Like many genres that previously experienced a rapid ascent, electronic dance music is at war with itself. Emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s in underground clubs and warehouse parties, the original scene was founded on an ethos of peace, love, unity, respect, and celebratory hedonism. Ecstasy was everywhere, and the music — created with emerging technology like synthesizers and drum machines — sounded like the future. The parties went until dawn or later, if the cops didn’t bust them up first. For many there during this first wave, these experiences were sacred.
While dance music experienced its first boom in the late 1990s, peaking with the popularity of rock-oriented dance acts like The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, there is no precedent for dance music’s current technology-fueled takeover of global mainstream culture.
According to the 2015 IMS Global Business Report, today’s dance music industry is estimated to be worth $6.2 billion worldwide. Dance music is heard on Top 40 radio, TV commercials, and listened to obsessively through downloads and streaming services (Major Lazer’s “Lean On”—an electronic/reggae hybrid—is Spotify’s most-streamed song of all time, with more than 613 million plays). It’s pumped at Las Vegas mega-clubs and experienced through the ever-expanding dance festival circuit, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans annually. Acts like Calvin Harris and David Guetta, with their crossover singles, have become a new sort of rock star, with top DJs pulling six-figure paychecks for single sets and working with brands like Armani and 7UP.
Meanwhile, collaborations between dance artists and acts from other genres have created even more connective tissue between dance and the rest of the sonic landscape. Swedish producer Avicii fused dance and country with his 2013 single “Wake Me Up,” Katy Perry united pop and trap on “Dark Horse,” Nicki Minaj sampled veteran producer Maya Jane Coles’ “What They Say” in “Truffle Butter,” while Beyoncé borrowed the hook for 2011’s “Run the World” from Major Lazer. This year, rapper Kendrick Lamar and pop singer Justin Bieber are both nominated for GRAMMYs in the Best Dance Recording category for their work with electronic artists Flying Lotus and Jack Ü, respectively. To state the obvious, dance music has made its way to the mainstream.
While there are a dizzying number of dance music genres, new and younger audiences seem to have gravitated toward electronic dance music (EDM) with the most velocity. Arguably the most mainstream style of dance music, EDM is influenced by big room and progressive house, characterized by massive, blunt force beats, and elaborate stage productions.
But as millions of fans flood the scene, veterans and purists grapple with the commercialization of a once rare sound and culture. Critics have called EDM artless music made to cash in on a trend and attract the lowest common denominator of fans. “EDM has really changed what commercial music consumption is,” producer Seth Troxler told Thump. “These purpose built clubs inside massive Las Vegas hotels? The music is shit, but they’re selling thousands of bottles of alcohol a night to rich idiots.”
Around the world, millions of young fans — many of them presumably unaware of the roots of dance culture — are spending cash on music and festival tickets. Corporations have purchased formerly independent festivals, often creating generic lineups and pushing lesser-known producers further underground. In an effort to take advantage of the spending power of Millennials, big brands have latched onto the trend. This increase in mainstream appeal has some purists lamenting what they consider a capitalism-oriented bastardization of a once pure scene.
But with this growth, the underground has simultaneously experienced a sort of reflexive parallel development, with thousands of producers continuing to evolve genres like tech-house, drum & bass, dubstep, psytrance, future house, and dozens of others that remain largely unknown to most mainstream dance listeners.
As a result, elements of the underground continue to bubble up. The EDM explosion of 2011 arguably primed the world for acts like Disclosure and Kygo, each of whom play more nuanced, house-oriented dance music. Disclosure played New York’s Madison Square Garden last October and Kygo performed at the December 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. Revered veterans like Daft Punk and Aphex Twin are also getting widespread recognition, receiving Best Dance/Electronica Album GRAMMYs in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
“To me, it’s still cool that we’re still in an era where people think that people have no talent if they make computer music,” Skrillex noted in a New York Times video piece devoted to Jack Ü’s GRAMMY-nominated single “Where Are Ü Now.” “I think that’s awesome. It just shows how young it still is, and how relevant it’s going to be for a long time.”
As the dance world continues expanding at the pace of technology, what remains true is that the experiences people are having while listening to dance music — whether mainstream or underground, in a dark club or at a massive festival — are still largely the same as they were in the old days: life-affirming, boundary-pushing, sacred. Despite the contention, dance music’s sustained ability to make us feel so much is arguably the only thing that actually matters.
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