At the beginning of the summer of 2014, veteran techno DJ, producer and grade-A smack-talker Seth Troxler penned an Op-Ed piece for Thump (the dance music arm of Vice Media) that eloquently described the current state of dance music festivals as “concert(s) of cunts.”
The thrust of Troxler’s statement criticized the instant-gratifying nature of today’s giant EDM events, with their newly-formulated performance rituals. To start, there are the superstar DJs, eager-to-please showmen who leap up and down onstage, waving their arms in the air to further goad on the already-enthusiastic audience. One notorious entertainer, Los Angeles DJ Steve Aoki, takes things to an extreme—jumping on trampolines, riding inflatable rafts across the crowd, and tossing cakes at kids who press up to the stage in the hope of getting frosted.
These fans, the youngest and lowest common denominator of generation EDM, care little about the community and even less about the music. They are there for the experience, for the excitement. They dress to the extreme, in colorful costumes or, inversely, wear almost nothing at all. To them, EDM is hardly a music genre, although they are thrilled to sing along to the same hook-laden pop chorus repeatedly throughout the course of a days-long event. They are there for the eye-popping light shows and multi-storied set pieces, for the interaction with their own kind, whether a sexual hook-up or a bro bonding moment. They are there for the readily-available drugs that enhance the entire experience. They are there for the party, for the happening. And they are, more often than not, unapologetic about it.
These current customs stand in stark contrast to the time-tested (if often idealized) aesthetic of decades-old house music culture: its focus on the DJ as a curator of undiscovered music gems; its cult of trainspotters eager to out-do one another in their knowledge of the mysterious rhythms; its darkened warehouse-like venues full of faceless fans dancing through fake fog and strobes—dressed, not to impress, but to sweat through long hours on the dance floor. Yes the drugs are still present (they are present in all recreational activities), as is the implicit desire to connect with those equally enthralled with the clubbing experience. What differs most is the connection with the past. Clubbing started as an alternative for those alienated by mainstream culture—not, as with the case of EDM festivals, where people amass because it is mainstream culture.
As EDM hits its (presumed) peak of popularity, the divide between festivals and clubs has become more pronounced than ever before. This divide exists despite the fact that the two communities overlap extensively — sharing both talent, audience and business interests. Troxler’s preference for what’s behind door #2 is immediately evident, but even he gives props (and Facebook posts) to Dutch super-festival Tomorrowland for its elaborate attention to production detail, even if that detail is meant to achieve the same ADD aesthetic that Troxler fundamentally disdains. Alas even the most outspoken critic of EDM events can’t completely dismiss the momentum of these mega-gatherings, the adrenalizing power of 100,000 people bouncing up and down to 16,000 watts of thundering bass, under 10 million lumens of synchronized LEDs.
All genres of music evolve over time, and with each new development comes a generation of musicians and fans eager to claim the form as their own, often unaware of the historical lineage that brought the scene to its current form. And there will always be an elder generation that pines for prior eras when things were better, “back in the day.” What makes the EDM versus club culture debate such a hotly contested one is the way in which the demands of this new event-driven market threaten to overwhelm the heritage of the old one.
Optimists view the new-found enthusiasm by young people for dance music as a gateway through which its more sophisticated forms might cultivate a wider audience, or more simply, put more heads in the clubs. Naysayers, however, see EDM as an abomination against the culture they dearly clutch to their hearts. Whether or not a taste for 4/4 kick drums and electronic sound palettes is enough to translate from festival routines purpose-built to deliver incessant sensory overdrive into the slow-building drama of endless hours spent grooving to unidentified minimalistic beats on darkened dance floors remains to be seen.
The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle. The fist-pumping fervor and hands in the air ecstasy of Millennial stars Skrillex and David Guetta might grate against the groovy disciples of deep house and techno, as defined by folks like Troxler. But as the adolescent energy of the first wave of EDM starts to morph into a deeper style displayed by popular newer acts like Disclosure, there is hope that the next wave might develop into a sonic form more respectful of its historical source. The question is, can that fully take place without the context of old school clubbing as the music’s home field?
Dance music is not the first genre to make the fitful jump from intimate venues to festival stages. In the late 60s, the audience for live rock & roll grew exponentially in just a few short years. Popular consensus marks the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, with its 50,000-person attendance, as the start of this trend. Woodstock in 1969, with it’s alleged 500,000-strong audience, would cap the growth as far as most histories are concerned, although gigantic rock spectacles would remain the norm throughout the following decade.
By most accounts from the time, this broader popularity was seen as a net positive for rock music, but by the late 70s, the bombast of stadium rock had begun to experience push back by way of punk. The new genre was, by definition, deeply critical of its rock forbearers, and returned not just to the genre’s technically primitive musical roots, but also brought the live music experience back to the network of intimate clubs and theaters that had been the base for rock during it’s pre-festival salad days, with the addition of an even more underground network of DIY venues popping up across the country.
Punk’s tactical retreat in size was maintained throughout the 80s, running in parallel to a new generation of underground nightclubs that incubated new genres like house and techno, themselves the intimate offspring of disco’s popular explosion and implosion in late 70s. Stadium and festival-size events were relinquished to the megastar rockers (Springsteen, U2, Mötley Crüe) and pop giants (Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna) of the era. Eventually another swell would take place in the 90s, both for punk (now called alternative rock) and dance music (re-categorized as electronica).
In the case of alt-rock, the pre-existing infrastructure of mainstream rock concerts made for easy routing for events like Lollapalooza (in its original traveling festival iteration). There was, however, no precedent for how (or where) dance music could be presented to the growing audience. Most DJs (now the performance standard for dance music) fell flat in large concert venues. Those who did succeed, mainly live dance acts like The Prodigy and Underworld, had to hold up rock signifiers to translate properly (white guy with a guitar onstage, despite the overwhelming artifice of the gesture). Late-night clubs and similar unlicensed raves, long the breeding ground for dance music, struggled to survive under the scrutiny that came with wider popular interest. Nowhere was this more evident than in New York City, one of dance music’s historical capitals, where superclub Twilo was shuttered at the peak of popularity for drug violations. Even tiny bars and clubs were restrained from dancing via ancient cabaret laws left on the books, which were suddenly being enforced for the first time in decades.
Unlike the self-imposed restrictions in mass appeal that punk had placed on itself, dance music’s withdrawal was largely due to outside forces. Nevertheless, the halt in forward momentum towards mainstream acceptance was severe. To survive, the music sought shelter in the small concert venue network born in the previous decade’s alt-rock explosion. This format—performers on a concert stage, early venue curfews—morphed dance music into a form more fitting the function of the space.
Indie-dance became the new norm, which, while offering its share of exceptional artists (LCD Soundsystem, Justice, The Rapture), also created a gap generation of American dance music fans who were only faintly aware of the music’s true clubbing roots. Unless, of course, said fans ventured to Europe, where the clubbing format continued to thrive on a variety of scales—from intimate nightclub settings to multi-stage festival events that still maintain the sound and style of traditional club culture. In America, one would be hard-pressed to name one significant nightclub that thrived during the fallow early 00s era.
As much as we can reliably identify the flash point of a cultural shift, the debut of Daft Punk’s revered pyramid show at Coachella 2006 is a good place to start when discussing the current EDM phenomenon. The Southern California festival, equal parts breeding ground for new sounds and triumphant celebration of underground acts turned festival headliners, was built on the substantial shoulders of left-field 90s acts, both rock (Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine) and rave (Basement Jaxx, Chemical Brothers). Many assumed the return of Daft Punk to the stage after a ten-year absence would simply be another example of raver nostalgia. No one predicted that it would, in fact, become the launching pad for the biggest dance music explosion in American history.
As 80s alternative icons Depeche Mode wrapped up their set of greatest dance-goth hits, the 90s rave robots appeared to the throwback strains of John William’s theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, launching into an explosive hour-long mash-up of their own hits, surrounded by a mind-melting synchronized visual display. Stood atop a giant LED-covered pyramid, faceless behind robot helmets, the French duo introduced a new paradigm for live electronic music, where the buttons pressed on the machines (they were, to some extent, “performing” the songs live) was secondary to the sight and sound extravaganza that the audience eagerly ate up. It was, in one sense, the return of rave’s own house music heart, but in a sonically-condensed and sensory-exciting format that worked far better in front of large audiences than a lone DJ, head down, beat-matching records onstage.
Clubbing veterans unanimously anointed Daft Punk, with their performance and marketing savvy, as the saviors of dance music.
And to a certain extent, the excitement generated by their subsequent success pulled the entire dance music market out of its mid-00s rut. But the stage-show also gave birth to the EDM juggernaut that many now fear has grown to eclipse the clubbing culture that gave birth to the French duo in the first place — an LED arms race that places the importance of spectacle above all else.
This split is perhaps best exemplified at Coachella itself, where in 2012, a second dance stage, The Yuma Tent, was installed to supplement the much larger Sahara Tent, long the festivals primary home for dance music. While the Sahara provides the complete EDM experience for a younger generation of fans, the walled Yuma Tent — purpose built to replicate the darkened nightclub experience, even during peak desert daylight hours — delivers the traditional club experience, where DJs like Troxler are free to practice their particular craft. Slowly, a certain percentage of kids from the seething Sahara crowd will make their way to the Yuma’s doors, which is a good thing for dance music as a whole. But they’ll have to wait in line, as the Yuma is already filled to the gills as well.