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It's 4:30 in the morning in Washington, D.C., and dank pools of sweat are collecting on the dance floor beneath a dripping basement ceiling. I can see Sonny Moore's heart beating through his shirt. The 24-year-old DJ, whose producing alias, Skrillex, is a major keyword for the new wave of American dance music, just wrapped up an intimate surprise show at U Street Music Hall (my local gateway to electronic music and a place where I also DJ from time to time). He takes a sip of whiskey, still buzzing from the electric mass of fans who have just filed out, turns to me and asks, "So, what's everyone listening to nowadays?"
It's a funny question coming from Moore. The short answer I could give is, "Well, YOU, Sonny."
Over the past couple of years, the Grammy-winning artist has become the poster boy for the dramatic rise of dance music in America. Ten years ago, you wouldn't have heard much dance music on top 40 radio (at least not outside of hip-hop and R&B), but today it takes up significant chunks of airtime. The superstars at the center of the craze come from a sweeping range of backgrounds. David Guetta came up DJing house music in France, had commercial success in Europe in the early aughts and in the past few years has produced top 40 hits for the Black Eyed Peas, Kelly Rowland and Flo Rida. While Dutch DJ Tiesto built his fanbase overseas, his label is now centered in Brooklyn and he's got almost 13 million fans on Facebook. Diplo started out playing small shows in Philly, produced the smash hit "Paper Planes" for M.I.A., and now has production credits for Usher, Chris Brown and Beyonce. Skrillex was in an emo-punk band, but he didn't make the cover of SPIN until he started DJing. The sound at the top of festival tickets in America today is a loosely linked collection of tempos, synths and styles; and it's all being called EDM.
EDM is short for electronic dance music, which could conceivably describe any music with a beat made on a machine. But in practice it describes something more specific.
"Everything that's being presented as EDM falls so much within one particular corner of the scene, which is generally a more commercialized corner, a corner with more marketing muscle behind it," says Philip Sherburne, who writes for SPIN and has covered dance music for more than a decade. "[The term has] been adopted mainly by an American audience to apply to big tent electro-house, American dubstep and things like this."
These things don't all sound the same. The roaring basslines and slowed-down feel in "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" by Skrillex share little in common with the moody bells and pretty synths in Deadmau5's "Strobe, " even though the Scary Monsters EP came out on Mau5trap, the label run by Deadmau5. In reporting this article I spoke to more than a dozen DJs, industry insiders and dance music journalists (and many, many more in clubs and at festivals), but nobody I spoke to could draw a clear sonic line between EDM and other subgenres of dance music that they don't consider EDM, like deep house or techno. As a member of the "New Rave Generation," as Philip Sherburne describes my cohort, I came up assuming the term encompassed a broad range of sounds and didn't think of the music as necessarily mainstream. But as the ever-shifting vernacular around dance music has started to congeal, some sort of consensus has formed around its definition: EDM is a pop-driven, mostly high-energy, commercial strain of dance music.
That might not be a useful description of a sound, but it's a highly effective tool for the industry. It gives publicists, media types and fans a way to bundle a disparate group of sounds into an easy-to-understand package. Publicist Kathryn Frazer explained in an interview with the electronic music magazine Resident Advisor last month that she uses the term to describe dance music to people who were unfamiliar with the format. Everyone seems to agree on who EDM is. The most commonly cited names were David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Tiesto, Deadmau5 and Skrillex. These are also the names at the top of Forbes list of the world's highest paid DJs.
So there's a lot at stake. Now that EDM is in the spotlight, those who are on top are figuring out how to stay there and DJs and producers waiting in the wings are looking to capitalize on some of its glow.
Standing next to Sonny Moore, the young superstar DJ trolling for sounds in a muggy post party mist, I interpreted his question not as, "What's hot right now?" but as, "What's next?"
Richie Hawtin is hoping that what's next, in part, is what came before EDM. Hawtin grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and cut his teeth DJing across the Detroit River in techno's birthplace. Under a number of aliases — Plastikman, F.U.S.E. and Concept One, to name a few — the producer's minimal aesthetic caught fire during the 1990s with a devout following of techno enthusiasts both in the states and abroad, especially in Berlin. As EDM has risen, Hawtin has stayed true to the esoteric style on which he built his name. But seeing an opportunity in America's sudden infatuation with large dance music shows, he's hoping to push his sound to a bigger audience.
This week, Richie Hawtin and fellow techno guru Loco Dice are scheduled to begin their CNTRL tour, branded with the subtitle Beyond EDM (the first show, in Buffalo, has been postponed due to Hurricane Sandy). It's a 17-stop romp across North American college campuses, complete with music production seminars, and lessons in the music business. Its stated goal is "engaging young North American fans of EDM and showing them the roots of the music, the history of a global movement and demonstrating what the future of music technology and performance has the power to become." It's a tricky balance that Hawtin is trying to strike: he's using the term EDM to draw attention to the event, and beckoning fans to dig for the sounds that lie beneath.
For Hawtin and others who came up DJing during the '90s, the crossover of electronic beats into the American mainstream is a familiar story. But last time around, dance fizzled out. Last year in this space, Michaelangelo Matos wrote about the rise of the dance music scene — dubbed "electronica" — that arose in the United States in the 1990s, and the similarities are striking, at least to this point.
"What America did in the 90's is flirt with [electronic music]" says BBC Radio One's Pete Tong, who has followed the electronic dance music since its beginnings in Detroit and Chicago. "They embraced electronic music in the sense that as long as it was a kind of band that could go and play a festival in the U.S., then America got very excited about it. America fell in love with the Prodigy because they could put them on Lollapallooza, their videos could go on MTV and in a way they looked like a bastard child of rock and hip-hop, and America got that."
It didn't last. Dance music failed to adapt to the sounds of the time, and the electronica bubble deflated. Now that EDM has risen to '90s-level heights and beyond, an air of deja vu has left a queasy feeling of anxiety with some in the dance music community. Perhaps coincidentally, the music and its makers have become punching bags for fans of other types of electronic music. Over the summer, The Wall Street Journal published an article criticizing the "dumbing down of Electronic Dance Music" saying "...there's a fear that hitting the mainstream will have a corrupting effect on EDM." Shortly afterwards Deadmau5 wrote a blog post titled "United We Fail, We All Hit Play" in which he said, "I think given about one hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton and music tech in general could do what I'm doing at a Deadmau5 concert." Naturally, this ruffled a few feathers in the DJing community.
At around the same time as the Deadmau5 post, articles like "EDM, the Worst Thing That's Happened to Dance Music?," "Is America Killing Dance Music?" and "Dance Music Has Gone Mainstream, But It Doesn't Have to Sell Out" started pointing out that DJs at major music festivals often recycle playlists and show a reluctance to venture into new musical territory. As Jacob Schulman, then editor-in-chief of the rapidly growing EDM blog Dancing Astronaut, wrote in an editorial, "What worries me is not that DJs are simply "pressing play," but that they're pressing play on the same tracks in the same order night after night after night."
Conversations on Twitter, Facebook and in comments sections of electronic music websites show that many who have followed dance music for a long time are less than thrilled with the way EDM's popularity has begun to blur lines between genres.
"I detect a certain sense of resentment from some of the old school players about it, and I'll cop to having felt some of that myself too," Sherburne says, "because you're involved in something for a long time, and you have a certain vocabulary for it and a new generation comes along and christens it something new."
Amanda Claudio is a writer for Dancing Astronaut who entered the world of dance music through EDM and says she just started listening to Carl Cox, a legend in techno circles, though you likely won't hear his slow-building sound on commercial radio anytime soon. Claudio says she stumbled upon Cox at Ultra, an annual music festival held in Miami that's known for booking EDM headliners. For almost a decade Cox has curated a tent at Ultra that includes DJs from the non-EDM side of dance music.
"I really liked his energy and the way that he mixed," Claudio says. "There's not really any drops" — that term describes the dramatic releases in tension found in a lot of commercial house music — "so you kind of have to ease yourself into the groove." She says she's interested in learning more about niche styles like techno and deep house, which have a longer history and are less likely to include pop payoffs, but she is turned off by the attitudes of some of its fans.
"The thing that doesn't make sense to me is that [people who like deep house] are like, 'Oh, you don't listen to this. Your music taste sucks.' But I don't think they actually want kids from the main stage crowding their stage," she says.
On the main stages of dance music festivals is where one would likely look for Zedd, a 23 year old producer from Germany. Zedd isn't necessarily interested in some of the styles that led to EDM, like old school Chicago house. "I feel like Chicago house is mostly based on beats and rhythms, and that's cool and people love dancing to it," he says. "But it just does not bring up the emotion in me that I would get in a song with strong lyrics or melody."
Zedd's starting to chafe against the term EDM, which he feels puts him in a box. He says he's trying improve on the "big-tent" sound heard at massive music festivals across the country, changing his productions to stay ahead of the curve. "In a dance club track there will always be a minute intro, then a boom sound that goes silent for a few seconds, then a break, a buildup, a drop, a small break, another drop, its kind of the same thing always," he says. "That's the thing that's a little boring to me and that's what I try to stay away from. I try to make a song that feels right even if it's not the right structure."
Because success in the EDM world is anything but guaranteed, as evidenced by Avicii's failure to sell enough tickets for his "Le7els" tour this year, EDM artists have to continue to up the ante. Cooked into the DNA of Zedd's music are ingredients designed to attract commercial success. Songs hover in the three to five minute range and are heavy on swooning vocals and catchy melodies..
Stevie Benanty, the digital marketing manager for Complete Control management, a firm started by Tiesto, says EDM's ability to draw audiences requires that both the music and the stage production evolve.
"How many times has Skrillex come to big markets last year? A lot. So every time he needs to make sure somethings a little bit different, a little bit bigger, lights are a little bit brighter," she says. "Sure he can get on stage and play an amazing set, but it's also [about] bringing production."
Skrillex DJs on a space ship, Avicii atop a giant head. Deadmau5's "Rubik's cube" is well known amongst his fans, his mouse head is even more recognizable. The dance demi-gods Daft Punk, whose music lit a fire under the American dance music obsession a decade ago, perform from the top of a pyramid.
Benanty says her office is constantly talking about ways to grow their artists. One area where she says dance music has gotten it right, is in social media. "EDM as a whole really, really understood what social media meant early on, and really took the reigns on Twitter and fan engagement, speaking to fans and putting free music out there," she says.
Unlike the model favored by major labels in the '90s, based on selling albums rather than singles, EDM has built a business model around free music, where song streams and free downloads are offered to attract attention and the real money's in selling tickets to live events and attracting sponsors. And while major players in the EDM world continue to figure out how to adapt to the mainstream, the deep house is community is having its own affair with pop, says Philip Sherburne.
"Club music, and this is a huge generalization, tends to vacillate between a trackier tendency — trackier is something I'd describe as not a lot of melodic focus, not a lot of memorable riffs, not something you could hum along to. It's basically a groove, a rhythm. It's more timbral, it's more textural, its meant for mixing," Sherburne says. "And then it'll swing back towards a more song oriented thing with vocals and chord changes, and I definitely think deep house is gravitating towards a sort of song structure."
Sherburne points to the rise of labels like Crosstown Rebels and Hot Creations on Beatport charts as evidence for this trend. Beatport is the largest online music store for DJs, and its charts are often a good barometer for the popularity of a song in club circles. Matt Adell, the CEO of Beatport says that its clear that the underground benefitting from EDM's saccharine success.
"There's no doubt that the entire market is seeing a lift as the audience expands ... as people get introduced to the bigger acts, they're getting exposed to some of the less exposed acts and classic tracks and showing some interest in that," he says, adding that Beatport's audience has quadrupled in the last six months. Adell says it makes sense that some of the more melodic, vocal dance music cuts are entry points for young fans. "I doubt there are very many people who woke up and thought I love jazz because I heard a Sun Ra record. Jazz and electronic music are very similar in that they speak their own language, and you initially need an interpreter to understand that language. Once you understand the language, then you can explore that territory on your own."
That's an opportunity for independent electronic music labels like Crosstown Rebels, Hot Creations and !k7, who have been putting out music that's perhaps less instantly accessible to young ravers. Stephen Bolles, the director of digital marketing for !k7 records, says that the success of EDM is encouraging to his small label.
"It shows how much is possible on a grassroots level," Bolles wrote in an email. "For electronic labels and artists specifically, increased awareness and attention has lead to more open doors across the board, from press coverage and retail placement to live bookings and sync licensing," he adds. (Sync licensing is when songs are played in commercials, TV shows and movies.) "Our task from here is to make sure that we, as content creators, stay true to the principles that lead to where we are now (creativity, meaningful connections with fans, community), rather than allow increased commercial potential to water down the music and culture."
In the '90s, hits like Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" brought ubiquity and scorn to dance music. That song was celebrated on pop radio and mocked for being an "anthem of 'beer-boyish' mentality" as the song's creator Norman Cook described it to Michaelangelo Matos last year. And though there was an underground rave scene the last time dance music was big in America, BBC Radio 1 host Pete Tong says it wasn't enough to keep the movement going.
"There was not enough of an underground to provide a scene, [the music] went straight to radio, and so it could be turned off more instantly," says Tong. "Whereas what's happening [now] is people of all ages want to go to these clubs and see their favorite artists, whether it's the most obscure underground guy or it's the Swedish House Mafia. It doesn't matter what the major record company system does. It doesn't matter what MTV does. It doesn't matter what radio do necessarily, whether they play it or not. It's not gonna stop these kids from going to these shows."
On a clear night in DC earlier this fall, one man saw both sides of this spectrum within the span of a few hours. As the sun went down, thousands of kids packed into Merriweather Post Pavilion to see Sonny Moore drop dubstep bangers from atop his spaceship — at a Skrillex festival show, palpable euphoria crackles through the crowd and fireworks are never in short supply. But a few hours later, the DJ was on a much smaller stage, playing to a couple hundred stunned fans at U Street Music Hall that paid ten bucks to see his "protege" Alvin Risk. It's a different kind of Skrillex set. It's three in the morning, and Moore's spinning cuts that reach no commercial radio dial in America, with no light show, no rockets, no "big tent." The crowd is feeling it.