On the 12th floor of the W Hotel in Hollywood, during an afternoon talk the dance music conference IMS Engage on Wednesday, Seth Troxler explained the nuances of contemporary dance music for Chuck D.
Troxler, a feisty and witty house and techno producer, is a famed critic of contemporary EDM culture, which he pillories for its crasser tendencies and ways of erasing people of color from dance music's history. So when Chuck D, the founding member of Public Enemy and one of Troxler's heroes, casually used the acronym as shorthand for all modern dance music, Troxler flinched, saying “I’m not really a representative of that EDM culture at all… I’ll give you some music later, Chuck.”
"Everything today is electronic music," Chuck D replied. "Unless you're Joni Mitchell strumming a guitar, if the power goes out, we're all ...."
Both of them were right. Today's "EDM" culture is indeed crass and boorish and money-obsessed. Who out there would actually refer to themselves as an "EDM artist" or "EDM fan" anymore? But dance and electronic music powers almost all of music today. That acronym means everything and nothing.
Electronic dance music has soaked into every avenue of entertainment, but the scene is still fighting the old fights about what it even is, and how to represent it to the world.
IMS, an SXSW-style panel series based out of the dance music hub of Ibiza, started its L.A. edition in 2013 and has grown into a rangy conversation between dance figures like Troxler, Kaskade and Zhu manager Jake Udell with more mainline music business figures like Def Jam and Warner leader Lyor Cohen and producer Quincy Jones.
The day started with a mixed-bag report on dance music's financial health. It's vital on streaming, with 6.8% of all streamed songs versus 4.8% of digital sales, but the picture looks rougher in album sales, with close to a full percentage-point dip in market share over 2014.
The top dozen EDM clubs in the U.S. generated a half-billion dollars of revenue in 2014, and over a quarter of all nightlife events in the U.S. were EDM performances. Total U.S. EDM festival capacity, which previously saw huge yearly gains since 2007, actually dropped a bit in 2014, but IMS attributed it partly to Ultra Music Festival in Miami cutting its programming in half.
But the point of the day were the conversations, which loosely tried to answer that question about how can move forward and blend with other scenes without popping its financial bubble or losing its uniqueness.
Jake Udell, who manages Krewella and shepherded Zhu from purposeful anonymity to global stardom, spoke with Cohen, one of the music biz's titans with stints atop Def Jam, Warner Brothers and now his own 300 Entertainment. Cohen had a jaundiced view of the music app market — "It's harder to find the next Cobain or Hendrix than the next new app" — but reasserted the primacy of streaming to music's future. "It will restore the health of our business. The paid universe is so small now, but when you get to 50, 100 million subscribers, it will be great for our industry."
Of course, that's assuming fans and artists can cohere around a most-useful service like they did for iTunes or will ever want to pay for streaming services at all. Dance acts may be the canary in the coal mine for a future where records are, once again, essentially advertisements for live shows. Udell said that now, "communication intelligence" is music's currency and that "artists can mastermind every touch point. Our goal is to build our own lane. A lot of labels still fight for [broad] exposure," which he described as a very '90s way of thinking. Dance music is used to being niche and finding its an audience on its own terms. Maybe other genres can can learn from it.
Jason Strauss of Vegas’ Marquee and Tao and David Grutman of MMG Nightlife and Miami’s LIV led a lively and sometimes bawdy conversation about the club-management side of things. “I came back from Ibiza and said, ‘We needed EDM, confetti and naked people,’ and we went from $25 million to $40 million,” he said about LIV, one of the foundational mainstream EDM venues in America.
Seems obvious in hindsight, no? But Strauss emphasized the risks still inherent in booking these cash-cow Vegas residencies. They’re “like the stock market. Sometimes you buy one knowing the first four will lose money, but by the sixth, it’s translating.” As even midtier DJs are asking for close to six-figure-plus payouts for these gigs, that math gets tighter, especially in markets without casinos and hotel backing them up. But outside Vegas, Grutman said the huge fees aren’t a war “between DJ’s and club owners. They all work with us on fees. They want a win-win.”
Kaskade, fresh of his Coachella Main Stage appearance last weekend, spoke with Stuart Price, the producer and engineer behind crossover dance hits like Madonna, Kylie Minogue and the Killers. His career is an inverse-mirror of Kaskade’s, taking pop artists and aligning them for clubs while Kaskade took a club sound and honed it for pop-scaled festival crowds.
They had a fun back-and-forth about the changing composition of a dance music hit. “Are we getting down to the point where someone’s just going to take a kick drum and a woodblock and it’ll be the biggest record of the year?” Price asked but not in a rhetorical sense — he actually sounded kind of excited by the prospect.
Kaskade focused on the primacy of songwriting but still felt like he needed to champion dance music as a legitimate genre and not just a vessel for drug use. “A few years ago, there was so much negative press, that this wasn’t real music and we were all a bunch of drug addicts.” So he started hosting jogging events in the mornings after club shows. “About 250 people showed up, and maybe 50 finished,” he said with a laugh.
Troxler and Chuck D was the sprawling, politically charged highlight of the day. They two were booked for a reason: Chuck D’s activism and resume both leading Public Enemy and beyond speaks for itself, and Troxler is something of an heir to that mantle with his frequent public criticisms of EDM and his label Tuskegee, founded to introduce more fans artists of color into dance music today.
Chuck D saw the connection. “I come from the '70s when hip-hop was run by DJs. Your job was to enhance the DJ’s performance, the DJ could do it without [you],” he said. He later elaborated: “I’m envious of the way that electronic dance music has organized itself. It has been able to understand what it ain’t rather than what it is. And I think that slipped away from hip-hop as soon as the DJs lost the majority of the say-so in the direction of the music.”
Chuck D’s volatile, charismatic indictments of the music business’ “corp-plantations” and malevolent “Negro-tiating” tactics were rousing, and Troxler, for perhaps the first time, took a bit of a backseat in a discussion about race, music and ethics. But the Detroit native got passionate about taking house and techno back to the urban core and people of color, and away from an EDM mainstream that was gathered in that very room. “People come up to me and are like ‘Oh, you’re a DJ? Like …’ Um, I don’t know. I’m not going to say any names because I’ll get in trouble…” he said, catching himself.
Later, he kept at that feeling of exclusion, even as he plays many of dance music’s biggest events: “There are so few people of color in dance music today, and there’s a certain perspective that comes from growing up ethnic. House music came from blacks and Latinos speeding up disco records and throwing parties.”
“Black culture’s just not going to be into Avicii, so it’s about exposing young, urban people” to meaningful alternatives that reflect their lives.
Quincy Jones, he of “Thriller” and Motown and a huge portion of dance music’s DNA, had a similar repudiation of the dominant dance music of his time. “One thing we wanted to do was to move disco out of the way,” he said, speaking of his indomitable cuts with Michael Jackson that still light up dancefloors today.
His interviewer, the BBC fixture and current WME exec Pete Tong, was a bit incredulous, as Jones’ productions with Jackson — four-on-the-floor kick/snare, creeping funk bassline, big strings and crisp guitars — were some of the finest disco records ever made. But point taken. Part of Jones’ job was to wipe off the bad residue of that day’s dance music and usher a new aesthetic using the same musical tools.
Contemporary DJ’s and producers would do well to follow up on that.