|RA Roundtable: EDM in America
In the first in a new series on RA, Andrew Ryce talks to three major players in the electronic music scene in the United States.
Dance music is as big as it ever has been in North America at the moment. The sudden upsurge in what's largely being referred to as EDM in the States is nothing new by now. But with new festivals popping up left and right, and bigger and bigger tours for artists like Skrillex and Bassnectar, it feels as if it's starting to hit a fever pitch. Why, you ask? Well, there are plenty of reasons, and there are just as many answers, depending on who you talk to.
In lieu of a lengthy think piece on the subject, we thought it best to simply get some of the major players in the industry to talk about the subject. We got Dave Rene, an A&R executive for Interscope who also plays a managerial role for rising star Zedd, Kathryn Frazier, long-running head of BIZ 3 Publicity, the press agency that represents big EDM names like Skrillex (with whom she runs the OWSLA label) and Diplo, and Matt Rodriguez from AM Only, an agency handling names like Tiesto, the world's best-paid DJ according to Forbes, to sit down and talk in a conference call, where they discussed, among other things, the growing festival scene, how it's changing the idea of performance and the origins of the term EDM.
From left to right: Kathryn Frazier, Dave Rene, Matt Rodriguez
One thing I'm curious about is the use of the term EDM, and where it comes from. It seems like for a lot of us it's being thrown around by the mainstream media all of a sudden. Why do you think the media has latched onto EDM as a sort of buzzword?
Kathryn Frazier: I don't recall hearing EDM a whole lot, but media like to have something to wrap things up with, and EDM is a very convenient tool for them to wrap up a very large world. You could be talking Avicii and Tiesto, you could be talking Diplo. You could be talking Rusko and Skrillex. I work with Daft Punk, and I don't think I ever would have referred to Daft Punk as EDM in the past, but technically, not only are they a part of EDM, they're probably some of the godfathers of it.
I'm sure I'm a little bit to blame [for] why the media has clung onto it, because I pitched a lot of EDM stories about two years ago to mainstream music editors who did not know about dance music, care about dance music and were completely unaware of how big it was. When I was telling them the numbers, like, "Oh, this kid Bassnectar, you don't even know who he is, and he's just sold out 10,000 seats in Nashville" or "This kid Skrillex, brand new and he's already playing like 4,000 seat venues." It was the numbers that sort of piqued their interest. There was a whole scene going on that they weren't covering, and they didn't really know about it so that scene started to be called EDM, [which] helps them to make sense of it.
Dave, what is EDM for you?
Dave Rene: From a label perspective it has become a genre that indie labels (and now major labels) are really working. You have to make it easy for people who don't understand dance music. So when you have your formats at a label like pop crossover, urban-adult-contemporary, EDM, you can't have a complete list of different types of dance music. You have to put it all into one. For me, when I hear EDM, it's more of an action word. EDM just means the last year and what's been happening, and that's kind of why it bothers me I think.
Kathryn Frazier: I really worry about it marginalising the work that some people have been doing for a long time. It's like anything, when you get a tag like that it can make it seem [as if it is] trending, and it can turn into a bad word for a little while.
What do you think makes EDM artists with mainstream success like Skrillex or Avicii crossover, and more underground artists who have been doing it for years not crossover?
Dave Rene: Well, in Skrillex's case he did something sonically that's never been done, so that to me makes it very attractive to the mainstream from a sound design perspective. There are songs in there. A lot of dance music guys aren't making songs, but now that more and more and more musicians are actually getting into this game, songs are coming out of this which is why it's becoming attractive. A good example is Avicii... guys are now replacing vocals with melodies, synth melody lead lines and Avicii did a masterful job of that with "Levels," which is basically just one giant vocal hook.
Matt Rodriguez: Yeah, I think that Skrillex was the perfect storm. Everything kind of hit for him at the same time. He had some carryover fans from when we was in the band From First to Last, and those kids were really starting to get into dance music. Deadmau5 really pushed him with the big first release, and it all came together for him. It helps that he's probably one of the nicest, most sincere guys you'll ever meet, and a hell of a showman. The other thing is the accessibility of it now. With the big house stuff, it's big melodies, big vocals and it's very accessible to people that may not have liked the looping styles of deeper stuff.
Kathryn Frazier: I have an interesting perspective on it because I was doing the press for Skrillex at that time. A lot of people in EDM before that didn't go and get indie publicists like myself trying to pitch them to the mainstream press or even Pitchfork and Fader and places like that. I know I personally was asked by a couple of EDM artists to do their press in the past, and I declined it because it just wasn't my thing and I didn't think it would get press.
I know that when I first started to talk about Skrillex to some pretty big editors they had no idea about that world. It was completely foreign. I spent many a long conversation with people who I have worked with almost 20 years, saying, "Seriously dudes, this is kind of the new punk rock. Thousand and thousands of kids are coming to these shows." And they were like, "Really? I can't get my head around it." Then, finally, the numbers spoke too highly, and they couldn't ignore it. Skrillex is what broke this thing out to me and a lot of people in America, because he didn't have a dance culture vibe. He was this scrappy kid whose fans think they know really personally because he is, just like Matt said, probably the sweetest person I've ever known in my life and hasn't changed at all with any of this.
I have sat through—and so has Dave I'm sure—many major label meetings where Skrillex is referred to as "the next Kurt Cobain," because of how people relate to him. It is a perfect storm, he was brought up by the right people, he has an energy in music that wasn't being done, his stuff is really hard and drives kids but it also is incredibly melodic so the kids all sing his songs at shows.
"Skrillex is what broke this thing
out to a lot of people in America,
because he didn't have a dance
culture vibe." — Kathryn Frazier
Why is dance music popular right now as opposed to, say, five years ago, and what makes what's happening now different from the other times when electronic music looked like it was going to break through in the US?
Kathryn Frazier: Well, there have been people building up the scene for so long. People like Gary Richards doing HARD events and Insomniac doing their things. They've had legions of people really into this for quite a while. It's not like it's spun from tiny 300 person dance clubs to stadiums. There's definitely been this in-between stage for a while. It just didn't get press. Frankly, the only press that it used to get was a news show about how your kids are going to go overdose on ecstasy. It was always negative, causing fear about the culture.
But look at Bassnectar: he sold more hard tickets than almost anyone last year for solo shows. He plays between 5,000 and 10,000 seat venues. Not festivals, just his own solo shows. And he has a 3,000 seat show in Fargo, so it's not even like it just popped out of the major cities. I don't get the sense that with these kids that it's a fluke. They're down, they're fans. It's just that it's [now] started to get attention.
Dave, how do you think that what's happening right now is different to other times dance music might have blown up in the US?
Dave Rene: It got close. I mean, to me, I always try and look at things from a purely musical perspective, and it's just that some real producers—musicians—started making this music. Dance music to me was born out of a necessity, and musicians weren't making it. They were making re-edits to do something to make the floor move a little bit, and a lot of those guys were king alienators that were better at re-editing than you are.
You have to differentiate on that, and these guys have real tools to differentiate. They are throwing their personalities in their music, and people are gravitating towards it. All these people are putting their own stuff out, they're dropping it free. It's so much more accessible now, and you can get it directly from the artist in a lot of cases, so it's just a bit of a widespread outpouring of music from all these guys.
Kathryn Frazier: Well don't you think, Dave... I mean, I could be wrong on this, but some of the people that have blown up that have made EDM become big here are fairly un-European in their sound. A lot of Americans for a long time would think of dance music as trance-y shit from Europe that you hear when you're shopping for girls' clothes or something. There was sort of an aversion to it, and there was a kind of stereotype of shiny shirt clubby stuff.
Dave Rene: Yeah, I'm one of those. You wouldn't catch me listening to dance music in my car in high school.
Kathryn Frazier: Like Rusko. Frankly, he really paved the way for dubstep over here before the others came. I remember that when we were working with Rusko, we weren't really talking about it being dubstep. And then there were people like Steve Aoki that got hipsters, you know. Bassnectar was touring a jam band circuit and talking to college kids, not club kids, so I think there's these different kind of people who were starting to be a part of the scene here. It started to seem less shiny shirt dance-y euro. No offense to shiny shirt dance-y euro, but in America that didn't really fly.
Dave Rene: Yeah, there started to really be some personality behind this music, some attitude and not a gay one.
Kathryn Frazier: Yeah, that's another thing. Maybe in America we're all just a bunch of fucking Neanderthal cowboys or something, because it was either associated with like smarmy dudes in clubs trying to pick up girls or gay clubs. I think it's interesting. The next "anything" from Daft Punk is something I'm curious to see, because everyone sort of heralds them and they are these godfathers of sorts, worldwide. But since this explosion in America, they haven't had anything come out.
We don't really have a lot of elders in America that people have loved for a long time. They're not American, but it's almost like this whole scene is so young here (even though it's been around for a long time obviously). Who are the EDM elders? Not necessarily, who are American EDM but important in America, and where do they fall now? Do we have a Juan Atkins of the EDM scene according to America? And who would that be?
Do you think the surge of popularity that's happening right now is a bubble or does it have longevity that previous times might not have had?
Matt Rodriguez: The last upswell in the mid-'90s nailed it earlier regarding the bad press. I think it took off in Europe, and here it didn't because all that was given to this movement was negativity, was the drugs, all these bad things, with your kids getting off or getting messed up or whatever it is. I think now there's too much money involved, big players are involved, pop artists latched onto it and it's become part of things to where it's not going to be able to be shoved underground so much as it was in the past.
It's definitely a bubble right now, but I don't think it's going to pop. My prediction—I'm looking into my Magic 8 Ball here—is that it will readjust. Some of these things are grossly exaggerated as far as some fees, but the good stuff is going to rise to the top and it's going to withstand things. I've said this many times: I was making a very comfortable modest living before this bubble, and I will be after.
Kathryn Frazier: And hopefully you'll be able to buy a big beach house somewhere in the middle.
Matt Rodriguez: That would be awesome.
Kathryn Frazier: Here's how I know it's a bubble that's not going to pop: When I go to my kid's school and he's getting props from his other second grade friends because he knows and is friends with Skrillex. When school-aged elementary school children are into something, that's how you know it's really out there, you don't have to talk to some hip 20 year-old kid and ask if he knows who Skrillex is. I was with my mother going through Michigan with her friends—she's 78 years old—and when I mention Skrillex some know it, some don't, but as soon as I describe him, "You know, black hair, shaved on the side, glasses," they are like "Oh, I've seen him"—that's when you know.
Matt Rodriguez: We have arrived to the point that my aunt—who's 73 years old—is sending me clippings of Tiesto playing in Las Vegas, and saying, "This one of your guys from your agency?" That's when you know we're here. It's insane.
Kathryn Frazier: Yeah, I don't think it's going anywhere.
"What we're talking about... honestly,
there's Skrillex, and then there's
everything else." — Dave Rene
Dave Rene: I think, in one sense, everything is a bubble. What we're talking about... honestly, there's Skrillex, and then there's everything else. Skrillex is his own bubble, and that guy's not going anywhere until he's done. Then underneath all of that—I think just purely by the amount of people who are thinking they can be one of these hybrid DJ-artist-producer-remixers-all-in-one, standing behind CDJs fist-pumping with CO2 and confetti—it's just going to get so absorbed and tired. That's going to go away in my opinion, and I think what's going to go away are the people who can't make music. Dance music will continue to do its thing in the club. You have to have that, but... to me these festivals are going to get tired, that's my opinion.
Kathryn Frazier: I respectfully totally disagree. In theory, they become less interesting for [some] people... I mean, when I go to radio KROQ-style big artist pop shows, to me the bigger it becomes, the more lame the music becomes. Maybe the music isn't even being done at all, lip-synced, hyped up. Some of the biggest artists in the world don't even have bands, they are just there pushing a button and it's more about the lights, the pyrotechnics, the outfits and the dancers. There are so many bells and whistles with it. Frankly, from what I can gather with these kids in mainstream America who just go see any show, they want to hear the music, and they want to be around a bunch of people that are like them. They get excited and are having fun and check each other out, teenagers, early 20somethings. They party and dance and I don't think they give a shit if you're back there "pressing play." If you've got cool lights and dancers or you seem like you're cool, I really don't think they're going to get tired of it. If anything, unfortunately I think, it might get even more and more less credible and more about the shows.
That poses the question "Well, is that really less credible?" Like, what's more credible, actually composing the music on stage, or just having a crazy live show that's just bonkers where you just went to the biggest party of your life? I kind of feel like that's going to stick around for a long time even though I might think the shows are kind of lame, or just watered down.
Because dance music is (was?) club music, how does club culture translate from the smaller nightclub into a more stadium-like atmosphere? Do the shows at these big arenas and stadiums have a different vibe than what might be called club culture in terms of nightclubs?
Matt Rodriguez: Most definitely.
Kathryn Frazier: Absolutely. To me, they're apples and oranges. And I think you can have both. I mean everyone on this call has been at a gigantic show this year many times, and then gone over to some afterparty with the exact same artist, at the club with an older crowd with people who are more down with a different scene. You can leave the stadium full of teenagers, tanned, on top of each others' shoulders with neon bikinis and 20 minutes later you're in a club full of a little bit more sophisticated older club types, and it's a much smaller scene and you kind of get that sweaty club vibe.
That's what I think is cool about all these DJs, 'cause I don't really see it in rock and rap. There's always the afterparties but they don't go and fully bring it. I mean, Dave, how many times have you been dragged to some after party with Skrillex where he does a three hour show? I think he does as many aftershows as he does regular shows, and it's always like a full-on show, it's not like he just shows up. So I think it's cool because people are getting both. They could happen to be at that stadium, which can be very powerful when that many people are into that same thing, and then you also might have been at that little club show where you couldn't get in or you couldn't move and it was just a sweatbox, and everybody was dancing and you got that vibe too. And I know a lot of DJs that do that.
Matt Rodriguez: I came out of that culture, the club. Now it's gone to this big spectacle show, "my LED is bigger than yours" kind of performance—which is great—but I know a lot of artists are going back into the clubs to not neglect that side of it.
Kathryn Frazier: And do a lot of them do that? Again I just keep reverting to Skrillex because he does it, and I don't know if all the other big time guys like him are also going into clubs for no money. Are they doing it just because they love it ?
Matt Rodriguez: Yeah, there are a lot, obviously a lot of the guys on our camp across the board all go back and forth between a big show then they'll do a small club tour. You've got to touch both markets, it's very important.
"It's gone to this big spectacle show,
a 'my LED is bigger than yours' kind
of performance." — Matt Rodriguez
Moving beyond the live aspect of it and more towards the recorded aspect: Obviously dance music's never been an album-orientated medium and the role of the album is changing anyway. So how is EDM marketed on a major label level and where does the revenue come from, and what is being marketed as the product?
Kathryn Frazier: With Skrillex or with some of the larger EDM people I work with who've been on major labels three years, there are record sales. I know Skrillex sells. Licensing can be a huge thing. I think more labels now than ever are getting 360 [deals], so they might be getting a small amount, and a small amount of big touring is a lot, so there's all that. And then you have things like Lady Gaga working with Zedd now, and I'm assuming a whole lot more–you know Beyonce worked with Diplo—there's probably going to be a whole lot more of that world coming over and asking EDM guys to do their production, which will create a lot of revenue in different ways for different people.
Dave Rene: Yeah, I mean, I'm marketing Zedd as a musician first. At least from here what we're doing as a major label. Musician and producer, not as a DJ. I'm not really marketing him as a DJ per se. He's part of the EDM scene, he goes out and plays his live shows, but when we say artist, producer, DJ, remixer, I make sure it says producer first. Interscope isn't the "home of dance music" and Jimmy [Iovine, head of Interscope] is the first to say he doesn't like dance music so I have had to be creative. I had to be like, "If I want to do this and be a part of it, I need someone who can sit downstairs and make Jimmy records." So that's how I'm working him through the building as well.
Kathryn Frazier: It goes back to what I was saying earlier, because of what I do—management and other things—I'll sit through a lot of major label meetings, and when you listen to the presidents of labels keep talking about EDM, you know they're not going home and rocking a bunch of dance music. But their job is to know what's relevant, and what kids want to hear, so I don't fault anyone for not knowing it.
I will say that Craig Kallman, who is the president of Atlantic Records and does Big Beat, he's someone I've been interested in watching through this whole period, because he truly loves this music and he really knows it, and he knows it better than most. And that's been sort of cool to watch someone who actually gets to see that maybe what he loves could be viable for his company. I think he had to ignore what he loves for the sake of his company for a long time because the American mainstream didn't give a shit about dance music. So I'll be interested to see how aggressive these people get with signing dance artists.
I know that Craig is very aggressive about signing dance artists and it sounds like Jimmy has Dave getting more aggressive about it too. They're the ones that will drive this. You asked about a bubble; if none of these majors are going to put dance artists out, push it to the radio, push these collaborations with pop stars, the bubble might appear to break and still seem kind of underground. But as long as the Craig Kallmans and Jimmy Iovines of the world are actually signing these people and putting them in the studio with bigger people and putting money into it, I think that helps it to solidify.
We talked about this a little bit earlier, but is the perception of live music changing? Are the way people are approaching and appreciating the idea of live music, has that changed as the result of EDM?
Kathryn Frazier: Yeah, I mean I think it's finally getting cred that it hasn't in the past. People are bowing down before the almighty EDM scene. A month or two ago I went to Soldier Field and saw a bunch of my DJs I've worked with, some for decades, and I never thought I'd see the day that I'd be looking out from the side of the stage at Skrillex standing up on top of a spaceship. It's beautiful. I was standing next to Tommie Sunshine and we were both literally crying. I never thought I'd see myself at an EDM show crying, but it was really beautiful as I was standing there next to this person who has been supporting this scene basically forever, you know, like really down with it, and he's like "I never thought I'd see this." Just watching him watch it was a really beautiful thing.
It was so cold and rainy. I would have been out of there in two seconds because I'm old and don't want to sit in the rain at a stadium show, but these kids were rapt. Nobody left. They were staring at the stage screaming their brains out, soaking wet, freezing and he's standing on the spaceship, rain everywhere, and I was just like "Oh my God, this is epic." I never thought I'd see that.
Matt Rodriguez: Especially seeing it through the eyes of Tommie, and especially Chicago, he's so old school there.
Kathryn Frazier: It's beautiful. And you know what I loved most about it? What made it so beautiful for him, and for me watching it was, for a minute I thought he could have been like, "Man I've been doing this shit for so much longer than this little punk up there, why didn't I make it?" He could have had an attitude about it, and instead he was beaming with pride. It was just like he was so proud of what it meant for the whole scene, that was really great.
Dave Rene: Yeah, I take this one a little bit personally. I don't know if it totally answers your question, because when I'm at these shows I'm not jumping up and down and fist-pumping. I really enjoy live instrumentation and playing, but at the same time I love good music played loud. I know when I was with Zedd recently at Coachella watching the shows, when it's one DJ after another it's kind of like [Matt was] saying; who's got the bigger screen, who's got the bigger production? All of these parameters and variables you're comparing with respect to who's having a better show. This really bothers me. Whoever played after Zedd, the guy got up on the table and raised his hands and to myself I'm like, "Hmm, Zedd didn't do that, this guy's having a better show," and to me that's just fucked and I hated that feeling. I don't know, it's definitely changing what a live show is, for better or worse. Personally I'd rather watch a jazz trio, but I don't know where I really land on that one.
Matt Rodriguez: I like the nightclub experience a lot better personally. Being in a swarm of thousands and thousands of people is just not my thing per se—maybe when I was younger. I mean, as far as on a larger scale, I was [against] the whole amphitheatre experience for dance music, just because that's not what it's always been. It's about being together and being able to experience being together, cruising round and talking and interacting, and I still think that's a very big important part of it. But I have to say, I did go to a Kaskade show at Staples Center [in LA], and found it was really good. I think every section was having their own little party. It was definitely different, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and it was a good experience. So I guess my whole perspective on it is evolving a little bit.
I wanted to end by just asking each one of you if you think what's happening right now with EDM is a positive thing for electronic music in the US?
Kathryn Frazier: I would say yes, because if you're one of the big ones, good for you, you're making your money. But if you're one of the small ones, it's just amped up a whole market that's willing to see you. You have way more avenues to have things go well. If you're a fan of that music, you have a lot more opportunities to see it. If you're an artist in that world, you have way more opportunities to actually get seen and heard. We're living in an age where these kids come up through the internet. Skrillex found Zedd on the internet, Porter Robinson through Beatport and Deadmau5 probably found Skrillex on the internet too, I don't know. You can overnight literally be "found." Win a contest on Beatport, and all of a sudden you're a superstar. Next thing you know you're signed to Interscope Records, you're working with Lady Gaga, and that's great. If all this wasn't happening, that wouldn't be happening.
Matt Rodriguez: Yep, I love it. I think it's great. [Dance music is] something I've loved for many years, and to just see it kind of get its time in the sun as the "hot sound" is great. I just hope it encourages people to dig past the stuff they're selling tens of thousands of tickets for and look a little deeper. Some more obscure artists that are creating and making amazing music on the tech house, techno and house tip. I just hope that this big explosion helps out all genres, and I think it will, once people get past the big sound or whatever got them into it. Just like myself and most people I've talked to, all of us got into the bigger sounding stuff then scratched a little deeper and started finding deeper, more melodic, more tension-building tracks and music and producers. It's a huge world. If this helps it get recognised then I'm very excited, very happy.
Dave Rene: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think it's just a positive thing for music. Any time there's music when you have good melodies, intelligent composition and advanced sound design, whether it's futuristic or traditional, it's a good thing. That's what's going on right now with EDM.
Published / Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Photo credits / Header - RTP
Avicii - Al Powers
Skrillex Spaceship - Nrk
Daft Punk - Andre Felipe
Skrillex Smoke - Possan
Stadium Ravers - Caesar Sebastian
Electric Daisy Eye - Keith Hamm
Tommie Sunshine - Charles Roussel
Skrillex, Zedd, Porter Robinson - Weekly Dig