From being very much a minority taste, the beat-laden, drug-fueled behemoth of electronic dance music is now the USA’s mainstream entertainment, with the repercussions of its infiltration into American culture yet to become manifest. EDM’s explosion is a fascinating phenomenon for seasoned observers of the dance-music scene. At last year’s Ultra Music Festival in Miami I felt as though I were stepping back in time, reminded of Edinburgh’s Rezerection raves in the 1990s. The exception being, of course, that the seminaked people were dancing under a blistering sun rather than turning blue from exposure.
I’ve been attending raves (now a taboo word, replaced by the prosaic title “dance-music festivals”) all over America for 20 years, mainly in the house-music stronghold of California but also everywhere from Chicago to New Orleans to New York City. At events like Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, the crowd is, in the old British parlance, “mad for it,” and for crusty veterans like myself there is something both uplifting and oddly disquieting about this. It would be nonsense to claim that the modern dance-music experience is inferior to the old-school one just because my 50-something legs and constitution mean I’m pretty much done with all-nighter-all-dayers and the chemicals that fuel them. That would be like a recently castrated eunuch arguing that they don’t make orgies like they used to. But we wanted dance music to take over the world, and now it has pretty much happened. So why all the skepticism? After all, dance music, or house or techno, lest we forget, is not strictly a European invention. It might have been redefined for mass consumption in the Old World, but it’s as American as apple pie, forged in the great musical cities of Chicago, Detroit and New York. Only now it has been successfully rebranded for the American mainstream.
If you like spectacle, EDM is hard to beat, taking the traditional rave staples of eye-popping lasers, brain-frying strobes, mind-blowing lights and cyber projections to new levels. As the doyen of U.K. dance-music commentators Simon Reynolds observed in a recent Guardian feature: “This AV glitz-blitz costs a lot, but then artists at the Deadmau5 level earn a lot, as much as $1 million for a festival appearance, while hardest-gigging man in EDM Skrillex is reportedly worth $15 million. With day tickets selling at around $125 and well over 300,000 attending over three days, the Las Vegas Electric Daisy Carnival must have grossed in the region of $40 million. The big money is attracting even bigger money: The mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman declared his intent to spend $1 billion acquiring companies in the EDM field, while Live Nation, America’s leading concert promotions company, recently purchased outright Hard Events.”
Therein lies the rub: Acts are now defined purely in terms of their commercial success; depending on which article you read you’ll find Skrillex, Deadmau5 or Tïesto touted as the biggest/most lucrative/highest-earning act in EDM. The music seems to be posted missing in all of this. Was Derrick May’s business portfolio ever compared with that of Frankie Knuckles?