Credit: Timothy Norris
Coachella 2013 exemplified the generation gap in the world of dance music. On one side of the field, the modern-EDM-focused Sahara tent was a thrill ride tricked out with lasers, lights and LEDs designed to blow kids’ minds, with acts like Knife Party, Dog Blood and Wolfgang Gartner playing hyper-aggressive sets full of drops. Your parents would hate it.
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Meanwhile in the old school Yuma Tent, revered and more underground DJs including Pete Tong, Richie Hawtin, Maya Jane Coles and Four Tet played house and techno-based sets for the more sophisticated audiophile. Your parents could have probably handled it. There were some exceptions, but for the most part if the Sahara felt like the future, the Yuma felt like 1995.
The Yuma was new this year, actually, and came largely as a response to the success of the Sahara and the fist-pumping, underdressed EDM culture that has blossomed in recent years. In fact, quite a few old school electronic scenesters, now in their 30s and 40s, aren’t thrilled that their beloved electronic scene is now epitomized by overpaid superstar DJs and the bros who love them. Thus, many tastemakers feel the need to educate young audiences about the genre’s history. The kids? They just want ride the sonic rollercoaster.
“Dance music has taken a turn towards big spectacle,” says KCRW music director and L.A. electronic authority Jason Bentley, who played at the Yuma tent. “It all of a sudden became a rock show, which became very concerning to me and a lot of people in the scene. The unifying force of the music and the social dynamic of the scene and community were all of the sudden amended by these rock hallmarks. “
Of course, as genres mature it’s traditional for their fans to splinter along age lines. Hip-hop, for example, has largely divided into two camps: Older fans of more craft-conscious rap, and younger fans of flashier, poppier songs. Similarly, critics of modern, mainstream EDM say DJs don’t need to be talented to play it, that laptop “button pushing” doesn’t require the technical prowess of mixing records. As Diplo recently told Vibe: “being a DJ is pretty bullshit. I’m lucky I can produce records, too, because DJs don’t do shit.” In his now infamous “We All Hit Play” blog post, Deadmau5 said “I think given about 1 hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton and music tech in general could do what I’m doing at a deadmau5 concert.”
Meanwhile, the mainstreaming of electronic dance music has ensured that a once tight knit underground community has been replaced by hordes of aggro fans who don’t realize that artists like Swedish House Mafia and Avicii are directly descended from the old school house of Detroit and Chicago.
Nowadays there’s so much money in the genre, that the spirit Romero describes has been replaced by champagne drinking VIPs and jetsetting DJs. But the question remains: Is this a natural evolution, or a serious problem?
For their part, the old guard wants to reassert order by educating the kids. Take the 2012 CNTRL tour from minimalist techno icon Richie Hawtin, who topped our survey last year of the greatest electronic DJs in history. This project hit college campuses throughout the eastern United States, where Hawtin and friends lectured on electronic music by day and played gigs at night.
Even Electric Daisy Carnival — which to many epitomizes the genre’s flashy new incarnation — will host a throwback stage this year, dedicated to electronic music’s greatest hits of the past few decades. Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella says the fest will also put veteran acts on the mainstage in an effort to expose younger audiences to different sounds. “Last year, I was happy about the show,” Rotella says of EDC 2012, “but you would hear, no joke, some of the same tracks on the biggest stage eight or ten times.”
Still, today’s EDM scene is not all bottle service and nipple pasties; it’s a thriving subgenre filled with outside-the-box artists like Shlohmo, Baauer, and 12th Planet, who maintain an underground ethos even while attracting mainstream attention. Even the much-derided Skrillex knows his history.
“The energy and core of where I came from were downtown L.A. warehouse parties,” he said at April’s IMS Engage electronic music summit here. “It changes the standard of mainstream music.”
Perhaps the basement culture isn’t as strong, but today’s underground exists as much online as anywhere, and it’s easy to see how the internet age has been a panacea to those who are put off by what the mainstream is selling.
“I think there’s always a divide between generations,” says Hard event founder Gary Richards, a rare old-schooler who fully embraces modern EDM, “but if the music is good, it’s good. We built a brand that the up and comers want to play, and people know they can go there and hear the new music and it’s not always about Avicii or Tiësto or whatever. Not to take anything away from them, it’s just not what I do or what our brand is about. “
Hard seeks to educate not through the classroom, but through compelling curation, which can also be said about Bentley’s radio show Metropolis, Coachella and even EDC. There’s a greater opportunity to reach out to kids than ever before, simply because so many are paying attention.
“I used to think the underground thing mattered,” continues Richards, “it doesn’t. Now that Skrillex is popular it’s not like he’s decided to make pop songs with Britney Spears. It’s the same with Baauer. He had this massive crazy thing you could never even dream of on the Internet, but it’s not like he made [“Harlem Shake”] to be rich and famous. He just made a song because he’s Baauer and it just so happened that everyone else gravitated to it.”
And while the scene might never again look how it used to, the moment’s electronic music bubble will eventually burst. The young folks who stick around will likely dig deeper into the genre while fairweather fans will move on to the next trend. And then, no matter who’s paying attention, the genre will continue to evolve.
“You have this new bombastic, loud punk rock energy or whatever you want to call it coming in with electronic music,” continued Skrillex, “and then you have the old school techno, which comes from a different place and energy…but what I see is that all of it is coming together.”