The state of EDM, in the words of the artists and influencers shaping the industry. A version of this post originally ran in EDM.com on November 9, 2014.
It’s hard to Google an article about electronic music in 2014 that doesn’t include the phrase “sound of a generation.” A genre that grew up in garages, bedrooms, and basements is now a $6.2 billion dollar industry; the sonic underpinning of everything on the Top 40, the beat behind a 400,000-attendee live show. Electronic music is our rock, our disco, our hip hop. It’s absorbed all these genres — endlessly splitting and refracting them into micro-things; tumblrwave, chilltrap, witch house.
The sound of a generation, then. In its current iteration, electronic music is the sound of growing up online. For every kid who came of age post-Netscape, the world was more vast than it had ever been. It was at our fingertips, a search away. It was infinite. And it was isolating. The forever struggle of young adulthood was once about finding yourself. Now, it’s about finding your community. And as a result, the soundtrack of youth changed. Music today is as much about social connection as it is about self-expression. Electronic emerged the first genre to embrace P2P as a philosophy. Bands became BitTorrent. During an era of record industry upheaval, electronic music is thriving.
Songs are social objects.
In electronic music, every song is the start of a conversation. 7 of the top 10 songs onBeatport are remixes or collaborations. Within the past year alone, more than 500 fan remixes have been created using stems published by BitTorrent Bundle artists, includingMoby and Zeds Dead. Electronic music promotes a culture in which audiences are participants and co-producers. And this, in turn, has a very real impact on purchase intent.
Music is durable.
Electronic is the first mass transmedia genre: a category built on music, art, and visceral experience. 1/3 of fans see live EDM shows, before they listen to EDM artists. More than 20 million interactive albums have been distributed via BitTorrent Bundle in 2014. And while electronic music thrives on streaming channels, it sees past them, too — producing albums that can be 3D printed, projection mapped; producing sound that’s designed to stay with you.
Art is democratic.
Electronic is music’s open source movement. Anyone with a laptop can play. Any beat can get played, regardless of where it came from. In fact, that’s the guiding principle behind some of the genre’s leading labels, like Fools Gold, who recruit for sounds that come from far left, and off the grid. While the rest of the record industry looks back, free expression — the promise of options, not rules — propels electronic forward. Today, electronic is only shorthand for hundreds of sub-genres. Somewhere, there’s a kid with a laptop inventing the next one and one hundred.
When all you need is a laptop:
The history of EDM is a personal one
Nick Catchdubs: I had always loved music from a purely fan perspective. Not just the songs and the energy, but the whole world of records. The covers, the liner notes, remembering the little logos you see on stuff and tracking down weird, hard to find music, and circling records in catalogs. Stuff like that. The entire process was super-fascinating to me.
When I graduated from college, I wasn’t really doing anything. Then I got a bunch of DJ mixes from Mark Ronson and Hollertronix. That was like an “Aha!” lightbulb moment. I saw that through dj’ing I could take the stuff I liked across all these genres and connect the dots and tell my own story. I felt like I had a perspective that was different and that I had a personality to put out there.
“I saw that through dj’ing I could take the stuff I liked across all these genres and connect the dots and tell my own story.”
Zeds Dead (Hooks): I always had a piano and guitar in my house. I messed around a lot as a kid, and my dad would teach me a thing or two sometimes, but I never took it seriously. I think it was jamming with friends in middle school that made me want to arrange and record our sessions. We used to rap for fun over instrumentals we found. I guess I wanted to make my own.
I remember having trouble deciding whether I wanted to be a DJ or a producer at the time. Whether I was going to buy turntables, or a new computer. At that time, I thought DJing was all scratching. I had no idea about mixing, really. But I ended up buying a new computer with Garage Band.
“I think that’s sort of the essence of this whole dance music thing in 2014. Dance music has been around for decades. But in this new era, with the barriers to entry lower than ever, and the resources more easily accessible than ever, we’re starting to see some really exciting new styles of music emerging.”
David Heartbreak: This is where it’s going. I’m still not sure why people don’t realize this. You can make music on an iPad and iPhone. You can literally make music anywhere. This is the technology age.
Catchdubs: Before you had to press up vinyl records and call up stores and try to get them to stock it. Now, you can make something and upload it the second that it’s done. Certain barriers to entry have changed. Things will continue to develop. I think electronic music lends itself to internet distribution, especially as artists themselves get younger and younger. I love the phrase “digital native” to describe the generation that’s known internet from birth and are quick to adopt these new technologies.
Music made by people who listen:
Why EDM is the anti-sound of a generation.
Heartbreak: I think the people that come from the electronic world are in tune with more things musically and artistically than people from other scenes. We know about shit on the underground and mainstream. We’re more familiar with music as a whole, not just electronic but mainstream.
“Unlike the mainstream world, there’s a place for everyone in electronic music — so many sub-genres of sub-genres that are amazing; that need to be brought to the main stages.”
Hooks: DC and I teamed up after a couple years and made mainly old school New York style hip-hop beats under the name Mass Productions, eventually putting together an instrumental album called Fresh Beets. Around that time we were getting exposed to a lot of different types of music. I had some friends who I would do graffiti with that listened to a lot of drum n bass, and I would get playlists from them.
Hooks: Some other friends of mine were getting really into the electro house scene with Justice and stuff like that. Those sounds made me want to learn more, and make different things. We messed around with synths and distorted sounds for about a year before we decided we were ready to show the world anything. That’s when we started Zeds Dead.
Heartbreak: I noticed when I started that my tracks didn’t sound the same as everyone else’s. They were more electronic, dark and cinematic. I actually was mad at first that my shit was too clean; that it didn’t sound like everyone else’s. But I just embraced the weirdness, cause I’ve always been on some other left field stuff. What pulled me in was the freedom of making whatever the fuck you wanted.
“The stuff that has a real idea and that’s special is what rises to the top. The people that have their own story to tell will be the ones who stick around.”
Catchdubs: If you have an idea and you want to put some time into it, you can just do your thing. You don’t have to find a bass player and drummer that you get along with. You can just go in and do it yourself. Because it’s so easy, people think that anyone can do it, but there’s so many x-factors that go along with it.
Hooks: We’ve always just tried to make what sounds good to us no matter the genre. It’s just about exploration and creativity and expressing a moment or an intangible feeling. I guess that could describe all art.
Heartbreak: I don’t really pay attention to genres and tempos. Either it’s good, or it’s not. I just love music. I feel in love with the culture, and the way the scene embraced creativity. Not many scenes, or people in general, embrace creativity or art for that matter.
Electronic music is such a big generalization. I think that’s really oversimplifying things, because there’s such vast differences in the genres within electronic music. In other words, the generation isn’t united under one sound.
Hooks, Zeds Dead
Catchdubs: I think that as a whole, electronic music is probably the most inclusive popular genre. It’s very easy for someone to download some software and get to work. There’s something that’s very egalitarian in that respect.
Heartbreak: Unlike the mainstream world, there’s a place for everyone in electronic music — so many sub-genres of sub-genres that are amazing that need to be brought to the main stages.
Song as social object:
The collective spirit of electronic circa now
Morgan Page: There are a lot of factors that make EDM unique. It became popular by social media and college students, it’s more social than other genres, and it spreads through technology much faster than other genres – just look at the top podcasts on iTunes.
“I love the collaborative aspect – how many bands do you see doing that many collaborations and side projects? The nature of working on computers and sharing projects changed everything.”
Hooks: Previous generations never had social media and all these ways of interacting and getting your stuff out there for people to discover. I guarantee you that if they, did they would have used them. It’s hard to imagine cool old bands using Instagram, and posting photos of their food, or ranting on Twitter about how much the airline they’re on sucks, but they would be!
DeAngelo: Artists are changing their sets each night, songs are morphing and evolving into new versions and mixes, and everything is fluid. And the fans feel like they are a part of it. They’re not watching, they’re participating. And that’s why electronic music is so much more exciting than rock or country or hip-hop or anything else right now.
DeAngelo: Making a beat and sending it to your homie across the world and him adding a synth line and so forth. Then sending the finished song to 5 of your homies and asking them to interpret it in their own way for 5 different remixes. That’s the essence of dance music today, and the essence of digital. Vinyl is awesome, but you obviously can’t do that kind of stuff with vinyl. To me, the idea of digital is about much more than MP3s or streaming – it represents the idea of fluid and seamless creation and collaboration.
Hooks: We’re the first generation to have bandwidth capable of supporting all this streaming media, so maybe that also has something to do with it. As an artist you need to get your work seen first before you can count on any fans. And these days there are more ways to do that than ever.
The festival experience:
Why electronic lives IRL
Hooks: Touring has been extremely important to our growth. It’s helped with our exposure, as well as legitimized us in the eyes of festivals, I think. It’s like, we don’t have #1 Billboard hits or magazine covers, but we have a huge fanbase that comes to our shows, even more so than a lot of artists that get much more media attention.
Touring is the bread and butter of how I earn a living. Music is the loss leader, which seems backwards — but that’s just how things have evolved. People value the live experience more than the physical recording.
It’s been really interesting developing a unique live show like the 3D Tour. It’s a whole new canvas to work with, and I think audiences really enjoyed seeing something fresh. The process takes a long time as you have to organize animators, VJs, set designers — it’s like you’re a director instead of a DJ. Pairing immersive visuals with music definitely takes things to another level. It’s challenging because you need to figure out which colors, textures, sequences, and landscapes are going to elevate the song and take it to new heights — while still providing the necessary energy for a live show.
Hooks: As we get on bigger stages, it’s become important to make our sets more of a show, something more than just two guys behind computers on stage. We’ve done a tour with rapper Omar LinX which was basically a live show. On our last bus tour we had these big LED diamonds developed that used mirrors to give the perception of an infinite tunnel. We also had LED walls with lots of psychedelic content triggered in sync with the beats. We want to create a feast for the senses.
“I think that the artists who have succeeded are the ones that understand that it’s not just about being able to have cool production, it’s about being able to literally speak to a crowd.”
Heartbreak: I personally didn’t start making great festival tunes, until I started playing great festivals. You have to be in the situation to know how a crowd is going to react to the track. Its hard to gauge that in a studio or bedroom. Experience is always the answer. The computer can’t emulate feelings and reactions. There’s tunes that I’ve made in my head, and I’m like this shit is going to go off, and it doesn’t. But now you know why it doesn’t work, and you know how to fix it. You can’t get that solution from being in the crib.
Catchdubs: Being able to play shows is the cornerstone of dj’ing. You’re there to work a room, whether it’s a festival or a club with 50 kids. You do things that you feel are going to express your likes and your personality in that context. It is easy to make stuff all in the box, in your computer, as a bedroom production genius. A lot of people you can then get onstage and bang it out from there.
But being a performer is a skill unto itself. I think that the artists who have succeeded are the ones that understand that it’s not just about being able to have cool production, it’s about being able to literally speak to a crowd.
Page: I think the music and technology go hand in hand, creatively – how it’s made, and how people gather together for the events. It’s not simply to see music, it’s to experience something as a group. You can’t say the same for all genres. Other concerts are social, but maybe not with the same intensity or group size as a large electronic festival.
The infinite sprawl:
What’s happening as electronic goes mainstream
Hooks: I’ve witnessed electronic get much bigger in North America, but I didn’t see it at its beginnings, or even at its more recent roots. I’ve noticed it pop up more and more in advertisements, which is indicative of how big it’s gotten. It shows that people are now used to hearing those kind of sounds; that they’re not alienated by them.
“Electronic music is going to keep getting bigger and increasingly co-opted by mainstream music until there’s a new sound that comes out as a response to it. After the bubble bursts, the culture will still have its real fans. It will just be more underground again.”
Hooks, Zeds Dead
Heartbreak: I think that the entire music scene is going to shift to a more electronic approach. We’re all going there, anyways. Tablets, iPhones, MacBooks, etc. At some point, music has to evolve to match what’s going on in culture. And that’s what’s happening in the electronic scene, dance and bass music alike. The radio is even changing. You’re hearing more instrumentals on the radio right now — more than ever before — in my opinion.
Catchdubs: I don’t think that music getting bigger and going more mainstream is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. I think it’s important to have a balance though. Not everything can be Coca-Cola. You have to drink some water sometimes, otherwise your teeth are going to rot out.
Hooks: All of us as humans are basically looking for great new music, and statistically the odds of there being cool stuff go up the more people get involved. It’s a double-edged sword, because it causes more copycats, and it becomes harder to discover music when there’s so much of it. More producers are able to tour and support themselves these days, but it becomes increasingly harder for new artists to find a place, and established artists to hold on to their place.
Catchdubs: In my time as a DJ, electronic music has gone from the most underground thing that there was to the complete other extreme of being pure mainstream pop music. The rocket has gone so far in that direction that now it seems people are thirsty for stuff that’s a little bit different and a little bit weirder.
The music community we build next:
A sustainable future for electronic
Hooks: Today, it’s very difficult for independent artists to get any radio play. I’d like to see that change. Radio stations are often owned by the same larger companies that own major record labels and are fed the songs to play. Most radio DJ’s who have prime time spots in North America can’t really play what they want and have to adhere to what the labels want.
Page: I don’t know the future of EDM, or how long it’ll remain the spotlight. My only worry is there’s almost too much music and maybe not enough space for everyone to carve a niche. Songs have become disposable, and have very short shelf lives. There are definitely too many artists copying each other, so things can become derivative quickly. But that’s just part of the creative cycle. And it inspires people to make music that stands out and lasts longer.
Catchdubs: Whether you’re selling an 8 track tape or an mp3 or whatever the future holds, you still have to be the artist. You have to figure what you do that’s special. I don’t think there’s anything I necessarily want to see from the industry, I just want to see more people being true to themselves and knowing that you don’t have to copy what’s popular, just do you. Find your personal approach. More authentic personalities is the short way of saying that, I guess.
Heartbreak: I would like to see the music business change on the A & R side of things. I would like to see more artists actually being developed and polished. I see a lot of labels sign artists, without developing them. And I don’t mean monetary investment. I’m speaking along the lines of developing the artist.
Some of these kids can make the craziest shit, but they can’t write a song, and at the same time, how can you expect them to? If you teach them how to write songs and not just noise and develop them, they have a better chance of becoming a great artist, and that makes the scene better.
“I don’t think there’s anything I necessarily want to see from the industry, I just want to see more people being true to themselves and knowing that you don’t have to copy what’s popular, just do you.”
Page: I’d like to see streaming music achieve more volume in BRIC countries, so that it provides a more viable living for artists in the middle class. I’d also like to see more brands working with artists of all levels, not just top tier blue chip names. The future of music will depend on natural brand relationships, unforgettable live show experiences, and the fan-artist connection.
Catchdubs: I think change is going to be a constant. When mp3’s first started disrupting the way music had traditionally been sold, people didn’t know what to do. Then they kind of figured what to do and now they’re trying to figure out what streaming is going to be. Who knows? In the future stuff will be beamed into a microchip in your nose or something…I don’t know. Stuff is always going to change. The key is figuring out what you do as an artist and what you do to be different from other artists.
At the end of the day:
It’s only expression (which is kind of everything)
Hooks: It started as something we did for fun, and that’s still all it’s about for us. We’ve always just tried to make what sounds good to us, no matter the genre. It’s just about exploration and creativity and expressing a moment or an intangible feeling.
“It’s just about having a conversation with people. Being able to present something to fans in a cool way.”
Catchdubs: When I make stuff, I’m really just driven by whatever emotions I’m feeling that day. If I’m in a certain kind of headspace, that’s going to be the kind of track that I sit down to write. When you starting thinking about writing a hit or something that feels “marketable”, you’re already on the wrong foot. You have to make what you make and figure out where to put it after you’re done. Once you start letting those concerns come into your creative space, you’re selling yourself short.
Heartbreak: I don’t really have a marketing scheme when it comes to making music. I just make what I’m feeling. if I’m not feeling it, i don’t fuck with it. I stop forcing myself to make music. It’s counterproductive I never want to be famous for something I’m not, because then you gotta wake up everyday and live that shit, and that’s not the life i want. My music reflects me 100%: the good, the bad, and the ugly. That’s my life.
Catchdubs: It’s just about having a conversation with people. Being able to present something to fans in a cool way. A lot of guys get into creating their own memes and having funny Instagram pictures, almost like treating their music roll out like a form of stand up comedy, which is fine. If that’s naturally your vibe, go for it. But it does start with the music itself. You can put a cool font in front of it, but if it’s a whack song, who cares?
Page: Every song needs to make an impact. My criteria is that the song needs to give me chills, which is a tough thing to accomplish and can be subjective. But my theory is that with the right elements, you can create a universal reaction with your music, that will work for almost any audience. I don’t want the music to be some subjective thing that only a small niche understands, and I don’t want to make a million compromises so that is appeals to everyone. It’s all a balancing act.