EDM is the new American bubble
There is no doubt that electronic music, in the form of the so-called EDM “movement” (great branding) is currently experiencing extraordinary popularity and momentum. Rather predictably, EDM has produced some interesting responses from insiders, outsiders, and the media, many of which are as absurd as they are opportunistic. And, all of it is leading, I think, to a crash. For now, there is the EDM bubble.
In order to place the current EDM bubble in proper context, it’s important to revisit Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Originally, I bought the book because of my interest in alchemy; and, as research for a book I was writing at the time, tentatively titled “American Panopticon.” My interest wasn’t piqued so much by “The Alchemysts” section, but by Mackay’s study of economic bubbles. In it, Mackay surveys the South Sea Company bubble, the Mississippi Company bubble, and the Dutch Tulip Mania.
You may recall Tulip Mania from “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” when Gordon Gekko compares the Tulip bubble to the financial crisis of 2007 and beyond. My guess, although I can’t prove it, is that Oliver Stone must have read Mackay’s study on Tulips. It’s just the type of book that he’d dig.
Briefly, the Tulip bubble worked like this: Holland’s merchant class suddenly became enraptured with tulips, speculation soon followed, which led to the bubble bursting. Now, we know from recent research that the Tulip Bubble wasn’t as big or as disastrous as Mackay claimed; but, that really isn’t the point. The idea is that humans will speculate on nearly anything. If there is money to be made on tulips, well then humans will speculate on them.
And so it is with electronic dance music.
I fully understand that the EDM explosion doesn’t involve rampant stock market speculation. But corporate interests, who three years ago couldn’t have given two shits about electronic music, are now tripping over themselves to cash in on the phenomenon. So, this article is more of a polemic against the involved parties and the masses—ignorant as they are of electronic music’s history—who can be so easily hoodwinked into handing over their cash to corporations.
It’s also a chance to have a little fun at their expense.
EDM fans before the big fuckin’ bass drop… oh my god!
Dot-Com, Housing… EDM
Six years after the 2007 economic crash, and we all know the particulars of that madness. People wanted homes, and banks, mortgage brokers, investors and government were all more than happy to encourage home ownership. Whether or not loan applicants were actually capable of paying the mortgages was irrelevant—there was money to be made in the form of credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. And the American economy, which just rides bubble after bubble anyway, was chugging along nicely in the years after the post-9/11 economic panic. No sense in rocking the boat, right? The same could be said for the dot-com bubble of the ’90s, which burst between 2000 and 2001.
The common theme with the dot-com and housing bubbles is this: America’s capitalist institutions saw that there was money to be made and started crafting fictions out of reality. Illusion was the game. And, in America, illusion has become a fine art. Reality, in this way, becomes pure artifice.
EDM is entropy in action: electronic music succumbing to market forces before our very eyes.
They are speculating on its popularity, with full knowledge, of course, that the bubble will burst. And it will, folks. It will.
Case Studies — Punk Rock, Hip-Hop, and Grunge
Other “movements” like punk rock, hip-hop and grunge were similarly speculated upon and, consequently, neutered. The music industry, much of it controlled in the 20th Century by corporate conglomerates, absorbed the trends in punk rock, hip-hop and grunge, dismantled any political potential and fed it back onto the youth as simulated reality. Who needs the political edge of The Clash when the masses can experience rebellious punk in the form of Green Day? Why celebrate Afrika Bambaataa’s community building efforts when the kids will eat up Lil Wayne and Kanye West instead?
The very thing that makes such music dangerous in the first place proves its undoing. Big business wants to sell what creative, rebellious youth is producing.
It happened in the ’60s when music was intricately linked to America’s social, economic and political revolution. By the ’70s, rock ‘n roll returned to its original party vibe. Any potential that ’60s rock ‘n roll had in actually helping change things was finally crushed in the ’70s in a sort of musical opium dream supplied by the corporate needle. Punk rock was, in part, a reaction to this form of bland, non-lethal ’70s music. In the ’90s, grunge, which grew out of late ’80s underground punk and metal currents, was similarly absorbed into mainstream youth culture. The term “grunge” itself is a relic of this absorption, and led mainstream music culture straight into the post-grunge era populated by bands such as Collective Soul, Puddle of Mud and, worst of all, Creed.
Like these other absorbed movements, electronic music (as EDM) is being diluted, branded, catalogued, promoted and pumped full of cash by similar corporate forces. Its representatives will be Skrillex, DeadMau5, Zedd, Baauer and the rest of the current EDM faction. It is entropy in action: electronic music succumbing to market forces before our very eyes.
Thankfully, there will always be proper experimentation in the electronic music underground. So when this bubble bursts, electronic music will return to its proper place: moving music into the future instead of satisfying illusory market demand.
The EDM Speculators
So, who is propagating and buying into EDM speculation? Wrong question. Who the hell isn’t?
Amongst a slew of speculators, billionaire Robert Silverman might be the biggest player in the EDM bubble. Sillerman, head of media group SFX Entertainment and organizer of Live Nation (a Clear Channel subsidiary), is openly planning to build a $1 billion EDM empire by buying out promoters and event organizers. The media mogul’s recent effort to buy The Opium Group fell through, but he did manage to purchase Miami Marketing Group, which owns several Miami nightclubs.
Robert Sillerman — Would-be Emperor of EDM
Sillerman’s move is brilliant business: it places him front and center inside Miami’s EDM mecca Ultra Music Festival, which has been going on for over a decade, but is now as commercially saturated as Coachella.
There is more to Sillerman’s story, though. In February, Sillerman bought Beatport for about $50 million. Beatport, founded in 2004, features one million tracks, many of which are exclusive to the site, which claims some 40 million registered users. This gives Sillerman, amongst other things, access to emerging electronic music talent, which can quite easily be rebranded as EDM, then shuffled out onto festival stages organized by the North American division of Holland-based ID&T Entertainment, which he now owns. ID&T organizes festivals like Tomorrowland in Belgium, and Sensation White, which is big in Europe and now spilling over into the US.
But Sillerman isn’t the only egregious corporate offender.
Wynn Las Vegas, for instance, boasts the wildly popular, gigantic and incredibly douchey club XS. It is, like Las Vegas itself, pure stimulation and simulation. Reality is constructed and simulated there in much the same was as Disney theme parks. And people pay for the pleasure to the tune of about $90 million annually. That is no small, underground operation, folks, but big business. And XS is not the only lucrative cash cow on the strip.
Deadmau5 being typically magnificent at XS in Las Vegas
Las Vegas is quite literally overrun and infected by dozens of other electronic music clubs. There is MGM Grand’s five-story Hakkasan club, Marquee Nightclub at the Cosmopolitan, Surrender Nightclub at the Encore (which has hosted eternal jackass Steve Aoki and Calvin Harris), and Mandalay Bay’s Light, to name a few. Then there is the annual Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, which, like Ultra Music Festival, is yet another epicenter of Mecca-esque migration for electronic music fans. EDC’s promoter, Insomniac Events, has branched off its EDC brand in Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Puerto Rico and Orlando. It’s also worth noting that Insomniac Events is rumored to be exploring a 50/50 deal with Live Nation, which, as noted above, was created by Sillerman and is now owned by Clear Channel.
Dick Clark Productions is even angling for an EDM awards show, as The New York Post reported in April.
“They [marketers] want to be associated with live events, with a young audience and that interests us as well,” Dick Clark CEO Allen Shapiro said.
Too true. That is essentially the case with Coachella, which is owned by AEG, a subsidiary of Anschutz Corporation. Coachella ticket prices rose as the annual music festival became a cultural event as actors and celebrities started showing up, followed shortly thereafter by Madonna. The rest is history.
Then there is Amy Thompson, manager of Swedish House Mafia (just wonderful electronic music, incidentally). Thompson recently spoke of the capital investment in electronic music. She didn’t go so far as to call it an EDM bubble, but she might as well have.
Amy Thompson, Manager of Swedish House Mafia
“I feel the investment buzzards are circling. I worry about the big valuations flying around that could lead to disappointment,” said Thompson at the recent IMS Engage conference. “What you don’t want is some big fucking massive city sale and everyone’s fucking cheering, and then in three years time you’re declared bankrupt and you’re a stigma for 20 years when you’ve just finally been accepted and legitamised.”
“The buzzards circling worries me,” added Thompson. “The saturation worries me. But who backs down? Which promoter stops? There’s a huge demand, it’s being supplied currently, but at what point do kids get sick of it, and whose fault will that be? I’m as guilty as anyone else.”
Thompson’s cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy is charming. Like others, she won’t back down and will continue making money while the EDM money-making bubble is good. But, the greed is wide-ranging. Everyone from investors and promoters to managers (like Thompson) and EDM artists like Skrillex and DeadMau5—who have no doubt energized electronic music on a mass scale, but with precious little artistry—are making good money… for now.
Even 20th Century Fox is trying to get in on the EDM action with a film on the booming sub-culture. The film will follow three teens as they try to gain entry into Diplo’s electronic music festival. Sounds absolutely amazing.
Diplo — He’s awesome, okay?
When the EDM Bubble Bursts
Who knows when it will happen, but I’d wager that since 2013 looked to be the year of peak EDM saturation, with the hype likely spilling over into 2014, then 2015 will probably be the branded movement’s wasteland.
Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, Miami club culture, other electronic music festivals and the general Las Vegas douchebag decadence will survive. But the current speculative effort to commercialize and exploit electronic music under the EDM brand will, like any good bubble, collapse; though not before it makes people like Sillerman, 20th Century Fox, Amy Thompson and others a whole lot of money.
And, when this happens, electronic music will have to cleanse itself of the EDM label by retreating into the underground whence it came, and where it continues incubating and evolving electronic music forms. That is, until the next generation of Skrillexes and Zedds come swimming in the groundbreakers’ slipstream to make future speculators some fine, quick bubble money.
“But,” you might say. “Isn’t it a good thing to infiltrate electronic music into the mainstream?” Yes and no. True, lesser known, independent electronic music producers and artists will find their profiles bumped up a bit, and that is good. The Nicolas Jaars, Baths and Comas of the world deserve more recognition. But they’ll never ascend to the heights of superstar DJs; and, more to the point, the main EDM demographic isn’t interested in those artists.
The entire artifice of it all also means that people like Robert Sillerman make all the money without laying any, any of the foundations. And because of that, they do not care about the future of electronic music.
For them, electronic music is only useful in the here and now, as with all speculative bubbles.