Failing brands reveal electronic dance music business outgrowing itself


Two news stories from the huge-budget, superglam world of electronic dance music (EDM) this week are not unrelated.

First, the corporation that owns a number of huge EDM brands – SFX Entertainment, which owns the music retail site Beatport, and the TomorrowWorld festival outside Atlanta – has declared bankruptcy. This is almost impossible to imagine, as Beatport must have been the most potentially lucrative music website since iTunes; one cannot begin to fathom how it could have been screwed up (The good news is that Beatport does continue to operate despite its parent company’s woes.)

The second parallel news story is not a failure but a launch: Some clever entrepreneurs have come up with the idea of an EDM awards ceremony. It will take place at a hotel in Los Angeles in April. It is produced by legendary British trance DJ Paul Oakenfold and will be televised on Fox.

But both these stories are about the massive growth of a once-underground genre. The club-music business is so huge that it attracted investors who didn’t know anything about music or clubs or dancing. In the case of SFX, the company that has squandered the vast potential of Beatport, it became big enough to fail massively. And I have a feeling a sequin-studded awards ceremony in L.A., with a red carpet and all, is hardly going to bring back any respectability to the genre. It is going to broadcast the strange notion that this is a conservative genre in which luxury and glamour and fashion and extremely conventional gender roles are the primary values.

Electronic dance music at the beginning of rave in the late 1980s was created in basements for small niches of enthusiasts. The culture that created illegal dance parties had values not unlike those of the flower-power hippies: Rave flyers often had the abbreviation PLUR stamped on them (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect). The taking of ecstasy led not to wild sexual abandon but to an extremely gentle friendliness. The clothing was asexual and androgynous. The spaces were rough. There were no reserved tables – or tables at all. There were no awards because there was a sense that the community itself was creating the music, not a group of stars.

Now the music is not so much created as brokered – by pairing big-voiced pop singers and big-name producer-DJs, to make stadium anthems. The anthems have enormous serotonin-pushing build-ups and climaxes, and those moments are more frequent than ever in musical history; they seem to come every minute or so. Dancing to this is like being told to orgasm repeatedly.

The producer-DJs who play in the big clubs and festivals are millionaires; the cover charges are often more than for live concert tickets. The draw in big clubs is often sex: The atmosphere is youthful, muscular, barely clothed. Girls have long hair; boys have muscles.

Robert Sillerman, the entrepreneur behind SFX, was not someone who emerged from the dance-music scene. The most recent angels trying to prop up his empire are a private Canadian equity firm called Catalyst Capital Group, said to have given SFX a $20-million boost. That’s nice, but I don’t know if I am excited to attend a techno party owned by Catalyst Capital. It doesn’t quite fit the spirit of the thing.

Sillerman has a reputation for screwing things up. The TomorrowWorld festival, last September, was widely described as a fiasco: The logistics were not worked out; shuttle buses did not run; people were stranded in rain without shelter; many slept on the roadside; apologies were made; tickets were refunded.

Record labels whose artists’ work was being sold on Beatport have been complaining for some months that they are not being paid. It’s almost a shame that Beatport became so successful that it attracted his attention. Dance music was more secure when it was not in play among investment firms. When it was weird.

Remember when the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” meant something faintly rough, something loud and possibly drunk? Now it means a museum in Cleveland. A wily punk like John Lydon wisely refuses his induction there: To be associated with rock ’n’ roll is now embarrassing. When EDM has its own Hall of Fame – in Cincinnati or San Diego, as it soon no doubt will – it will be well and truly killed off, and even the suburban youth now eager for its hedonistic flash will turn away from it in boredom, possibly seeking instead dark and inexpensive basements with their friends and their computers, where they will make their own music again.


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