huge festivals; its producers helm songs that top pop charts; its hooks soundtrack commercials; its textures bolster movie scenes; and its beats move bodies in clubs. Rather than lying dead, electronic music has woven itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives.


And yet there’s still something “underground” about EDM as a genre — the mainstream North American media seems uninterested, seeing it as the product of a niche culture. So how did it become so prevalent?


And as the dance world turns its attention to Miami this month for this week’s annual Winter Music Conference and the sold-out Ultra Music Festival (March 25-27), will 2011 be the year when electronic dance music finally comes of age?


This year’s WMC is expected to draw well over 100,000 people for the beats and business deals of the annual dance industry conference, while the 13th annual UMF, which has sold out for its second year — in record time, too — will see over 150,000 folks fill dancefloors and pool parties over the three-day fest. The last time electronic music was so popular, it was being relentlessly promoted by the mainstream music industry.


In the mid-’90s, “electronica” became a buzzword, as major labels, nearing the end of their heyday, capitalized on the rise of club culture. They rounded up electronic producers just as they’d gathered indie rock bands a few years before; many were from the UK, where rave culture had been burgeoning for years. Some attained a degree of fame (Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers), and popular artists such as Madonna and David Bowie hired them to collaborate, weaving different strands of dance music into their work.


Nonetheless, “electronica” described a small subset of electronic music that crossed over into rock and pop territory. The scene was too top-heavy and too full of hype to sustain its popularity; eventually it ebbed, leaving in its wake a morass of second-rate big beat singles and faceless chill-out compilations.


“There was a point where ‘dance’ was a dirty word,” says Patrick Moxey, who founded Manhattan-based label Ultra Records in 1996. “From maybe ’97-’98 until 2008, when I went to MTV [to promote Ultra’s videos], they said, ‘Dance music doesn’t test. It doesn’t research, and our audience doesn’t want to hear it.’ And I would go to the radio stations, and they’d tell me the same thing.”


But Moxey persisted, as did a host of other indie label owners and artists. Continued ignorance from the mainstream bottlenecks of TV and radio drove an entire community — with all of its subgenres — to innovate.


According to Richie Hawtin, aka Canadian techno icon Plastikman, the “whole world of electronic music is a small microcosm, when you compare it to rap or popular music, but for that world to survive and grow, it’s created its own complete infrastructure, from clubs to DJs to booking agents, to computer programmers, software developers, and sound designers.”


Given their technological expertise, electronic musicians were well poised to take advantage of the opportunities for promotion, communication, and commerce presented by the Internet. Producers, with the aid of software developers, streamlined their ways of working in order to avoid the growing expense of recording studios. Artists made DIY videos that they posted online, and most importantly, they listened to their audiences, fostering lines of communication through websites and forums.


What’s more, they were ready for the music industry’s increasing emphasis on live performance. Not all producers are globe-trotting superstar DJs playing arena-sized clubs for mammoth fees, but there’s always been an emphasis on playing out electronic music in communal environments, with great sound systems. And they have always beeen adaptable: every performance or DJ set is, to an extent, a dialogue.


“The reason why the rock stars of today and the EMIs are all failing is because they took the piss out of their audience,” says the Berlin-based Hawtin, who runs the techno label Minus and is part of the management team behind online dance music store Beatport. “They used and abused them, sold them overpriced CDs, tried to sell them music they didn’t like by using stupid gimmicks.


“Electronic music since the beginning has been kind of a cottage industry of DJs, producers, label owners — who are usually the same person — talking directly to their crowd. We made records that worked in the clubs, and that created a club scene. Those records suddenly went from Detroit to Tokyo to Buenos Aires, and they started exploding. This scene has been built up, [with] a business model, and now every major record label is looking at it, saying, ‘Oh, so that’s how it’s done!’ It’s so funny. I’m not saying that we had foresight; we were just forced.”


That which didn’t kill the scene made it stronger. Producer Deadmau5, aka Joel Zimmerman, was a teenage participant in the mid-’90s North American heyday of raves; he recalls an event held at Toronto’s Ontario Science Centre which was “only about 4-5000 people, but it was huge at the time. You go out to L.A. now, to Gary Richards’ Hard parties — he gets 20-40,000. It’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is crazy!’ The moment it hit me hardest was at EDC [Electric Daisy Carnival] in L.A., where you had 100,000 kids showing up at a rave. Where was that five years ago? I can’t believe how much this has caught on.”


Last June’s Electric Daisy Carnival, featuring headliners from Dutch trancemeister Armin Van Buuren to British big-beat holdovers Groove Armada to Canadian electro-house favourites MSTRKRFT, had an attendance of 185,000 over two days — comparable to the much-more-publicized Coachella rock festival, with 225,000 over three.


EDC started in 1997, back in the heyday of “electronica,” and it has grown largely unobserved by the mainstream. As URB magazine editor Joshua Glazer notes, its promoters, Insomniac, “have deep roots in the ’90s rave scene … They stayed committed during the lean years when rave was ‘dead,’ and are now reaping the benefits for their perseverance. Trust me when I say that no corporate entity would ever produce an event such as EDC.”


At EDC last summer, Moxey recalls seeing “kids making their own clothes, preparing for this thing like it’s their Woodstock. It’s an incredible movement, and it’s come up so organically.”


EDC isn’t yet a countercultural force to rival Woodstock — according to Glazer, “there was very little in the way of overt activism or consciousness” at last year’s festival. But it and other massive gatherings such as Nocturnal Festival and Monster Massive are nonetheless set for a political battle. Legislation in California aims to criminalize any public event “at night including prerecorded music and lasts more than three and one-half hours,” reminiscent of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act in Britain, which banned raves, defining them as gatherings that include “a succession of repetitive beats.”


The proposed legislation, fueled by concern over the ecstasy-related death of a teenager at last year’s EDC, sees electronic music itself as a gateway to social degradation. It hearkens back to the demonization of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s — the kind of critique which now seems quaint and ridiculous.


Opposition to such legislation isn’t “a workable option, as has been proven time and time again,” Glazer points out. “That said, these laws never work to completely disassemble a subculture. It may cause a cooling down period, but in the end, electronic music, festivals, etc., are simply not something that will ever be halted. There is both too much demand and too much economic incentive.”


Electronic dance music is now reaching a second generation of fans in North America — teens attending events such as EDC may very well be the children of former ravers, some of whom are now finding their way back to dancefloors. Occasionally, their presence can become awkward. “About 50 percent of those people tend to be the chin-strokers at an event,” says Deadmau5. “Maybe they just forget how to listen to music and have fun and chill out.” On the other hand, more grassroots events such as the Harvest Festival in rural Ontario can be sustained by an older crowd.


Justin Martin, aka alienInFlux, who founded the festival in 1999, fondly observes, “You’ll see someone in her mid-20s drop out and come back five years later as a mom, not doing tons of drugs but just enjoying music and the environment and the people around her while the kid’s away for the weekend with grandma.” He notes that the events he promotes and attends are “full of a lot of older people than I saw 10-15 years ago. I also feel that there’s a lot more responsibility amongst those people.”


As a veteran of the scene, having worked security and sold glowsticks at early ’90s Toronto events, Martin prefers not to dwell on nostalgia (seeing “rave” as “a word that got abused the hell out of” and doesn’t deserve to be revived). He believes that electronic music, and the subgenres and scenes associated with it, are maturing and as they do, they’re “experiencing growing pains and also growth and strides forward.” And, in some cases, significant popular success.


Moxey, who has signed Ultra to a distribution deal with EMI in Canada, spells out how far his label has come. “MTV are playing our videos now. We have songs on the Top 40; also the mainstream artists are being really affected by it.” He cites Katy Perry’s ‘Fireworks’ and Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl (In the World),’ both co-produced by his electro-house artist, Sandy Vee. Even Britney Spears’ single ‘Hold It Against Me’ bears the footprints of the previously underground genre, dubstep. “The whole thing has done a total flip from where it was to where it is.”


And this time around, EDM’s growth feels sustainable. It’s not dependent on crossover hits, instead emerging from the ground up, with an emphasis on art as well as commerce. This winter, Hawtin temporarily decamped from Berlin back to Windsor, Ontario, where he grew up. He intends to produce more dark, intense Plastikman music and bring it to the North American masses, just as he has done at huge festivals in Europe, Japan, and soon will do in Australia.


“Each year that goes by, more people become open to the sound of electronic music,” he says, with the verve of an evangelist. “The Germans, over the last 30-40 years, have had that time to get into this music, to get into the culture, the idea of clubbing and music made by computers. North America is a bit late to the game, so now it’s time to hopefully open up people, really show them what it’s all about.”


— Originally published in Spinner.com (R.I.P.)


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