After performing his usual flashy, bass-filled set at a Milwaukee club in February, Destructo found himself at a backyard afterparty, where kids he had never heard of were blasting dance mixes to 40 or 50 freezing revelers. “They’re not thinking, ‘How can we turn this into some big fucking festival to make a bunch of money?’ ” recalls the longtime DJ, also known as Gary Richards, North American president of dance music promoter LiveStyle and founder of festival specialist HARD Events. “It’s just got to be fun — when it gets too scientific and too researched and too business-oriented, it just becomes another random business.”
To Richards and other dance music veterans, EDM — the genre of Marshmello, Calvin Harris and The Chainsmokers — has been booming for so many years that it finally dipped into a financial correction. Last summer, the International Music Summit reported that the 10 highest-earning DJs’ salaries had dropped to their lowest total since 2013; Las Vegas club and pool-party attendance declined; and dance music’s share of the U.S. recorded-music market dipped from 4% to 3% over two years. None of this data suggests an all-out crash; Electric Daisy Carnival still sold 90% of its tickets in five hours last fall. But managers, agents and promoters say EDM — the most lucrative and prominent segment of contemporary dance music — is finally retrenching after reaching its commercial and cultural peaks in the 2010s. The biggest stars are fine, but those on lower tiers may have to evolve if they want to return to big streaming numbers and ticket sales. “That sound that was so big in 2017 definitely has peaked out,” says Ultra Records founder/president Patrick Moxey. “And new things are on the rise.”
“It has just been a reset. The balloon deflated,” says Dean Wilson, manager of deadmau5 and CEO of Seven20, whose clients include Luke Wylde and Qrion. “It had that moment, and now it’s back to some kind of reality.” Adds Will Runzel, co-founder of Prodigy Artists, which manages Nghtmre, Slander and Joyryde: “Dance music has plateaued. It’s just kind of wiggling in its place. I do not anticipate it dropping any farther, and I wouldn’t anticipate a second boom.”
Even before the coronavirus ravaged Asian music festivals, many in the EDM business had been bracing for some kind of economic slowdown. Top DJs still command high-end Vegas salaries, but the shuttering of the nightclub KAOS last November following the cancellation of its reported two-year, $60 million deal with Marshmello suggested the market for pricey, flashy parties wasn’t what it used to be. Vegas-style nightclubs tend to look and feel the same, while the Instagram generation in recent years has sought travel and adventure opportunities over bottle service. “It’s not that exciting to show off in a nightclub where you spent $50,000 and there’s a DJ and some confetti,” says Lee Anderson, the Paradigm agent who represents Skrillex, Zedd, Disclosure and others.
Music cycles may be contributing to EDM’s business dip. Not so long ago, EDM evolved from an out-of-the-mainstream niche to the dominant sound in pop music, with hits from David Guetta and Daft Punk as well as crossover production styles used by Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. Anderson says EDM blew up to the point that “the captain of the football team/valedictorian/class president was all of a sudden in neon and attending all these exciting EDM raves.” But the dance music genre has declined in streaming, from 4.4% of the market in 2017 to 3.8% last year, according to MRC Data. As SoundCloud rap and other styles of hip-hop have grown, says Anderson, EDM is no longer “the new toy.” Adam Alpert, CEO of Disruptor Records, a joint Sony Music venture and home of The Chainsmokers, agrees: “Hip-hop is the dominant genre by far right now, and thus every [other] genre is suffering.”
The sound that Moxey refers to as “EDM frothy” — the pumped-up bass drops and whizzing synths that dominated dance music for much of the decade — is giving way to other, less easily recognizable sounds, like future bass and tech house, while older, more soulful styles are coming back thanks to new global festival headliners like DJs Hernan Cattaneo of Argentina and Amelie Lens of Belgium. “I see a downturn coming, but I’m not nervous. Things are going to get more creative,” says Marci Weber, co-owner of MDM Artists. “How many times can you see the same thing over and over — the lights, the smoke, the pyro?”
Top EDM events remain strong, particularly Electric Daisy Carnival, which sold 450,000 tickets in total over three days last year, and Harris, Bassnectar and Illenium have high billings at major festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Firefly. Still, James Estopinal, co-founder/CEO of festival producer Disco Donnie Presents, has gradually reduced his holdings from six festivals in 2016 to just two this year: “A lot of festivals have gone away. You saw the EDM scene staggering a bit.” He adds, though, that his remaining festivals are selling better this year than they did in 2019.
Not everyone sees a correction on the horizon. Promoters in individual cities are finding success with more adventurous music — in San Francisco, newer acts such as San Holo, Slander and Nghtmre will headline the 8,500-capacity Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in coming months, while promoter Another Planet Entertainment increased its dance music events at the venue from two in 2011 to 25 last year. “Our business is as strong as ever,” says APE vp concerts Bryan Duquette. Detroit’s influential Movement Electronic Music Festival in May has boosted ticket sales by 1,500 — “the best campaign we’ve ever had,” says director Jason Huvaere.
Huvaere thinks EDM fans haven’t gone away — they’ve just evolved into more sophisticated dance music aficionados to whom the all-night parties don’t necessarily appeal. That has led many attendees back to styles like techno: “Everybody’s starting to realize, ‘Oh, shit, techno is really cool, it has been here the whole time, and I need to get me some cool,’ ” says Huvaere. The shift includes superstars: Calvin Harris has so far spent 2020 departing from his usual high-profile collaborations to release old-school rave music, complete with R&B and funk samples, under the name Love Regenerator.
“People are craving soulfulness and feeling. There’s more emotion in dance music today,” says Moxey. “The EDM business is probably flat to slightly down. The good thing is, the business that I’m in is the dance and electronic music business. To us, EDM is a flavor.”