This is a round table interview with 3 people who work in the US record industry: 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; Matt Rodriguez from AM Only, an agency handling names like Tiesto.
I don't really agree with most of what they say, I think their outlook is kind of depressing, but I thought it was an interesting piece people around here would be interested in reading also.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I think the best comment was made by a reader when he stated the following:
In his French radio show laurent Garnier talked about this "EDM" thing. He said that in some festivals he played in this summer he was apalled to hear some DJ's playing some mainstream stuff in their sets, namely playing Nicki Minaj. He said that for him "EDM" does not mean "electronic dance music" but "électro de merde", which translates as "shit electronic music", warning listeners against the "ennemy" lurking close by.