Is dance music's growth as an industry squeezing out the people who throw parties? Angus Finlayson unpacks one of the broadest problems facing dance music today.
George Patrick co-runs Bigfoot's Tea Party, a small house and techno night with regular events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In the eight years he's been promoting the night, he's found things getting harder.
DJ fees have risen much faster than inflation, meaning an artist's fee often doesn't equate to their draw on the door. The boom in festivals in the UK and abroad means that small club nights have slipped down the priority list for DJs and their agents. It can be difficult to secure a DJ for a reasonable fee, particularly for Patrick's nights in the less international Aberdeen. "If you do manage to get them booked, you have to pay so much—you get prices that are ridiculous on the door. And that just creates a flat atmosphere, I think. Clubbers are the ones that pay for it."
Patrick isn't alone: promoters across the UK have similar complaints.
"Some of these fees that I'm getting quoted are ridiculous," says Lukas Cole, whose Wigflex party in Nottingham turned ten last year. "People I've been booking since the beginning, when I would get them for like £500, are asking £8,000 now. It's a 500-person venue—we wouldn't even make that if we sold all of our tickets."
Graeme Stewart, the booker for Ibiza's Zoo Project, has been running a night in his hometown, Middlesbrough, for 13 years. "When we first started doing moderately sized bookings at Riffraff, ten years ago maybe, we could get the same kind of artist that we can now for about half the price. Which, when you're talking about clubs of 200-350 people, is not much margin for error."
The situation is similar in Manchester, according to Alexander Taber, one of the organisers of the nine-year-old meandyou party. "There a lot of promoters now and new venues. The scene is oversaturated in some respects, with programs that mirror one another. Everyone seems to be booking the same acts."
In fact, the problem isn't limited to the UK. Over the past few months I spoke to dozens of promoters, bookers and club owners involved in running small and medium-sized events across dance music's major territories. The overwhelming majority agreed that it was getting more difficult for them to operate.
The symptoms of the problem are by no means evenly distributed. Places where dance music is well established tend to be worse affected than those where it's a novelty. Some hotspots, like Ibiza and Berlin, have unique industry microclimates that shelter them from the problem. Others, like London, face more urgent local threats.
But the symptoms are certainly there. At times, promoters from such distinct places as Dublin, Istanbul, Lisbon and Los Angeles seemed to be reading from an identical cue sheet of complaints: rising fees; a fixation with a small elite of in-demand DJs; ever-fiercer competition, both between local promoters and with an international network of festivals and other large events; and a large-scale professionalisation of the underground, meaning more middlemen, more incidental costs, and less flexibility for those operating on a tight margin.
Among these promoters, the mood of frustration, if not outright pessimism, was fairly uniform. Not all had a doomsday prediction, but some did. As New York promoter Ric Leichtung put it: "There's certainly a bubble and I think it may burst."
What's behind all this? In a word: growth.
According to the International Music Summit's annual Business Report, the global dance music industry had almost doubled in value this decade, from around $4 billion per year in 2011 to $7.1 billion in 2016. Electronic music has flourished as a recorded medium—in the early '10s it dominated the charts in both the US and the UK, and it has thrived in the emergent streaming market. But the biggest change has been in events.
In the US, where EDM propelled dance music into the mainstream, the total capacity of the country's electronic music festivals shot up by 50% per year between 2007 and 2013. A 2016 Ticketmaster study found that the number of dance music festivals in the UK increased by 500% between 2000 and 2015, and that "demand in live dance events continues to rise." Across Europe, the IMS estimated that at least one in seven people had recently attended a dance music event.
You might ask what all this has to do with the underground. After all, these eye-popping figures are driven by the big fish—your Guettas, your Electric Daisy Carnivals—next to which Wigflex or meandyou are mere minnows. But both swim in the same ocean, and are affected by the same currents. Dance music is currently a mainstream pursuit in a way that it hasn't been since the late '90s, and young people attuned to its norms are more likely to engage with the culture in all its forms. You only need to browse Resident Advisor's listings for one of dance music's key cities, or ask a jobbing mid-tier DJ how their bank balance is looking, to get a sense that the global underground is riding a historic high.
"I feel that there was a generational shift," says Ben Turner, cofounder of the International Music Summit. "Young kids in America and all over Europe, all over the world, were reaching an age where they're old enough to go to clubs. This is a generation brought up with technology at their fingertips. The pulse of the music that they listen to is computerised and electronic. And it just clicks."
How might this change the way things work? Do my interviewees' complaints simply reflect the growing pains of an expanding industry? Or perhaps, as Ric Leichtung suggested, we're in a bubble which, as with the '90s and its superstar DJs, will eventually burst?
Or maybe we're seeing the industry slowly but inexorably take on a new shape. One run from the top down by global entertainment companies and lucrative brand partnerships. One in which dance music's heartlands are carved up between a handful of large promotion groups, and elsewhere the logic of the festival predominates. One in which every level of the scene is rigorously professionalised.
If so, this new world might not be all bad. It might bring with it exciting new possibilities. But it could also mean the decline of a certain kind of dance music event.
"You used to open the doors and hope that you had a relatively busy party and a good event," says Graeme Stewart. "Whereas now, kids are buying tickets so, so far in advance… There's a whole experience around clubbing now. You know, everyone books their tickets, then, 'OK, now we're gonna look for an apartment… I'm gonna take the Monday off...' Almost like a festival mentality."
This distinguishes British clubbing in the 2010s from past eras. James Barton, cofounder of Liverpool super-club Cream, wrote in a 2015 Ticketmaster report: "If I take you back to 1996, at the height of Cream and club culture, kids were going out every Saturday night... That's not the norm any more, that's the exception. The norm is that kids now want to invest in big experiences, big moments in their year. This generation wants to be impressed. They want big productions, they want the biggest lineups…"
Barton is now President Of Electronic Music at Live Nation, which, as part of a string of dance music-related acquisitions, recently bought a majority stake in Manchester's Warehouse Project. With its heavy-hitting lineups and pre-announced seasons, the Warehouse Project is part of a new generation of events supplying these "big experiences." These venues reflect, or perhaps shape, the habits of young clubbers. The Ticketmaster report found that "over two in three attendees" of dance music events in the UK "purchase tickets at least two months before the event."
"Listings are available to people so far in advance now," says Stewart. "Travel links are so easy, and people can get an Airbnb, and they can buy cheap train tickets. And kids living in Barnsley or Colchester or wherever can get to a bigger city with much more ease than they could even ten years ago. So the smaller underground nights, which were pushing music into those places, now have to compete with the bigger cities. In Middlesbrough, we check the Warehouse Project lineups when they come out knowing that something two hours down the road still might affect our party."
The booker for one mid-sized club in The North said that he has been forced to adapt to this model, announcing lineups in seasons rather than on the fly, and favouring impressive lineups over creatively interesting ones. Clubgoers now have a consumer mentality shaped by festivals; what Pedro Fradique of Lux Frágil, complaining of the same problem in Lisbon, characterises as: "I've paid this amount and I'll see this number of things."
And then of course there's the effect that these large events can have on DJ fees. "If promoters are putting on events for 2000 people, charging £40 a ticket, and they're taking the bar also, I see no reason why the artist fee shouldn't reflect that," says Stewart. "It wouldn't be fair that the promoter took all of that. It's like saying a footballer shouldn't get paid high wages when the football clubs are getting paid all the Sky money. But the difference is, a footballer playing for Manchester United doesn't go play for Shrewsbury the next week and expect the same wages."
Across the Atlantic, festivals have changed things even more dramatically, though in a different way. When EDM exploded towards the end of the '00s, it was mainly a festival phenomenon, with little connection to the existing US club scene. But its shockwaves have since rippled through every level of popular culture, and the country is experiencing a dance music awakening on a scale perhaps not seen since disco.
"There is an old saying that goes, 'Bad music leads to good music,' and I think that's true," says John Barera, a Boston musician and promoter now based in New York. "The electronic music scene is definitely growing here. With that you have more DJs, more new promoters, more competition."
Perhaps the clearest evidence of this growth is in LA. The city has long had a notable dance music scene, but in the last half-decade an influx of young enthusiasts has given it a new lease of life.
"I feel [EDM has] served as a gateway for people to dig deeper into electronic music, and that's how the scene has grown," says Nik Wilson. "When the whole EDM bubble grew and crossed over into the mainstream here five years ago, people got into electronic music en masse and the ones who have stuck with it, their tastes have matured. As a result, a few years down the line the market here is now better, with more refined sounds."
Wilson is a talent buyer for Hollywood club Avalon, and co-runs the warehouse space Lot 613. He has observed the scene's rapid transformation since he moved to the city from London, where he'd worked at Ministry Of Sound. "[LA is] almost becoming a bit like London or NYC, in the fact that there's now lots of great parties on every weekend, with really high quality international acts. It wasn't like that when I moved here four years ago. There's a multitude of great choices every weekend."
But it's not clear whether the city can sustain this flood of new events and promoters. Cooper Saver, the DJ and producer behind the Far Away parties, considers himself part of the younger generation that Wilson is talking about. "I feel like this kind of music bubble is more accessible now than it was years ago. Throwing parties is the best way to get involved and get a view of how this all works." But he worries that the scene is getting bloated. "I don't think that the crowd is big enough for so many parties. You see the same couple hundred people at every event, and if there's a lot going on in a night, nobody is gonna have a good night."
This also increases the demand for popular DJs. Jeni Erickson of Making Shapes observes that "a scramble for certain artist bookings" can lead to "a bid war between LA promoters… Since you now have at least six popular party brands operating in the underground here, the agents and artists have strong options."
Rising fees make the already harsh economics of illicit warehouse parties even less favourable. "With most places being secret and afterhours, you have to pay for literally everything," says Saver. "You have to rent the space, the sound, you gotta bring in the bar. That on top of talent doesn't leave you much headroom to make a profit. Basically if the artist fee is anything over $4000 or so, you're pretty much accepting the fact that you're just doing it for fun. For the most part, I don't think promoters are even making a profit."
This problem persists due to, as one promoter who didn't want to be named put it, "the rise of the genteel promoter": people with preexisting wealth who are willing to lose money in order to be involved in the scene. This phenomenon has always existed, of course, but it worsens as dance music acquires more social cachet, as is happening across the world.
"There are people out there that seem to have access to a lot of money, and don't really seem to care if they lose £1000 on a show," says Casper Clark, who runs the London party and record label BleeD. "Because the more desirable this whole thing becomes, the more people want a piece of it. And let's face it, some people are wealthier than others, you know?"
While an influx of young promoters squeezes the LA scene from the bottom, EDM's festival infrastructure applies pressure from the top. Many hailed the death of EDM when SFX Entertainment went bankrupt last year, but this may not have indicated a collapse so much as a transfer into a steadier state. The 2016 IMS report found "evidence that [EDM's] recent explosive growth is translating into sustainable wide-scale appeal." As Vivian Host, of New York party Trouble & Bass, says, in recent years the EDM festival has "proliferated, and had all these babies in different areas."
Thanks to its weather, Southern California is a hotspot for these festivals. Live Nation is the "creative partner" of Insomniac Events, which runs Beyond Wonderland in March, Nocturnal Wonderland in September, and Escape Halloween. Live Nation also owns Hard, which typically throws two festivals in LA each year. Its competitor, AEG, owns Goldenvoice, the promoter behind Coachella and FYF Fest.
These festivals offer larger fees than independent clubs and require artists to sign an exclusivity clause preventing them from performing in the area for as much as several months either side of an event. The exclusion zone spans several hundred kilometres, meaning that a booking at Insomniac's flagship event, Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, has a bearing on LA. If an artist accepts two gigs from one of these promoters, they could be out of the LA market for most of the year.
This is significant because these festivals are increasingly looking to the underground for booking ideas. Coachella's 2017 lineup features Ben UFO, Marcel Dettmann and Floating Points. Insomniac booked the likes of Four Tet, Rødhåd and Jackmaster for events in California last year. Some warehouse promoters worry that their core artists may soon be appearing on festivals' radars. "It could get bleak," one says.
This reflects a broader dynamic, in which the mainstream and underground spheres, previously considered distinct, are slowly merging. On one side, commercial interests have a growing appetite for previously niche music; on the other, grassroots music culture is being slowly professionalised. Festivals are often a meeting place for these two worlds.
"The gap between what is mainstream or underground is reducing," says Pedro Fradique. In the earlier days of Lux Frágil, the club would book an artist once, "and then over the years they would become more well known, and they would go to a festival. These days, there are things [I've booked] that I've had 50 people to watch, or something like that, but next year, they can already be at a festival."
On the other side of the continent, New York has also felt the post-EDM shockwaves, and the city is not immune to the effects of festivals and their exclusivity clauses. (The New York Times recently reported on Live Nation and AEG's rivalry in the city.)
"Every month there's a new festival popping up, and new clubs opening," says Nicolas Matar. "There's some weekends when New York has more events than London and Berlin. I don't think that New York has as large of an audience though. It is much bigger than it has ever been, but it is not quite as big as London and Berlin yet."
Matar owns Cielo in Manhattan and Output in Brooklyn, which opened in 2013 during a resurgence of nightlife in the city. He now feels that things aren't sustainable in their current state. "There's a constant bidding war, DJs are being overpaid. The DJs and their managers are the only ones making money, and the promoter or club owner's profit margin has dwindled as a result."
By Matar's reckoning, things got out of joint "about three and a half years ago" when a glut of promoters and events sent DJ fees haywire. "New York basically became, because of all of these competing entities bidding for DJs, the market where DJs were making their highest fees in North America. The mistake that a lot of agencies and managers made is thinking, 'OK, the market is massive in New York, I'm getting loads of really high offers, so let me bring my acts there four to six times in one year.' And that was just way too much. Most of these clubbers also go to festivals elsewhere in the country and worldwide. What's the incentive for them to go out here in New York? A lot of clubs, if this continues, are going to go out of business."
In a cutthroat market, it has become harder for these larger clubs to take risks. Conservative bookings are more likely to cover their substantial overheads. Smaller operators, in turn, feel that these larger clubs have destabilised the scene in their eagerness to capitalise on the clubbing boom.
Ric Leichtung has been booking shows in New York for nine years, at smaller venues like Market Hotel, 285 Kent and Palisades. "When a big club comes along, it's a blessing in one way, 'cause you have this really great soundsystem, and all this other stuff," he says. "But then this is a multi-million-dollar club, effectively making money off art and culture. As a business in culture, you need to be constantly balancing, 'Does this suit my artistic vision and does this also pay the bills?' And I think there's just inherent compromise."
"Everybody got really greedy for a while," says Vivian Host, whose Trouble & Bass parties frequented smaller clubs before a spell at the larger (now defunct) Verboten. "Things got so blown up that clubs were scrambling around being like, 'Maybe this person is the hot new promoter, maybe that person is.' The clubs didn't really want to invest in a promoter by trusting them and giving them a regular monthly. And I think it really hurt the scene."
This volatile atmosphere has polarised the city. Larger clubs and warehouse parties draw a wealthier house and techno crowd. Other events are confined to a vibrant but unstable ecosystem of lower-tier venues, where efforts to build a consistent club night are hindered by hidden expenses, dodgy equipment and the risks of getting shut down (as 285 Kent and Palisades were in recent years).
"I feel like the turnover rate of promoters has been really high," says Host. "And also the rate of people having to move around venues. Somebody will be at one place for four months, and then their party is somewhere else. It's like you're constantly having to try shit out all the time."
In this shifting climate, the people who win out (in the short term at least) are artists and their booking agents. "The gap between grassroots and popular industry folk is rapidly decreasing," Leichtung observes. "So you find that anybody who has a really excellent press writeup, even if they're a smaller artist, graduates to another financial tier that, more often than not, they won't be able to pull in [at the door]."
DJs who are perceived to draw crowds are in a strong bargaining position. "There's a tremendous amount of competition around certain big name DJs who are going to guarantee that people will come," says John Barera. "Any DJ who has a name and a reputation, they have the ability to just turn the fee upwards."
Agents were a common bugbear among the promoters I spoke to. Many say they are more present in dance music these days—even at the lower rungs of the scene, where booking a DJ might previously have been an informal affair. They are also accused of letting relationships with small promoters decay in favour of larger clubs and festivals.
"I feel like a lot of these agencies have gotten more corporate in their approach," says Host. They're less likely to "cut smaller or medium-sized promoters a break. And if they succeed in getting their artist booked by these big clubs or festivals, then there's really no incentive, from a money perspective, to even deal with mid-sized promoters, right?"
In Manchester, Alexander Taber points to "the professionalisation of the scene and the use of agents" as one of meandyou's major challenges. "Agents obviously play a vital role for the organisation and development of an artist's career. However, for smaller promoters, the involvement of agents is making booking international artists increasingly difficult. High artist fees, agency fees, hotel rooms, venue hire, security hire etc.—it's a lot to deal with when you're promoting parties that only have the capacity of 150 people. There needs to be a better understanding from agents about the financial implication and cultural importance of running small scale events, otherwise it's just not sustainable."
Jason Garden, the talent buyer at Chicago's smartbar, often hears "the old 'X makes $Y in Europe' argument" as a justification for unaffordable fees. "To my mind, part of being an agent is being able to understand the local markets you are trying to place your artist in… When I hear the 'in Europe' argument, I cringe because it ignores all parties but the agent and artist, who are certainly important pieces of the puzzle, but only half of it at most."
What has led to the rising influence of booking agents? The answer lies once again in the collision of mainstream and underground.
"When I first became an agent the best part of seven years ago, there were only perhaps six or seven [major] agencies doing electronic music as we know it," recalls an agent at an independent London agency. Following the EDM boom, "now all the major ones have significant departments, such as William Morris." This increases competition, meaning that agents need to sign artists earlier to be in with a chance of bagging future talent. "You have to be a lot more ahead of the game and sign talent that is still, in some cases, emerging."
Once an artist has some success, the current rude health of the industry makes it more feasible for them to approach music as a full-time career. When they do, the collapse in record sales leaves them dependent on DJing for their income.
"As soon as you start to think of it as a full-time career, you have to think about their need to pay their rent, to fulfil tax obligations, and to potentially look after a family," says Keira Sinclair of POLY. Artists. "And also the longevity of that career—is this going to give them stability for the rest of their lives? It's a shame that it seems to be seen as a negative thing. Isn't it great that people can support themselves by making and playing music?"
As for whether agents favour larger events over small promoters? My anonymous London agent acknowledges that "the larger promotion groups have a lot more influence than ever previously." This is because of "the sheer amount of shows the right affiliation can deliver."
But they shouldn't be seen as an entirely negative force, says Sandy Marris at Coda Music Agency. "These larger events are invaluable in showcasing these sounds to a wider audience who then in turn go off and explore the music a bit more. Catching DJs at big festivals is exactly how I caught the bug." They can also "offer larger fees that enable DJs to make a living from what they do and so can allow them to do more of the small club shows… I think both are necessary to keep the other going."
The key is to strike a balance. "I think the logic is pretty simple," says Marris. "Unless you want to alienate promoters there is no point in demanding the same fee for a 10,000-capacity Dutch mega rave on Saturday night as you would ask a tiny punk club for a Sunday evening."
If promoters are to be believed, not all agents follow these rules of best practice. But it seems misguided to blame them for the state of things. After all, they're cogs in a machine, and as the machine runs faster and faster and the clockwork winds ever tighter, their room to manoeuvre decreases. They, like promoters, are subject to fundamental changes in the mechanisms driving dance music culture along.
Many people I spoke to speculated about where this might all be headed. "What about the housing bubble and shit like that?" asks John Barera. "Shit pops, you know what I mean? The music industry seems very fragile to me. I really don't see an infinite ceiling of fee increases, there's got to be a bust." This has happened to dance music in the storied slump at the end of the '90s, but globalisation and the digital revolution have changed things profoundly since then.
"When you look at it in comparison to now, the huge explosion of DJs in the '90s was almost like a tremor," says IMS cofounder Ben Turner. "Everything kind of imploded at the millennium, certainly around Europe and the UK. The scene is so global now, there's a more solid foundation for this industry. I think that's because of the generation shift. These kids aren't just into electronic music for a fad. I don't believe they're all going to turn into rock fans."
Kevin Watson, author of the IMS Business Report, predicts not a collapse but the opposite: further growth worldwide, and a possible second EDM boom in developing nations. He points to India as an example, comparing its population of 18-24 year-olds to that of the US. "If India got to just half of the relative penetration of festivals that the US currently has, then you would see 18 more Tomorrowlands," he says. "That's a huge potential growth." Events like Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan are beginning to demonstrate the country's appetite for underground sounds.
If Watson is right, then what seems like the current peak in global dance music might turn out to be the beginning of a steep ascent. This could be positive for the industry, but bad for grassroots club culture. One promoter wondered whether, from a business perspective, a "chainstore" version of clubland wasn't entirely desirable. What to them seemed like a negative development might in fact be dance music taking on the form with which it can best dominate the world.
Others were more optimistic. "I think that on the smaller scale here's what's never going to change," says Ric Leichtung. "There's always going to be small promoters, up-and-coming artists, new venues that are passionate and that value artist integrity over financial gain." George Patrick agrees: "I think if you want to, you'll find a way."
Some suggested potential solutions to the problems small promoters face. They could work together, rather than competing in an open market with much larger entities. (This is starting to happen in LA, where a shared Google doc of upcoming dates helps avoid splitting the city's crowd.) And they could rid themselves of the obsession with big-name guest DJs, instead favouring residents and local talent.
For Trev O'Shea, founder of Dublin's Bodytonic, originality is key. "I took a lot of inspiration from what I read or heard about how the likes of Factory Records, Optimo, Underground Resistance and the Paradise Garage did things, in terms of being different, creative and self sufficient. What I would love to see is a new generation of promoters come through who are creative, clever, and don't think a party needs to revolve solely around a guest DJ… Take a risk, try new things, if it doesn't work the first time, try, try and try again. It's worth it, trust me!"