When Quincy Jones–a legendary artist and music producer of albums including Michael Jackson’s Thriller–thinks that EDM is “a fad” and Steve Angello believes EDM is rapidly becoming a farce, it may be time for EDM as an industry and culture to really consider sustainability for the future.
Yes, economic indicators show that EDM has a $6.2 billion worth right now, but as we’ve seen in the past, dance culture as a socioeconomic force is perfectly capable of reaching a height unsustainable by its roots. In the 1970s, all it took was a crowd of angry rock fanatics demolishing records during a baseball game and declaring that disco sucked, and the whole thing began to die on the spot. Nearly four decades later, we should be smarter than to let that happen again. Here are five solid steps the industry and fans can take to keep the EDM train running forever.
1. (Constantly) Make New Stars
EDM as a whole may have entered the public eye with force, but in some individual cases, it was unplanned. Kygo’s sudden push to the top can be linked to Avicii being felled by exhaustion for the second half of 2014, and by the superstar Swede having a markedly slowed output in 2015, too. This unfortunate occurrence created a void in a now-established space for EDM in pop culture that demands handsome, blond-haired producers who create mainstream-accessible, top-40 radio dance. Swapping out Avicii’s jug band electro for Kygo’s tropical house almost makes too much sense. Also, Kygo’s recent announcement of a hotel takeover for Norway’s Bergenfest Festival resembles what Avicii did in 2013 and 2014 at Ultra.
As well, there’s the example of both Skrillex and Diplo becoming solo stars, then combining forces as Jack U in order to increase their star-making potential. Could either Diplo or Skrillex sell out Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve? Sure. But as a tandem presenting a new act, they certainly set the bar for themselves at another level. As well, the success of Diplo’s Major Lazer and Jack U projects has Diplo considering “retiring” as a solo act and likely just pushing collaborative ventures which ultimately just continue to make stars of everyone and everything within them.
However, that isn’t where the star-making should stop. Social media is making communication move faster than ever before, and the notion of “superstardom” is different. Thus, the vacuum exists to churn out EDM stars at an even faster rate than we saw with rock and roll making one-hit wonders in the 1960s, while still also retaining a level of quality in material that allows for EDM’s tracks to retain the same timeless qualities of the pop/rock songs of yore. For instance, for every Elvis, there should be a Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon, Dion, Bobby Vinton, and Bobby Vee at the ready. While yes, there’s Skrillex, Diplo, Zedd, Porter Robinson, Tiesto, Martin Garrix, A-Trak, and Steve Aoki (to name a few), EDM needs to create the star-making vehicles to actually make many more stars. Is Simon Cowell’s Yahoo DJ program the answer? Zedd’s partnership with Guitar Center? Labels partnering with blogs? DJs co-signing and sharing platforms with an increased number of younger talents? In an era where a quality song spreads in an instant, countless productions of questionable merit surface alongside it–maybe it’s important to “flood” the market with a greater number of stars in constant rotation to satiate a growing desire to consume great music.
2. Create Female/Minority Stars
Pictured: Nicole Moudaber
There’s an incredibly good chance that, for a total of 16 years, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will occupy the position of President of the United States. The era of old white guys and their younger surrogates being in control of the global zeitgeist is changing, and as a force signifying cultural change, EDM should reflect this. Yes, there’s Afrojack, Carl Cox, Nicole Moudaber (pictured above), Annie Mac, and Maya Jane Coles (and certainly a few others), but they pale by comparison to white guys throwing their hands in the air in the form of trance hearts.
For example, in America, there was once a time where African Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, and women dominated dance music. Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were the most powerful club DJs in the country (if not the world), and ask any house head how much they revere the sounds of Masters at Work. Also, women have been statistically proven to be far more socially engaged insofar as promoting festivals and their attendance at festivals online, which in this increasingly digital-first age, is noteworthy. On a level of just doing what’s right by history, reflecting current cultural norms, or just providing a better reflection of the crowd that truly cares about what’s on the stage, it’s important.
Jersey club producer DJ Sliink just signed to OWSLA, Australian bass-lover Anna Lunoe earned a featured slot at Mysteryland, and a vibrant global underground from Japan to Africa and throughout the Caribbean is bubbling with progressive tunes. Is the aforementioned breakout of stars of minority or marginalized origin about to occur? It’s certainly possible.
3. Use Live Instruments
Humanizing EDM stars and crossing them over to the mainstream doesn’t necessarily have to involve Instagram selfies, Facebook cat memes, and a stream of product tie-ins that have minimal, if anything, to do with music. Instead–as crazy as it may sound–let’s make music musical again, and actually create a bridge to sustainability for dance music.
DJs are the new rock stars. However, it’s certainly possible to avoid the My Sharona moment where the industry used The Knack’s rock single that topped the Billboard charts in disco-dominant 1979 to deal a massive death blow to disco’s forward progression. How do we stop something similar from happening to EDM today? Maybe DJs can beat the industry to the punch and “pick up a guitar” before rock and roll is declared “resurgent.”
There are people who are happy to believe that DJs push buttons and make tracks with a ton of electronic samples stored on computers. There’s an element of truth to this, but there’s also the fact that Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories won an Album of the Year Grammy on the strength of songs that featured a live human pop star signing and a tremendously funky bottom end played with an actual bass guitar. So yes, as much as people are “all about that bass,” it’s clear that people are also all about that bassist playing that bassline more. As a track on Random Access Memories clearly states, “if music gives you life, give life back to music.”
4. Embrace Country Music
Yes, rappers and rap music are incredibly cool. As well, hip hop culture arguably dominates pop cultural conversation at-present, so the idea of making a great track with a hot rapper pretty much guarantees immediate stardom. However, when the music industry’s impact on the city of Nashville alone is $10 billion and Taylor Swift can seamlessly cross over from country to pop and sell 1.3 million copies of her album 1989, well, that certainly doesn’t mean country is as cool as rap, but it actually could be as financially stable.
Let’s say this right here: The first dance-focused producer that makes a track with Taylor Swift stands to make a ton of money. However, it’s the first EDM producer who decides to jump into bed with the stars of tomorrow’s country-as-pop market–the one Swift opened–like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Blake Shelton, or Florida Georgia Line, who stand to make a ton more. Country’s literally twice as old as a genre as rap, and certainly has a solid number of singers, songwriters, and classic material that could be sampled in any great number of ways and refreshed for the PLUR crowd’s acceptance. The door that Avicii opened with True’s Wake Me Up and Hey Brother is still wide open. There should be an Olympic footrace occurring in EDM to get in before it closes.
5. Learn To Value The DJ as a DJ
The second that DJs started getting featured on arena stages, the idea of a DJ set as a journey through the mind and feelings of a creator flew out the window. Instead (especially when fire, lasers, and fireworks are involved), the DJ basically becomes all four members of KISS rolled into one, and when he starts playing “some new tunes,” it’s time to turn down and take selfies in the crowd, but when he plays his EDM equivalent of Rock and Roll All Nite, Strutter, and Beth, it’s time to turn up, fist pump, and cry, respectively.
For a generation, the job of the DJ didn’t involve them thinking about their sets as a special effects-laden mega-event. However, when EDM went pop (again), the two ways to become popular in entertainment–spectacle and performance quality–took precedence over spinning tunes. But when on a stage in front of tens of thousands, it’s much easier to achieve spectacle than quality. The set thus serves as a soundtrack to lights and lasers, the music oftentimes the least important part of everything.
For EDM to have sustainability, the music–with its unique construction and relation to both contemporary and classic sounds–must be presented as the star. In this scenario, the DJ becomes a star not because they produced a track, but only because they excel at how to play music in order to always ensure the maximum crowd response. When a DJ’s level of technical expertise in playing records becomes more important than the fireworks that explode behind him when those records are played, EDM truly can hit the next level of excellence.