Glaring at the nine minute countdown on a drape covering what is sure to be a grandiose stage production from Skrillex in the Sahara tent at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Coachella Valley, California, murmurs swirl around the 60,000 or so people in the crowd of what is to come. Whispers vary from excitement and anticipation to people wondering not only what has Coachella, which used to have little electronic music, turned into but also whether or not electronic music is heading in the wrong direction.
“Part of the reason the subgenres are disappearing is because the people just want to be entertained, there is not a lot of fuss about what it is,” DJ Mag United States editor Joe Roberts said. “It’s just kind of to keep giving the fans some sort of novelty.”
Although Electronic Dance Music is hard to define, and some disagree with the EDM label, electronic music as a whole began around the 1990s with underground raves around the country as a form of counterculture, but the scene has since evolved right into the mainstream.
Billboard’s Hot 100 on July 20, 2014, had two electronic songs in the top 5, five in the top 25, and eight in the top 50 which, relative, equates to almost 20 percent of the top 100. The radio playing more EDM has consequently led to festivals booking mainly mainstream or big drop deejays (where songs climax generally with a lot of bass) to please the masses.
This new trend has caused some within the industry to worry about EDM’s direction, like up-and-coming house deejay Darrius, who called the commercialization of electronic music a “double-edged sword” because it promotes electronic music but also largely dismisses other subgenres such as trance and deep house.
“I tend to steer away from the things other people are playing because that’s not really unique and different,” Darrius said. “What I try to do is play a very unique and different set but not to the point where you say ‘Oh this is weird’ but in the way that I don’t like playing The Beat Port Top 100.”
Beat Port’s website has contributed to the EDM industry by providing deejays with a way of releasing songs and remixes that the artist’s want to be paid for on a per purchase basis unlike a streaming service like Spotify that pays on a per stream basis. The price of a song is generally $1.49 or $2.49 on Beat Port and that particular song is usually exclusively released on beatport.com and is not released on iTunes, Spotify, or other music services.
While Beat Port has also given rise to lesser known genres by allowing users to search songs through a list of 20 EDM subgenres, Beat Port’s Top 100 Tracks list shows the public’s favoritism for mainstream electronic music: On July 20, 2014, Beat Port’s The Top 100 Tracks had progressive (23), deep house (22), electro house (19), tech house (15), and house (11) with the other 21 coming from once prominent genres such as techno (5), indie dance (3), trance (1) and electronic (1).
Jeremiah Seraphine, the founder of Chicago-based electronic music record label Revolutionary Music, said that the overwhelming popularity of subgenres with big drops like progressive or electro house, is due to festival’s more impressive sound systems.
“A lot of the kids now-a-days are listening to music with these big drops which in part has come out of these huge sound systems at festivals that make the bass drops sound so good,” Seraphine said “A lot of times, when I was growing up, the sound system you would hear wasn’t these huge things they are now. But producers have now realized how good these big drops sound on these systems at festivals so that’s what’s being produced and played a lot.”
Trance was one of EDM’s most popular subgenres for years, according to DJ Mag’s yearly Top 100 DJs list, voted on by fans, which had trance DJs in the top-5 of the list for many years. Trance deejay Armin Van Buuren was number one on the list for two years running until progressive and electro house deejay Hardwell took his spot last September. Former trance deejay Tiësto was ranked third, second and fourth in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively, before making the switch to house music.
Tiësto received backlash after releasing his first full-length mainstream house album, A Town Called Paradise, this year. The main criticism Tiësto received was that his subgenre switch was purely a move to make more money, to which Tiësto repeatedly counter argued that it was a move to stay relevant. Darrius, who started off as a trance deejay and opened for Armin Van Buuren when he was number one in 2009, disagrees with Tiësto’s critics.
“Whatever you are doing you have to stay current, and I feel like Tiësto (45) has been in this game for so long that trance just stopped working for him, even though he was the most recognized trance deejay in the world,” Darrius said. “He decided to go take over another subgenre rather than stay as one of the best trance deejays in the world and I think he has been doing a good job with his new sound. He is a business man above all else and he knew what he had to do to keep thriving.”
Tiësto’s switch to a more mainstream sound is one event in a recent string of events that further shows the trend of EDM’s new more mainstream and big drops sound. Recently, electro house deejay Zedd broke Good Morning America’s record for the largest crowd at a performance. Zedd beat out 50 Cent and Keith Urban who have also drawn large crowds on GMA. Also this year, Calvin Harris broke a record in the second weekend of Coachella for the second largest crowd in the history of the festival, trailing only Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s joint performance in 2012.
Camron Zibaie, 31, is the general manager of U31 Cocktail Lounge in San Diego, California, which books deejays to perform as well, and owns BLK OWL which produces many electronic shows in San Diego, believes the only reason festivals and other places are booking mainstream deejays is because that’s what the young crowd wants to hear.
“Mostly if festivals are booking mainstream or acts that have big drops it’s because they have sold all their tickets with those kind of poppy mainstream deejays,” Zibaie said. “These festivals like Coachella are just booking what the young market wants and that’s turning some of these concerts into a little rave because people aren’t really showing up for the bands anymore. Festivals like Coachella are now more about the deejays which is just ridiculous, but Coachella is just following pop culture mainstream deejays because that is what the young people that go to Coachella want to see.”
According to a study conducted at Canada’s McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, there is a biological reason why this big time drop trend has occurred. The study tested the electrical activity of 35 subjects and determined that virtually all people respond more to lower-pitched beats. In conjunction with the current trend of drops, the majority of big time drop songs have high-pitched melodies that are followed by melodies with deep bass. Researchers say that both pitch frequencies can be easily heard by virtually all people, especially the bass sounds. The fact these pitches can be more easily heard by human ears makes the subgenres with big drops more enjoyable, according to the study.
While people leave Skrillex’s Coachella set, the beginning of his Mothership Tour, the murmurs begin again. Some are heard yelling about how they have never seen such a good EDM performance while others remain disappointed and concerned over the direction the industry is headed. More importantly, however, for the hour and a half that Skrillex played, there was unity among 60,000 people and according to Darius that’s all that matters because “no matter what subgenre you like, it’s all about bringing people together.”