Is America killing dance music?

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It’s been a turbulent couple of weeks for DJs in the US. Last Monday, plenty of feathers were ruffled when house hero Mark Farina alleged he’d been kicked off the decks by a “table service crowd”. Then just a few days later, Calvin Harris declared that he’d got the boot for declining to spin hip-hop and, uh, tween sensation Carly Rae Jepsen. Of course, those are just two – perhaps isolated – incidents. But considering them in the grander scheme of the EDM explosion in the States over the past few months, you’ve got to wonder: what is America doing to dance music?

The USA might very well be buying into dance music big time – quite literally if you look at last week’s announcement that Robert Sillerman is re-entering the live music market with a whopping $US1 billion to spend on ‘EDM’ focused acquisitions.

However, there are still plenty of dissenters when it comes to North America’s open-armed embrace of club culture. If you count yourself as one of the doubters as to how much value Guetta, Tiestoand co are bringing to the worldwide scene, and you reckon that Mark Farina being kicked off the decks at Marquee in Las Vegas represents our culture’s absolute lowest point – there’s no need to worry because you’re not alone: that ol’ favorite of New York’s business elite The Wall Street Journal has got your back.

In a diatribe that could have been lifted directly from the fiery comments underneath of one of ITM’s infamous Skrillex stories, the Dow Jones publication wept well-coiffed tears all over its tailored business slacks, due to the fact that what was “once almost exclusively an underground movement” is now “embraced by a mainstream pop audience”, and even worse, “feels meek and calculated”, with the “complex rhythms and synthesized orchestrations” that we all love so dearly now playing second fiddle to “pop and hip-hop vocals”. Gasp.

The controversial allegations keep coming; apparently the symptoms are most evident, “especially when it’s spun at high-energy festivals” (with explicit reference given to the Las Vegas leg of the Electric Daisy Carnival (which ITM happened to be on the ground covering over the weekend). This was followed by the pearler of an accusation: that “there’s also a growing sense that some newcomers to giant EDM festivals… still prefer songs they’ve heard on the radio to on-the-spot DJ mash-ups or the varying forms of EDM known as house”. Hot diggity! And don’t try and tell ITM you’ve never uttered those exact words yourself, ‘cause we don’t believe you.

Continuing to brand the radio-friendly work of Guetta and Calvin Harris as “cliché-riddled, white-bread house that don’t represent the best of the genre,” the Wall Street rag makes the worrying prediction that, “as EDM and its related events continue to grow, an audience may be developing that wants nothing more than predictable, middling entertainment.”

Wall Street Journal, we didn’t know you cared. Stay tuned for Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s expose on how Avicii’s live show represents nothing more than flashy style over substance.

Any cynicism aside, these are the exact same concerns ITMers have been wailing about for ages now, but it’s a perspective that’s also starting to be heard beyond the confines of specialist dance music media and its community forums. Will North America’s embrace of dance music ultimately be a bad thing for the scene worldwide?

The tone of the Wall Street Journal article was surprising because up until now, the mainstream American media has for the most part welcomed the commercialised aspects of the ‘EDM’ craze with open arms. Take US trade weekly Billboard Magazine as a prime example. As ITM pointed out in February, “Billboard has donned its neon ‘RAGE’ cap to help champion the cause. One of the magazine’s favourite poster boys is Tiesto, with lengthy features devoted to the Dutchman’s business acumen and ballooning Stateside following.” If they’re raking in a shitload of money, then they’re OK with us. The Wall Street Journal ’s scathing account has definitely been the exception to the rule, as far as American mainstream media goes.

Over in the UK though, one of the world’s most enduring spots for clubbing culture, there’s been plenty of people looking on at the developments in the US with a touch of bemusement. Quality journalism tome The Guardian recently published a fascinating critique of David Guetta’s stateside adventures; titled with the slightly misleading Lord of Dance, it examined the current levels of commercialisation we’re witnessing in dance culture.

“If you’re part of the original acid-house generation, for whom dance music was a genuinely counter-cultural movement born out of dirty raves in basements and warehouses, it couldn’t be a more alien world. Dance music went mainstream in the UK in the 90s with the rise of superclubs and festivals, but the likes of Ministry of Sound and Creamfields have nothing on its current commercialisation in the US,” The Guardianquite accurately pointed out.

“Planes fly overhead trailing 40ft banners advertising new gigs in Las Vegas for Guetta,AfrojackSwedish House Mafia, et al. Vegas has no interest in alternative music – only in who sells the most tickets, and the casinos that used to court Elton John and Dolly Parton are now scrambling to offer residencies to DJs.”

In comparison, the Wall Street Journal ’s critique was a lot less measured in its assessment, and allowed a few of dance music’s most enduring performers to weigh in, including longstanding favorite Carl Cox. “If somebody said to me: Play The Time of My Life by the Black Eyed Peas and throw your hands in the air, I couldn’t do it. If you gave me $10 million, I couldn’t do it,” He told the paper.

“I’m not Carl Cox the hit player. I find I have to work hard for it. I have no idea what I’m going to play when I start… Am I supposed to dumb down to the idea that all I’m doing is pressing a button?”

Cox’s comments don’t sound altogether too different from what trance icon Armin van Buuren said to ITM late last month. Up until a few years ago he was the ultimate example of a DJ who managed to straddle the divide between the mainstream and the underground, although these days he’s almost looking like a Chris Liebing style militant techno specialist, if you compare what he’s playing to the predictable sets being pumped out by the likes of Avicii and Swedish House Mafia at festivals in the States. He expressed his concerns to ITM that the craft of DJing is in danger of being lost, in a festival-centric environment where the “hits” are banged out one after the other, in quick succession.

“I won’t mention any names, but I’ve been listening to a lot of mainstage sets from these new DJs and I found the first hour of their sets is unbelievable. They play two, three minutes of every track and it goes absolutely crazy. But after an hour, they’ve played all their hits and you see the crowd just going flat,” Armin told ITM.

“I don’t know. It’s a big debate. I was brought up in the days of Sasha & Digweed, Carl Cox, Judge JulesPaul Oakenfold: these huge sets that build and build. I guess people don’t have the patience for that anymore. We live for the quick fix… I try to lure people into something more beautiful than just that quick fix of all the big hits. I don’t want to be a jukebox at a festival.”

Like Armin, there’s others who try to look largely on the positive side, spotting an opportunity to do their thing and stand out from the DJ crowd. Speaking to NYC dance blog Elektro Daily recently, Eric Prydz expressed enthusiasm over his upcoming 15-date US tour as headliner of the Identity Festival; though he also expressed misgivings on what’s currently being widely played in the US.

“I think a lot of music that is popular in the States at the moment sounds a little bit the same, all the DJs are playing the same tracks and they’re playing the same bootlegs… So for me it’s a challenge, but also it’s a fun thing for me, to come with something that’s a bit different.”

In spite of Cox, van Buuren and Prydz’s admirable refusals to play the game, there’s at least some anecdotal evidence to suggest that otherwise credible artists are beginning to water down their sound, in an attempt to cater to an audience that’s a little more fresh to dance music. ITM was recently in London to catch Above & Beyond’s hometown Group Therapy show over the Easter Weekend, and arguably witnessed exactly that in Dutch class act Sander van Doorn’s “warmup” set.

“Last time I’d seen him was at Cocoon in Ibiza where he’d delivered an absolutely impeccably deep opening set that built beautifully into mainroom trance,” the review said, “but last weekend though, he was banging out a set not a lot different from the peaktime insanity of his recent ASOT550 set at Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Free of subtlety, he’s basically throwing out everything he’s got (including the kitchen sink) at an admittedly receptive crowd.”

Where there’s money to be made, there’s usually creative compromises. One of dance music’s true icons Pete Tong, still a fervent supporter of the underground, has been for the most part very positive about recent developments, though he was very explicit in expressing caution earlier this year when tackling the subject in a column in Music Week, sending out an SOS to artists at risk of cashing in their creative integrity when chasing the almighty dollar. He also issued a warning to watch out for those shadowy corporate types lying waiting in the shadows.

“Success inevitably attracts attention – and now numerous extremely wealthy individuals, big business and VC funds are eager to buy into the EDM action. If allowed to run riot with their corporate machinery, these same people will destroy the scene. Wikipedia the word ‘stampede’ and I think you’ll get the picture. Now is the time for those involved to sharpen up and play their very best game; to develop the scene steadily, keeping it true to its roots.”

Later, he added: “The money at stake now dwarfs what was on the table back then, but the history should come as a warning shot to all about selling the genre short and being seduced by cheque book-waving billionaires with no care or vision for the long-term game.”

Something that is undoubtedly true is that while there used to be a tangible link between underground dance and what was being played at festival mainstages, a yawing chasm has since opened up, and it’s beginning to look more and more like the Grand Canyon. Last week, production veteran King Unique offered a few valuable insights to ITM about why this might have happened; perhaps the dance underground has something to answer for?