If that sounds like a bold statement, it is. It’s also very realistic.
EDM (yes, EDM, not “dance music” or “electronic”) has undergone a dramatic rise in popularity. In the future, we might credit the Internet’s penchant for rapidly spreading information for the meteoric rise in EDM listeners worldwide. Regardless, this growth is completely unsustainable, and now we have a severely inflated bubble that is bound to pop.
The truly sad part is we are all to blame. Whether purposely or inadvertently, we have created a culture in EDM whereby it is no longer about the music. Our culture is now about fame, stardom and name recognition. The days of a nameless, faceless master of ceremonies taking the decks, reading the crowd and delivering the exact track and set their expert musical diagnosis demands...are over.
Many in the industry are quick to blame the fans. I blame them the least of all.
First and foremost, I blame the agents who create a frenzy of demand only to increase booking prices accordingly. For those that aren’t aware, agents are the people you actually call when you want to hire an artist for a performance. The promoter of the show calls an agent, negotiates a price and date, then (depending on the artist’s exact arrangement) artist management gets involved to plan specifics of the performance. In only the last couple years, booking prices have increased so dramatically it is becoming virtually impossible to do single-performer shows in small markets (like college towns.) The profit margins simply aren’t worth the risk.
This inflation of booking prices is at the heart of EDM’s bubble of unsustainability, because touring now accounts for the vast majority of an artist’s income. Spin recently published an editorial explaining how this focus on touring leads to less studio time. Mixmag followed up with its own feature on ghost-producers, artists who sell music to more popular counterparts who then present it as their own original work. Disappointingly, the magazine stopped short of finding the courage to name names. Finally, The Guardian published an article by the legendary Bill Brewster describing an argument between Calvin Harris and the BBC over comments that appeared to endorse pre-recorded sets. All of these issues are symptoms of the same cause: fans have lost their desire for actual musical talent.
The explanation is simple. As prices increase, fans are less keen on taking risks. For $10, I might be willing to go to a random club and listen to a DJ I read about on a flyer. If I’m spending hundreds of dollars to attend a music festival, I had better be sure the experience will be worth it. For the vast majority of people that don’t have time to properly research and stay up to date on the music, popularity and fame become their benchmarks for judging the worth of any given act.
Fame is truly a funny thing. We use fame and notoriety to find common links with others. As much as some of us might despise Paris Hilton, she serves as a cultural reference point. Humans crave topics of conversation that connect us to each other and diminish the intrinsic qualities that make us feel alone. Famous people are an aspect of our culture that we actively desire.
We used to demand more from our famous musicians. They used to demand more from themselves. When Eric Clapton, the famous guitarist, wrote the song “Tears in Heaven,” his four-year-old son had fallen out of a 53rd-story window to his death. He took that passion, emotion, and heartbreak and poured it into song. Every time he played that song, he reopened an old wound and shared that feeling with his audience. When he felt he could no longer relate nor properly convey the emotion behind the song, he stopped playing it.
The sad truth fans of EDM must face is that the genre as a whole is young, immature, and enamored by the superficial. For me, artists with the goal of enhancing their fans’ lives through their music are the ones I will continue to enjoy. The champagne-spraying, bottle-popping performances are undoubtedly fun, but it is equally certain we’ll look back on them as the necessary and unfortunate stupidity of youth, both our own and of our music. EDM is in dire need of a mature, meaningful message, and there is no reason that a young producer can't deliver it or that young fans can’t demand it.
The most interesting facet of EDM’s fan base is there are now two main types. First, there are the social seekers, more focused on taking a photo from behind the DJ or with their thousands of dollars in liquor and posting it on instagram than with listening to the music. For them, as long as the DJ on stage is sufficiently famous, they are happy to empty their wallets in an attempt to fill some hole within them that, they will soon discover, cannot be filled with money.
On the other hand, there are the devotees of the old rave culture more focused on being with their friends than with whoever is on stage. There is an undesirable element to this group as well in the form of those who will dance to DJ-fill-in-the-blank as long as they are on their preferred drug. For the most part, though, the sincerity of valuing the music and the message over the mainstream is alive and well. You just have to look for it.
At the highest level, the organizers of music festivals and EDM events are eagerly anticipating the day fans don’t need a famous performer as an excuse to have fun. Last summer, Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella famously described how “ [the fan] is the headliner.” The unfortunate fact is, fans are not yet brave enough to let loose on their own, not the way they currently do when a well-known performer is on stage.
This is why the bubble cannot last. Soon, the fans will realize the emperor has no clothes. They will stop deluding themselves into buying the fame of an artist they haven’t even listened to just because a promoter is able to convince them he is a “big deal.” We are all lying to each other and ourselves, because the money involved has made us believe we have to. The time has come to put an end to the farce and hype we have created.
In many ways, a bubble is a perfect analogy. It expands uncontrollably until it bursts, despite being filled with nothing.
Some day, that space will be filled with meaning. Right now, it’s filled with Facebook likes, YouTube views and Twitter followers.