This weekend the scene at Soldier Field won't be about da Bears but da bass, and the drops won't be coming in the form of fumbles or incomplete passes. Instead, fans of electronic dance music (EDM) will be the ones touching down in the stadium for Chicago's new Spring Awakening Festival.
Spring Awakening bills itself as “Chicago's first all-dance music festival,” a statement of purpose that differentiates the fest from the city's other electronic-heavy fests like Lollapalooza's Perry's stage or North Coast Music Festival. Another all-electronic festival new this summer, Wavefront (June 30-July 1 at Montrose Beach), falls to being the second all-dance music festival by occurring two weeks later and sporting a slightly less high-profile lineup and location. That an EDM-only festival like Spring Awakening can fill four stages at and around Soldier Field is a new high watermark for the genre in Chicago, an indication that a music scene once considered underground finally has enough mainstream draw to warrant a stadium-sized event of its own.
“I just think more people have been exposed to [EDM], had a chance to hear it and give it a try and actually experience it than before,” said Orville Kline, the DJ behind Chicago's popular Porn and Chicken party, which has a Saturday slot at the fest. “There's the demand for [this festival] right now,” he added, explaining the broad appeal and umbrella of the EDM heading that includes subgenres such as house, electro and dubstep.
It's increasingly clear that music industry powers agree, no longer viewing EDM as an underground phenomenon but actively betting on the genre's commercial potential. Last week, Robert Sillerman, the founder of the company that later became LiveNation, announced plans to create a similar national promotion company for electronic music, while current LiveNation CEO Michael Rapino touted plans to expand the concert promotion powerhouse's ties with major dance events. In February, Spring Awakening's Saturday headliner Skrillex took home three Grammys. More visibly, pop radio has been flooded throughout the last year by electronic dance hits like Rihanna's “We Found Love” (produced by Dutch house DJ Calvin Harris) and Pitbull's “Give Me Everything,” produced by Spring Awakening's Sunday headliner, Afrojack.
In the eyes of the artists and DJs that have been pushing EDM for years, however, the genre still maintains an underground edge and a degree of distinction from its pop appropriations.
“[Pop's] kind of watered down the style a little bit,” explained Chicago DJ Zebo, who plays Spring Awakening Saturday. He added that the pop attention “is more about business than music” and that “it's a double-edged sword,” drawing new fans to EDM but also frequently misinterpreting or abusing it. British dubstep producer Flux Pavilion, who plays the festival Sunday, is similarly skeptical of approaching the genre simply as a way of cashing in on a trend.
“Actively moving toward something which is just geared towards a career move just seems like the wrong thing to do with music,” he said. And while some media outlets have speculated on the star cachet of certain DJ personalities – Skrillex, with his iconic side-shaved hair, certainly comes to mind – Flux Pavilion doesn't see the EDM and pop worlds mixing quite as comfortably.
“At the end of the day you have to want to be a pop star to be a pop star,” he said. He noted that his own career, which has the distinction of his song “I Can't Stop” appearing as a sample on Jay-Z and Kanye West's album “Watch the Throne,” might have some potential for crossing over to pop audiences, but Flux Pavilion rejects the thought. “Being a pop star, I would just [bleep]ing kill myself quite quickly,” he said. “It's not something you really think about when you're sitting in your bedroom writing music.”
While EDM artists may still prefer to think of themselves as bedroom producers in an underground scene, the fact that artists like Skrillex and Afrojack can headline their own festival is a significant sort of validation for the genre.
“I've been listening to those guys and playing those guys for years now, and I think it's awesome that they're getting the recognition they're getting,” Kline said. Recognition is an understatement; a football stadium packed with electronic music fans suggests not just a subculture collected to move its feet but a new, sweaty, thumping example of a crowd going wild.
Afterparty picks, Saturday:
A-Trak, Dillon Francis & Kill the Noise
10:30 p.m.. Congress Theater, 17+, $25.
Gabriel & Dresden Yacht Party
Midnight. Kanan Cruises at Navy Pier, 21+, $115
Afterparty picks, Sunday:
Carl Cox & Derrick Carter
10 p.m. Sound-Bar, 21+, $20
Afrojack, Nathan Scott
10 p.m. The Mid, 21+, $40
Preview: Spring Awakening Festival
Afrojack performs at Coachella (June 11, 2012)
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