Monday, July 15, 2013

EDM: Economic Distortion Medium

All illustrations by Shea Serrano (Click the image for hi-res)

The Middle of the Desert, Somewhere Outside of Las Vegas
by Drew Millard

My entire world is structured around a gigantic owl. Behind me stand ten thousand people. Their current existence is also an owl-based one. Many of them are dressed like they’re auditioning to be an extra in Tank Girl. One dude is wearing a Colonel Sanders costume, and lots of them are wearing masks. It seems like every girl is wearing a tutu, and half of them have electrical tape over their nipples. It feels like we’re waiting for the mothership to touch down. This is the Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest rave in America.
The owl is attached to a stage and is flanked by Jumbotrons and fake mushrooms and flowers, the smallest of which stands as big as a Division II fullback. It’s maybe fifty feet tall, the slightest shade of pale lime green. It’s asleep, but it looks less peaceful and more like something a Celt would pray to right before he went into battle and lopped a Roman’s head off.

When midnight hits, the owl comes alive. It opens its wings and turns blue. Its eyes widen like it’s been on uppers since yesterday. Eric Prydz is inside, standing at a DJ booth that’s been waiting—quite literally, as it turns out—in the wings. The owl nods. You know that scene in Spinal Tap where the drummer explodes for no reason? People are so psyched to that they’re basically doing that. Prydz is wearing a backwards black hat and a blue t-shirt, but it doesn’t matter because he’s standing in a man-sized owl nest. He drops his remix of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and given the circumstances, it’s a bit on the nose. But this is a field full of sociopathically enthusiastic EDM fans we’re talking about. They want directness.

Prydz twiddles knobs vigorously, doing the DJ equivalent to a guitarist falling to his knees and grimacing during the solo to make it look 40% more impressive. The owl scowls, and I look left to watch a stranger put a popper up to his nose. I get hustled out of the way by a security guard, who’s carrying a passed-out teenage girl. Prydz never shows up on the screens: this is our party, not his.

/ / /

What is “EDM?”

I ask this question a couple days earlier to two affable brand representatives for the Magic Hat brewing company at the EDM Biz Conference, a two-day seminar dedicated to helping people figure out how to make money off of their recent windfall of young people with disposable income who have suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere decided that raves are the best thing since air. They’re stationed in the area adjacent to the conference room along with a few other vendors, all hoping to convince people to integrate their products into the EDM experience.

“We didn’t change the brand image to fit electronic events,” the Magic Hat guy says proudly. “If something fits the brand image, then we know that’s probably some place we need to go.”

“Okay,” I say, “then what’s EDM?” My new Magic Hat friend laughs and asks his partner, who also laughs and says, “I’m not the right person for that.”

I press him, and he says, “I think Magic Hat fits with EDM in that our brand is very much about all different kinds of music, in that it’s a way to interact with consumers and experiential events. EDM is very interactive and unique and different, and so is our brand, and so from a Magic Hat perspective it’s a nice fit.”
“You didn’t actually tell me what it was,” I say. “You just told me how your brand fit with it.”
He laughs again. “It’s electric digital music! What can I say? It’s unique. It’s different, it’s definitely the wave of the future.”

EDM, which for the record stands for “Electronic Dance Music,” is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, like pornography. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. This is the conclusion after having similar exchanges with both experts and interlopers at EDC and the EDM Biz Conference. I met people who would tell me why EDM was important; why they were a part of EDM culture; why EDM was the next Rock ‘N’ Roll. But nobody ever told me what it was.

Whatever it might be, EDM is at a crossroads in America. It’s much, much bigger here than it’s ever been, creating an industry and economic infrastructure that pulls in roughly $5.5 billion per year and is increasing at a rate of 50% per year. By and large, EDM is the sound of popular music, whether it’s the electro-pop of the Top 40 to hip-hop’s flirtation with European sounds to dubstep drops showing up in Fall Out Boy songs and Internet Explorer ads alike. Meanwhile, the EDM audience is expanding at a mind-boggling rate in ways that run counter to our accepted ideas about music discovery. According to information provided by Eventbrite, nearly a third of dance music fans fell into their fandom by attending a live event, and the average pack of EDM fans at a live show is six. EDM is a social phenomenon as much as it is a musical one, and in an era where physical album sales are dying, that’s key. Dance music festivals make up about 90% of the EDM industry’s income, quickly becoming the de facto summer entertainment for countless young people. (I was one of roughly 115,000 attendees per night at this year’s EDC Las Vegas.)

The music industry is intimately aware of dance music’s impact on today’s youth. With projections that EDM could become a nearly $20 billion industry by 2018, a Wild West economy has sprung up around the scene, made up of both rave lifers who are happy that people are coming around on what they love, and carpetbaggers who are hoping to squeeze what funds they can out of the hot sound of the day. In a lot of ways, what’s going on right now feels much like the dot-com bubble of the late-nineties—at EDM Biz, Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella announced a “creative partnership” with Live Nation to the tune of an estimated $50 million, an old world/new school pairing that’s somewhat analogous to a less expensive, and hopefully less disastrous, AOL/Time Warner merger. Rotella also announced at EDM Biz that EDC 2014 would feature an awards show meant to acknowledge both dance music as well as such contributions to the live experience as lighting and special effects.

Increased attention paid to EDM means increased scrutiny on those in charge. At EDC 2010, held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a 15-year-old girl died of a suspected drug overdose. The minimum age for festival attendees was 16. It’s alleged that Rotella (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) took more than $2.5 million of the Coliseum’s money to pay off city officials so he didn’t have to hire the proper amount of security personnel. Rotella now faces charges of bribery, embezzlement, conspiracy, and conflict of interest. His trial will take place on July 29th of this year. If convicted, he faces up to 13 years in prison. As the de facto business face of EDM, a conviction and jail sentence for Rotella could prove disastrous for the genre’s momentum.

/ / /

Dance music as we know it begins in the late-70s at the tail end of the Disco era, when DJ’s, fed up with the cookie cutter records they were handed by labels, started making their own tunes. These guys could only afford chintzy keyboards and the type of drum machine meant to serve as a substitute for a real drummer, and that equipment led to the advent of house and techno in Chicago and Detroit, respectively. This music caught on wherever there was a huge dance scene, and remained largely underground until the late 80s. That’s when gangsters in England realized that ecstasy could be made in bulk very cheaply. They needed a market, so they created one by throwing underground raves where they could sell the drug. Ecstasy made you dance longer and harder, so DJ’s made longer, more repetitive music that would cater to that demand. As the government got wind of these parties and worked to cull them, the much more controlled European megaclub cropped up. These were big rooms where alcohol was sold, and DJ’s had to make music that would sound at home in these large spaces. European club culture begat dance festival culture, and led to the rise of trance.

Around 1998 is when dance music kinda-sorta caught on in America. We became enamored with drum and bass and big beat, hard music with payoffs that made sense to ears weaned on rock and hip-hop. Perhaps the most fully-realized document of dance music's crossover potential in the 90s was (seriously) the Blade II soundtrack, which admirably tried to mesh rave producers with rappers. Lots of it worked but some of it was embarrassing, and even if it was a perfect record it wasn’t going to make up for the fact that dance music was largely treated as a novelty by mainstream culture. Remember when Eminem taunted Moby in “Without Me” by saying, “Nobody listens to techno?” Well, Moby didn’t really make techno, but that didn’t make Em less right. The fad soon passed.

A few years ago, something happened. People started really liking dance music again. You can point to number of reasons why, but there’s a rough vein that runs through Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem, Diplo, Justice’s , Kanye West’s “Stronger,” the Crookers remix of Kid Cudi’s “Day N Nite,” and David Guetta and Akon’s “Sexy Bitch,” all of which combined to condition us to not be weirdly afraid of dance music. Everything rebranded, too, perhaps to indicate a philosophical clean slate. Where it had been called “electronica,” it was now “EDM.” Ecstasy, now allegedly purer, would be known as Molly.

While it does bear a cursory resemblance to the house played in the European megaclubs of the 90s, today’s “EDM” is largely based off of a model of tension and release that finds it roots in dubstep. This was the first type of dance music to really sink its fingers into our culture. On the whole, the structure of dubstep—the pretty part that bleeds into the punishing drop—doesn’t sound like rock music per se, but it feels like it. Additionally, dubstep is heavy, masculine in ways that deep house and minimal just aren’t. Dubstep didn’t necessarily make dance music in America cool again, it just made it okay to dance like you were trying to fight off an invisible pack of ninjas, which is definitely really cool.

Blade scowls as bros bro as no bro has bro'd before them. (Click the image for hi-res)

Then cameth the bros. Blame it on STS9 or MDMA or guitar music getting boring, but the same dudeiños and duderiñettes who once inebriated themselves with a vague proximity to Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic were now wearing neon tank tops with annoying, ironic block-lettered slogans such as “TURN UP” and “SWAG” and wobbling to Rusko and Deadmau5. Are they being ironic? Are they serious? Do they actually give a shit about dance music at all? Trick question—homage, parody, and abject apathy sublimate freely between each other when it comes to bro culture. They just love aggressively loud stuff that girls won’t hate. This is the new, non-pussified face of dance music in America.

More important than the cargo-clad bros knocking into each other to Skrillex are their bespoke-suited counterparts from Silicon Valley—EDM has gained traction so quickly because those involved with tech start-ups tend to be both fans as well as well-educated potential investors, who already have the resources to launch EDM business ventures. One typical techy I encounter at EDM Biz asked only to be identified by the name Virtueelz. A former high-level employee at Intel, Virtueelz quit his job because after years of imploring his bosses to get deeper into the dance music world, they told him they were doing just that and would be hiring to help spearhead their efforts. When I ask him if there is an overlap between the tech community and the EDM community, he responds resolutely in the affirmative. “Yes,” he says. “Huge overlap.”

When I tell him I worry EDM might be taking over at the expense of every other type of music, he says, “That sounds a little bit close-minded. There’s this big opportunity for a Lord of the Rings thing, this ‘One Ring to Rule Them All’ type of mentality… A lot of people are going to come together and make this one big thing that actually dominates the whole world.”
Sitting in the testicle-shrinkingly cold room where the EDM Biz Conference panels are held, it’s clear that Virtueelz is not alone in his convictions—these people wouldn’t be here if they didn’t legitimately believe that EDM is the future of music, even if they weren’t 100% on-message with what EDM actually was. Newer dance music converts, such as Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, seemed enthusiastic about the term, while dance music’s old guard tended to say the three letters like they’d rather be taken out in the desert and shot.

This it’s-a-thing/it’s-not-a-thing debate that stood as a battleground for the myriad tensions between electronic music’s old guard and new school came to a head during Day Two of EDM Biz during a panel of agents. A guy who represented dubstep acts tried to claim that EDM was not only a thing but a subgenre of dance music that combined big-room house, dubstep, moombahton, and radio pop—only to get shot down by an agent who had been booking deep house DJ’s since the early 90s. This argument went on for about three minutes and had to be broken up by the moderator.

After Day One of EDM Biz, I find myself eating dinner for one at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. The interior looks like the deck of a boat, and all of the waitresses who aren’t openly drunk look suicidal. There’s a band that’s not technically a Jimmy Buffett cover band, but they still manage to make KISS hits sound like A1A rejects. My fish sandwich sucks, and my margarita costs more than it should. Still, it’s a good drink, the décor is fun in a campy way, the band is chill, and I take an Instagram photo of my sandwich that gets five likes. The point of a restaurant might be good, affordable food and fast, cheery service, but that’s not the point of this restaurant. I’m leaving with a net positive experience, and that’s what counts.

This is the same reason that people go to EDM festivals. Because EDM has been rebranded, it's got leeway to market itself as a new phenomenon, with no loyalties to old models of income generation. Earlier that day at a “Festivals of the Future” panel at EDM Biz, I learn that dance music festivals in America account for up to 90% of the EDM industry. “We’re selling participatory, interactive, transformational events,” a speaker says, “rather than an actual musical genre.” People like EDM because the point of EDM is that you don’t have to like EDM to be there.

The logic of an EDM festival promoter is that if you increase production values (fireworks, lights, giant owls, etc.) as well as engagement and interactivity, you’ll sell out your festival even if you don’t have the best or most interesting music playing. As long as people leave with a net positive, they’ll be back. The EDM industry is so groundbreaking from a business standpoint because they’re reframing the old and easy as new and challenging, and selling it to a new audience who doesn’t know any better.

And with this audience comes corporate sponsorship. When it comes to corporate sponsorship, festivals work somewhat like a magazine does: a magazine makes money off of selling subscriptions and copies at a newsstand, but they make sure to keep that price low enough to acquire a large, loyal audience that they can then sell to advertisers. Where magazines use articles to draw readers in, festivals use the experience of the festival—it’s telling that those at EDM Biz referred to the music as “content,” just as those in publishing might refer to a feature. Once the audience is in the festival grounds and having fun, they can also be advertised to. (EDC 2013’s sponsors were Red Bull, Sony, Pioneer, and the Brazillian sunglasses/watch brand ChilliBeans).

In short, EDM is efficient bait to lure the product in. And that product is you.

During Avicii’s set at EDC, I watch intently as shirtless ravers and ravettes alike get their sway on. Their dance is largely gender-neutral, this little in-place waddle, like they’re trying to traverse a meadow that’s also a treadmill. Their arms sway back in forth by their sides at a pace where they basically couldn’t be off-beat if they tried. It’s probably the dance people do when they’re abducted by aliens and have assimilated. It seems like there’s a lot of weight being distributed, too—it’d be useful if you wanted to stay upright on a boat during a storm. It looks like what happens when 311 plays in Texas.

Avicii’s set is half pure pop sugar, half a 2013 version of Discovery-era Daft Punk. Avicii might be EDM’s Great Hope, a mainstream figure that the underground is pretty okay with. He’s also an interesting model for where EDM might head in the future—his headlining set during EDC competitor Ultra 2013 found him performing his new album, in full, with a full band. His newest single “Wake Me Up!” features the soul singer Aloe Blacc and is damn near a bluegrass song with some EDM drops thrown in. The moment felt like a combination of Dylan going electric and Avicii cynically combining EDM and country, two of the three genres that consistently make money these days.

Though he might be heavy-handed about it, Avicii seems intimately aware of his place in popular culture as well as EDM’s so-called “revolution.”  He plays “Wake Me Up!” this time around, too, but as part of a normal and non-transgressive DJ set. At times, he just plays a pulse. At others, he’s maximal to the point where fireworks go off in time to the bass. In those moments I feel the sense of overwhelming ecstasy that EDM at its fullest can offer. My senses are being assaulted and subtlety be damned as Avicii plays an edit of The Who’s “Baba O'Riley,” it just makes sense. I’m sold. And then, the old Viciinator blends a sample of Roger Daltrey singing “Teenage Wasteland” over and over again into Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” and it makes me want to get rave-danced to death.

Still, this illustrates how EDM is suited to save the music industry, at least financially. Dance music privileges the immediate gratification of the self, as well as interactivity and engagement with the music. It’s not about the performer—in fact, many dance festivals sell out before their lineups are even announced. Instead, EDM festivals offer experience.
This model makes an incredible amount of sense from the business side. DJ’s rarely make albums, and their tracks are often just an advertisement for their live sets, which use standardized equipment and only require the DJ to plug their laptop into the sound system. These offset costs tend to feed into higher festival production values. This offers a cheaper, better music alternative to a consumer who’s minimally invested in the music itself. You can’t torrent an experience, and you can’t passively stream it on your iPhone while walking to work. EDM is as sustainable as its popularity: its experience rarely changes, but it must be purchased over and over.

Someone I met at EDM Biz who seemed cognizant of this was Kenna, a musician known for his frequent collaborations with Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, who now works as one of the lead creatives at the freshly relaunched MySpace. He’s also the son of an economist—he jokes that he was “raised by freaking Adam Smith.”

“Music,” Kenna says, “from a performance perspective is a little less interesting right now because of the rise of individualism. Everybody wants to go to a party and they want to dance their fucking asses off. They want to be with their friends and they might want to do a little something and they want to wreck themselves. They don’t necessarily want to look at the stage. They don’t want to look at the DJ but the light show could be rad and the performer that is up there might want to hype them in certain moments. That is what the EDM world is doing. It is bringing people’s individual interests into one area with music as with the backdrop.”

Some might argue that because of its extreme efficiency, EDM is the future of music. And it is, if you’re casting your vote for a totally rational economic future. However, the beauty of art is that, sometimes, what makes the least financial sense resonates most with people. On top of that, there is no accounting for the black swan, the idea that something completely irrational could happen and shake up entire infrastructures. These happen all of the time in American pop—think Elvis, The Beatles, Nirvana, Lil Wayne. This tension between what people should feel and what they actually end up feeling is one of the things that makes loving music so fun.
As to why EDM might be the perfect music for our new, technology-laden age, Kenna says, “You can find anything that you want to find out at any given moment. And with that kind of information you now have many choices to make that you never had to make before. I have so many things to think about. Now I have everything to think about. So what am I going to focus on? Myself. So if I have something that I want to believe in, it’s myself. So what actually allows me to focus on me? EDM does.”

Ask anybody at EDM Biz how to combat the demonic specter of trendiness, and they’ll tell you that the answer lies in the groove and nuance of deep house. The conventional wisdom amongst dance music die-hards is that once you get enough people at dance music festivals, they’ll all start actively caring about the music and fall in love with dance music’s underground, which is as vibrant, unique, and consistently great as it’s ever been. The problem with this assumption is that it’s contradictory to the logic by which these festivals are set up, which offer the same reward if you love music or don’t care about it. Consequently, projections that dance music will reign supreme are based upon the assumption that dance music is fundamentally the best music. That’s like going fishing and assuming that you’ll catch all the fish in the lake because you have the best bait.

One of the things that Las Vegas teaches you is that no matter how certain a bet seems, it remains just that: a bet. Maybe the fact that those who deeply care about dance music are willing to degrade and cheapen it for a buck will strengthen EDM’s hold on America and create a pop music culture more like Europe’s. Either the beat will reign supreme, or a lot of people are about to get bitten in the ass.

Tïesto, by the numbers (Click the image for hi-res)

It’s 2am now. Tïesto, that trance cockroach who no matter how giddily bland his music is will absolutely never die, is DJing. Everything he’s playing sounds like LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” which is a testament either to that song’s genericness or my tin ear when it comes to Tïesto’s particular brand of EDM. Still, I’m pretty sure this guy sucks.

And yet. People. Are. Fucking. Freaking. The risers I’m on are shaking beneath my feet. I turn around and see a shirtless white dude in linen pants with gelled hair is doing this weird square dance thing while pumping a single fist in the air. He looks completely invested in this one perfect moment in his life. He’s big enough so that he’d probably crush me into a ball if he figured out how much I hate him. I leave Tïesto before this dude develops telepathy.

I start wandering the festival grounds. Electric Daisy Carnival lives up to the “Carnival” part of its name, with vendors and rides whose single purpose in existence is to make you dizzy. I see a girl wearing five-foot stilts and a wedding dress made up completely of stuffed animals traipsing the grounds. There are so many people in masks and tutus.Then, a duderiña stumbles up to the stilt lady and screams, “WHY AREN’T YOU TWERKING?” — Noisey | Music by

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