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What a start to 2013 for US dance music: Skrillex cleaned up at the GRAMMYs for the second year in a row, dubstep was used as backing for a video advertising Obama’s State Of The Union address and Beatport got snapped up for a cool $50 million by a businessman who’s currently building a $1 billion EDM empire. All that makes you wonder, is the American establishment finally ready to accept dance music?
Maybe not if the LA Times is anything to go by. The newspaper recently ran an expose on fatalities at dance music concerts, covering a period dating back to 2006. It included profiles of 14 people who had reportedly died of drug overdoses at events mainly promoted by Insomniac (Beyond Wonderland, Electric Daisy Carnival, Electric Forest).
It was a chilling reminder that not everyone is happy to sit back and watch EDM sweep the nation.
“We’re surfing a very delicate wave. I hope people see the good in what’s going on,” says long-serving US DJ and EDM ambassador Tommie Sunshine. “To us, we see 100,000 kids dancing [at a festival] and we think to ourselves, ‘what a huge achievement, what a huge step forward’. But there are plenty of people who see the same situation and see Sodom and Gomorrah, the fall of Rome.”
This year, the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act turns a decade old. When introduced, it was meant to target drug dens and crack houses but it could also be used to shut down events, raves or any party selling glowsticks and bottled water. Before that, during the 90s, music journalist Simon Reynolds travelled to New York and San Francisco to complete chapters of his rave bible, Energy Flash. In it, he notes various cat-and-mouse battles between cops and promoters as well as the media’s lust for shock-and-awe TV documentaries. One show relished the chance to out free parties in Florida as “drug supermarkets” full of “blatant, brazen drug-taking”. There’s always been friction between the American establishment and dance music, a relationship that remains volatile today, despite the red carpet status of DJs such as Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki.
Though the scene is being courted by mainstream culture, it’s what happens on the ground that counts. If more tragedies happen and promoters continue to get the blame, local authorities and venues are less likely to allow events to go on. It was alleged that the site of Insomniac’s Beyond Wonderland (taking place March 16) had to be moved following complaints from local residents and the Police Chief (though organisers maintain they made the switch because they preferred the setting of the new location). The second weekend of Ultra Music Festival in Miami (taking place March 15-17 and March 22-24) came close to being cancelled when businesspeople voiced concerns to the city’s Commissioner. Worries about drug use, crime and hordes of crazed kids are very real and, given a worst case scenario, could stall the rise of dance music in the US.
“In terms of the mainstream, I don’t know if it’s been clarified to anyone what EDM is. Obviously there are hundreds of thousands of kids going to Electric Daisy and Ultra Music Festival, but they are the ones who have chosen to be there. I don’t think the country at large has an awareness of what that means,” says Billboard journalist and Mixmag contributor Kerri Mason, who understands the dangers that have risen around the electronic explosion. “It is a public health concern because this is bigger than it has ever been in any country ever. Harm reduction isn’t a phrase that’s uttered in America. It’s all, ‘shut it down’. There is a problem where you have a lot of kids doing things that they don’t know how to handle and someone has to do something a little more proactive to get in front of that.” She laments the fact that the new generation of ravers hasn't quite developed a sense of responsibility; a buddy attitude she had when she first started partying, the kind of thing which should be intrinsic.
If America is to accept dance music as a living, beating culture then it’ll need a little help to see beyond negative stigma. “It’s going to take a lot more steps to make this legitimate,” Tommie Sunshine explains. “All we can do is hope that there’s more people who advocate this lifestyle and who can demonstrate that you can be a functioning human being and a contributing member of society and also be really involved in this music. That’s kind of a missing link. If we can get people to get their heads around that, then we’re fine.” He defended Insomniac in the wake of the LA Times article, as did fellow EDM DJ/producer Kaskade. A flurry of bloggers followed them in pointing out that the problems highlighted by the newspaper aren’t confined to dance music (deaths can and do occur at any major event that attracts thousands of people) and that the culture was, once again, being vilified.
But it seems as if dance music might now be big enough to dwarf all those age-old prejudices by itself. The City of Miami gave the green light to the second weekend of Ultra on the condition that the festival pay a one-off fee of $500,000 and a report commissioned by organisers showed that the event boosts the local economy by $79 million. It’s that kind of clout that helps announce the arrival of dance music as something more than a vehicle for illegality. The thousands of tickets sold for events featuring household name DJs far outnumbers the morbid stats presented so proudly by the LA Times.
There’s definitely a sense that the tide is turning, especially when you speak to the people behind the parties. “I see it as a lot easier [these days] to get venues and sponsors on board. There are a lot more opportunities and people are coming to us with venues,” says veteran promoter Disco Donnie (real name James D Estopinal Jr). If anyone could tell you whether America is ready to accept dance music, it’s him. He’s been organising events for most of his adult life and has had numerous, sometimes notorious, battles with the authorities. “A lot has changed, even in the last 10 or 12 years in the United States. Stuff that [the police] didn’t like before is now accepted. The whole environment has changed,” he says. “There’s more money, it’s more mainstream. Overall, it’s more accepted. It’s not the scary thing that happens in a warehouse, it’s something that happens on a Vegas speedway, you know? It’s big and out there.” He even believes that the ravers at his parties are better behaved than those back in the day and that they are indeed actively engaging in a genuine culture, “Some kids are there to party their ass off but if you watch the [majority of the] crowd while the DJ is playing, they know every word to every song.” Donnie also reckons the LA Times had an “axe to grind” and that its splash was triggered by a “personal vendetta”.
Another person who thinks times are changing is Pasquale Rotella, the man behind Insomniac and the one who should have been hit hardest by this latest media outcry. “Two, three years ago that would have affected me a lot worse,” he says. “In the past, the venues that I hold my festivals at would have cancelled or come back with a bunch of insecurities. But we really didn’t get any blowback from it.” Pasquale founded Insomniac way back in 1993, so he’s seen dance music in America unfold and watched how attitudes to it have changed, both in the crowd and behind the scenes. “There are people these days that will go to a festival just like they will go to a concert or a bar,” he says. “Before, when my first festival was growing in size, women would show up in high heels, they’d be like ‘What is this?!’”
Similar to Donnie, he’s found that venues are more willing to host dance music events than ever before, “We’ve got a lot of support. We have venues calling us, emailing us, asking us to use them and that didn’t happen five years ago.” He says he used to be limited to non-traditional spaces such as warehouses, Indian reservations, ballrooms and desert locations and that there was always a danger that events with 40,000 tickets sold could be cancelled at unreasonably short notice by the police.
And as for taking care of his crowds? “We have the safest events out there because of the scrutiny,” he states. “I don’t like producing shows and people getting hurt. But you can’t Bubble Wrap every single person. As a promoter, as long as you do everything you can and be prepared for something, then our events are a pretty safe environment.”
But the work is far from over. Disco Donnie thinks it’s been a “long, hard road” to get to this point alone and Tommie Sunshine points out that “this is only the beginning.
Pasquale has a similar view, saying “There’s still hurdles, there’s still explaining to do, but people are open to it. It’s still a lot of work but at least now there’s options. You’ll find venues in a city that will do events. At least they’re listening and we can find a place.” With parties spreading across the country and outsiders such as Jimmy Fallon, the Playboy Bunnies and players from Miami Heat enthralled by breakout hits like the ‘Harlem Shake’, it seems dance music in America is definitely something to be reckoned with and, in turn, respected. As people are beginning to understand, this is way more than just kids on drugs.