where next for dance music in america?
Matthew Collin, the author of 'Altered State, the definitive history of Acid House in the UK,' heads to the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas as 130,000 people gathered together to celebrate the event’s 20th birthday. He reports for i-D on the...
Gazing down from above, the gargantuan speedway arena looked like a phantasmagorical encampment nestling deep in the desertified Nevada wilderness, a pop-up land of make-believe conjured from light and sound. Under the waxy glow of a heavy moon, Ferris wheels spun geometric patterns like huge op-art installations next to stages that resembled cyborg spaceships, CGI-generated pagan temples and mutant fortresses; one after another they flushed with color, as bursts of flame billowed upwards, LEDs flashed, water jets spurted and searchlights strafed the terrain. A fire-breathing metal octopus blazed infernally while a huge billboard spelled out the plea: "Love and care for one another."
For more than 130,000 people who paid several hundred dollars each to pass through the gates in the ferocious heat that day, the Electric Daisy Carnival just outside Las Vegas was the ultimate raver's theme park. This was its 20th anniversary, a milestone for an event that grew out of the Los Angeles rave scene of the early 90s but left behind grungey warehouses for big arenas long ago to become one of the biggest dance music festivals in the world and perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Americanized reinterpretation of the culture as 'EDM.'
Several of the stages were blasting that brashly capricious EDM mix of aggression and sentimentality popularized by the likes of Skrillex — gnarly basslines, serrated noise-riffs, plaintive pop vocals, mawkish trance interludes, and belligerent hip hop-style ranting — as the DJs bounced around like boxers in the ring and fiddled with the mixer buttons theatrically as if pretending to fine-tune a Formula One engine.
The European disco sophisticate's perceived image of an American EDM festival is some kind of dystopian kindergarten populated by spangled wraiths in fluffy moonboots and steroidal bros pumping their fists to music that sounds like the desperate last croaks of a tortured frog — but that was only part of the picture here. At the same time as EDM darlings The Chainsmokers were bashing out their populist anthems under the video-mapping screens on the main stage, nearby arenas were throbbing to bolshy industrial dubstep, syrupy trance, and even the deepest of house music. In a huge tent over on the other side of the speedway, the Lebanese-Nigerian DJ Nicole Moudaber was dragging a motley horde of vivacious freaks, tough-looking LA queens, and hard-jacking technoheads deep into a shimmering whirlpool of hypnotic syncopation that conjured visions of Berlin's Panoramabar.
In its 20 years of existence, the Electric Daisy Carnival has developed a loyal following of dayglo disciples who fly or drive across country to get there each year and array themselves in their most flamboyant gladrags for the occasion. As the gates opened, in they surged in all their costumed finery — the group of boys dressed as Superman with their girlfriends channelling Wonder Woman, the three gay lads with bunny ears and rainbow flags, someone with a boxy Minecraft head on, a man dressed as a bishop holding up a big cardboard cross embellished with the old-school American rave slogan PLUR (peace, love, unity and respect), as well as hundreds of scantily-attired teens recklessly baring their bodies to the Nevada sun.
Many of them moved between the stages in little tribes clustered around home-made totems that looked like a weird form of naïve folk art; there were illuminated lanterns with slogans like "Good vibes" and "PLUR," drawings of hearts and smiley faces, aliens and animals, placards with rallying cries like "Put your fucking hands up!" and cryptic messages like "You never know how close you are," the significance of which were probably known only to themselves.
These were the people who Pasquale Rotella, the founder of Insomniac, the company that runs the Electric Daisy Carnival, describes as his festival's 'headliners' — the partygoers who he says are the real stars of his show, without whom it would not exist.
"The idea came from the California underground rave scene, when the dancer was just as important as the DJ at the party," Rotella had explained to me a couple of days earlier. "This was before the term EDM came about and before dance music crossed over and was commercially accepted. When that happened, people wanted to treat it like rock'n'roll, where they're a fan of a DJ and they just go stand and watch them — and that's not what dance music was about. The people were and still are as important as whoever is on stage."
Rotella was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who started running outlaw parties in LA back in 1993, when rave culture was still a little-known phenomenon in the US. The scene peaked and crashed several times before going mainstream as EDM at the end of the last decade, but Rotella kept the faith and his events grew year by year until he ended up as the country's biggest party host. In those years, canny American promoters also rebranded their raves as 'festivals' so they could secure permits from authorities who saw techno parties as massive communal drug-ins.
Rotella was forced to move the Electric Daisy Carnival from LA to Vegas in 2011 after the death of a 15-year-old girl who had taken MDMA sparked a moral panic. He also sold a half-share in Insomniac to promotions giant Live Nation, and now heads what Rolling Stone described as a "$47 million EDM empire." But he remained keen to show respect for his roots. "I'm still just a guy from the dancefloor — I'm another raver," insisted the 41-year-old in his black baseball cap and hooded Nike jacket. "That's where I come from."
There's no doubt that with their devil-may-care outfits and their home-made placards, many of the Electric Daisy Carnival faithful really did contribute to the experience rather than just consuming it like a product they'd bought, which made it closer to the original rave ethic than critics might like to admit. Rotella maintained that festival promoters should "do it for the original reason, which is to bring people together." But it's also clear that for all his rhetorical hat-tips to the blissed-out PLUR mythos, he heads what is, by necessity for the security and profitability of an event of this colossal scale, a rigorously businesslike regime — an exemplar of what the mainstream American EDM circuit has become.
In the days before the festival starts, Insomniac also hosts EDMBiz, its annual convention for the high-rollers and aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to siphon off the rewards of what has become a global culture worth $7.1 billion, according to a recent estimate. EDMBiz, held amid the sprawling kitsch of the Caesars Palace hotel complex on the Las Vegas Strip, is a reflection of the corporate domination of EDM. It's like the Davos of American dance music, where big shots from companies like Spotify, Pandora, Live Nation, and sundry Hollywood management agencies shoot the breeze with big-name DJs like Armin Van Buuren and Paul Oakenfold, while hopeful supplicants bearing business plans and USB sticks full of tunes seek opportunities to hawk their wares.
Previous conventions seem to have been energized by the fervid optimism that accompanied the vertiginous rise of EDM in the US from the end of the last decade onwards. But this year's pow-wow was overshadowed by gloomier themes — the recent collapse into bankruptcy of dance-music events conglomerate SFX Entertainment, worries that the spectacular growth of the EDM phenomenon had passed its peak in America, and the mass killing of 49 clubbers in Orlando a couple of days earlier.
This was a nervous time for some of the magnates of EDM, as a couple of the panel discussions illustrated. One of them, entitled After the Drop, involved a lot of soul-searching about whether the EDM 'bubble' had finally burst. Sebastian Solano of ID&T, which stages mega-festivals like Tomorrowland and Electric Zoo and was bought by the ill-fated SFX before its demise, suggested that many people had become infected by gold-rush fever and simply lost the plot. At the core of the problem, he said disconsolately, was that he started off throwing parties but ended up doing spreadsheets: "It became about money only. Too many decisions were made for the wrong reasons."
One of the panel hosts, the veteran Los Angeles DJ and radio host Jason Bentley, put a positive spin on the prospect of a commercial slowdown, suggesting that a hysterical market was simply correcting itself. "All the things that were available to be bought up and consolidated have been bought up and consolidated. So once the dust settles, you look around and see the people who really, honestly love this music and are down for the right reasons," Bentley told me.
But any idea that PLUR had vanquished the dark forces of Wall Street was banished by the next couple of panels, during which we were told that EDM teens are a marketer's dream because they are essentially a bunch of heedless spendthrifts who are mesmerized by the glittering trinkets of corporate capitalism and expect their heroes to be sponsored avatars. "This millennial generation, they want to be connected to a brand," a speaker insisted at one point. If they are to be successful these days, DJs must think like marketing execs and create their own brands as well as developing eye-catching stage shows, we were also told. As if to illustrate, a Skrillex associate called Marshmello was sitting in the middle of the panelists with an oversized marshmallow-shaped tub jammed on his head to disguise his identity, looking like nothing less than a human brand.
Las Vegas, with its constant random cacophony of fruit machines burbling, cash tills jingling, drunken gamblers cheering, musical fountains blasting power ballads and street-corner Elvises groaning, was the perfect place for something as garish as EDM to thrive. No glitz is too over-the-top in this city where excess is actively encouraged.
The hotel clubs on the Strip, the high-concept EDM megadiscos like XS and Hakkasan, were set up to attract American youth who weren't as enamored with gambling as their parents' generation and had little interest in the showbiz revues of Celine Dion or Mariah Carey. "They're constantly trying to engineer the experience for you to indulge — to feel good and to want to spend money doing that — and they finally figured out that they could monetize the energy and the spirit and the sensory overload of electronic music," said Bentley.
Up-and-coming Vegas-based DJ Jason Blau, who started his career as a teenage mash-up king and now plays effervescent EDM bangers under the name 3LAU, put it more simply: "I think it's an adult Disneyworld so it needs party music because people want that crazy party environment," he told me after a daytime party at the Liquid 'beach club', where gym-toned, booze-pumped youths in swimwear thrashed around in the pool in front of him as he played.
Dance-music insiders have suggested that EDM has also peaked in Vegas, with clubs tiring of writing big checks to second-division DJs who don't pull the crowds. "It seems like there's a little less disco fog and fewer LED screens this year in Vegas," quipped Bentley. Indeed, the monstrous billboards for shows by veteran entertainers like Donny and Marie Osmond were more prominent than the ones advertising EDM stars like Afrojack.
But Blau remained optimistic that dance music will continue to regenerate itself, as it always has: "There's a lot of talk about EDM dying, but the truth is that dance music is constantly growing," he insisted. "EDM is just a bit of jargon, it's a buzzword. When people say the EDM bubble has burst — well, the word might become unpopular but dance music will not."
A character like Steve Aoki makes a lot of sense down on the Las Vegas Strip, where the clubs cater to vacationers seeking to lose the plot in the most ostentatious way possible. This ex-punk son of a restaurant chain mogul has become an EDM archetype, best known for his goofy onstage antics such as lobbing cakes in his fans' faces and crowd-surfing in an inflatable dingy, although he's also a sharp entrepreneur who has scored a series of hits with his Dim Mak label.
Aoki had flown in from playing in Ibiza just before his Electric Daisy Carnival week gig at the snootily vulgar Jewel club, a class-structured environment where the wealthiest watch the proceedings from their private sanctums, the wannabes party in bottle-service booths by the dancefloor and the plebeians huddle in a circular bar enclosure behind them, roped off from the action closer to the stage. It seemed likely that some of the Electric Daisy Carnival crowd — the ones who weren't conventionally chic or glamorous, the misfits and misshapes from provincial America — might not feel too welcome here even if they were old enough to get in.
The gig illustrated how distant the Vegas version of EDM had grown from rave culture. Aoki is as much a performer as a DJ, and his show was like a kind of vaudeville revue for the smartphone generation. He leaps up on a plinth in front of the decks and throws disco shapes with his long bendy body, invites girls up to dance with him, fires dry ice over the dancefloor from twin pistols brought to him by two Robocop lookalikes, and even stops the music completely to do a call-and-response session with the audience: "Say hell yeah! Say fuck yeah! Say Steve Aoki!"
All the while he's rollicking around, the soundtrack restlessly scampers between genres and eras — an old Backstreet Boys hit erupts into a banging techno bassline, Hendrix's "Purple Rain" rides a dirty hip-hop groove, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is stripped and chewed up into rattling trap. And as Aoki ratchets up the insanity, the young bucks order more Grey Goose vodka from the busty blonde waitresses in their tiny scarlet dresses, the slim-cut suits pour more champagne for their entourages, and the young lads leap up on the banquettes to windmill their arms and roar like rutting bulls in sheer drunken elation: "Hell yeah, Vegas!" "Steeeeeeve!"
Back at EDMBiz a couple of days earlier, I had got talking to the veteran American rave DJ Tommie Sunshine, who was holding court by the coffee counter. Alongside Frankie Bones, Juan Atkins, and Richie Hawtin, the fortysomething was playing at the Electric Daisy Carnival as part of Rotella's 20th anniversary tribute to the US scene's pioneers. Tommie Sunshine was arguing that DJs used to be the "wizards behind the screen," but now they had become the focus of attention and had to caper like pratfalling clowns to provide picture memories for cellphone-wielding onlookers. But he wasn't downcast about this at all — quite the opposite, he was expecting a counterblast.
"What's going to happen is there's going to be this whole new underground in response to it, because if I was 17-years-old, you couldn't get me to stand at a main stage at a festival, I would be like, 'This is horseshit! This is just pop a capellas played over nonsense!'" he declared. "I think there will be kids who'll come along and rewrite the techno handbook, rewrite the trance handbook, and they'll completely turn all of this upside down — which is great, because that's what moves the music forward, not grumpy 45-year-old assholes who complain about how bad it is now and how good the old days were."
Maybe Sunshine was right — but if he was hoping for this uprising to start in Las Vegas, he might have been looking in the wrong place.
Text Matthew Collin