Dance music has long been celebrated as a singular pursuit. There’s something inherently romantic about the idea of the lone artist: a single mind constructing an album; one pair of hands at control of the music.
For the past few decades, it’s an archetype that has all but dominated the dance scene. In 2018, however, it’s a notion that has radically changed. Electronic artists have come to realize what bands have known all along: there is strength in numbers.
One need look no further than the success of Seattle-based duo ODESZA to see this. The indie-electronic favorites, who landed at No. 10 on Billboard’s first-ever Billboard Dance 100 artist rankings, have come to embody the potential of the electronic group.
The pair’s recent A Moment Apart Tour, for instance, saw the duo selling out stadiums and amphitheaters across the United States. Their album of the same name, released in September, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Members Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight attribute much of this success to the dynamic of their partnership.
“Working as a duo has been essential to our process,” ODESZA tells Billboard. “We rely on each other to be that voice of reason, to be upfront and say what’s working and what isn’t.”
In another example, the 2018 Grammys could also serve as a benchmark for the success of electronic music groups. Seven of the ten nominations for best dance/electronic album and best dance/electronic recording, for instance, were created by either groups or duos, while the remaining three were produced by solo artists (albeit working with a myriad of collaborators). Compare this to 2012, at the height of the U.S. dance boom, when just four of the eleven total nominations for both categories were created by groups or duos, with the remaining slots dominated by prolific solo acts like deadmau5 and Skrillex.
If anything, the change speaks not to a decline in individual acts, but to the growing advantages of teaming up. There are inherent benefits to working in a group that solo artists miss out on. By nature, different members of a group bring different skills to the table. Paavo Siljamäki, one third of English act Above & Beyond (No. 15 on Billboard Dance 100), helps code all of the group’s live visuals. Gorillaz’ Jamie Hewlett famously pairs his graphic design with Damon Albarn’s studio prowess.
Even when technical skills overlap, as is the case with electronic trio The Glitch Mob, there is still much to be gained. “We can create things that we would never create on our own,” the group tells Billboard. “Because we’re all such picky producers, we know that if we all sign off on an idea that it’s going to be the best that we can do.”
Outside of the creative benefits of teaming up, electronic groups have another edge: they bring the show. When ODESZA performs, they do so with 200 lights, brass players, and a live drumline. When The Glitch Mob tours, they bring along ‘The Blade,’ a large-scale interactive instrument devised for awe-inspiring performance. In a sea of homogenous DJ sets, a killer live show offers a reliable way to cut through the noise.
It thus comes as no surprise that many solo producers have similarly adopted a live show, in effect transforming from a one-man act into a fully-fledged band on stage. Bonobo (No. 47 on Billboard Dance 100) and Tycho are two such examples: Artists who could just as easily tour their music with a singular DJ setup, yet have opted to bring a number of live musicians on the road with them to perform. On the more commercial side of the spectrum, both The Chainsmokers (No. 1 on Billboard Dance 100) and Kygo (No. 3 on Billboard Dance 100) have similarly integrated live elements into their performances, transcending their shows from what could easily be standard DJ sets into something entirely more engaging.
Ultimately, the shift towards electronic bands and live shows is evocative of a larger change. As dance culture continues to evolve from its DJ-driven roots into something a bit more amorphous, the shape of the genre is becoming increasingly harder to define. Producers are collaborating with rock acts; dance artists are playing acoustic sets; CDJs are increasingly being swapped for synthesizers.
In many ways, it’s as though we’re entering a new era: one in which electronic music groups have found a platform to truly shine.