With the unemployment rate in the United States at or above 9 percent since 2009, there are plenty of examples of Americans struggling to find work or pay bills. But for music fans immersed in the suddenly red-hot world of dance/electronica music, it might be hard to tell that the United States is still in the midst of a recession.
This past June, 230,000 dance music fans paid ticket prices ranging from $120 to $600 to attend the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas over the span of three days. Other popular dance festivals, such as Miami's Ultra Music Festival in March and New York's Electric Zoo in September, also enjoyed booming business this year.
Billed as the "world's first touring electronic music festival," the Identity Festival brought a new wrinkle to this burgeoning live scene this past summer. With 20 dates spanning Los Angeles to Boston, more than 30 acts — including Afrojack, the Crystal Method, DJ Shadow, and Chad Hugo — and ticket prices of $35 and $40, the festival was presented as an immersive, more affordable alternative for both hardcore fans and curious newcomers.
William Morris Endeavor Entertainment presciently created its own electronic music division, William Morris Electronic, in 2008. The department represents some of the top artists in the field, including Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia, and is responsible for creating the Identity Festival.
"Every year since we've had a formal department, we've had a tremendous amount of growth," says Joel Zimmerman, who heads William Morris Electronic. "Our core bread and butter is booking the live aspect of this area of music. We grew 180 percent last year in terms of overall business [in this area] compared to 2009. This year the growth will probably be three times as much as we grew last year."
Many point to the growth of the Internet and social media as reasons why dance/electronica music has so successfully seduced American teens and young adults. With limited access to commercial radio, the Web has made the music far more accessible and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have also helped DJs cultivate fans and followers.
Dance music shows are arguably more participatory than other forms of concerts, an element that blends in well with today's popular culture in which people strive to be an active part of the entertainment and not just passive observers.
"The whole idea of dance music has always been about your individual experience within a mass communal experience," observes Kerri Mason, a Billboard contributing writer specializing in dance and electronica music. "It's your experience on the dance floor next to thousands of other people who are there with you. That's very much the nature of social media right now. You're contributing to a greater whole but you're still an individual."
Mason feels there's now a greater appreciation and understanding of the modern DJ as a creative artist than there was in past eras. Zimmerman agrees that the old view of DJs simply spinning other artists records has been replaced by the vision of artists crafting original music or remixing and editing existing sounds themselves.
The fact that quality recording technology is now inexpensive and widely available has triggered a growth in the number of people creating electronic dance music. And the electronic dance music scene has the benefit of broad-based international participation. David Guetta is from France. Deadmau5 is Canadian. Tiësto, another popular DJ, is from the Netherlands.
"It's exciting because every week I'm finding out about a new, interesting DJ and that person isn't just in L.A.," says Zimmerman. "That person could be living in the Ukraine or wherever. It's a global world."
Many industry insiders point to Guetta's production of the Black Eyed Peas' GRAMMY-winning 2009 hit "I Gotta Feeling" as the moment when the current dance/electronica music scene went mainstream. This past March it became the first song in digital history to sell more than 7 million digital copies in the United States. Electronic-influenced tracks by artists such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Pitbull have also helped the genre increase its reach. Guetta also netted two GRAMMYs for Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical in 2009 and 2010.
Jose Guerra, the senior editor and founder of the electronic music publication Party Time magazine, believes that live festivals have done the most to capture the imagination of fans. He says extravaganzas such as the Electric Daisy Carnival feature spectacular light and laser presentations, pyrotechnics and sound systems.
"Some of these promoters put on firework shows that are better than the ones I see on the Fourth of July," says Guerra. "It's also not just about doing DJ sets anymore. These DJs are performers. They jump up and down and step up on the DJ table to tell people to put their hands in the air."
Mason points out that pop music tends to be cyclical, but she doesn't expect the current dance/electronica music craze to crash and burn like disco did in the late '70s.
"There's dance-inflected hip-hop and there's electronic-sounding rock," says Mason. "It's being transported around to these different genres and these different artists are playing with the sound palette. I don't feel as if it's something that's so super branded and identified as one single thing that it will go out of the public taste."
Zimmerman adds, "There are always going to be peaks and valleys in any music genre. But there are too many people who are engaged in this and too many people who have made it a lifestyle. It's not going away."
(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)