Last month, I answered some questions for a UK media/marketing firm researching how UK rave circa 1989 evolved into the US youth phenomenon of electronic dance music (EDM) — a question I’ve asked before on this blog.  The piece is lengthy and lies behind a paywall, but author Emmajo Read did a great job. By permission, here are some relevant excerpts.


Why has Raving had a Rebrand?

Valued at $6.2 billion, EDM is no longer simply an acronym for ‘electronic dance music’. For thrill-seeking digital natives, EDM embodies their live-for-the-moment attitude, syncs up with their technology-driven lives, and satisfies their omnivorous approach to sensory experience….


Déjà vu?

EDM is predominantly consumed in gargantuan proportions in the hotels and purpose-built clubs of Las Vegas, and at festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival, Hard and Ultra. Taking the form of mind-blowing spectacles of auditory and ocular histrionics, these mega-events are often likened to the UK’s mass rave scene of the early 1990s. Amidst a sea of glo-sticks, white gloves, sweets, MDMA, and proclamations of the PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) mantra, it’s an obvious comparison to make. Inducing nationwide moral panics, the UK rave scene developed as a result of the discovery of acid house from Chicago and the unprecedented availability of ecstasy. It was “a highly organised leisure system, and an enormously lucrative economic infrastructure,” says author Simon Reynolds. “Still underground in terms of its atmosphere, it was at the same time the norm: what Everykid did, every weekend.” [3]

For Professor of Sociology Leonard Nevarez, the relationship between the EDM scene and the UK rave scene involves a fundamental bifurcation. “I distinguish the musical development of EDM from its cultural development,” he says. “Musically, there’s no question EDM came out of 1989’s Summer of Love acid house. But culturally, I see rave as a historically specific kind of social congregation that’s rather removed from the American context.” [4]

So what is the American context? “I find it more useful to think about EDM and its music festivals as form of tourism than a musical subculture,” Nevarez explains. “EDM offers a slightly different mix [from Spring Break] – not as straight, a different set of go-to drugs, often just about dancing – but still the same kind of destination experience.” Nevarez claims that between 1989 in the UK and 2014 in the US, rave was “economically co- opted by a global entertainment industry, re-appropriated into a different set of pop-culture contexts and rituals and stripped of historical self- consciousness, with only a set of sonic signifiers pointing to a much ballyhooed but little understood past.” [4] And now, with EDM artists doing emixes of Disney classics, HBO collaborating with Diplo to make an EDM sitcom and top-earning DJ / producer Calvin Harris making $46 million in 2013, EDM is very much an industry… [5]


Eat, sleep, rave, repeat

The name of Fatboy Slim and Riva Starr’s 2013 hit, and the subsequent name of a Ministry Of Sound EDM compilation, ‘Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat’ perfectly encapsulates the present-minded spirit of EDM fans. “EDM is the music of the present, not the future,” says Sinnreich. “As computers become more ubiquitous and organically integrated into our social fabric, they will continue to play a role in cultural production, but they will cease to have the novelty and social power they enjoy today.” [11]

And for Reynolds, ‘futurism’ is “no longer perceptible” within EDM. “It surrounds us and permeates all aspects of our lives,” he says. “In the early decades of electronic music… the bleeps and klangs could signify the future because they stood out against the backdrop of a non-electronic everyday life and a mostly non-synthesised pop music.” [3]

Energy Flash

Reynolds believes that ‘Now!ism’ has replaced electronic music’s familiar trope of futurism, labelling it the “philosophical counterpart to digital maximalism.” [3] Now!ism is underpinned by a belief that the future – for ecological and economic reasons – may never happen. It’s all about adopting an attitude to life that demands instant gratification, and packing as much as possible into every moment. EDM’s auditory and visual real- time excess are a testament to this. And for Nevarez, even the term ‘EDM’ hints at the ahistoric mindset of mainstream US youth. [4]

“EDM’s style-neutral connotation, while technically accurate, seems to purposefully lack historical perspective – the better to market this music to a new generation who doesn’t want the baggage of musical history or ‘underground’ authenticity,” says Nevarez. [4] With this in mind, it’s little wonder that EDM fans are often dismissed by more traditional listeners as mere imitators who’ve misappropriated and bastardised electronic music and rave without even realising they’ve done so…


Insights and opportunities

Culturally, there may be something hollow and mimetic about EDM – especially to those who revere the authenticity and intimacy of the underground club scene. But as an industry, EDM is clever. “By fusing pop music, R&B and commercial hip hop with house beats and trance synths,” says [DJ Mag editor Ben] Murphy, “savvy producers stepped into a gap in the American market vacated by an increasingly moribund hip hop scene.” Referencing Avicii’s smash hit ‘Wake Me Up’, he explains that “combining EDM with country, while not to my taste, is a masterstroke for selling to the Midwest Stateside demographic.” [2] Nevarez shares a similar belief. “The music industry figured out how to market dance music to mainstream pop and rock audiences,” he says. “In many ways, EDM signals the commercial eclipse of the recording industry by the concert industry.” [4] …

And, naturally, EDM events are fertile ground for advertising. Imagine gatherings of sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, trapped in a single space for three days, with shared musical and cultural tastes – and significant disposable incomes. [12] But despite its incredible popularity in 2014, there are emerging whisperings about the shelf-life of the ‘EDM bubble’ – and big brands might need to make their move now, if they haven’t already. But if the bubble does burst, what are the potential implications for millions of Americans youngsters who’ve subjected themselves to sensory hyperstimulation, lavish sonic soundscapes and phantasmagoric wonderlands?

For Nevarez, “the dull ubiquity of big-money touring festivals” could potentially make “younger audiences eager for the theming of their everyday spaces.” [13] He believes that “perhaps it will transition some listeners to other branded experiences after they grow out of music festivals and drug- bingeing, while for others EDM might constitute a stepping stone to more rarefied musical tastes and cultural distinctions.” [4]

Excerpted sources

2. Interview with Ben Murphy conducted by author

3. ‘Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture’ , Reynolds S (2013)

4. Interview with Professor Leonard Nevarez conducted by author

5. ‘Electronic Cash Kings 2013: The World’s Highest-Paid DJs’ , Forbes (August 2013)

11. Interview with Aram Sinnreich conducted by author

12. ‘Wall Street Veterans Give An Inside Look at the Growth and Longevity of Dance Music’, EDM Tunes (February 2014)

13. ‘The dull ubiquity of placeless music festivals’ , Musical Urbanism (July 2012)