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The World’s Most Popular Genre is Cannibalizing Itself, and You Didn’t Even Notice

Predicting the “EDM bubble” will soon pop? You’re too late, it already has.

The most followed artist on Spotify is David Guetta. I’d cite a Huffington Post article, but anyone can find the statistic. It’s right there on Spotify’s website and app. The 47-year-old DJ and producer clocks in at 6.9 million followers, beating modern R&B superstar Rihanna by about 1.5 million people. The implication, it would seem, is that electronic dance music, or EDM, reigns supreme.

But David Guetta, as genre-defining D.J. Deadmau5 pointed out in his 2012 Rolling Stone cover story,

“isn’t doing anything too technical. He has a laptop and a MIDI recorder, and he’s just playing his shit. People are, thank God, smartening up about who does what — but there’s still button-pushers getting paid half a million. And not to say I’m not a button-pusher. I’m just pushing a lot more buttons.”

Ironically, in this cover story that marked the peak of the EDM craze, Deadmau5 addressed many of the problems with a bubble in which he and Guetta are central players.

And EDM is a bubble, not just a fad. Countless financial and arts publications have noted as much. D.J. Pangburn of Death and Taxes magazine compared it to Holland’s infamous tulip bubble, saying “corporate interests, who three years ago couldn’t have given two shits about electronic music, are now tripping over themselves to cash in on the phenomenon.” Like the tulip bubble, Pangburn fears that the fervor could die suddenly thanks to the weight of speculation that businessmen have put on the genre. Whatever the initial interest in electronic music, EDM’s perceived popularity is now being fueled more by corporations than by fans. And like all bubbles, it will burst, but probably not in a way you’d recognize.

The Fat Cats Invented EDM

Modern EDM is made by altering and synthesizing recorded sounds and music. The term “DJ,” short for “disk jockey,” suggests someone spinning and scratching records at a turntable, but most modern DJ’s play packed stadiums behind laptops and soundboards. With a sound that evolved from the house, techno and electronica trends of the 1990s, modern EDM is a style that is focused on being as infectiously danceable and energetic as possible. Artists are always ratcheting up musical tension in anticipation for the “drop,” where the structure of a song changes and heavy distortion blasts through as the DJ “drops the bass,” in what has become EDM’s response to the traditional chorus.

The central corporate interest in EDM is in the way it differs from other genres in producing revenue. It’s not the “E” or the “M” that moguls are interested in — it’s the “D.” The dancing element of electronic dance music is what makes the genre so lucrative to businessmen. EDM is meant to be played and danced to at parties, clubs and festivals. In a music industry where record sales have reached an all time low, tickets for concerts and festivals are the main source of revenue for almost all artists. EDM happens to be a genre that demands live attention.

Speculators and investors love this so much that they put it right in the name — electronic dance music.

“Two years back, no one would have called electronic dance music ‘EDM.’ Admittedly, the term has been around for awhile [sic], but who the fuck ever used it? …It’s a branding procedure,”

writes Pangburn. Ask any electronic fan, they’ll tell you that EDM is an unfortunate catch-all term encompassing dubstep, house, trance, trap house, drum and bass, et cetera. But the genre wasn’t an umbrella term before the millionaires got their fingers in the pie. The fat cats invented EDM.

The commodities these feline moguls trade in are promoters and event organizers, the groups behind music festivals and club residencies. Their genius lies in their setting up countless EDM festivals around the world, from Electric Daisy Carnival to Tomorrowland to Ultra Music Festival. Tickets to these festivals run in the hundreds of dollars, with hundreds of thousands of fans attending — 165,000 people went to the Ultra Music Festival in Miami in 2012, according to The New York Times.

In the same Times article, Ben Sisario writes that “top DJ’s can earn well over $1 million for a festival appearance and $10 million for a Las Vegas nightclub residency, talent agents say.” According to Forbes, the top earner of this past year was DJ Calvin Harris, raking in a massive $66 million, surpassing genuine kingpins like Jay-Z and Taylor Swift. He owes part of his success to his two-year deal with America’s biggest nightclub, Hakkasan in Las Vegas.

This highlights another element unique to EDM — since the genre focuses on live performance and remixing and a constant output of content, artists play most of their shows in clubs, not concert halls, and it is perfectly acceptable to play in the same club for months at a time. A DJ can sign a single contract, go to the same club every night, play a mix of music only slightly altered by said DJ’s whim, never worry about making it to the next venue or paying for food or gas, and make millions of dollars doing so.

In short, EDM makes a ridiculous amount of money, and no other genre can compete.

Too Close to the Sun

Commentators like Sisario and Pangburn are convinced that the massive monetary explosion will be the death of EDM, that people will stop buying tickets for massive spectacles that will only get pricier, and that investors will be left scrambling. Amy Thompson, manager of the EDM group Swedish House Mafia, said:

“What you don’t want is some big fucking massive city sale and everyone’s fucking cheering, and then in three years time you’re declared bankrupt and you’re a stigma for 20 years when you’ve just finally been accepted and legitamised [sic].”

Thompson’s last six words strike me more than any of the dollar signs or massive figures. They remind me of how quickly I’ve stopped hearing about the newest brostep or witch house or the latest mashup or remix. My Facebook and Twitter feeds haven’t touted a new single from Tiësto or Deadmau5 for months, maybe years. Her words remind me of disco.

People like to say disco died on July 12, 1979, when rock fans gathered by the thousands in Chicago to burn and explode countless disco records between games at a White Sox double header. Nothing so dramatic has happened with EDM, but the drop in popular interest is undeniable.

Breakout artists of the past few years like Disclosure, CHVRCHES, James Blake and Lorde all playfully use and depend on synthesizers to define their sounds, but can make no claim to be a part of EDM. They aren’t purely electronic, nor are they purely for dancing. Fewer and fewer purely electronic hits are emerging each year. “Where Are U Now” and “Hey Mama,” by Skrillex & Diplo and David Guetta, respectively, are the only two electronic songs currently in the Billboard Top 10. They don’t sound like towering electronic bangers. Both lean heavily on the vocals of standard pop stars Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. “Hey Mama” is so dominated by Minaj’s swaggering verses that one wonders why David Guetta receives any mention at all.

And now we’ve returned to David Guetta, the paramount pasty whitehead on the buttock of overhyped and overpaid EDM artists. Critics and artists alike have bemoaned Guetta’s lack of substance as a musician and a performer. The man is more of a great producer than anything. Guetta has no defining style, no album of paramount cultural significance. There is no aesthetic you can define and point to and say, “that’s David Guetta’s sound.”

In many ways, EDM might be the first successful bubble, the bubble that never pops. Like country and metal before it, EDM is being laid to the wayside by popular opinion only to remain popular enough to fill stadiums and canyons at countless festivals around the world.

But in plenty of other, more important ways, EDM’s bubble has long since popped. In a span of less than five years, the genre was invented, coined, shoehorned, suckled until its teats were dry and cracking, and then cast out. By commodifying an entire subculture, the live music business has turned EDM into a punchline; Skrillex t-shirts aren’t any cooler than that “Master of Puppets” shirt your friend Cody used to wear twice a week in middle school.

It isn’t 2012 anymore, and neither Deadmau5 nor his colleagues will be on the cover of Rolling Stone any time soon. Pop culture has moved on. Maybe Spotify numbers will, too, but I’m not holding my breath.



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