Plant a catch-all term in North America, and "EDM" goes boom. It’s tough not to be grazed by the latest dance music explosion; try stepping on a bus without having to hear tweens blaring Skrillex out of their headphones or catching one of David Guetta's piano breakdowns chiming out of your parent's favourite easy listening station. The sudden upsurge in popularity has propped up new festivals, record labels, and industry groups left and right—all reaching a hand out in hopes of grabbing a piece of that massive pie. It's undeniable that EDM has firmly rooted itself in popular culture; but with the immense money and success, comes talk of running out. Warnings and criticism of a puffed-up bubble, slacking off artistically and inflating itself to pop.
Last year, an editorial post on Dancing Astronaut became one of the first to point out what seemed pretty obvious. "Dance music has gone mainstream, but it doesn't have to sell out," read the headline of an article that set off a chain of reactions from chatty artists like A-Trak and DJ Sneak—echoing a growing concern that many headlining DJs are cueing up the same old set every night, while openers are stealing all the "hits" before they even hit the stage. In the recent months, EDM has seen itself form a creative wound that was reopened when, after coming out of a long hiatus which saw Daft Punk land in the middle of a new dance craze, the duo had nothing but conviction for the genre they've seemingly god-fathered in an interview with Rolling Stone:
"Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone and it’s not moving one inch," Thomas [Bangalter] says. "That’s not what artists are supposed to do." He adds that the genre is suffering "an identity crisis: You hear a song, whose track is it? There’s no signature."
Looking down on all of this is upsetting. For a genre that is limitless in creative possibilities and endless in its flow of talent (as any Facebook friend with a mixtape will tell you), there is a growing stack of critics calling out that the songs and sets have never sounded more alike. Surely any DJ can take the time to sort through their promos and play out something new, but the lack of headliners pushing the envelope makes you wonder whether there’s something in their Smart Water that’s causing a creative crisis. In an attempt to make their hands look clean, a number of acts have been quick to point at the unreceptive audience or whoever happens to be warming them up; forgetting that DJs, having earned a reputation for being artists, are considered to be creative individuals—people that carry a keen sense for being fresh and original. Seeing that most EDM acts not only spin, but (hopefully) produce their own records, why do they continually face criticism for scarcely thinking outside of the box?
Many who have stood by and watched the flames in North America would consider the answer to be a bit of a no-brainer, just look at the numbers. What was a half empty club is now a sold-out stadium; what was a local festival is now a nation-wide conglomerate, and what was a lonely manager sitting backstage is now a full fledged management team. Some reaching 40 strong, focused, around the clock, building their flagship DJ “brand.” A single entity that stretches itself beyond what the artist of their choosing brings to the studio and the dance floor. It’s the face plastered on clothing ads, the drop heard in a new car commercial, and the pompous podium in their upcoming "live" tour. The advent of the robust management team for an increasing amount of DJs is a clear signal that there are mountains of cash to be made, and those working behind the scenes have taken greater precedent in making big lucrative careers out of those who want to show up and press play.
"… you really have to exert a lot of thought and energy over the course of years into branding, marketing, and creating a certain sense that you hope people will have when they think of your artist." – Neal O’Connor (Porter Robinson, Matt Lange, The M Machine)
Sitting down with Neal O’Connor to brush the dust off the past, the co-founder of Slush Management agrees that the “growth of DJ management teams coincides with the growth of dance music in general". He remembers when “not long ago, many of the bigger names didn’t even have managers". Throughout his interview, the man behind acts like Porter Robinson and The M Machine recounts a prevailing notion that the rapid growth of the EDM scene has created higher stakes and a bar being relentlessly raised. Claiming that “the amount of money involved continues to grow, and the competition gets fiercer". For the manager looking for a shot to get their client up the festival ladder, amplified ambitions have made their work more encompassing. "When you’re trying to position an artist to become more popular and get better slots on festival bills, you really have to exert a lot of thought and energy over the course of years into branding, marketing, and creating a certain sense that you hope people will have when they think of your artist.” A sense built on a firm trajectory, the cost of straying off and trying something new bears a risk, and with managers putting more time and money into their DJs, taking a risk in dance music has never been so expensive.
Branding, marketing, PR, bookkeeping, the list of what a management team does is long, and their methods—sophisticated and largely unappreciated. Some blatantly obvious when skimming through a Twitter feed, others more subtle and less talked about. On the topic of cultivating hype and buzz in today’s music landscape, Neal says that a good team will instill “subconscious effects on fans that have taken lots of conscious efforts to create and maintain". A quote that should make any listener wonder if they’re at the hands of some psychological experiment. Consumer behaviour goes hand in hand with marketing, a field that has recently gained attention from management teams as they pile more resources to promote their clients. Nevertheless, building a brand in a bigger dance music industry can still feel like wading through uncharted territory. Often it's a matter of trial-and-error to see what works and what doesn't, while also nailing down careful strategic planning, like when a DJ will tweet about their upcoming record to even what they'll actually play.
Photo by Skyler Greene
"If one of us stops, the brand dies for both of us." – Ash Pournouri (Avicii)
One man who has seen a great amount of success with his conscious efforts is Ash Pournouri, head of At Night Management, the world-renowned team bolstering EDM megastar Avicii. The scale of his success in turning stumbling bedroom producer Tim Bergling into a Billboard chart topper has made many want to seek out and tap into what Ash brings to the table as a manager. “I manage Tim's career; every aspect of it.”, he says, when opening up about his work with who he believes to be a good friend and his bestselling client. “I guide him in his thinking and help him out when he is stuck in his creative process.” His words wave at a tight bond that reaches far beyond just email and paperwork, dropping a casual hint to their collaborative success.
Often brushing his methods off as nothing new or revolutionary, Ash opts for a leaner team that asks for a beefier cut because of their collective focus on one particular client, while employing the know-how that has made Avicii avoid the crucial mistakes Ash sees are negative to the “brand". His expertise stems from his own personal experience in running a nightclub, and he became an important candidate to interview for this piece after an exchange at an EMC panel; where he dug into his past and brought up the woes of watching DJs play and witnessing “all the mistakes they did". He goes on to talk about how, “[they] didn’t have the distinction between artist and brand", and that they made emotional decisions where “they didn't think about how people saw them or expected them to perform".
When asked to further draw on these particular mistakes, Ash explains himself more thoroughly, “It could be a simple thing as you produce one type of music, and then you go to a gig and you play something different. In that case, the artist would think, 'I don’t care, this is what I like to play,' but you’re not really thinking about the brand you represent.” Ash offers a telling insight as to why there's talk surrounding many EDM headliners producing and playing out the same hit records. It’s an inconvenient truth, often dodged by the press, and rarely brought up by the scene's outspoken figures because many are stuck in a state of denial on the issue of big money transforming several EDM DJs into brands—who press play on the same tracks, in the same order, night after night.
It’s the crowd that dictates what they hear when they go out to see their favorite brand, while the DJ is there to serve what the audience wants to see spinning on the platter, and who can forget to stand on the table to ravingly pump their fist in the air. Limited creative decision making should not come as a revelation to many music fans—trading in creative control and artist progression for higher revenues and a bigger fan base (aka: “selling out”) is singing the same old song in this industry; but in a scene that swears on being at the cutting edge of new music, the trade-off is auspiciously covered by an illusion propped by “indie” blogs and cringey DJ bios.
“If one of us stops, the brand dies for both of us", Ash candidly remarks in a Beatport interview. It’s rather predictable that the size and scope of management has escalated over the years, but shouldn't it be worrisome when they consider themselves to be half the heart of a headlining DJ's career? Following up with Ash on his role in making the right moves for his roster's prized front runner, he says, “it's my job to make sure that emotion stays outside of decisions that have to do with the brand.” A reflection of attitudes held at a boardroom meeting—when you have more than a handful of people taking their income out of the longevity and success of a DJ's career, it’s expected that decisions will have more weight on what is less risky and more profitable, not what's cutting edge or outside of the brand's comfort zone. And when the artist wants to detract from the brand by playing or not playing a certain set of tracks, Ash spoke his mind on the matter very bluntly: “Sometimes you have to suck it up and remember why you are where you are, and what's expected of you to remain there.”
"Some acts hire agencies to help grow their brand online and come up with 'cute' or 'funny' statuses that will increase social activity. I think it's most authentic when an act can do that themselves." – Jake Udell (Krewella)
But money isn't the only reason why managers have been taking the wheel more often; technology has knowingly made a great impact on the music business, which has led to an ongoing restructuring of how an artist is marketed and managed. File-sharing and easy access to blogs with music downloads have made the bloated major label budgets a thing of the past. The ease of record label logistics has created a spur in independent imprints, and while more artists are given a soap box to stand on, their small size and lack of funds have shafted expenditures label heads used to be responsible for. “With the lack of funding or time spent by major labels on artist development, a lot of the workload falls back onto management.”, says Jake Udell of Th3rd Brain, the management team backing animated EDM threesome Krewella.
When pressing Neal O’Connor on this issue, he also touched on his growing responsibilities: "Whereas traditionally [marketing] was completely handled by record labels, managers now have to be marketing people in addition to artist managers.” Technology has inevitably expanded the role of the manager—the lack of funds and record label oversight have forced many to pick up the pieces while also having more controls fall into their lap. The cost of producing a hit has stooped to a near zero, and so have the hurdles of getting your foot in the door as a bedroom producer. Search for the words "house" or "trap" on Soundcloud and you'll be left with a bottomless pit of hopefuls waving their caps-lock and ASCII Uzis for a scouring manager to see. Jake agrees that the flood of talent on the web has “surely made managers closer to the A&R process". The arrival of online social media has given managers more levers to pull and even better buttons to press. Facebook and Twitter are now at the heart of linking artists with fans, marketing services that can reach more consumers than ever before and are freely available to anyone.
“Subliminal messaging from artists directly to their fans is more effective than the messaging from advertisements or other tools that major labels gate keep,” Jake admits when diving into the favored online approach of marketing a group or artist. With music consumers willing to have their favourite brands scream and shout on their social media feeds, the marketing playfield is more intimate, subtle, and incredibly convincing. So much so that some acts will hire agencies to strategize and write messages to inflate and add spunk to their online presence. Jake divulges that these agencies help “grow their brand online and come up with ‘cute’ or ‘funny’ statuses that will increase social activity", but he believes that “it’s most authentic when an act can do that themselves". As much as we can all agree with Jake, it's disappointing to see a dialogue where many EDM acts now carry varying degrees of authenticity. It should make any fan wonder whether they're actually supporting a creative individual or a constructed group of managers, PR reps, talent agents, and in some cases, ghost producers.
Some say that we shouldn't expect artists to write the 140 characters on their Twitter page, but when it comes to the lack of creativity that EDM offers in the studio and on the dance floor, who’s at fault here? Is it the colossal audience, dictating their favourite brand’s set as a reflection of the hits they heard on the radio, or is it the managers; knowing far too well how to play the numbers game by pressuring their DJs to bow down to crowd expectations? Blaming listeners for not being open or receptive enough to new ideas digs an even deeper hole when that sentiment brushes decades of artistic principles under the rug. People tend to forget that the artist builds the audience, and expectations come with any audience. On the other hand, completely giving in to those expectations is a choice that transforms DJing from an art form to a service, and while that’s fine for the weekly club residency or mobile wedding; for a headlining act that is billed as the forefront of their music genre, a safe buttoned-up attitude is incredibly dull and unprogressive.
If there’s no line being drawn between what the DJ plays out and what the audience wants to hear, the DJ ceases to be an artist. The sets become calculated, and the shows are pre-baked into cookie cutter performances. When the track lists sound far too alike, the battle of the brands rages on, with acts distinguishing themselves not by their sound, but by how they appear on stage—seeing who can outdo the prettiest light show, who can pop the most champagne, or who can build the biggest podium, instead of looking to branch out within the music itself. Fortunately, there's a B-side to EDM's branded BPM. As an audience member, club-goer, candy raver, you get to decide where you spend your money. You get to vote with your wallet, your likes, your tweets. You get to decide whether you want to support an artist or a brand.