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What Makes an “EDM Hit”?: Defining Dance Music Success in 2014

Mixmag recently put out a list of four “big room house” albums that are expected to be huge hits this summer. Although the list excluded Deadmau5’s While (1<2) and Calvin Harris’ follow-up to 18 Months, the dance music publication coined one term: “EDM Blockbuster.”

Just days after Mixmag’s article, La Roux – remember them? – announced their sophomore album, a follow-up to 2009’s self-titled effort that produced such hits as “Bulletproof” and “In For The Kill.”

In a sense, La Roux appears stuck at another point in electronic music’s history. Synthpop’s brief revival at the end of the ‘00s brought Little Boots, Frankmusik, and Calvin Harris’ first two albums to the tops of the charts, especially in the U.K. In the U.S., La Roux ranked at No. 70 on the Billboard 200 chart – looking back, this was squarely in Tiesto’s territory of success at the time.

These days, La Roux appear hopelessly dated, with a slowed-down sound harking too much to their debut. Did Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid truly not evolve over the past five years?

It’s a question that’s not really worth asking, as the definition of success has moved far beyond cracking the Top 100 of the Billboard 200. These days, Calvin Harris changed from synthpop bedroom producer to a major force in big-room house, David Guetta, Avicii, Skrillex, and Deadmau5 have cracked the Top 20, and arena tours are no longer reserved for Tiesto.

So, to follow up on Mixmag’s term, what’s an “EDM blockbuster”?

Where My Pop Stars At?

A running theme through Mixmag’s list – as well as what listeners may hear on Harris’ next album – is emphasis on collaborations – not producer vs. producer, but the pop stars and rappers appearing on the tracks.

You’ve got Wacka Flocka Flame and Wiz Khalifa making the hip-hop/EDM collaboration a “thing,” and Fall Out Boy and Matthew Koma highlighted. But if the past is any indication, collaborators equal chart ranks, which in turn means more sales.

Just on 18 Months alone, for instance, there’s Ne-Yo, Florence Welsh, Rihanna, Kelis, Ellie Goulding, and Dizzee Rascal. David Guetta’s Nothing But The Beat, Avicii’s True, and Skrillex’s Recess — all creating a definitive standard for this level of success – are self-explanatory at this point.

Hits To Stand On

What comes first – a collaboration or a hit? It can be hard to say: Avicii rose to fame with “Levels,” while producers like Harris and Guetta essentially rode on a pop star’s status to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

But beyond Billboard ranks, doing well on the Beatport charts, as all of Mixmag’s highlighted artists have done, allows you to rest on your laurels as a second-tier performer.

Take Porter Robinson – now pulling an Avicii-type move for his full-length debut album. While his status as a “blockbuster” has less of a foundation, Robinson has built himself up through several hits, despite – as many will question his credibility – never going to a club until his first DJing gig: “Say My Name” earned a No. 1 spot on Beatport’s Electro chart, “Language” and “Easy” got to the top of the Beatport Top 10, and his Spitfire EP not only reaped the previous distinction but reached No. 11 on the Billboard Dance chart. Getting onto the Billboard 200 appears like the next step in his path.

Once you can prove yourself as a consistent hit machine – and perhaps, this indicates pop music sensibilities are infecting dance music culture – your album has something to stand on.

It’s Coming Out on a Major Label

What do Avicii’s True, Zedd’s Clarity, Skrillex’s Recess, Calvin Harris’ 18 Months, and Tiesto’s upcoming album all have in common? They’re all released (or being released) through major labels.

With the exception of maybe Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki, relying on your own imprint or a dance music label, such as Ultra or Spinnin’, only means you can get to the top of the Beatport chart these days. Want more visibility? Get a relationship – ideally, between your own, like Skrillex’s OWSLA or Avicii’s PRMD, and a major label – that promotes greater visibility.

We touched on this aspect last year, as Tiesto started promoting his new album.

Essentially, the approach of putting out music for free – it has worked for Pretty Lights, as many know – or relying on a genre label means your success only goes so far. It’s like having a well-watched indie film do well as a Michael Bay action flick tops the box office that week – artistic integrity, yes, but where’s the cash?

In a sense, Tiesto’s former definition of success – and to a lesser degree, one that some instrumental-based electronic acts like La Roux and Ladytron experienced in the early ‘00s – pales in comparison to what newer producers can now accomplish in a shorter period of time.

The producer that once topped DJ Magazine’s Top 100 poll, performed at the 2004 Olympics Ceremony, earned a No. 1 album on the Dutch charts, had enough clout to make Armin Van Buuren and Ferry Corsten mainstream, and played to stadiums on Moby’s Area2 tour finds himself maxed out in the U.S. by younger producers like Skrillex and Avicii, who, regardless of their musical quality, have already headlined arena tours, earned multiple Grammy nominations or wins, entered the Billboard 200’s Top 10 spots, and composed musical scores, all with minimal club experience and just a handful of hits. It’s defeating – but that’s evolution.

It Translates to Performing at Major Festivals

As many dance music fans know, the major festival is now backed by a corporate entity, such as Live Nation’s relationship with Electric Daisy Carnival or SFX Entertainment running Donnie Disco Presents and Electric Zoo. Performing, as a result, is no longer about creating an atmosphere and giving fans a good time, but bringing in the dollars.

A “blockbuster” album, or at least a strong string of hits, ultimately means you end up on the main stage line up, and in response, more fans are willing to purchase that $300 to $400 ticket for a weekend at UMF, EDC, or Electric Zoo. It might be selling out, sure, but being a sure-thing ultimately means more higher-paying, higher-profile gigs.

By | 2016-12-02T14:44:28+00:00 May 30, 2014|News, Opinion|2 Comments
  • CUSP

    Wow, I guess with terms like stuck (in Synthpop) and hopelessly dated, this writer must have decades of experience in knowing what people want. No? Well, how about a deep background in popular music? No?

    The problem with an inexperienced writer is that their opinions are very much self-oriented and often conceited. I recommend “getting out there” and getting “the real vibe” instead doing a little research and writing about your personal beliefs.

    Hits are (by definition) something that strikes a chord with a large swath of society. Most bands learn to cultivate the sound people fall in love with rather than (tragically) reinventing themselves.

    I appreciate the effort, but let’s see less personal and more “my research” or “my observations” next time.