EDM Wars – Storm in a Bassbin or Impending Industry Implosion?

The Independent

The world of EDM – or electronic dance music to the uninitiated or un-American – is at war, or at least that’s the impression you might get whilst browsing the more gossipy corners of the internet. In the last few months several spats have erupted between wildly popular mainstream electronic artists and their slightly bitter underground counterparts.

The most recent rant came from veteran British acid house producer A Guy Called Gerald in response to a typically inflammatory blog from Canadian epic house producer Deadmau5. In his ‘Message to Rat Head’, Gerald vented, “you come into our system that we have nurtured for the last 25 years, trick hardworking people into giving you their money, con honest promoters, take large sums of money out of the system and then spit back into our faces that YOU are tricking everyone,” before threatening that, “we are going to find ways of stopping you.”

Deadmau5, or Joel Zimmerman when he isn’t wearing his trademark mouse head, had offended Gerald and presumably countless other live performers, by blogging that ‘We All Hit Play’. “When it comes to ‘live’ performance of EDM… that’s about the most it seems you can do anyway. It’s not about performance art, it’s not about talent either (really it’s not). In fact, let me do you and the rest of the EDM world button pushers who fuckin hate me for telling you how it is, a favor and let you all know how it is,” he wrote, then proceeding to explain the simplicity of his own live setup and criticise those who apparently pretend to do anything more complicated. In an earlier interview with Rolling Stone he singled out David Guetta and Skrillex as proponents of this ‘press play’ approach, along with reiterating his annoyance at Madonna and dismissing most dance music as formulaic. “People are, thank God, smartening up about who does what – but there’s still button-pushers getting paid half a million. And not to say I’m not a button-pusher. I’m just pushing a lot more buttons,” he opined.

This argument follows another brouhaha that kicked-off between Scandinavian electro poster boys the Swedish House Mafia and chunky US house don DJ Sneak over the definition of the genre they both claim to represent. “It’s a sad thing when the Swedish House Mafia is being paid big money to come to the US to play house music. For the record, they do not play house music,” Sneak baited, with one third of the mafia Steve Angello replying, “If you're trying to tell me something, call me. You have my number. Don't take on Twitter to get a stab. It's stupid of you calling people out like that on Twitter. We always respected you but you show a side that’s fucked up.” Things went back and forth for a while, pulling in other DJs on both sides of the parapet, before Sneak won the battle by default when the Swedes broke up at the end of June.

Of course DJs and producers questioning one another’s authenticity is nothing new, but rather than occasional opinions being expressed in magazine interviews back in the day, blogs and twitter enable real time wars of words to erupt. Again, there have always been tensions between those seemingly in dance music for the money and those who take this approach as an affront to their musical creativity and passion for the scene; but the phenomenal global growth of EDM in the last few years has really pitted the underground majority against the superstar minority.

North America’s newfound love for commercial electronic music has been one of the main driving forces between the industry friction, as Skrillex’s controversial take on dub step and David Guetta’s star-studded approach to house sells out stadiums. As with any big musical trend, the bandwagon jumpers are far behind, and it was recently reported that that US media baron Robert F.X. Sillerman is embarking on a spending spree to rival event’s behemoth Live Nation’s aggressive dance promoter acquisition policy, which has already seen Liverpool’s Cream and Los Angeles’ HARD Events snapped up this year.

As British house producer and Classic label boss Luke Solomon pointed out on his blog last week, there has always been a mainstream and underground to electronic music; just like any other style. “One would never exist without the other, and, they feed each other with ideas, anger, exasperation, enlightenment, and revolution,” he wrote, adding that, “it wasn’t that long ago that dance music couldn’t get arrested. Guitar bands were at the forefront of popularity and the industry thrived off the rise of bands like the Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys.”

It has been over a decade since the last dance music boom was at its superclub-trance peak at the end of the century, after which genres scattered and music mags declared the scene dead. Gradually electronic music has worked its way back into the mainstream, via electro-clash, dub step, synth-laden RnB and trancey house music. This begs the question of whether this is just another big genre bubble ready to burst. Certainly the spectre of Paris Hilton behind the decks and Justin Bieber threatening a dub step slant to his next album are ominous signs, but is this just another fad in dance music’s cyclical history, or might the money invested in this trend be enough to genuinely threaten the underground core?

That remains to be seen, but there is always the salient argument that commercial dance music is a necessary entry point for newcomers, who will gradually tire of the gaudy superficiality of chart-friendly fodder and become valuable fans of the less wealthy, more underground artists and DJs. For what it’s worth, I started off as a teen listening to Pete Tong and Danny Rampling on Radio 1, buying Bonkers and Ministry of Sound compilation tapes, before my love of electronic music diversified and solidified.

“Of course there is and always has been of battle of wits between the underground vs. the overground, credibility vs. commerciality,” producer, DJ and former Mixmag editor Dave Seaman told me. “It's the very nature of popular culture that the underground margins feed the mainstream and it all goes round and round in circles as new generations emerge. But I don't think it's a question of hard work. I think that the ‘superstars’ work equally as hard if not harder than the underground. I just think that the underground get upset because they see the overground diluting what to them is a precious thing just as a way to make money.”

My guess is that something else will come along to overtake cheesy house as the teenage genre du jour and the country that birthed the music will fall back into general indifference, much like with disco and punk. Barriers to entry have certainly fallen in recent years and it’s demonstrably possible to attain commercial success by producing and performing lowest common denominator dance music, but when things do inevitably move on, it will be interesting to see which artists currently living the high life stick around. The underground core of the industry has always been remarkably resilient through the various cycles of popularity, driven by people who don’t mind unsociable travel itineraries and inconsistent pay to make and play the music they love. So regardless of what nonsense is going on at the surface, I know there will always be a small dark room somewhere where the DJ will be playing new, exciting electronic music.