Right before Ultra started its 2016 festival, the Miami Herald ran a piece about how EDM is losing its steam. The piece makes some great points – that clubs charge too much and cater to VIP customers, that big-name DJs are constantly on tour, and that a couple of major Miami clubs just closed down over the past year.
While the points reflect overall trends – something that once was huge is just so-so now – it’s only a partial look at EDM, and in some areas, the subgenre’s still holding strong.
So, where’s EDM fading and where is it still clinging?
Festival and Club Culture
“EDM is over—it’s like disco,” promoter Vanessa Menkes said to the Miami Herald, but perhaps, that’s a bit harsh. There hasn’t been an EDM demolition night – yet – and a handful of festivals still manage to get decent attendance.
But, in another sense, EDM mirrors the plunge that started disco’s downfall: A culture of excess. That’s what the Miami Herald gets right: While disco eventually became associated with drug use and promiscuity, EDM’s thorns in its side are the high prices associated with just about everything and repetition.
These two factors, really, don’t go well together. Who wants to pay over $1,500 for VIP Ultra tickets, when the DJs are just going to do by-the-numbers sets, shoot off some canons at the crowd, and then flash a bunch of lights? The so-called experience doesn’t even seem worth it anymore, when you know that, whoever you see, will run through the same remixes, play a few tracks from their Soundcloud page, and then call it a night after an hour.
And, fans are turning away and supposedly going to the smaller clubs. The ripple effect has meant that some of the newer upstarts in the U.S. have failed: SFX Entertainment declared bankruptcy, just two years after going public, and TomorrowWorld pulled out of the U.S. market after the same amount of time.
Even at the festivals, too, fans are demanding more variety. Ultra included two underground stages this year, in addition to its usual lineup.
Churn It Out
But, while many blame the promoters for the festival experience taking precedence over the music attitude, the artists aren’t completely off the hook. The sameness pervasive in EDM ultimately comes down to the producer who discovers a formula that works and keeps on churning out tracks that keep that template and just replace a few chords.
Avicii’s perhaps the biggest offender in this category. What started as promising mainstream career with “Levels,” “Silhouettes,” and “I Could Be The One” – all three with distinct characteristics and musical structures – got shunted down the plodding path of cookie-cutter tracks right after True came out. These days, “Wake Me Up,” “Hey Brother,” and everything else that followed has the same intro-build-hold back-build again structure that gave him a higher degree of success.
Unfortunately, Avicii’s just the tip of the iceberg, and behind him is nearly every big name artist on Spinnin’, the purveyor of bland, by-the-numbers EDM. These days, if you listen to a Spinnin’ track (not including anything on a sub-label like Spinnin’ Deep), can you tell who the artist is without looking at the label?
EDM’s pull was so great that even established producers dabbled with it – think Fedde Le Grand’s unexceptional remix of Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good” – or latched on and ran, like Tiesto dropping trance unceremoniously.
Fans, too, get the hint. After all, why keep on buying something (or even following it on social media) if it’s something you’ve heard before?
Producers Don’t Care For It
Remember how, back in 2012, a handful of big-name producers said that once EDM’s over, they’ll continue making music? That’s already happening.
Mainstream wise, Nicky Romero started edging himself away. While “Light House” and “Heroes” continue to follow the formula, his latest – “Future Funk,” a collaboration with Nile Rodgers – might as well be called a variation on “Uptown Funk.” But beyond the spoken lyrics, the disco groove displays Romero’s move in a different path. What that’ll be, it’s not exactly clear, especially since he composed a movie soundtrack right at the end of 2014.
2014, too, saw Porter Robinson walk away from his complextro origins with Worlds. Although too ethereal and basic at points, Worlds was an Avicii-like strategy in a different direction: Rather than becoming prototypical EDM, Robinson just played it really low key.
And, that approach sort of seems to be spreading. Fedde Le Grand’s second full-length album Something Real went back to his authentic progressive house roots – no drops to be heard from start to finish – while Afrojack essentially called his debut a “pop album” in a Billboard magazine interview.
By contrast, those who are adopting EDM – second-rate celebrities – are jumping on the bandwagon too late. On one hand, you’ve got Paris Hilton, who, while she has her nights at Amnesia during the Ibiza club season, embodies everything wrong with EDM: All image, and no substance, with abilities that don’t even tread into “press play” territory.
More legit but still as lame, Ansel Elgort, the actor known for The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series, signed onto Island Records, and while he has decent production skills and can put together a set, it’s likely that Elgort’s star power (and rich family ties) likely landed him that contract, while other more skilled producers continue to toil away on Soundcloud.
And, as another nail in the coffin, Zac Efron’s pet project We Are Your Friends not only bombed at the box office, but turned into one of the year’s worst-performing movies. The movie itself seemed dated – seriously, when was the last time someone actually got to perform at a major festival solely on his DJing skills? – and played into a trend that has been on the way out. Although it wasn’t as poorly timed as Vanilla Ice’s cinematic oeuvre Cool As Ice, it still smacks of has-been status.
If there’s any glimmer of hope for EDM, it’s the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Although other producers have managed to have top 20 hits over the past few years, this year saw a slew of dance music-influenced releases chart well.
The most prominent? Felix Jaehn’s remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader.” It’s not EDM in the most obvious way, but the track got slapped with labels like “tropical house” and “new deep house” last summer, and in a sense, it represents a change of tides for dance music overall: Listeners don’t mind it, but they’re gravitating away from the David Guetta-helmed stuff that’s been around for about six years now.
And, along that path, the next successful dance music-influenced tracks were Major Lazer’s “Lean On” and Jack U’s “Where Are U Now?” Diplo’s always been a chameleon, and few associate him with the drop-heavy style, so his adaptability proves to be an asset here.
But EDM’s not completely out. David Guetta made it into the top 40 with the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Hey Mama” and Calvin Harris cracked the charts with Disciples collaboration “How Deep Is Your Love.” So, in another sense, listeners seem to want two things: Some familiar EDM in small doses, but want to branch out to something that’s less formulaic, and that’s where deep house-influenced pop appears to be going.