The rise of electronic dance music in the States has provided a breath of fresh air to the charts — and a much-needed boost to the music industry.
Electronic music has produced some genuine stars, including Deadmau5, Tïesto and David Guetta, and is generating substantial sales. However, none of the former are American (only Deadmau5 comes close, born in Ottawa, close to Buffalo but not close enough), and the sales tend to be of show tickets rather than CDs or downloads, a situation that has record‑label execs wishing that 360‑degree deals had come along a lot sooner.
Contemporary electronic music isn't a novelty to anyone in Europe, Scandinavia or Brazil, where it has been, literally, the house music for a couple of decades. But its inability to get any real traction in the US until recently has kept it frustratingly apart from the world's largest music market (which is what it must feel like to be Robbie Williams). This is despite the fact that, in many ways, electronic music — aka electronica, electronic dance music or EDM — has the right metrics for our times: sales of even a big EDM record will come nowhere near the 500,000 units needed for an entry‑level gold-record award here, but its social media hits are measured in the tens of millions. And ticket sales to live events, the new gold standard of music revenues, have moved the meters substantially in the last year. The Electric Daisy Festival, which turns 15 this year when it takes place this month, saw attendance jump from the tens of thousands to 230,000 in 2011, when it left Los Angeles and resettled itself in Las Vegas, prompting The Hollywood Reporter to speculate that Vegas might become the new Ibiza. The city credited the festival with bringing in $136 million to the area last year — not bad for the kind of event that just a few years ago was held almost furtively in vacant warehouses on weekends in Miami.
This is rock & roll money, or at least what used to be rock & roll money. Top DJs (most of whom seem to intensely dislike that term) can pull down as much as $1 million for a string of big shows. That's attracted the financially amorous attentions of the big players in the States: both Live Nation and AEG Live are reported to be courting Insomniac Events, the producer of Electric Daisy Festival. (The festival has got wrapped up in an ongoing criminal investigation of alleged financial fraud surrounding the LA Coliseum venue, though in Hollywood a whiff of eau de felony can do wonders for market value.) Talent agencies including APA and William Morris have recently opened electronic music divisions.
Electronica is more than a genre, in that it comes with a culture, and part of that culture is the relatively sparse use of recording technologies. It's a laptop universe, one that has embraced Logic and Ableton Live at the expense of Pro Tools, whose stab at an open format in the form of v10 was too little, too late for the EDM culture. The scene notably eschews anything proprietary; it's a remarkably open culture, with social media playing an integral part in the infrastructure of music production. For instance, the vocals for Deadmau5's 'The Veldt' came about a result of a collaboration with a complete stranger via Twitter.
The conventional recording‑studio business will find that most of its interaction with electronic music is in its influence on mainstream pop music, which is the last bastion of the large purchase order from major record labels. And that influence has been substantial in a relatively short period of time; it can be heard on records by Marc Antony, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and any number of hip‑hop artists, who are embracing the upbeat grooves, four‑on‑the‑floor kicks and peppy 130bpm tempos that form the bones of electronic styles. Clinically speaking, those parameters also define disco, and how that genre moved out of the garages, into the clubs and then onto the radio might be indicative of how EDM might progress in the future. For instance, David Guetta's Nothing But The Beat got a lot of its propulsion in the US market through collaborations with artists like Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Usher, will.i.am and Akon, helping it put three singles into the Top 20 and wrangle a Grammy nomination this year. Just as importantly, electronica is benefiting from artists with mainstream success moving into the niche charts. Early April saw the top‑10 tier of iTunes' dance chart receive visits from Minaj, One Direction and Flo Rida.
"Little of electronica is going to find its way into the big‑board recording studios on its own,” says Miami‑area DJ and remixer Ean Sugarman. "When [electronica artists] work with bigger mainstream artists, that work will find its way into the big conventional studios. But it's always going to start out on a laptop or an iPad.”
Electronica could end up as an extension of remixing, which is where some of the genre's heavyweights started their careers. It's also arguable that EDM was simply that all along, or that it was a subset of dance music, a murky musical rubric whose definition at one time extended to country music and line dancing.
In any event, it's coming along at a good time in American music, as hip‑hop has lost its edge and the core of rock music is trying to figure out how to afford long‑term care insurance. It could provide a welcome shot in the arm, as blues did for British rock back in the 1960s. It's also going to give the live music business a much-needed boost after ticket sales have quietened over the last two years. The question is, will it add enough of a spice to the music landscape here before that landscape smoothes out the rough edges that made electronica so attractive in the first place?