It happened in concert venues and arenas, where crowds of thousands sang along to beats instead of words . It happened in parks and open fields, where young people wore fuzzy animal ears and talked about peace, love, unity and respect-all without irony. And it happened in the living rooms of America, where toddlers re-created the LMFAO dance and their moms posted it on YouTube.
Forget disco, C+C Music Factory, Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers: 2011 will go down as the year when America finally tuned in and dropped out to electronic dance music. It wasn't about a single sound or style, or an exclusionary "underground" ethic. Nor was it a collection of one-hit wonders, or festival bands sans the festival. The dance revolution of 2011 was for everyone. And if momentum is any kind of barometer, this time it might be here to stay.
"The great thing about electronic music is that it's a very forceful scene," says DJ/producer Paul Oakenfold, one of the genre's first superstars. "It's 20 years old in Europe-it's still getting bigger and better. America has finally caught up; now there's a whole new generation that loves it."
The numbers alone are staggering. In 2011, three-day festivals Electric Daisy Carnival (June 24-26 in Las Vegas) and Ultra Music Festival (March 25-27 in Miami) drew 230,000 and 150,000 attendees, respectively, besting all prior attendance records. Dance-dedicated label Ultra Records broke the 100 million mark in monthly YouTube views: Its channel now has more than 1.3 billion total views, making it the fifth-most-watched music-focused channel overall. Even the fledgling Identity Festival, a 20-date tour that debuted this year, drew 150,000 total fans to traditional concert venues. The mainstream music industry took quick note: APA, Live Nation and Troy Carter's Atom Factory all launched electronic-dedicated divisions this year.
But why, after 30 years of relative obscurity, was 2011 finally dance music's time? Theories abound: the equalizing quality of the Internet and the social-media generation's intense drive to share everything; a general staleness of other formerly dominant genres, like rock and hip-hop; a generational opt-out from recession anxiety; the rise of Las Vegas as an international dance destination; a few key pop figures stealthily championing the cause.
"Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas had a lot to do with it," Oakenfold says. "They took the essence of dance music and put it into top 40 records. It was there without people even knowing it."
Dance veterans parlayed that omnipresence into a year of personal bests. David Guetta's fifth album, Nothing But the Beat (Capitol/Astralwerks), debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, marking his highest U.S. sales week and chart position to date. Tiësto became the first DJ to grace the cover of Billboard and played the largest single-headliner DJ show in U.S. history, at the 26,000-capacity Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Deadmau5 set a new bar at New York's Roseland Ballroom, selling out six consecutive nights, beating Rage Against the Machine's previous record of five, set in 1996.
But 2011 was more about confluence than influence-rising up as well as trickling down. And while established stars got the most visibility, a crew of new, young faces (in some cases, very young) helped bring electronic music back to its roots as a youth movement. These overnight sensations made their presences known not through music sales, but through the new-media-powered landscapes of touring and social influence.
At the top of the list is bass-music king Skrillex, who has already become one of the genre's hottest touring properties even though he has only released two original EPs and a few remixes. "He was without a doubt the breakout artist of the year, moving tickets like none of us have seen before," says Paul Morris, president of AM Only, Skrillex's booking agency.
Skrillex has sold 171,000 units of Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (His first EP, My Name Is Skrillex, was released as a free download.) But such numbers don't tell the full story. Earlier this year, hard rock act Korn invited the young dub master to join it in the studio. The band posted one of the resulting songs, "Get Up," on its Facebook page as a free download for anyone who clicked the page's Like button. Promoted to Skrillex's 2.2 million Facebook fans and 440,000 Twitter followers, the track brought Korn 3 million new fans in about three months-and prompted the band to record an entire album with dubstep producers. (The Path of Totality arrived Dec. 6 on Roadrunner.) Skrillex's army of contemporaries, such as 19-year-old Porter Robinson and 22-year-old Datsik, are building similar profiles.
Swedish House Mafia-consisting of DJ/producers Steve Angello, Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso-has a similar tale of seemingly immeasurable influence. While its individual members have longer histories in dance music, they've been known as a group for a mere year-and-a-half, and have released just four singles. But on Sept. 30, the group posted presale tickets for a Dec. 16 gig at New York's iconic Madison Square Garden. Nine minutes later, every available seat-not just the presales-was gone. That same week, Avicii, a 22-year-old Swedish DJ/producer who just announced a partnership with Atom Empire and Interscope, staged his own 10-minute sellout, of a 5,000-capacity performance at New York's Pier 94 on New Year's Eve.
"SHM best encapsulates 2011 to me," says Pasquale Rotella, president/CEO of Insomniac Events, which produces Electric Daisy Carnival. "They have managed to find a way to connect with the pop audience while still maintaining their appeal and credibility."
An ever-increasing audience, a broader pool of successful artists and popularity that defies all pre-existing measures: If 2011 was big for EDM, 2012 looks even more mega.
"I believe we're already in a place where the genre has crossed over, and that in 2012 and beyond, the industry will continue to grow and become more professional," Rotella says.
The next step for the newly flush EDM business community is to qualify its scale and influence-not only to attract corporate sponsors, but to ward off the PR backlashes that any youth-focused movement can attract. Rotella started that process, commissioning Beacon Economics to conduct a custom study of the financial impact of this year's Electric Daisy Carnival on Vegas' regional economy. The results showed that the event generated an estimated $136 million for businesses-including hotels, restaurants and transportation-and $8.9 million in tax revenue for the city and state. Electric Daisy 2012 is scheduled for June 8-10, and three-day passes are already sold out.
Whether it's supporting local businesses, selling out iconic venues or even reinventing the sound of rock'n'roll, one thing is clear: Electronic dance music broke though in 2011, but it isn't stopping there. "This is just the beginning," Morris says, "of an amazing new era for dance music."