America’s billion dollar gamble: After the EDM gold-rush

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“We’ve grown up in America with house and techno. Techno was created in Detroit; house music was created in Chicago. These forms of music had to be more or less erased from the palette in order for this push forward. Not only were the historical aspects shoved in a trash bag and thrown off the bridge, but the culture to a big extent has been slaughtered. PLUR worked in the ‘90s, but in a 2012 context that doesn’t really fly. So how do we see the culture coming back into this? Because right now, EDM really doesn’t have a culture.”

These were the words of Tommie Sunshine at the Amsterdam Dance Event last month, the bearded, long-haired enigma who has been partying since he was a teenager in the early days of Chicago house in the ‘80s. He’s now a long-serving member of the dance community who’s played across the spectrum of house and techno, reaching from high-profile remixes for Good Charlotte to the heaviest, most abrasive in-your-face electro.

Sunshine was speaking on a panel titled ‘The United States of EDM’, easily one of the most well-attended during ADE, an annual industry gathering that’s known as much for its networking and roundtables as it is for the manic partying that descends on Amsterdam every night. Not surprisingly, the hot topic of the week was America’s blossoming love affair with electronic music – or the ‘EDM’ pop-dance variation at least – which has taken over the clubs, the festivals and the airwaves, not to mention being discussed endlessly (on ITM and elsewhere). Surprisingly enough, though, the panel showed there are still fresh perspectives to be offered.

The ‘United States of EDM’ panel also hosted a posse of other industry players who’ve equally been in the game for the long run, before it looked like there was any prospect of anyone in America turning a substantial profit. This included Lee Anderson, a booking agent for the AM Only agency which currently has SkrillexWolfgang GartnerZeddTommy TrashLaidback LukeSBTRKT and many more on the roster; veteran promoter Donnie Estopinal, the namesake behind the Disco Donnie Presents promotions outfit; Lucas King from Chicago events company React Presents; and Nicolas Matar, owner and founder of Cielo nightclub in NYC.

With so many industry players on hand, the panel made for one of the most illuminating discussions on the topic yet; it felt like a defining moment where the long-term players stopped to collect their thoughts, and reflect on how best to move forward.

“It’s running so fast now”
React Events’ Lucas King was fresh at ADE from the success of his first Spring Awakening festival in his hometown of Chicago this year. Wheeling out all the electronic heavy-hitters like Skrillex and Afrojack, whilst simultaneously showcasing some of the city’s finest talent, the party drew crowds of over 25,000 and was hailed as a defining moment for a new wave of dance in Chicago; so he’s well placed to talk on the challenges of growing real fast, real quick.

“It might appear like it happened overnight, but it’s been a very long process,” King said. “The frustrating aspect is it’s running so fast now; it’s hard to build the infrastructure out as quickly as we need it to happen. Everyone struggles with the infrastructure of building a company as quickly as it can go. From the agents, to the promoters, to the managers, it’s a new world for all of us out there, and we’re trying to maintain and grow it at a proper rate.”

One of the big stories to break at ADE was that Dutch leviathan ID&T had turned down a $100 million offer from an unnamed U.S. investor presumed to be entertainment mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman, who this year announced his plans to embark on a $1 billion spending spree on dance festivals and events companies. However, someone who did actually choose to sign on the dotted line was Donnie Estopinal, whose long-serving status assured him a spot on the panel at ADE. Previously one of the partners behind Insomniac Events that helped build the EDC festival empire, he split to form Disco Donnie Presents in April this year. Several months later, though, Estopinal announced he was selling to Sillerman.

“Obviously, I understand people’s concerns,” Estopinal told the crowd gathered at ADE. “There is a lot of money coming into this scene.” As one of the first out the gate to sell his company, Estopinal faced the criticism that once a company goes public, it no longer has the freedom to make the correct choices. However, Estopinal’s story in the history of American electronic music is a much bigger one.

“Donnie almost went to jail in America for being a rave promoter,” Tommie Sunshine told the audience. A decade ago, then Senator and current Vice-President Joe Biden sponsored the eye-rolling ‘RAVE Act’, an acronym for ‘Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy’, which made it a felony to house events knowingly profiting from a drug culture. Estopinal was in the spotlight.

America is outgrowing the kind of reactionary, fear-mongering attitudes that exclusively bundled dance culture in with hedonistic drug use. However, Estopinal slogged it out hard on his way to the top. His early rave exploits were so legendary he even inspired the 2003 documentary Rise: The Story of Rave Outlaw Disco Donnie, and he was hailed by Sunshine at ADE as one of the unsung heroes of American electronic music, who’d dragged himself through years of rough times, only to finally reach his pay-day in the current climate.

“Personally, I want people to know that back in 2005, those were rough times,” he told the panel. “A lot of people didn’t make it. My wife was pregnant, and I’m going through ten credit cards trying to put gas in the car. It wasn’t easy, and my family has suffered and suffered…So when this opportunity arose, I just wanted to give my kids something from all this, while also keeping the integrity of we’re doing. Since selling my company, I can’t see into the future, but I feel great. I don’t have to wake up in the morning and figure out where that money is gonna come from. It had become a nightmare basically, we spent 50 percent of our time chasing money, or people chasing us; now I can just concentrate on creating things. It feels good.”

Tommie Sunshine presented the notion that attracting money doesn’t necessarily mean compromise. “If someone is given a lot of money by someone else, and they take that money and ‘up’ the experience times ten, creating something that’s a completely other-worldly experience, how are you going to give them shit for that? How can you say to them, ‘Oh that was a bad move’? What’s really relevant here is, what’s gonna happen after the money comes?”

“I didn’t grow up in your world”
While Estopinal is facing literal accusations of “selling out”, the figurative charges are also being bandied around more than ever, as dance culture’s endless obsession with authenticity continues. Tommie Sunshine shared a story of another panel he hosted at last year’s ADE, which illustrated the divide that’s opened between the old and the new school, when U.S. house original David Morales was sat alongside David Guetta protégé Nicky Romero.

“There was a moment where I pretty much had to get between the two of them, because it got pretty ugly,” Tommie Sunshine told the room. “Morales kinda snapped, and said, ‘This isn’t about doing one record, or doing a remix for somebody, for a career you can tour off for two years’. The funny part is though, he’s wrong, because things have changed and this isn’t the business we were in 20 years ago. Nicky Romero, in his 23-year-old wisdom, said, ‘I don’t think I really have to apologise to you that I never went to the Paradise Garage. I didn’t grow up in your world. So you can’t get mad at me for not accomplishing things on your trajectory’.”

Sunshine dismissed the notion of ‘selling out’ as being completely debunked. “This is not a conversation anymore, it just isn’t. There is plenty of pie for everybody. If you want to be David Guetta and write pop records, that’s fine. If you want to be Seth Troxler and freak out and play crazy music and eight-hour sets, there’s plenty of room for that. They just don’t need to exist in the same place, and I think that’s what makes the whole EDM thing such a weird debacle. We’re sold in America that EDM is one thing; we’re all in the same gang. Which it’s not, it never has been, there was never one kind of dance music. There was always different offshoots.”

“It’s early, and I think we’ve got to have faith”
Will ‘EDM’ eventually usher a new generation into the more ‘sophisticated’ forms of electronic music? NYC club owner Nicolas Matar was one of the more quietly-spoken presences on the panel, and perhaps the least enthused about EDM’s new status. “I look at it as a different genre to what I’ve been championing all these years, which is house and techno,” he said, in what’s become a familiar refrain. “To me, this is pop music. Just because it’s made using computers, it’s still different to what we’ve been focusing on for all these years.”

Matar, however, has seen an unmistakable increase on the underground side of things in his city. “There’s a burgeoning underground party culture in Brooklyn. A few years ago, you would have about 600 people at these parties, whereas now there’s 1,200 or 1,800 people.”

If there is anyone to match Tommie Sunshine’s insights, it’s Richie Hawtin, and the Canadian techno stalwart had plenty to say at ADE this year. He hasn’t been afraid in the past to express his admiration for the likes of Deadmau5, and when speaking with inthemix in Amsterdam, he was insistent there will be a ‘trickle down’ effect.

“I think it will happen,” he told inthemix. “We’ve seen the biggest popularity of electronic movement in America ever. I think it is pop music, electronically produced. But let’s be serious, how did we all get into different styles of electronic music? I didn’t suddenly get into Derrick May, I was into New Order and Erasure, and that got me into Skinny Puppy, Nitzer Ebb and Ministry.”

“I’d rather people pick up a computer or synthesizer, than a guitar,” Hawtin continued. “Point blank. And I don’t really believe the kids want to resonate with the music of their parents. What’s that? That’s grunge, so throw grunge away. Hip hop? Throw that away. These are all the things from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and they want their own music. Electronic music is the only new music that’s left out there; we just had to wait for the right time. And we’re there.”

On the ‘United States Of EDM’ panel, Tommie Sunshine had his own incisive position. “You know what? I was in Chicago when house music started, but all I did for the first five years was take drugs and freak the fuck out,” he told the room. “I didn’t care who the DJ was. That came later. I grew into it. It doesn’t happen to everybody, most people’s focal point lasts around 18 months; they blow in and out of the scene. They’re in college; all their friends are listening to it so they get dragged to a club. They’re in, and then they’re out.

“But it’s early, and I think we’ve got to have faith. Plus it’s America, and American kids have their heads full of so much shit anyway, it’s going to take some time for them to figure it out themselves. They’ll need more than a couple of Es, they’re gonna need some long nights on dancefloors with really good DJs. Then they’re gonna understand what this culture really is.”

“Different and deeper shades of electronic music”
The crux of the discussions at ADE, on the panels and elsewhere, was how the long-term players are going to introduce a stronger cultural aspect into the frame. How will they ensure the culture doesn’t get A&R-ed out of existence? NYC’s Nicolas Matar is one such person who’s already put his plans into action.

“I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Berlin in the past five years,” he said. “I feel that once upon a time London was the epicentre of dance music culture, though it’s shifted, and Berlin has a very strong underground clubbing culture that reminds me a little of the New York I knew in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There’s really nothing like that in North America at the moment.”

Taking up the baton, Matar will soon be opening a new club in Brooklyn that will be focusing on the more underground side of the culture. “My project is very much inspired by clubs like [Berlin’s] Berghain and Panoramabar, and it’ll have four different rooms of music. It’ll have a main room that will fit around 1,000, a second room with capacity for around 400 people, and then a rooftop with views of the Manhattan skyline that will fit around 700 people.”

With the right people to invest the time, energy and money, there’s the prospect of a city like New York returning to its glory days as an epicentre of dance culture; according to Matar, there’s no better place for building such a club. “All these underground parties have grown exponentially the past few years, and the culture needs a home, because you can’t throw illegal parties in warehouses forever. It’s nice to actually have bathrooms and coat-checks.”

Also taking up the baton is Richie Hawtin, of course; in addition to throwing his own ENTER party in Amsterdam during ADE, he was also there to hawk his widely publicised ‘CNTRL: Beyond EDM’ project, a tour currently underway through North America that’s attempting to bring “the more futuristic and underground side of the genre” to the exploding market.

ITM posed the question to Hawtin as to whether it was the right time to embark on the project. “Let me put it like this. I don’t think we’re too late, I think we’re right on the cusp, maybe being a little too early. But this is stage one. If this goes well, there’s the West Coast, there’s middle America, there’s a lot more we can do,” he said.

Hawtin hosted his own ‘CNTRL: Beyond EDM’ panel on the Thursday afternoon, alongside Loco Dice, Seth Troxler and a similar cast to Sunshine’s panel of American dance authorities. He spoke with passion on the new opportunities that were opening up for underground sounds.

“We really haven’t been so much a part of the scene in North America, we’ve been spending so much time in Europe,” Hawtin told the crowd. “We’ve been in and out for a weekend or two here and there, but there hasn’t been that sustained effort. I think we tried for a while, but we didn’t feel so connected. Talking to my colleagues, we really felt the door is open wider than it’s ever been. If we want to be a part of that explosion, if we want to give the next generation of kids a chance to find different and deeper shades of electronic music, we are fine candidates.”

“It’s a spiritual thing, it’s what we are feeling,” Dice added. “It’s not just a money machine. Of course there’s a business side to it; but we are standing for something. We don’t want to control the market, we don’t wanna take over the stages; we just want to represent what we are doing.”

Up until now, the focus might have been on the danger of dance music’s mass commercialisation, and the possibility of the bubble bursting in the U.S. However, on the ‘United States of EDM’ panel, consensus was reached more on the unlimited possibilities that lie ahead.

“I think it’s just scratching the surface in terms of its growth,” said Lee Anderson. While he might be the booker for hugely popular acts like Skrillex and Zedd, he insists he’s keep it real by fostering the next generation. “I think there’s going to be a lot more talent coming out, now we’ve got this next wave of kids growing up wanting to be producers. I think they’re going to raise the bar in terms of what you can do technically.”

That said, Anderson is cynical of the major record labels coming on-board in a genuine way. “They’ll remain nameless, but I had someone from a major label about a week ago send me the biggest pile of shit I’ve ever seen in my life; a hodge-podge of dubstep, electro and hip hop; so manufactured it was comical.”

“When you talk about bringing the culture back, I think there’s a new culture being created by kids who are 14 to 20 years old,” he went on. “We might be steering the ship on the business end, but these kids that are going to blogs, discovering new artists, going to shows, and ultimately becoming promoters, agents, journalists – they’re writing the new culture now.”

Sunshine was as wryly irreverent as ever in his conclusions. “I’m excited about some kid in Middle America hearing a David Guetta record and going, ‘Oh god, fuck this’. And then buying a synthesiser in a punk reaction, and deciding they’re gonna make music instead. That’s the music I want to hear. That’s how this is going to evolve. I came into this as a kid from Chicago who loved music; I never thought I’d be in Holland pontificating on where I thought the music was going.

“But anyone who loves this music is all already on the best side of culture, because we actually know how to have a good time. The rest of the world is trying to figure out what we already know.”

The U.S. ‘EDM’ industry is on the agenda of the inaugural Electronic Music Conference in Sydney, find the full programme here. Article photo by Rukes [].