EDM's Mainstream vs. The Underground: Time to End the Hate (Op-Ed)
My iPod is not the only place where Skrillex and Speedy J can coexist. Yet as dance music's mainstream and underground gain additional adherents from the current boom, these different worlds seem set on a collision course.
This rift reared its head in the debate following deadmau5's claim that all dance artists "press play." It returned in this month's spat between Art Department and Laidback Luke over a video critique of Luke's mixing with fellow festival main-stagers Steve Aoki and Sander Van Doorn. A second video gave Art Department a taste of their own medicine and drew other artists into the fray. This week, "Saturday Night Live" brilliantly lampooned EDM's excesses in its "Davvincii" short, and Seth Troxler penned a Thump editorial castigating festival culture as "ridiculous music, made by ridiculous, un-credible people." Luke countered with a spirited defense of EDM.
Artist beef is not newsworthy. But indiscriminate criticisms transcend cyberspace and both reflect and influence beliefs held by sprawling segments of the dance scene. Thousand of similar tweets fly when fans face off, and I've heard the same sentiments uttered by upper-level industry actors with surprisingly casual conviction in their general applicability.
Some act like a ticket to see Tale of Us comes with a complementary worldview that everything on the main stage is ghost-produced and pre-recorded Satan-spawn. Their foils view the underground as hipster haters who value scene over substance and play other artists' music straight to the bank.
Reality is comprised of far more complex shades of gray. No doubt mainstream dance music plays host to charlatans who are unworthy of our respect. But while they may not be tossing cakes into crowds, the underground is also full of posturing artists who are not all they seem to be. Let's not also forget that brilliant DJs and producers call both scenes home. Painting with an overbroad brush is a dangerous shortcut to thinking. It's like equating Madonna with Milli Vanilli simply because they were both pop stars.
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Club and festival culture reflect divergent historical roots and creative and performance priorities. It's illustrative that Martin Garrix, the arguable 18-year-old face of a nascent generation of bedroom producers, named his first tracks after the keygens and torrent files used to pirate high-end music production software. Before the digital era, dance music had to be produced in real brick-and-mortar studios with expensive equipment that today's under-20 upstarts would lack access to. Unlike the current climate, dance music producers and DJs were not always one and the same.
Famous early-era artists like Carl Cox and Sasha made their names as DJs first and foremost. In fact, some of the era's most revered DJs never produced a track in their lives. The "old-school" approach developed at a time when DJs were background figures taking club audiences on carefully mixed and curated dance floor journeys via marathon sets mostly comprised of other artist's productions. While standout DJs certainly accrued residencies and faithful followings, the majority of clubbers came out for the overall experience, not to see a specific artist. Communal and chemical catalysts helped "Peace Love Unity Respect" (PLUR) become the '90s rave movement's mantra.
Such roots and values are not inherently underground. Mainstream mega-stars like David Guetta and Tiësto originally made their names as rave DJs too. Yet underground dance music adherents still hold many of these values dear, partly as a purist backlash to the mainstream's commercialism, but also because unpredictable song selection and masterful mixing chops are simply time-tested ingredients for a terrific club experience.
The "new-school" approach couldn't care less about that experience. Why should it? Producers like deadmau5, Skrillex and Avicii are not club curators or crate diggers; they are musicians first and foremost. Skrillex formerly fronted a screamo band, and his fans still face him when he plays. It's an important distinction. For artists like Feed Me, learning to DJ is merely a means to the end of delivering their own music to the masses. Old school standards like beat matching are irrelevant to their art, and for the real-deals, new technology empowers through live innovation far more than it simplifies through syncing. Many of these artists would rather be playing music venues than Marquee. That's a far cry from the old guard's residency-focused format. There's a reason why Porter Robinson sounds like M83 now; his artistic priorities have far more in common with their arena-sized approach than a prior generation's club culture.
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There's an art to mixing and an art to making. I don't attend a Carl Cox show to sing along to his songs. I go to experience the prowess behind the decks that is the hallmark of his art form. I don't attend a deadmau5 show to lose myself in a throwback marathon set. I go to experience the live delivery of his own peerless productions that is his art form.
Judging artists by another form's narrow standards is inane. Criticizing deadmau5 for his mixing or Cox for playing mostly others' music makes as little sense as writing off Bob Dylan for his octave range or Thom Yorke for his dance moves. Dylan will never be Freddie Mercury and Yorke will never be Michael Jackson, but why would we want them to be? We'd be missing the point.
There's no going back to the days when producers just produced and DJs just DJed. Today's dance artists must both tour for revenue and release music for relevancy. That's why we're finding old-school DJs on festival stages and (at least their names) on Beatport charts, while new-school producers appear behind the decks at clubs. We only compare these two different art forms because they now share the same performance space and, in some cases, technological means of delivery.
Let Avicii play straightforward sets full of his own productions. Let Seth Troxler play nuanced sets with none of his. Both artists are trying to take you on a journey, whether through melodies thought or rare records bought. The choice is yours, but there's no need for venom and vitriol.
Rock is a sprawling genre that encompasses a wide range of sounds, values and talents. Dance is no different. Yes, it can be soul-sold and oversaturated. Yes, it can fall prone to pop pandering and elevating fakes to fame. But give the glow-stick-wielding masses a couple years to mature and plenty will be delving into the deep end of the pool. Underground artists are already being booked more on American shores as a direct result of the present wave of popularity. Richie Hawtin's CNTRL concept had it right by extending a hand, rather than a middle finger, to the EDM generation. When the waters rise, so do all the boats.
Espousing PLUR while indiscriminately sneering at artists and fans with different creative and consumer priorities is not inclusive club culture. It's hypocritical clique culture that does a disservice to all involved.