Amsterdam Dance Event director Mariana Sanchotene comments on electronic music’s rise to the top and the natural connection between the genre and technology
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With revenues growing to $11.3bn in 2022, the genre’s impact on live events has never been greater. DJ Mag editor-in-chief Carl Loben reports
By IQ on 25 Jul 2023
With the annual IMS Report noting that electronic music revenues grew by more than one third to reach $11.3 billion in 2022, and that nearly half of all dance music revenue came from festivals and clubs, the genre’s impact on live events has never been greater. DJ Mag editor-in-chief Carl Loben reports.
The rise of electronic music has been embraced – some might argue facilitated – by festival organisers the world over creating dance arenas as part of their annual offerings to the masses.
The recent International Music Summit (IMS) Report found that 39% of all festival bookings are electronic music artists. This stat was up from 33% in 2021 and indicates that the electronic music industry is riding high, coming out of the pandemic.
At the same time, electronic acts such as Prodigy, Bonobo, Orbital, Leftfield, Fatboy Slim, Hot Chip, and Overmono are currently on the road touring both indoor and outdoor venues, while the likes of Chemical Brothers, Rudimental, and others have plans for later in the year.
“Yeah, if you look at the live figures, electronic music is about 30% up – it’s really strong,” says Maria May, head of electronic at CAA. “It’s a genre in itself; it’s a serious business. They can’t pretend it’s just a party anymore. Electronic music is worth being a part of and investing in.”
May credits early dance music festivals in the UK around millennium time, such as Creamfields and Homelands, as being barometers for what was to come. “The desire for people to meet in a field and dance under the stars is pretty tribal, isn’t it?” she says. “Now there’s lots of organised gatherings for everyone – young people are always going to need to come together and let go.”
“Incorporating a visual element into my shows has been an essential aspect of my artistic expression”
Time was when electronic dance music was thought of as a bit of a joke by the mainstream music industry. Dance acts were made to mime their hit rave tunes on the UK’s Top Of The Pops television show, and there were mutterings from the rock quarter that dance wasn’t ‘real’ music played by ‘real’ musicians.
The DJ has now been elevated from the music provider in the corner of a dark club, more or less on a par with the glass collector, to bona fide mainstage superstar. A DJ act – such as Skrillex, Four Tet, and Fred again.. – can now headline Coachella and doesn’t always need eye-popping visuals to carry a show.
However, many DJs positively embrace the multimedia aspect of their art. “Incorporating a visual element into my shows has been an essential aspect of my artistic expression,” Irish producer and artist Rebūke tells IQ. “I am trying to find ways to evoke emotion and create a unique atmosphere, and by adding visuals, I can transport fans into another world. The visuals I create serve as an extension of my music, allowing me to tell a story and evoke specific moods that complement it.”
He continues, “Each visual I design plays a part in the story that aligns with the theme of the music. The aim is to engage fans on multiple sensory levels. This year, in Mexico City, we depicted a TV head man with glass shattering, symbolising the breaking of societal norms and inviting fans to question their own perceptions. In the second visual debut at The Brooklyn Mirage in New York, the story continues as the man walks through a portal into a new world, representing a transformation and the exploration of uncharted territories. These visuals are sync’d with the music in real time, allowing me to fuse sound and imagery.”
Breaking Down Barriers
There is still some resistance from some areas of the music industry to booking headline DJs for mixed-genre festivals, however. “It’s an ongoing battle for agents and the more conventional rock & roll promoters to get them onside, and in the most part, the general vibe is to not let a DJ on the mainstage,” says May. “But when you have a DJ who is selling more records than all the live acts put together on the festival, there is an argument to say that if a DJ is putting on a really
good show – visuals, all the rest of it – then it can be on a par with a rock band. I’m sure people who play guitar music will kill me for saying this, and it’s not the same – but it’s still valid entertainment.”
“As a result of the pandemic, people started realising that night culture is more than dancing at night — it’s a way for young people to experiment and explore who they are and find their identity”
“The rise of electronic music has broadened people’s perceptions of what music is and how it’s experienced,” says Monty McGaw, head of electronic at Untitled Group events company in Australia. “DJs can be captivating; people love witnessing skilful mixing and track selection. Electronic music events often carry a broader message or theme, such as political messages, equality, or the importance of community. Balancing these diverse elements requires careful planning, coordination, and creativity to deliver a compelling and memorable live experience.
“Electronic music emerged from communities that were often marginalised and underground, which initially limited its acceptance and recognition by the mainstream music industry,” McGaw continues. “The cultural and societal factors surrounding its origins and early development played a role in the industry’s initial resistance to accepting it as a legitimate genre deserving of equal status.”
Meindert Kennis, co-director of the Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE) – the biggest annual gathering of the electronic music industry – reckons that the prevalence of electronic music on daytime radio in the Netherlands and the UK over the past 30-odd years, and in the USA over the past 15 years after the David Guetta-spearheaded explosion, has led to electronic’s widespread acceptance.
“Also, as a result of the pandemic, people started realising that night culture is more than dancing at night — it’s a way for young people to experiment and explore who they are and find their identity,” he adds. “It’s something you do preferably under cover of the night and is a real important part of the development of young people.”
Kennis additionally makes the point that when the pandemic took away young people’s opportunities to go out and gather together at music events, mental health problems began to accumulate. “Especially in the cultural and government worlds, they started realising that once you took it [away], problems started to appear with young people, and they realised that this is playing a really important part [in] young people’s development,” he says.
“Electronic music, unlike some other genres, has the ability to transcend language and cultural differences”
ADE began in 1996 as a way of bringing the Dutch electronic music scene together and has grown exponentially into the largest gathering of the electronic music industry in the calendar year.
“ADE has become a tentpole moment – the whole industry has a big red circle around October, when it’s going to be here in Amsterdam,” Kennis says. “So at least for those days, Amsterdam is the centre of the electronic music world.” The existence of conferences such as ADE, IMS in Ibiza, WMC in Miami, plus BMC and AVA in the UK, and others, helps strengthen the industry and also aids the local scene where those events are based. “If you have such a moment, that’s very beneficial for a local artist,” Kennis says. “And for night culture as a whole in general.”
Electronic music has found it easier to find global appeal than most other musical styles. “Electronic music, unlike some other genres, has the ability to transcend language and cultural differences,” says Monty McGaw, noting that it is less dependent on lyrical content. “I think this has helped to facilitate its global appeal and contributed to its profitability,” he says.
And it comes in many guises. One glance at leading digital download platform Beatport’s sub-genre categories – from tech-house to amapiano, drum & bass, dubstep, trance, techno, and more – gives an indication as to the variety on offer.
“Electronic music is prone to different genre popularity waves,” concurs McGaw. “One year this genre is popular, another year another genre is popular, but what remains is the experience — which is also a link to the live sector.
“It’s more skewed towards the experience of being at a festival or being at a live electronic music event, which is different to a more traditional rock or pop concert,” McGraw continues. “That experience has a really profound influence on how people spend their free time. So, it doesn’t really matter which genre is popular at any one time — that whole feeling of being yourself just stays.”
“The mainstage artists are the ones who sell the tickets, and we’re now building strong headliners who are creating legacies”
Drawing parallels with artists and musicians who make the majority of their revenues through live performance, experts acknowledge that since the bottom fell out of record sales in the early noughties, producers have had to become DJs, helped in their efforts by the growth in the number of electronic music events, as well as the festival business mushrooming internationally.
“Festivals really added to our business – a lot of artists’ careers are based on festivals that take place throughout the summer,” observes CAA’s May. “There’s still room for the DJ in a dark tent with nothing but lasers as well: that still creates a moment at a festival. If you’re a young kid stumbling into that and discovering it for the first time, it could be as magical as the mainstage. But the mainstage artists are the ones who sell the tickets, and we’re now building strong headliners who are creating legacies.”
Many electronic artists now incorporate audio-visual elements into their shows. “Everyone – such as Peggy Gou and Solomun at Sónar this year – is bringing a big production show. They want to express themselves musically but also visually, so that’s very natural, and the facilities are better than ever,” says Enric Palau, co-founder of Sónar, the specialist electronic music festival that’s set a gold standard for discerning bookings since its inception in Barcelona 30 years ago.”
Indeed, Palau observes that the electronic scene can offer a more sustainable approach to touring. “Festivals such as ours provide the equipment for [artists] to come with their shows with very little equipment; sometimes they only need to bring the content, because we provide the set-up for the live show,” he says. “So, with Bicep and Aphex Twin, for instance, they really want to bring the live visual aesthetic of their show. It’s important for the artists.”
Sónar is obsessed with sound quality, Palau adds, and makes the point that many pop acts, such as Beyoncé and The Weeknd, are now 90% electronic.
“If we like the music and think it’s bringing a new thing to the scene, we’ll book them no matter if they’re underground or commercial”
Sónar booked the Beastie Boys and a newly rebooted Kraftwerk in its early days and has often been the place where a lot of international artists, like Goldfrapp and M.I.A., played their first shows out of the UK. But otherwise, they haven’t been tempted to go down the commercial route and book more mainstream dance stars such as Tiesto, Swedish House Mafia or David Guetta. “Probably the closest we got to that EDM phenomena was bringing Steve Aoki at the very beginning,” says Palau.
“If we like the music and think it’s bringing a new thing to the scene, we’ll book them no matter if they’re underground or commercial,” says Palau’s colleague Ventura Barba, Sónar’s executive director. “We’re happy that we’ve discovered a whole raft of artists that then became really big players – whether it’s Daft Punk or other artists where we did their first international shows at Sónar, and they went on to become superstars. This has happened quite a few times.”
With multiple editions all around the world, Sónar encapsulates the boom in demand for electronic events.
In addition to traditional hubs such as Ibiza and Las Vegas, Berlin has a huge electronic scene, especially for techno. Amsterdam is also a recognised capital, while in the Czech Republic there’s an annual drum & bass festival called Let It Roll, which attracts international attention.
Spain, meanwhile, is big on breakbeat, Australia and New Zealand have big tests around New Year, and back in the northern hemisphere, Croatia has myriad dance festivals in the summer, while EXIT in neighbouring Serbia has been part of the genre’s makeup since the year 2000.
More recently, Israel has grown in stature, Egypt has hosted many events, including a recent show by Carl Cox at the Pyramids, while some of the huge investments pouring into Saudi Arabian nightlife have been targeted at the electronic community.
“The importance of inclusion and diversity is being listened to more, from Ibiza to festivals globally”
And as one of the fastest growing genres for events, China and India have become emerging electronic markets, Japan is already a big player, and other hotspots like Singapore and Thailand are on the rise, too.
Basically, electronic music is everywhere; it’s gone global.
Steven Braines of touring polysexual club brand HE.SHE.THEY. reveals, “We’re now in 40 cities, which is 20 more than we were pre-pandemic, with more territories planned especially for next year. The importance of inclusion and diversity is being listened to more, from Ibiza to festivals globally.”
Braines believes that experiential events such as Elrow, Defected’s glamorous Glitterbox brand and HE.SHE.THEY. – which have a lot of performers as well as quality DJs – are particularly doing well, as are events for “Instagram moments, like Tale Of Us’s Afterlife or Eric Prydz’s HOLO show with 3D visuals.
High-end Production Values
Event production in the dance areas at festivals, such as Boomtown and Glastonbury in the UK, not to mention behemoths such as Tomorrowland in Belgium and the travelling Elrow Town, has become next level, designed for an immersive, awe-inspiring experience. Even though many music fans choose to face the DJ – and sometimes, annoyingly, film them on their phones – the emphasis is on participating in the event, rather than passively watching on. This communal way of consuming electronic music could provide the answer to the question as to why electronic music acts – specifically DJ-led ones – don’t transfer very well to TV.
“Consumer confidence and buying trends have been a challenge. A lot of people have shifted their spending priorities due to financial constraints”
This alternative way of consuming music explains why the pandemic – when the events industry ground to a halt – was somewhat catastrophic for the electronic music industry. No manner of livestreams from unusual locations could make up for the fact that music lovers weren’t able to gather together in real life.
“You cannot beat that wonderful experience of being surrounded by your peers – from every generation, across the board,” says May. “At more events I go to, there’s older people mixed with younger people, and it can be the nicest vibe. It can be three generations appreciating electronic music together.”
Untitled Group’s McGaw thinks the Internet and streaming services have had a huge influence on electronic music. “The ability to connect with people over the Internet so easily has facilitated the growth of subcultures and has exposed electronic music to a wider audience,” he states.
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that there have been challenges coming back from the pandemic, such as people leaving the industry; a shortage of infrastructure (festival staging, portaloos, fencing etc); increased costs all round; and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
“Consumer confidence and buying trends have been a challenge,” says McGaw. “A lot of people have shifted their spending priorities due to financial constraints. We’ve been navigating these changing consumer sentiments by adapting our strategies to regain and maintain the confidence and interest of our audience.”
“As long as we’re still being creative and don’t forget that at the heart of everything is the rave, then we’ll continue to do really good business”
But there’s no doubt, in general, that the electronic sector has bounced back, in many cases stronger than ever.
“We came back really healthy,” says Sónar’s Barba. “It was a little difficult to start the engine again because a lot of professionals from the industry were doing other things. But we came back very strong, reconnecting with our loyal fans but also with other audiences who we had the luxury to connect with through online channels during the pandemic. The 2022 edition was one of the best – the second-best year in terms of figures.”
The IMS Report states that the live sector in 2022 grew by $16.7bn – a huge amount. “Growth was skewed by the fact that 2020 saw a significant dwindling of live events during lockdown, rallying slightly in 2021,” the report also states.
To crunch some more numbers from the IMS Report: only 15% of all electronic festival bookings were for female DJs, a figure that is growing but is still a way off the parity that equality and fairness demands.
Overall, dance music live revenues were up 65% on 2021, reaching $4.1bn, and nearly half of total revenues came from festivals and clubs.
The future is looking bright for the electronic music live sector, then, although CAA’s May warns against complacency. “Things go in circles,” she says. “At the moment, we’ve got electronic music flying high, but are we in the lead-up to the next big indie band coming through because dance music is so everywhere?
“People’s tastes change. The future is definitely bright, because I’m not seeing a lack of young people who want to experience electronic music. As long as we’re still being creative and don’t forget that at the heart of everything is the rave, then we’ll continue to do really good business. Because young people just want to go out and dance.”
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