The Grammys are conflicted about electronic dance music, and Beatport sees an opening.
In 2012, the Recording Academy nominated dubstep producer Skrillex for new artist, but its Grammy "Tribute to EDM" was a strange melange of DJs performing mash-ups with rap and rock stars.
In 2013, the academy was roundly mocked after a dance recording nomination went to Al Walser, a keytar-toting unknown (the Grammys later tweaked rules to prevent such flukes). Dance music legends Daft Punk won album of the year in 2014, but for an album that sounds more like classic disco than today's EDM.
In contrast, Beatport — the pacesetting EDM download site for DJs and dance-music fans — will announce the winners of its sixth annual Beatport Awards on Friday.
A mix of fan-voted favorites, staff accolades and sales-data victories, the Beatport Awards are an attempt to come to some kind of consensus about the year in dance music from within the genre.
Dance music is a messy scene whose rules and virtues can confound even its fans, let alone mainstream Grammy voters. As a barometer of today's young music culture, the Beatport Awards might eventually prove the more accurate tastemaker — if the site can keep its credibility in the churn of big-money EDM investments.
"For Beatport to be the North Pole of authenticity, we have to honor what's best," said Clark Warner, Beatport's creative director. "But dance music is unlike anything else. There's a very tribal aspect to the fan base, and we have to represent that as well."
The Denver-based Beatport opened in 2003 as a clearinghouse for high-quality downloads of electronic music meant to be played by professional DJs. But as EDM transformed America in the late 2000s, the site turned from a wonkish virtual record store into an authority on the biggest new trend in American music.
Its front-page Top 10 chart is the most relevant metric of what's popular in club land. Its myriad sub-genre and DJ playlist charts keep track of the scene's ebb and flow, and its editorial picks could instantly escalate an artist's career.
In 2013, concert promoter SFX Entertainment bought the company, which was a controversial move in professional EDM circles. Late last year, SFX fired much of the site's longtime engineering team and closed its entire San Francisco office, a move one source described to the site TechCrunch as "crazy. It was a … bloodbath." Despite Beatport's increasing mainstream relevance and high-profile acquisition, the site lost $1 million in the third quarter of fiscal year 2013.
The growing Beatport Awards are, in part, a recognition of SFX's goals for the site's future — from a nerdy, dance-music professional resource into the public entry point for EDM culture.
While the Grammys tend to reward pop-crossover acts like Avicii and Calvin Harris in its nominations, Beatport's fan-voted Community Choice categories are full of artists like Krewella, Martin Garrix and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike. Their names would likely be unfamiliar to many Grammy voters, but their tracks are ubiquitous at festivals, nightclubs and online. That shows in the Beatport Awards voting.
"So far this year, we're estimating roughly eight times the number of people and 10 times the number of votes in the Community Choice categories than any previous year," said Tyler Jensen, the senior manager for events at Beatport, in an email. The site wouldn't provide exact figures on fan voting, but it's clear that its role as the primary filter for a "tribal" EDM culture is expanding.
The site's relevance also hinges on its tastemaking authority. Beatport staffers in its global offices — which include Los Angeles, Tokyo and Berlin — will provide their own picks in separate categories, including DJ of the year, best new artist, lifetime achievement and track of the year.
Unlike the Grammys, Beatport also has a major category for record label of the year, a reflection of the ways EDM's vastness rewards allegiance to favorite sounds and styles. Label names like Anjunabeats and Spinnin' might not mean much to Top-40 pop fans, but they are the bedrock of today's club and festival culture.
For artists making a name in this sea of dance music, a Beatport Award is a different kind of validation than a Grammy nod. It's arguably more reflective of where they're really at in a dance music career.
"Awards driven by consumers are definitely a more active and engaging process that usually proves how loyal and cult-like a fan base can be," said Jahan Yousaf of the DJ and production trio Krewella, nominated for artist of the year. "Because of the growing information overload on other social media sites, I think music hubs like Beatport, Spotify, Grooveshark, etc., will become the main music hubs for consumers and for artists to reach a wider audience."
The breakout EDM artist in 2013, the 17-year-old Dutch producer Martin Garrix, also acknowledged the essential role that Beatport plays in elevating a dance music career. The official video for his single "Animals" has over 170 million plays on YouTube, and he has a management deal with Scooter Braun (of Justin Bieber fame) and a headlining Coachella slot in April.
Being the youngest artist to hit a Beatport No. 1 — and to be nominated for artist of the year and track of the year — was its own reward. "I'm extremely proud of that, still feels unreal sometimes," Garrix said in an email. "Of course it's really meaningful to get support by the peers of dance music, I get a lot to learn from them!"
As the lines between EDM culture, Top-40 and the U.S. festival archipelago get blurrier, a Beatport Award could become the genre's definitive seal of success and acclaim. Its artists are pop stars now and play to more fans in one sitting at Electric Daisy Carnival than even Beyonce or Jay-Z could aspire to at one of their own arena shows.
Beatport executives admitted that they have bigger long-term plans for its awards ceremonies. They wouldn't specify if that would include a telecast like the Grammys, a web-centric stream like the new, giddily messy YouTube Video Awards or a live concert. It's easy to imagine the very young, devoted and demographically desirable eyeballs that would want to take in such a show, however.
On Friday, EDM will have its new class of Beatport-approved champions. But the biggest competition might be between the site and its dueling demands — satisfying its established, tribal EDM audience and Beatport's goals to be a global pop-culture brand.
"Dance music is a specific, cohesive family, but it's a universal language," Warner said. "I've been watching the Olympics, and dance music feels more like the snowboarding competitions there — it's all bear hugs and the athletes are just happy to be there."