You’ve probably heard quite a bit about EDM festivals over the past few years. Maybe you’ve been to one. Either way, you’ll know that they’re a big deal. The numbers alone tell us this: 400,000 people at Electric Daisy Carnival, 170,000 at Ultra, 180,000 at Tomorrowland and so on. For most people, the EDM festival is the encapsulation of EDM culture, the bass-dropping, confetti-blasting pinnacle of the scene.
But recently, you might have also heard that EDM is slowing down. SFX, the massive media conglomerate that has festival promoters like Made Event and ID&T on its books, has gone bankrupt. TomorrowWorld, the US offshoot of the Belgian festival, has been canceled. The Miami Herald ran a piece titled, “On eve of Ultra Music Festival, the dance-music craze is slowing down.” Pitchfork’s Philip Sherburne wrote a timeline explaining “how EDM’s bubble burst.” Is this the end? Probably not. But that scene is on a downward curve.
As we reflect on this, perhaps now is a good time to remember the value of nightclubs. The vibe and ideals of, say, The Paradise Garage may feel wholly opposed to those of an EDM festival, but the latter doesn’t exist without the former. Clubs are where the story begins. They laid the path that leads to where dance music—and by extension EDM—are today. Nightclubs will never receive the same level of mainstream coverage that’s been generated by festivals, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that these places have, however subtly, played a profound role as drivers of social, creative and economic change.
In 1970, David Mancuso’s Loft parties began in part as a safe space for New York’s gay community, and its soundtrack and style of partying directly influenced what became the city’s disco scene, a movement whose vibrations were felt around the world. In Chicago in the ’80s, disco mutated into house music, and the clubs supporting this emerging sound doubled as a form of shelter for the city’s racial and sexual minorities. And, through US parties like Honey Soundsystem, GHE20GOTH1K, KUNQ and many others, the idea of clubs as temporary zones of freedom and self-expression for underrepresented peoples still exists today.
Skrillex became an artist that your parents might have heard of through a take on a genre that had its roots in a tiny London basement club. Dubstep was codified amid the sub-woofers at Plastic People in the early ’00s, a small group of like-minded DJs, producers and dancers coming together to develop a devastating new sound. The style’s staggered beats and quaking basslines went on to dominate US festival stages and appear in the music of pop stars like Rihanna and Britney Spears (albeit in a bastardized form). Trace the development of basically any dance music style and you’ll see that clubs are the petri dish in which new musical ideas take shape. The same goes for new talent. They may now be known as stadium-filling megastars, but artists like Daft Punk, Paul Kalkbrenner, Eric Prydz, Diplo and countless others got to where they are by honing their craft behind the decks of nightclubs.
Clubs have the power to shape a city’s identity, in some cases driving significant economic returns. Concrete, a club RA visited as part of our ‘In Residence’ series, played a key role in changing the conversation surrounding nightlife in Paris. In a famous 2010 piece, The New York Times said that the city’s nightlife was dying; a couple of years later, Concrete spearheaded its revival. The perceived vibrancy of a city’s nightlife is a significant driver of tourism—just ask Berlin and Amsterdam. These places recognized and embraced the cultural legitimacy of nightclubs and reaped the rewards. Amsterdam employed a night time mayor, Mirik Milan, to close the gap between the city’s clubs and the local government, helping to nourish the scene and its international reputation as a 24-hour destination. Berlin received over 30 million overnight stays in 2015— clubbing is “one of the top three reasons” tourists come to the city, according to Lutz Leichsenring of the Berlin Club Commission.
But what people care about most when it comes to clubs, particularly in an age of digitized socializing, is the sense of real-world community they foster. “You start out going as an individual and get absorbed into a community,” said Jason Garden from Chicago’s smartbar. He was talking about smartbar specifically, but this could be applied to clubs all over the world. In these ritualized environments, alive with music and lights, the social barriers and stigmas we feel in everyday life can melt away.
There is now a generation of young people who have been going out in the name of dance music but have never experienced it through the lens of a club. You can look at this one of two ways. The first is to lament their perceived ignorance—massive EDM festivals distort the culture dance music was founded on; most of the performances are not real DJing; festivals prioritize cheap thrills over a lasting engagement with the music and where it came from.
The other is to envy them. As the festival scene levels out, with fatigue setting in among its audience, there is a global network of incredible nightclubs waiting to welcome EDM’s curious exiles. Not all of the 400,000 people who went to Electric Daisy Carnival would get off on seeing Marcel Dettmann close New York’s Output, but many would. The relative nuance of the experience would likely be mind-blowing. From gentrification, to restrictive government policies and aging crowds, the club scenes in most major cities face their own set of threats and challenges. But the arrival of young crowds, flush with the energy of a new discovery, could mark an exciting new era for all concerned.
Ryan Keeling is the editor-in-chief for online electronic music magazine Resident Advisor.