The term “music industry” is an oxymoron if you understand that it's comprised of suits unsustainably leeching off the creative people behind new sounds. Attempts to monetize self-expression eventually implode when enough money is thrown around, so the "industry" has to constantly replenish itself with what’s true, authentic and ripe for profiteering.
EDM is the latest flavor of the 21st-century music biz, and critics at Cuepoint, Pitchfork and Forbes have taken to calling its meteoric rise an "EDM bubble" that was sugary sweet in recent years but is fermenting into something bitter and ready to burst in 2016.
It is a fascinating discussion between the EDM deniers, who want to delegitimize all digitally produced music as inauthentic, and career dance-music enthusiasts. As the talks continue, we’re closing in on the realization that the bubble won’t burst because of faltering interest in EDM, but because the industry driving the bubble will get so big that it has to fail.
A short explanation of the bubble is as follows: Las Vegas, the epicenter for extravagant entertainment and celebrity performances, never had a problem selling out theater shows but needed a way to parallel the success in nightclubs. It started throwing exorbitant amounts of money at the DJs and advertised them as celebrity performers until the audience believed it. The hype spilled out of Vegas and careened into every American market. Now, you’re no longer paying a cover charge to get into the club; you’re paying for a ticket to see a very expensive human jukebox for an hour and a half.
“Vegas stepped in in a way that nobody really predicted,” says BBC Radio 1 host, veteran live DJ and producer Pete Tong, speaking with L.A. Weekly at the recent International Music Summit in Hollywood. Tong founded the IMS as an EDM industry conference in Ibiza in 2007; the L.A. version, called IMS Engage, began in 2012. “There’s an acute professionalism that is attached to Vegas. It goes against everything artistic in my nature ... everything is so calculated."
Tong gives a specific example. “I remember a conversation four or five years ago with a particular club and a particular club booker that will go nameless, but they were booking DJs based on their table take. And based on how many bottles got served during the guy’s set. They could tell if the guy did anything wrong or stepped off the tightrope, and tables started clearing out and bottles stopped being consumed. There were so many metrics tied to the business side of it. I was just like, ‘This is so uncool, un-techno and un-underground.”
With no shortage of affluent weekend warriors looking to escape the monotony of their vanilla lives, EDM grew to be a $6.9 billion industry in 2015. It surpassed nightclubs and took weekend nights away from rock and hip-hop at America’s biggest concert halls. It claimed No. 1 hits and commandeered prime slots at award shows. It received its fair share of airtime on mainstream radio and infiltrated pop music. Bottom line: EDM has been legitimized by co-existing next to America’s most beloved genres that have no fear of deflating.
If the EDM bubble is to endure, it needs to hold strong in all of these arenas. But its persistence is contingent on the music industry’s ability to self-regulate and not overplay its winning hand — and historically, the industry is notoriously untrustworthy when it comes to self-regulating.
“I’m not interested in working with people where it starts with the money,” Lee Anderson, VP (East Coast) of AM Only, preached to a choir of EDM believers at IMS. “I’m about people that are doing it for the art and the creativity and the experience of the fan.”
At IMS, Anderson, the booking agent for superstar acts such as Skrillex, Zedd and Disclosure, discussed the music business ecosystem with James Barton, president of electronic music at Live Nation. Both gentlemen concluded that it would behoove managers, agents and event promoters to practice conservative buying and spending, but when it's people with their job titles that are perpetuating the insane booking fees set by Vegas, it's hard not to call bullshit on such sentiments.
The worry now is that EDM will cannibalize itself through greed and drive consumers out of the market. This should sound familiar to any avid raver who has seen festival prices increase year after year.
"The most popular 10 percent [of artists] receive 90 percent of the pie. Of course, they make music and do it well. But it must remain in balance, which is now gone." said Duncan Stutterheim, founder of ID&T, the event promoter behind Atlanta’s TomorrowWorld and New York’s Mysteryland, in an interview with Quote.
There is something wrong when it takes an average millennial several months to save enough money to attend a few festivals (with an average ticket price of around $400 per three-day pass) yet an hour and a half for a headlining DJ to make almost half a million dollars. The artistic ecosystem becomes unbalanced when industry recklessly overspends on the top and the celebrity-obsessed mainstream audience floods the bottom. And while many at IMS Engage seem to recognize the problem, their response so far has consisted of platitudes rather than solutions.
“It’s called the music business," James Barton said at IMS Engage, "so there needs to be more business attached to what we do.“
And there it is: the oxymoron. When business gets ahold of art, it ceases to be artistic. Art is routinely suffocated by business. It’s not a commodity. It’s not a product. It’s an idea. It’s an experience.
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Commerce has tarnished creative subcultures numerous times in the past, but the cycle persists. Punk rock turned into Hot Topic. Hip-hop turned into whatever you want to call this Auto-Tuned rap we have nowadays. Street art became a sales rack at Urban Outfitters.
EDM's security lies in humans’ primitive urge to dance. But unfortunately for Vegas accountants, the business side of things has likely plateaued.