Over the past five or so years EDM has hit the US harder than anyone could have anticipated. Pete Tong — “The Pied-Piper to dance,” who performs tonight, Oct. 9, at Output — knew it was coming. He could feel it.
“Two things had started to happen,” Tong recalls. “One was the fact that there had been successive growth on the kind of festival and one-off events thing… and they provided access to this music for people who were under 21.”
As the music made its way over to the US, it came through a more grandiose and spectacular medium than it ever had, he says, and attracted the youth more than most other demographics.
Instead of going to the nightclubs where many original EDM fans had already been, like in the basements of Detroit, the music hit the open-air arenas, the large, empty fields, and attracted with it a very large following of newbies. “And then the other thing obviously, the European DJs, in particular with David Guetta, finally started to make music that was breaking onto Top 40 Radio. And then when people started hearing it on Top 40 Radio, you had people drawn toward the scene for the very first time that really knew nothing about it. You know, they were complete novices, hearing a record on a Top 40 Radio…finding out more about artists like David Guetta and subsequently Swedish House Mafia… And I think that that brought in a whole new audience.”
The new audience Tong mentions was enthusiastic, albeit rather uneducated.
“You know, its funny,” he says, “in Europe, and in England in particular, kids were drawn into the scene in the ’80s on a very local basis, you know, it was like, with your mates going to a local club, seeing DJs and getting drawn into the culture on quite a much smaller level…” Here, the over-the-top manner in which EDM came about revealed to the youth of America a musical landscape that appeared to be completely new and uncharted, entirely different from what was going on in the clubs, when in reality it was just an overstated, rah-rah version of what had come before.
And so, just as quickly as it came, EDM hit the American mainstream. Since 2009, the standard EDM sound has become mangled with inauthentic DJs who “just press play,” who have brought with them irritating, hollow, lifeless beats of redundant synths, and pointless lyrics that try desperately hard for emotionality. The biggest names have only gotten bigger, the spaces tighter, and for most of the mavericks, the OG EDM fans, it was over once it took off.
Now it seems everyone is beginning to get over it. Fans are bored and slowly leaving EDM fest’s Main Stage headliners for the other, deeper, darker sounds coming from the smaller tents that surround them. The more authentic DJs are sick of being grouped with the DJs who don’t appreciate how far the music has come, and are rebranding both their sound and their space in music.
Musically, this has manifested itself in the term “Deep House.” There are many other phrases, from the original term Acid House all the way to whatever the hell Nu Disco is, but basically, if you’re not listening to and partaking in this overdone version of EDM, then you’re on the Deep House train. Point is, what is currently being labeled “EDM” isn’t something most Djs or producers worth their salt want to be.
“If you were a techno DJ playing in Ibiza and someone described you as EDM, you were getting very offended or making great efforts to point out that you were different to like, Guetta and Avicii and Afrojack and everyone,” says Tong. “And so it became a term that became very generalized, a bit blurred around the edges. I think if you’re an EDM DJ now you certainly think your [public] image is probably of that big Main Stage sound, so, I think that that’s why people start looking to identify themselves in different ways really.”
As far as the new term goes, “Deep house actually means everything other than EDM,” Tong laughs. “So it goes from Disclosure to the most hardcore techno act. It’s a way of saying ‘Anything other than EDM,’ which is quite funny. Again, it’s a terminology,” but it has come to stand for more. If you’re listening to ‘Deep House’ then you are not listening to EDM, and are therefore a member of a community that is not necessarily based in genre (Deep House vs. Big Room House vs. Trance vs. Electro), but in working to reclaim their musical space and bring it back to its roots all while exploring new, developing DJs and sounds.
“I think the interesting thing now, you know — five years in — five years is quite a long time, we are seeing things evolve now,” says Tong. “Some people have done their three or four years of being a Kandi Raver and maybe never go to a club again. Other people have grown into a little bit more of a sophisticated thing, and you know, maybe they’ve gone from David Guetta and now they’re mad about Skrillex and Diplo, or maybe they’re getting crazy about much more underground artists like Jamie Jones, so I think we’re starting to see that now, environments are starting to grow around the edges of these festivals.”
People are beginning to expand their musical horizons, and those brought to EDM’s big ticket, Top 40 acts are now beginning to explore the margins a bit more, the moody corners of the underground clubs to hear and feel the genuineness that started it all. They want the music that represents the fundamentals of the EDM that has always existed, the music that for the past half decade has been in the shadow of its Frankstein-y, larger-than-life spin-off EDM scene. “I think that it’s very democratic actually, dance music, because people decide,” says Tong. Now those people are deciding it’s time for a change. And this does not necessarily mean the formation of a dichotomy between the various subgenres of EDM. While it can manifest as a difference in musical preference, it’s really about environment, experience, and a desire to be “a little bit more adventurous than the mainstream,” as Tong would put it. It’s about extracting the more ambient, basic sounds that were the basis of the original EDM, and returning to that simpler and more atmospheric music. It’s about using what has come before and allowing that to grow and morph into what will eventually become the next phase of EDM culture and sound.
“If you look at Carl Cox’s arena, at Ultra, if you look at the success of the Sunday School stuff, which is small, but it’s packed, and it feels very much like the naughty place to be if you go to Electric Zoo or MysteryLand, you know?,” says Tong. Mavericks like Cox and (and Tong himself) have all become the central focus of the current EDM fans, as they bring with them the sounds of the past. The current EDM fans are now joining the original fans that never left in craving that deeper, more honest sound.
“We’re probably not going see the likes of what we’ve just seen again; it will be different. The thing about the next wave of music is that it’s more the environment, it’s more determined to deliver the best experience of more supple music — you need a different set of criteria to the ones you need to deliver the music we’ve been seeing on the Main Stages for the last five years, so it’s not going to be confetti and explosions,” says Tong. The future of this music will have to echo the desires of DJs and fans alike, and that means moving back to the roots of EDM all while “push[ing] for the next thing.”
Master DJ and producer Eric Prydz recently noted this shift in an interview we did recently, calling EDM “just noise, energy … a separate thing that’s happening along the side of what’s being going on when it all started,” and refers to his own music as “a different genre” from EDM. Similarly, DJ and producer Mark Knight, alongside Weiss and Adrian Hour, has deliberately made a move towards rebranding his Toolroom label. He’s described this as “the time to go back-to-basics and hone in on the core of what we want the label and brand to stand for: quality house music from across the globe,” clearly understanding the undeniable global yearning to look to the past to make people dance in the future.
“I mean you look at the label Spinnin’ that was so dominant in the area of EDM just a year, 18 months ago, and now half their output is actually on Spinnin’ Deep, says Tong. “So they’re searching, they’re looking, and you know, suddenly, a lot of the big main mainstream acts are all getting non-EDM mixes on their tunes. Things are shifting.”
Tong is quick to avoid making declarations of EDM’s death “I’m not here to sound the end of EDM as we know it. No, I think that, where I sit, it’s the right time to really push now for the next thing.”
And that next thing will be a fusion between the past and the future, where DJs and fans alike are working actively to reclaim EDM in the present.