EDMpathy : Step 2 – Experiential research

written by Marc E. Check May 1, 2017

In EDMpathy: Step One I begged the question:
How does a single DJ command the attention and focus of an audience without traditional musicians and instruments on stage?

The answer:  
Pretty lights, fog machines, lasers, space ships, and the occasional Tyrannosaurus Rex.

t’s still a pretty odd thing for me to see a room full of people dancing and grooving to music produced by a single DJ on stage.  That DJ isn’t necessarily doing anything aside from playing their equipment and dancing in some manner meant to inspire the crowd to do the same.  A good one will jump, dance wildly, and wave their arms around to indicate when the beat is about to drop, but that’s about all they have in their arsenal as performers.

Illenium, Agora Cleveland 2017

Thinking about that further, I couldn’t help but ask myself the same thing about traditionally instrumented bands.  Guitar players have honed the showmanship of playing a guitar to a specific craft.  We’ve all seen videos of greats playing in wild and contorted postures, sometimes playing behind their head, or simply posing in rock star postures with the neck vertical to the ground on one knee, egging on the spectators to cheer and applaud until it crests in a roar.  Even the most subtle guitar gods had their own signature moves, and other players of less-sexy instruments like bass guitar or keyboards have found their own rock star personas by hacking their traditional musician stance on the instrument. When the body wasn’t enough to call attention to the stage and players, rock and roll incorporated stage theatrics using lights, lasers, costumes, makeup, fog machines, video projections, props, and even 360-degree spinning drum kits (a la Motley Crue) and musical theater-inspired tricks such as an onstage hanging or guillotine head-severing that Alice Cooper continues to incorporate on stage.

I’ve found that EDM DJ acts are actually more tasteful and authentic than these lavish stage antics of classic rock.  Illenium utilizes a custom light, fog machine, projection, and laser array that is coordinated with the music in such a way that it adds to the overall sensory symbiosis.  I saw many of these same tools utilized recently at a Chainsmokers concert, although they defied any rules or protocol of EDM by switching back and forth between DJ-performed songs and instrument-on-stage songs featuring extremely talented musicians (more on them later).  Artists like Illenium and the Chainsmokers are making use of digital technologies to coordinate visual production pieces with the audio in ways never possible or feasibly affordable  in the previous rock & roll era.  If that still isn’t enough to thoroughly entertain and provide a focal point for the crowd while enjoying the music, we have artists like Excision who leave you no choice but to face the stage and marvel.

Excision – HOB Cleveland 2017

As I was exposed to Excision for the first time during my “EDM week,” I was first blown away by what I can only refer to as Excision’s “spaceship,” a monstrous DJ platform that is part sound system, part projection mapping platform (as is the curved wall encompassing the rear stage), and part lighting and laser control system that left the crowd with no option but to focus on the stage (and the artist).  While some critics of an older generation may have accused him of trying to compensate for talent with pretty lights and visuals, I would argue that this is merely an evolution of the same (albeit more rudimentary) attempts to fascinate the crowd through a mix of synchronized visual and audio stimuli attempted by bands like the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and countless other rock pioneers. 

Excision’s pet T-Rex

As I was in a small lull between bursts of taking photographs near the front of the stage during Excision’s set, nothing had prepared me for the stage antic to come, which had me fumbling for my camera and adjusting ISO as quickly as possible to (unsuccessfully) capture the moment. On stage, large as life, and fuming smoke from his prehistoric nostrils on to the gleeful crowd only feet away was a motherfucking Tyrannosaurus Rex, or at least some dragon-T-rex hybrid that shoots fog from its nostrils.  Call it antic, special effect, shameless stage theatric, or whatever you like…  It was entertaining and added to the experience of the music rather than deflecting attention from it.

hese three shows were my first “EDM” shows in quite some time, perhaps the only ones I ever attended under my own volition and with actual focused interest, and certainly the first ones where I can say I was unmarred by copious amounts of psychoactive substances.  That choice allowed me to think somewhat clearly about what I was experiencing, and I walked away from my “EDM week” with a number of confirmations of what I had assumed or expected, as well as some additional epiphanies that came as complete surprises to me (and made me realize just how little I knew about “EDM”). 

My first epiphany…

Watching an EDM concert is anything but boring, and in fact makes traditional concerts seem a little uninspired in terms of multi-sensory entertainment

Sure, there’s a line.  I want it all – great music with great visuals and stage production for well-rounded entertainment.  The Grateful Dead did without doing it.  The crowd itself became the spectacle.  Phish and other new-generation jambands took it up a notch with the lighting engineer essentially becoming an instrument in the band, coordinating visuals and music in a way never done before, and they’re no strangers to stage theatrics.  As technology affords more possibilities to combine the art of music with the art of visuals these artists aren’t only in the right – they’d actually be remiss in not using the available technologies to elevate the art form of live performances.

Despite my overall “warming up” to EDM through these live music experiences, I still hadn’t really nailed down what EDM is.  The line between “electronic music” and “EDM” was still fuzzy at best and my curiosity about this simple question of basic musical taxonomy was piqued.  How could three artists/acts be so different in instrumentation, from a single DJ to what seemed to be a fairly standard and classic (in the world of rock) four-piece band, still be equally classified and regarded as “EDM” artists?  It obviously wasn’t a standard instrumentation or tool set distinguishing EDM from other genres of music, so I deduced it must be largely about the musical style itself.

Each of these bands are largely considered “EDM” within the fan bases I spoke with.  Each act certainly incorporates different levels and styles of electronic instrumentation and media as tools of the trade, and there is no doubt whatsoever that each act had a “dance-able” groove, despite the vast difference in sound and style. 

Why could no one, including the self-proclaimed fans and consumers of the genre, not provide a succinct and recognizable metric for me to use in defining what I was listening to?  Could it be that, like Hip-Hop, it’s more of a lifestyle than a genre?  Maybe it could be about a signature look and attitude? If you mention “EDM” to someone of my generation on the street today it would  likely conjure images of a single D.J. on stage, scratching on turntables and pushing random buttons  with headphones tilted on their bobbing head, cocked half on/half off in a cliché hipster caricature. While that is a true stereotype reflecting many of the artists, not all so -called “EDM” artists fit that profile either, as evidenced by the disparity between the three “EDM” artists I had seen live.

There was nothing particularly tribal about the crowds at each show that either stood out as an “EDM” look or style, nor were there any major marked differences between the three artists’ fans.  In many ways these crowds represented the most “come as you are” sensibility of any live concert crowd I had experienced, with individualism reigning supreme.

So, if it’s not overall sound, instrumentation, style, or the surrounding culture defining it, what could it be? 

Where is the goddamn line between what is considered Electronic Music (EM) and Electronic Dance Music (EDM)?

Exactly how does one get the “D”?

Dressing provocatively?! (sorry, couldn’t resist)

he terms “EDM” and “electronic music” seem to be used somewhat interchangeably and without much distinction among even my most enthusiastic friends who are fans of the genre(s). After throwing the question out to any small group of friends or acquaintances, some casual and more slightly heated and impassioned conversations ensued, but the bulk of how they tried to define “EDM” came down to what each deemed “dance-able” electronic music.

I think we can all agree that the term “dance-able” is a fairly vague term in and of itself, especially when applied to the demographics of my friends, who are generally nerdy 25-50 year old males who consider their spaghetti-armed, wide-eyed spinning and flailing at a Phish show “dancing.”

That led me to the conclusion that maybe my circle of friends aren’t the best polling population on this subject, and I moved this rigorous and formal research to a place where I was sure to get some straight and reliable answers…  the Internet.

Not surprisingly, when I first posed the question on Facebook groups and other message boards, the answers that rolled in were similar in the aspect that the tempo itself, steady rhythms, and a focus on the drums/bass are the characteristics of EDM that stand out from the electronic music genre:

“… (I) think to be dance music it would have to have a fairly steady rhythm. The other may be more like jazz. All over the place.”

`“EDM has a very heavy underlying BASS track that drives the music and your feet.”

“EDM also tracks at higher BPM “

“…electronic music is a blanket term for any music made primarily with synthesizers. Electronic dance music is electronic music with a relatively fast tempo and a relatively regular beat…of course, dubstep is considered EDM and that shit is impossible to dance to so…”

“EDM is faster and gets to the point. It’s for clubs. Electronic music is slower and more meant for the background.”

“Electronic music is…older, more understandable music (like with a Moog Synthesizer), Electronic Dance Music is for “millennials’ and has a repetitive (and sometimes) annoying beat.”

“When I think ‘Electronic Music’, I think of ‘Tangerine Dream’ which is definitely not Dance music.”

“Electronic music was created by scientific minded people using newly invented machinery in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s….New Age……EDM is, to me, is just a computer program producing repetitive beats, heavy on bass and percussion.”

“Music produced with electronic instruments/computer/samples for the singular purpose of movement by the listener would be EDM. Music produced (the) same way with intro/verse/ chorus/repeat possibly spoken/sung lyrics =electronic music”

“I think of Brian Eno and Jean Michel Jarre when I think of electronic music. Electronic dance music is more like a nightmare.”

This shared perspective may have teeth to it, and while less vague than the metric of “dance-able” these terms are still largely subjective in nature.  “Faster,”“driving,” “higher,” and “heavy” all lend an idea, but still can all mean a different thing to different people from their musical perspective.

“Repetitive” is still the basis of the vast majority of music we listen to, and not unique to EDM, but I understand the common stereotype of EDM “untz, untz, untz, untz” (and this stereotype is even embraced by folks like the organizers of the Untz Festival in Mariposa, California).

With my casual research resources depleted, I had no choice but to seek out actual reliable sources if I was ever going to get anywhere in this quest to define EDM, and at this juncture I had a bit of time invested in the subject and still no solid answers.  I finally began to correspond back and forth with friends of friends deeper into the scene itself, some even being semi-professional DJs.  When presented with the question together, even these like-minded and EDM-passionate people would devolve to debate over the finer details of what makes “EDM.” The difference with this group, however, was the taxonomy and terminology that flowed in their conversations naturally but remained a foreign language to me, and likely most others not this invested in the EDM scene.  As they spoke or wrote on this subject I would attempt to digest the terms being thrown around such as “house,” “electronicore,” “electro-pop,” “dub,” “dubstep,” “chillwave,” “techno,” “trance,” “trap,” and “breakstep,” to name a few.

hadn’t accounted for all of these additional subgenres, and now I had more problems (and no answers). The nuances between these sub-genres are also somewhat subjective, and I knew what only few of them actually meant. In the spirit of satisfying my personal curiosity and providing a service to any similarly interested readers, I took it upon myself to get to the bottom of this “What is EDM?” question, and to understand the nuances of  the various subgenre terms being tossed around.  I wasn’t long into the most rudimentary research on the subject when I came to my next EDM epiphany:

EDM enthusiasts aren’t lazy or mindless.  They are actually amateur musicologists in many aspects, and are much more adept at understanding music than previous generations of music fans.

What?!  How dare I  say these MDMA-riddled dance-club brains have the capacity to understand more about music than the almighty baby-boomer rock and rollers of yesteryear!  They don’t know “real” music!

Guess what, grumpypants?  They do

Their exposure through technology and a flattened marketplace of production and distribution is so far superior and so far advanced beyond your comparatively limited exposure to different types of music that it isn’t even a close contest. They’ve likely been exposed to more styles of music, more world-based complex rhythms, new sounds and production techniques, and more mashups of musical cultures that would ever be feasibly possible in our generation where musical exposure was greatly limited by the means of production and distribution in a controlled, contrived, and business-dominated industry. 

As the world flattened, so did the music industry.  Anyone with a computer and a few dollars for software can now produce musical works in their basement that are far technically superior to the great musical works of previous decades, and while talent is still crucial to creating great musical works, “talent” doesn’t mean the same thing in this brave new world where music can be produced so quickly and readily from any basement around the world, but can also be distributed effectively and independent of a biased and controlling industry.

Not convinced yet?  Stick with me for EDMpathy : Step 3 – Learn what you don’t want to know.


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