Nothing gets old faster than a new sound – Milton Babbitt
When it comes to crossing into the mainstream and staying there, an artist must walk a fine line between pushing the envelope and remaining relatable. Most of time, the artist fails to achieve this perfect balance. They either lean more toward pushing the envelope and become a somewhat obscure performer with a cult-like following, or they try so hard to please the masses that they lose sight of their own artistic vision (if they even had one to begin with). Consequently, their 15 minutes of fame quickly turns into fodder for comedians.
I liked the big room sound when it first arrived on the scene. Why? Because it was different. Big room house in its current form didn’t even exist 10 years ago, whereas the vast majority of other electronic music genres did to one degree or another. This is one reason why the genre, and many others throughout the centuries, initially rose to prominence. The Beatles, Run DMC, Freddie Mercury—they became popular because their music was different, yet just relatable enough to current trends in music that they managed to turn heads, but not in a jarring enough manner to scare the young people away. David Guetta did this with modern house music—he took American pop, juiced it up with his own flavor, threw the popular vocalists of the time on it, and subsequently changed music just enough to make the US ripe for the sound of dance music to once again cross over the Atlantic and into our radios and festivals.
This could have been all well and good; creativity could have continued to blossom and be supported by large and small stages alike. But whether by a lack of understanding of dance music in American major label boardrooms, sheer laziness on the part of the artist and their team, corporate greed, or any number of other causes, the cow has been milked dry. Now you can take a trip to the mainstage of a major American electronic festival, and you’ll mostly hear a homogeneous sound regurgitated ad infinitum. We all know what I’m talking about–that cookie-cutter “mashleg” style that requires about as much creativity to create and perform as it takes to fold a paper fan. These artists have ceased to push the envelope, and instead are veering so hard toward the “relatability” path that it’s almost too easy to make fun of them. What’s even more disturbing is that most of the crowd doesn’t even seem to notice or care that DJ X is almost indistinguishable from the DJ who performed before him, to a degree that is unparalleled in any other genre of music.
Many dance music artists, journalists, and tastemakers are complaining about this right now, including some of the people who are “part of the problem,” but why exactly is this happening? This article will attempt to pinpoint the reasons this decline has occurred, draw comparisons to issues in the music industry as a whole, and, in part two, offer potential solutions that could help foster a mainstage that doesn’t rely on one-trick ponies, but is rather a place where all forms of electronic music are celebrated.
Artists who are not DJs are DJing.
This problem mostly resulted from the drastic decline in recorded music sales that has taken place over the last 15 years in the wake of Napster. The bulk of the money to be made shifted to live shows, so DJs started touring incessantly, and songwriters and producers who were better suited for the studio were forced out of their labs and pushed to become DJs in order to make a living. “Pushed” may even be an understatement–in a recent interview with LessThan3, Hardwell protégé Dyro revealed that his first official performance as a DJ was at a Revealed Recordings showcase during Winter Music Conference 2012. WMC has long been revered as one of the best events to hear the finest DJs in the world, and now we have producers who have never DJed in their lives performing at the label showcase of the man who is currently ranked the #1 DJ in the world.
This level of novice masquerading as professionalism is unprecedented in the history of modern music, and is hardly an isolated incident. It’s no wonder overall DJ quality and technical ability are on the decline. It’s also no wonder that many of the tracks these producers-turned-DJs are playing sound like they were produced in 10 minutes on the seat of an airplane–it’s because they were. Who has the time to put effort into their music anymore when touring is king? To be fair, I do not fault many of the artists in this situation, including the aforementioned Dyro. They need to make money just like anyone else does, and are often strong-armed into making these decisions by their labels, management companies, and agencies. The fault lies in a broken system where the bottom line rules over actual artistic quality to an extreme level.
Musicians who are not the biggest stars on the planet are being invalidated.
Much of the music industry has turned into an environment in which if you’re not among the top 1 percent, you’re nothing–perhaps in the name of media sensationalism, feelings of insecurity on the part of the artist, or the machine trying to extract as much money as possible from their biggest players. You’ve probably fallen into this mentality at times without even realizing that those who want your dollars are subtly coercing you into thinking this way. Take, for instance, this article on Noisey about the “end of Lady Gaga’s career,” where the author states that Gaga is finished as an artist because, among other reasons, her G.U.Y. video only got 23 million views in its first week online, compared to Beyonce’s 129 million views for her Drunk In Love video. Never mind the millions of devoted fans who don’t really care how many views she’s getting for every individual piece of art she puts out–a level of popularity that most artists only dream of achieving in their lifetime. She’s hardly at the end of her rope, but the clickbait-driven media would sure like you to think she is.
Now let’s travel over to EDM-land, where we have artists like Tiesto, the #4-ranked DJ and big room convert who said in a recent interview with DJ Mag that he left trance because, for one, “it doesn’t feel like anyone really cares” about trance. Statements like this out of a respected artist are mind-blowing given A State Of Trance is the most listened-to music radio show in the world. Further, leading trance DJ Armin van Buuren has played twice at Madison Square Garden in the past two years, and Above & Beyond sold out MSG in a matter of minutes for their upcoming Group Therapy 100 show. These DJs may not play the sound that 80 percent of mainstage DJs are playing, but to call them or any other norm-challenging DJ irrelevant as a result is dangerous to the development of not only dance music, but also art in general. Artists are sensitive by nature, and many have self-worth issues. If you drill into their brains that they’re failing if they’re not at the “top” (whatever that means) many of them are going to shift their sound in whatever manner they think is necessary to achieve validation from the masses and their peers.
The press is scared, weak, or both.
Electronic music owes a lot to the blogs who have tirelessly promoted the genre’s music for no other reason than passion. These blogs have given traditional music media sources a run for their money, as the people behind them actually know how the electronic scene operates, while Rolling Stone and SPIN are left scrambling to find editors and writers who actually have a clue what they’re talking about when it comes to dance music.
The top electronic blogs also owe a lot to the industry stalwarts who saw their potential early on in their lives, and gave them the interviews and exclusives that they relentlessly pursued. However, now the tables have turned for many of these sites. They have developed their own fanbases and are no longer as reliant on the support of artists, managers, and labels to get their name out there. But now, if a blog posts an unfavorable review of an artist’s work, many of them are threatened by their once-benefactors into altering their opinions–something bigger outlets like Rolling Stone and The New York Times don’t have to worry about as much, since everyone wants press from them. Because of this, a number of these newer electronic outlets have turned into nothing more than glorified PR agencies, praising everything that is handed to them by the “important people,” even if it’s total garbage. Now the new fans that have yet to develop their own educated opinions have absolutely no idea what is actually decent and what isn’t.
The true function of journalists has gotten so lost in the noise of backdoor favors and threats that even the artists themselves don’t understand what a journalist is supposed to do. Lorde, Grimes, and Iggy Azalea recently lashed out at the “spineless” music critics who change their opinions on the artists’ music from release to release, as if artists’ music always stays the same throughout their careers. This level of ignorance to the role of journalism is shocking.
The “income gap” for many musicians is growing insurmountable.
Now that record labels aren’t allocating nearly as much cash to develop up-and-coming acts as they once were due to shifting business models that have not worked in their favor, they are increasingly shying away from taking risks on new talent. If you want to be a big DJ, you often have to be your own promoter, manager, agent, social media moderator, web developer, merchandiser, recording studio, and engineer for years before you achieve a level of fame that either pays for itself through touring or garners significant attention from a label. Everyone praises the digital DIY model as leveling the playing field, but it has also given labels an excuse to “sit and wait” while the artist attempts to self-fund for as long as possible. This generates a flock of hopefuls who succumb to imitating superstars because it seems that’s the only way to put food on the table. Meanwhile, the labels throw more money at what’s already “working” and repackage their back-catalogs and shove them down consumers’ throats for the hundredth time. Their latest repackaging method? “The best listening experience and audio quality possible.” I’m looking at you, Pono player and Beats By Dre. The path to providing better music should be through better talent, not trendy accessories and songs you’ve heard thousands of times.
Granted, while the labels are an easy scapegoat when it comes to financial witch hunts, the problem is systemic and has festered even further now that purchasing music is out and streaming is in. Nielsen’s 2014 mid-year music report revealed that on-demand streaming is up 42 percent from last year, while digital track sales have fallen by 13 percent. The current streaming-dominated landscape may be a boon to consumers, but the business model simply doesn’t seem to be working out. More specifically, licensing fees for label catalogs are too high and royalty fees are too low. Spotify is only paying out an average of $0.007 per stream and spends over 70 percent of its earnings licensing music from labels. Unsurprisingly, this is not amounting to much for artists–Bette Midler recently Tweeted that she made $114.11 from music streaming services Spotify and Pandora over the whole of 2013. In 2009, it was reported that Spotify paid Lady Gaga $167 for 1 million plays.
But the onus isn’t entirely on the streaming services, either. Spotify pays more for streams from premium subscribers, but paid users only account for around 20 percent of overall streaming. Further, royalty payouts to artists from streaming services, while meager, are still dictated by recording contracts that were penned with digital downloads in center view. Too little money is passing through too many hands on the way to the content creator, and the industry hasn’t self-corrected enough to sustain what is becoming a forgotten generation of norm-challenging artists.
It became possible to “make and perform music” without knowing how to make music.
Since the advent of computers and advancements in audio technology, it has become possible to make an enjoyable song without having a clue about music theory, singing, or how to play an instrument. If you simply have a good ear and a basic knowledge of digital audio workstations, you can make an electronic song that doesn’t make people cringe. This is has no precedent in the history of music, and clearly has brought along with it some changes in the landscape of professional performers.
I’m all for the expansion of technology allowing for more people to creatively express themselves. It shakes things up a bit and allows for art to evolve to the places that it was going anyway. However, people are taking too much advantage of the situation. Now that you can literally just perform a song by “pressing play,” no one actually ever sees any of your creative input go into the productions. Enter ghost producers—people paid to create songs for other people and keep quiet about it.
“Ghost production” by definition isn’t all bad; sometimes people can create beautiful songs on their own and just need extra help with the engineering side for the track to be sonically viable. What is a problem is when entire songs are being created by one person, given to another person, and no one has any idea. It creates a “shortcut” environment where numerous artists are literally walking on stage, playing songs they had little or no involvement in, and not making any effort to actually curate an interesting DJ set. They are being paid for something that was 95 percent the product of someone else’s work. This is birthing a generation of performers who have little right to lay claim to any of their creations, and a generation of concert-goers who are far too easily impressed.
What do we do?
Many of you who have read this are now likely thinking, “OK, so what do we do?” The answers aren’t simple, but all hope is not lost. Solutions will be examined in part two of this article, which will be published soon. If you’d like your voice to be heard in the follow-up article, please email your opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org for potential inclusion.