TIDAL 10 – Electronic: The Sound of Success
This article is part of the TIDAL 10, our end-of-decade essay series. For more essays covering a striking range of music, visit Read.Tidal.com. – Ed.
In June 2010, Sonny Moore, an artist previously best known as the vocalist in the post-hardcore band From First to Last, released his debut EP as Skrillex as a free download on his MySpace page. Alongside his second EP, released in October of that year, it catapulted him to a level of global fame no one could have predicted. His music was rooted in dubstep, but its harsh, stadium-sized sound would leave many fans of the genre cold. Instead, he reached a different audience: the burgeoning EDM scene.
To some, EDM stands for electronic dance music, and is a catchall for a multitude of subgenres. To others, it’s a distinctive sound, and one that Skrillex captured perfectly. Although dance music across the globe was no stranger to super-clubs and jet-setting DJs, the theatrics that came with EDM felt new — and totally removed from the club culture that came before it.
The cultural effect of this explosion was huge. EDM dominated the pop charts, and dance music was all over movie soundtracks, television and video games. In 2014, Saturday Night Live parodied the scene in the digital short “When Will the Bass Drop?” The following year saw the release of We Are Your Friends, a film chronicling the rise of a fictional EDM DJ. In 2018, Rockstar Games released After Hours, a nightlife expansion to Grand Theft Auto Online, that saw huge DJs — Dixon, the Black Madonna, Solomun, Tale of Us — motion-captured and incorporated into the story.
But it wasn’t just the megastars whose cultural capital rose significantly over the past decade. The underground flourished too. A good example of this came in 2013, with the release of Kanye West’s sixth studio album, Yeezus. West worked with a range of producers on the project, including many smaller artists from the experimental fringes of electronic music (Evian Christ, Arca) as well as bigger names like Hudson Mohawke and Daft Punk. The album granted many of these artists the kind of platform and profile they could never have dreamt of. James Blake, a musician and producer previously known for post-dubstep tracks on cutting-edge labels like Hessle Audio, worked with some of the biggest vocalists and rappers in the world, among them Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean.
Mainstream exposure meant that brands were eager to be involved. Smirnoff launched their “Equalizing Music” campaign to bring attention to a lack of gender diversity in club lineups. Live-streaming platform Boiler Room had partnerships with everyone from Ray-Ban to Bumble to Ballantine’s. Dance-music website Resident Advisor (for which this writer worked previously) threw parties with Absolut Vodka and Nike. Techno originators Underground Resistance launched a fashion line with Carhartt, and the underground booking agency Discwoman partnered with Reebok. The launch of Instagram in 2010, and the influencer culture it inspired, further allowed brands to connect directly with a DJ’s audience. The best-known example of this is DJ Peggy Gou, whose brand partnerships include one with Porsche. Perhaps it was the law of diminishing returns, then, that led the Red Bull Music Academy, easily the most successful and popular iteration of a brand partnership in electronic music, to close its doors in 2019, after 21 years in operation.
The increased interest and money within electronic music was not without its drawbacks. DJ fees rose to an unsustainable level, with even some niche acts able to charge over $10,000 for a performance. This left many smaller clubs and promoters unable to compete. Ticket prices skyrocketed, affecting fans everywhere. Ever-diminishing record sales, and a royalty system unequipped to deal with DJ culture, meant that many people producing music were unfairly compensated for their work, without which the scene could never exist.
It’s also vital to note that the black and LGBTQ+ communities that are the very roots of dance music were overwhelmingly sidelined as electronic music continued to flourish. Even a cursory glance at the major acts, organizations and media in electronic music today shows a huge disparity between those who birthed club culture and those now profiting from it. It’s no stretch to say that dance music has been gentrified, much like the major cities in which it is primarily consumed. All but gone is the anti-authoritarianism of early British rave.
For many, clubbing has become a vital element of survival in a modern city. The need to dance together as a community is universal, and the past couple of years have made that abundantly clear. There has been a surge of interest in dance music from every corner of the globe. Artists from Uganda, China, Georgia, Mexico, Indonesia, Morocco and more have released some of the most exciting club music around, and have toured the world because of it. The influx of commercial interest might have as many negatives as positives, but dance music is a resilient scene, with plenty more exciting ways to grow.
Hugh Taylor is a freelance culture writer and part of the team behind KALLIDA Festival and Colder Tech Support on Threads Radio. You can find him on Twitter: @hdt_hugh.
Image: In Wantagh, N.Y., Skrillex performs at the 2015 Billboard Hot 100 Festival. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Billboard.
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