Broadly defined, “Electronic Dance Music” (EDM) has undeniably transformed the music scene, and intrinsic to EDM’s success in the U.S. is the festival culture that has grown around it. Large-scale music events have helped shape and define music since well before Woodstock, but the explosion of large festivals featuring dance music within the past decade contrasts sharply with the underground dance music
scene from which they sprung. What most people understand as constituting EDM in the U.S. is commercialized pop music played at exorbitantly priced outdoor parties. The focus of EDM festivals has shifted from making meaningful memories to getting wasted with others who can afford it.
Ultra Music Festival (UMF) will take place this Friday through Sunday in Miami, with nearly 250 artists scheduled to perform. UMF’s website states that 97 percent of general admission tickets for the entire weekend have sold at $400 each. According to Forbes, UMF raised ticket prices by 30 percent this year, reflecting both the enormous appeal of these events as well as the increasingly out-of-reach price to partake in them. Tickets for the next major dance music festival at the end of June, Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas (EDCLV), are almost sold out; tickets on StubHub are going at a whopping $600 for all three days. Once flights, housing, food and transportation are all accounted for, moreover, the cost of major events like UMF and EDCLV end up costing well over $1,000, an increasingly unaffordable cost for many prospective attendees.
A recent NPR article defined EDM as a “pop-driven, mostly high-energy, commercial
strain of dance music,” which accurately encapsulates the monolithic form EDM has assumed since taking off in the U.S. Although UMF will feature several stages catered to particular styles, including a trance stage, UMF, EDCLV and other major EDM festivals tend to propagate this commercialized version of EDM. Although EDM meant a sizable range of music styles as recently as two years ago, the term has become tantamount to Katy Perry with heavy bass and synthesizers. The resultant sound tends to lack the kind of emotional impact listeners find with genres like trance.
Expensive festivals like UMF end up becoming yet another venue for drunken or otherwise intoxicated large-scale college parties rather than a space for relating with the music and fellow concertgoers. Shirtless packs of young men weave through the crowd looking for young women to grind against at these larger festivals. They are visibly absent from smaller, more music-centered events, like Trance United and Future Sound of Egypt, both in New York.
The irony of this growing exclusivity should not go unnoticed. The “rave scene” emerged in the U.S. in the ’90s and remained largely underground until relatively recently. Into the early 2000s, dance music retained a small motley crew of followers who formed a welcoming, inclusive environment for those who developed an emotional relationship to the kinds of sounds produced with electronic technology. The “PLUR” (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) motto of diehard ravers encapsulates the communal aspect of dance music. Numerous producers and DJs such as Armin van Buuren and Kaskade have remarked on the ability of dance music to bring different kinds of people together.
Companies like Hot Topic and Spencer’s have hopped on the EDM bandwagon by selling “kandi” – bead bracelets that ravers handcraft and exchange at dance music events. People in the dance music community were so taken aback by this explicit commercialization of the culture that they created a Change.org petition demanding Hot Topic and Spencer’s to stop selling kandi. Although the petition reached only 56 signatures, the sentiments conveyed by the petition’s creator reflect disillusionment with the status of EDM in the U.S.
“Making personalized cuffs and bracelets to trade with friends is a
symbol of friendship, memories, and a love of music… Mass-producing
kandi defeats the whole purpose of kandi by effectively taking the
symbolism away,” the petition stated.
The communal element is lost when EDM comes to mean enormous festivals of a very commercialized strand of dance music.
The boom in popularity of EDM and the expansion of EDM-oriented festivals has transformed the meaning of dance music in the U.S., and not for the better. As tickets grow in cost and as self-proclaimed popular EDM artists continue to orient their music toward a pop-like, mainstream sound, the meaning of “EDM” will continue to take on an identity almost entirely distinct from its underground origins. As has always been the case with art, listeners after unique, groundbreaking sounds that resonate with them on a deep emotional level will have to look elsewhere.