Nearly 20 years ago American music fans were warned of an impending coup. Such electronica artists as the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy and Moby were winning hearts and minds, captivating us like Christopher Walken in that Fatboy Slim video. Dance music had arrived in the United States, pundits declared.
They were wrong.
“It was a combination of our culture not being ready and, no disrespect to the Chemical Brothers, I love them to death, but we needed David Guetta,” said Jack Trash, DJ and founder of Twin Cities dance music promoter SIMshows and co-organizer of this weekend’s third annual EDM-heavy Summer Set festival in Somerset, Wis. “We needed somebody who could infiltrate with a sound that was acceptable to the masses.”
Of course Guetta, the French house producer known for such hits as “Turn Me On,” isn’t the first mop-topped European to help radically alter American pop music. But the current wave of EDM — electronic dance music — has thumped its way into the American mainstream like never before, and pop stars from Madonna to Katy Perry have latched on to this multibillion-dollar industry.
“You can turn on KDWB and hear Kaskade,” Trash said of the progressive house luminary who headlines Friday night of the three-day festival about an hour east of the Twin Cities.
EDM lovers will party to the sounds of DJs, rappers, jam bands and indie rockers at Somerset Amphitheater. The eclectic neon-hued bash is growing rapidly — from an average of 8,000 attendees per day in 2012 to 14,000 last year. Based on advance ticket sales, Trash said, this year will be even bigger.
EDM has made its presence felt not only at dance-centric fests such as multicity Electric Daisy Carnival and multicountry Ultra Music Festival, but DJs and producers are littering lineups from Coachella to Lollapalooza.
“It came in and has taken the music world by storm, especially in the last four or five years,” said Dominic Lalli, producer and saxophonist with Big Gigantic, the funky EDM/jam fusionists who return to headline Summer Set for the third consecutive year.
Hailing from the bass music and jam-rock hotbed of Colorado, Lalli touts EDM’s rise as a grass-roots movement partly aided by embracing the Internet.
“It happened at the same time when no one was buying music and everyone was just downloading it,” said Lalli, who holds a master’s degree in music performance from Manhattan School of Music. “Instead of fighting that, a lot of the electronic artists just dropped right on it and did a bunch of free downloads and got people excited about the music.”
EDM is the first genre “that’s come through social media,” notes dubstep heavy-hitter Flux Pavilion, who performs Saturday. “As social media exploded, this big electronic dance music exploded as well.”
A British producer born Joshua Steele, he broke out with 2010’s melodic bass-blasting “I Can’t Stop,” which was later sampled by Jay Z and Kanye West on “Watch the Throne.” The beatsmith has since signed a deal with Atlantic’s Big Beat Records.
It’s not just major labels taking notice of EDM’s popularity. Music once reserved for nightclubs is now scoring car commercials and taking NFL broadcasts in and out of commercial breaks. According to a report from the Association for Electronic Music, the global EDM industry is worth a cool $6.2 billion, roughly two-thirds of which comes from festival and club-gig revenue.
Led by media mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman, SFX Entertainment has been a heavy investor in the beats business. Last year, the organization purchased Beatport — the iTunes of the EDM world — reportedly for $50 million. This year, SFX entered a marketing partnership with Clear Channel and acquired Chicago events company React Presents, which is a co-organizer of Summer Set.
“It’s just the way that anything that’s popular goes,” said veteran Twin Cities DJ and promoter Woody McBride. “It gets grabbed by people who know how to market and exploit it and they’ll chew it up, make it bigger and better than we could have ever, and when it’s all done it gets spit out and something else will replace it.”
McBride, who’s behind the inclusive Bassgasm parties at First Avenue, belongs to dance music’s more underground house and techno side, which has little connection with the current EDM explosion. But in the late ’90s and early ’00s, he and Trash partnered for a series of semi-underground events in the lower level of Roy Wilkins Auditorium, which featured massive sound systems and have become something of local legend.
“There was a thirst for being a part of electronic music down there,” McBride said. “Aside from a few mix CDs, you had to go to the events to hear the music and share the experience. It was a pretty special time.”
As dance music has moved from intimate clubs to arenas and festival stages, so have the costs, Trash said. Artist fees and the price of production setups, which often include massive light shows, go-go dancers and confetti cannons, have risen, making it tough to break even for independent promoters.
“My company, the best years we had were years ago, because … the financial logistics of everything have shifted dramatically in the last couple years,” the promoter said.
The boy bands of EDM
As its popularity has soared like a progressive house build, EDM and dubstep have heard from the haters — “soulless” being a common diss. Even genre leaders such as Hardwell and low-end juggernaut Bassnectar (who closes Summer Set on Sunday night) have been critical of the state of EDM.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bassnectar took a thinly veiled shot at electro-house jester Steve Aoki (who performs at this year’s Zombie Pub Crawl) and likened “mass-marketed” European acts to boy bands.
“There are big-name DJs right now who buy their own Facebook followers and manufacture their profiles and don’t write their music, have other people write their music for them, and then don’t play their music live, but stand there during prerecorded sets while they run around onstage and congratulate themselves,” Bassnectar (aka Lorin Ashton) said. “There are impostors in every genre. There are bad artists in every genre. EDM is so easy to critique because most of the biggest and most successful artists are the phoniest.”
Indiana’s dark and dirty dubstep up-and-comer Figure, who closes the Big Top stage Friday, contends that conspicuously inauthentic artists could actually help EDM as a whole, making it easier to weed out the style-jackers. “The strainer is getting a bit thin,” he said, “and not a lot of people are going to make it through in a career move if they don’t develop their own sound that isn’t really based off something that someone else has already heard.”
Some, including Trash, predicted that EDM would have peaked by now. However the music evolves, EDM has etched its place into American pop music — love it or hate it.
“I liken it to hip-hop,” Trash said. “Hip-hop was around for a long time, but the whole element of hip-hop beats and that tempo started to enter Top 40 in the later ’90s, and it has been an element of Top 40 for years. We’re seeing that with EDM now.”
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.