Playing Above The Noise: Dance Music Can Be A Loud Business
By Jono Grant of Above & Beyond
How should artists and DJs define success?
We live in a world that’s got a very short attention span. Dance music producers often aim to make the loudest track, the most engaging track, and that concept gets expanded upon in a DJ set. The idea carries beyond that as well, to the way artists and DJs engage with their fans. In pursuit of audience engagement, artists often feel compelled to scream louder, to make the most noise, whether it be on social media or on the dancefloor.
To be fair, this approach can work when it is part of the style and personality of the artist — really going for it, getting a reaction. But it’s not for everyone. Some producers are actually quite reclusive, shy beings (as I sometimes consider myself). I believe there is another way.
Pursuing Social Affirmation
It’s interesting to consider how we define success in dance music these days. For many casual onlookers it tends to be measured through social media platforms—how much reach an artist has, their number of YouTube views, or even their ranking on the DJ Mag poll. To me this is akin to judging a company based on its share price without examining the real fundamentals of the business.
Social media can be an addictive outlet at times for artists, and I admit I’m guilty of this myself. I’ll send out a tweet and watch the numbers of retweets rising like a scoreboard, like playing a computer game. But the truth is that none of these social platforms actually measure whether a music fan is truly engaged and listening to the music, and many of these numbers can be fairly easily manipulated, just like stock prices. Those of us who recently watched the rather public Instagram purge of fake followers can surely relate to this.
What you can’t so easily manipulate, however, is real demand for music sales and real demand for ticket sales. Those traditional elements of the music business are still at the core of what is valuable. I would include statistics such as Spotify streams and merchandise sales, but not how many Facebook likes or Twitter followers an artist has. It’s the music that is the fundamental product after all, not a viral video or a funny Snapchat.
Social media statistics are certainly useful (particularly the amount of engagement an artist has, rather than their absolute reach), but they are more a measure of celebrity appeal than musical success. On my own travels I have encountered many inexperienced promoters who got caught up in the hype of an artist’s social media campaign and somehow neglected to remember that it’s the music that is still the core product.
Aiming Above the Noise
As I write this our new release We Are All We Need sits at the #1 position on the Billboard Dance/Electronic albums chart. This is new, it’s exciting, it’s a humbling and interesting experience for us. Our fan base has grown over the years, and we’ve been fortunate to sell a reasonable number of copies of the album in a declining sales market. Dance music wasn’t so much on the radar in the U.S. when we released our last album Group Therapy, but I think the early success of We Are All We Need is a result of the cumulative building of our fan base rather than a marketing campaign specific to the album. As a group who operate an internal 360 business model (overseeing nearly everything from our recordings, management, through to touring, etc), we still believe in the value of the album, even if some parts of the music business seem not to.
If an artist has a hit record, it’s certainly possible to gain some fair weather fans, but it’s unlikely that you will attract real hardcore fanatics until you’ve created an identity that people want to buy into, or you have a string of successive popular releases. In my experience it seems difficult to build a long-term career in dance music from one or two radio hits, and in certain cases having radio hits may even hamper your opportunities to play at some clubs or festivals at points in your career. Looking at other genres, history shows not having mainstream radio play doesn’t seem to have hurt a band such as Iron Maiden, and I think parallels can be drawn with dance music. These cult acts may not fill the airwaves or frequent the popular media channels, yet book them at a well-promoted festival and thousands will turn out to see them perform.
America Raises The Bar
Viewed from the perspective of a promoter, I would say the ultimate measure of a performing DJ’s value is how many tickets they can sell in a particular market and at what price. Longer term, there are other values a DJ with a solid track record can provide to a promoter or a venue—leverage for a festival brand, for example. As an agent who used to handle our bookings would say: “it’s all about bums on seats!”
In the 80s and 90s the dance music industry was very unorganized, and it took years for it to become a structured business. During this period Europeans experienced a rehearsal for what was about to happen in the U.S. when America’s dance music scene exploded. Americans tend to be more positive in business than us Brits, and I always say: in America, money changes hands easier. Spending money in America is seen as a positive thing. Here in the U.K. spending money is not viewed as such a good thing.
The dance music boom in North America also changed the business back in Europe. Artists spend a lot of their time in America now, partly because there are greater opportunities, and I think that’s affected their value in Europe to some degree. When we first toured America (starting in 2003) we were making a loss from touring there, and it’s only now that we find ourselves in a situation where we can play the shows we want to play, to highly engaged audiences.
America’s success with dance music has made Europeans think, “We want some of that action back here. We’ve let all these guys travel off to America, we want them playing in Europe!” It feels as if Europe was initially caught off-guard by the huge growth, as some of the mainstream media channels here were writing off dance music years ago. Meanwhile dance music has proven to be a significant commodity in the USA.
Finding True Market Value
As the opportunities expand, there is obviously a temptation for artists to simply perform the shows that pay the biggest fees. If we chose to, we probably could perform as many gigs as possible, for as high a fee as possible. But then a year later, all those promoters will be saying, “The last time we had them didn’t go very well, they’re not worth it.” We became musicians because we love music, and therefore the goal is to sustain a long term career, performing to engaged audiences.
We’ve always tried to have a good relationship with the promoters for the long term, because we want to build a fruitful career. In the end I think it’s capitalism: an artist ultimately finds their true market value. Experienced promoters look behind hype and focus on the fundamentals of the artist, building relationships for the long term, just as the savvy artists, agents and managers do. We see shows around the world proudly advertised as being “sold out” when they are not—this is a false economy, and those in the business know the real story.
I have seen it suggested that companies like SFX, who have purchased and consolidated many large dance music promoters, may have overpaid for the companies they acquired. This could be a reason their stock price is down, casting a gloom over the corporate side of the dance music business. At the same time, promoters are beginning to question the value of the acts they are booking. As with all bubbles, there is always a reversion to the mean in the end, and I think we may soon approach that moment in EDM. There will inevitably be a moment where the fundamentals of both artists and the businesses are revealed.
The Heart of Our Art
When business gets involved with art, it changes the art. It’s important to not forget why you’re doing it and why you started doing it. Our internal 360 business model enables us to take artistic risks (such as Acoustic) that may not be possible with more traditional record deals.
There is an essence to Above & Beyond that a listener might describe better than the members themselves. Even so, our next album won’t end up sounding exactly like our new album. It is important to evolve in order to remain interested and excited about what we do each day. We have always been fascinated by the career paths of artists such as Madonna or David Bowie, who consistently reinvent themselves.
With our shows we aim to create an immersive and dynamic experience with the audience, rather than attempting to lead a tribe, or play God! The show also hinges on our relationship with the fans—we are nothing without them.
One of the things that particularly inspired me when I discovered dance music was when I saw Paul Oakenfold in the late 90s, and he played “Carmina Burana,” the bold classical piece, in the middle of his set. He played a piece of classical music in a DJ set, and why not? Exploring a wide musical landscape and a multitude of emotional colours within a performance is what makes it dynamic and exciting.
Calculated Risks and Positive Rewards
Sometimes as an artist it’s important to try to make a bit of a leap—take an event like our 100th Group Therapy show at Madison Square Garden in October of last year. We had a solid track record in New York and felt it was time to make a step up, but we didn’t know exactly how the show would sell. We don’t take these measured risks too often, and we were grateful that it sold out. You’ve got to take calculated risks by selling hard tickets in order to grow and progress throughout your career (as opposed to festival appearances, where is it more difficult to know which artist really attracted the crowd).
We view the relationships that we have with promoters as absolutely golden, and putting on a show at a place like Madison Square Garden would not be possible without them. It goes without saying that the fans are the most important people, but our immediate point of contact before that is the promoter. If you don’t collaborate with the right people and deliver a great experience then there are going to be disappointed fans, and it reflects badly on the artist in the end.
In business I don’t believe in eternal growth, it is a myth that capitalist idealists sell us. At some point, things have to either get smaller or go sideways. There will come a point in every successful artist’s career where they can’t go grow bigger as such, but we can always grow musically. I think accepting that fact is important for an artist’s personal happiness in this industry. In the business of music we are not going to be on top of our game forever, but somehow knowing that allows us to enjoy the journey that much more. Happiness is the best measure of success.