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Electronic Dance Music conference: How to break an artist

Listening to Swedish House Mafia at Coachella

This post has been updated, as indicated below.

Andrew Dreskin, the CEO of the online-ticketing firm Ticketfly and an old-guard rave supporter, remembers a time in the sepia-toned days of the early aughts when dance acts were a tough sell for talent buyers.

"It was a very lonely world for the last nine years buying electronica acts," he said at a panel on "Circuit Breakers: Breaking EDM Artists" at the EDMBiz conference Wednesday. As a founder of the electronica-heavy Virgin Mobile FreeFest and the head of the indie-ticketing firm, he's on the front lines of the changing booking climate for dance acts. "There were like four of us back then. Now there's inflated guarantees, and we're all fishing in the same pond. But it's great."

Joel Zimmerman, the panel moderator (and as the head of Global Electronic Music for William Morris Endeavor, he's arguably the most influential figure in electronic artist management today), got his drift. "If there was a movie about bidding wars in EDM, I'd probably be Darth Vader," he said.

Zimmerman's line got hearty laughs, but it underscored the welcome challenge that this panel tried to address -- with so much money and interest sloshing around electronic dance music right now, how do you break and establish an artist for the long term? 

The panel also included publicist Alexandra Greenberg, VP of MSO (who handles Deadmau5 and other EDM clients); Neil Jacobson, senior VP of A&R at Interscope; Stephanie La Fera of Atom Empire; Oliver Luckett of the Audience and Michael Satsky of Provocateur. All of them debated that central question from different strategic angles, proving that a genre's success doesn't necessarily mean a clear path to fame and fortune.

One avenue, according to Satsky, is to target those already versed in fame and forutune. "There wasn't a niche for electronica within high-net-worth individuals," he said. His Provocateur club in New York's Hotel Gansevoort took a high-end, female-centric approach to nightlife that he then applied to organizing VIP packages in the electronica scene -- peaking on Swedish Hosue Mafia's "Masquerade Motel" party last year. "We were like, 'Let's use our Rolodex and get them in.' We knew they would become obsessed with this music. The talent is sustainable; it has been forever. But we said, 'Here's an experience. Everyone in here is someone you want to get along with, and it's a raging party.' We built that mdoel into the Swedish House Mafia show, and it was a huge success."

For Greenberg, the climate of EDM reminded her a lot of the anything-goes jam band days, where fan word of mouth counted for much more than any top-down campaign.

"I read this book about marketing the Grateful Dead recently, and it totaly applies to EDM today," she said. "At Deadmau5 shows, kids were outside selling posters that they had made."

Jacobson, who works in a more traditional end of the label infrastrcture, emphasized that for all the shifiting tides in marketing EDM, the old virtues of musicianship and songwriting still very much applied. 

"It's all about the melody and lyric," he said. "Music's primal; it's not going anywhere. There's a difference between songs and production, and I want to find magical songs." He also had more faith than the rest of the panel in the traditional benchmarks of pop success: "Radio and mass-market placements are still really important. Those things can't be ignored." 

Social media has been both a saving grace and a cryptic oracle as far as measuring an act's reach, said Luckett, whose firm curates social media content.

"If you look at the numbers behind mainstream media, YouTube and Facebook eclipse it exponentially," he said. But to build that relationship, "the basic premise is that quality matters. Artists have to look around and see that there's a rhythm to content.... Your total number of fans inside a given platform is meaningless.That's a revealing and punative algorithm. Well done content overcomes that."

What that means for rising EDM artists is still unclear -- all panelists cited "authenticity" as something to strive for, an interestingly meta point about artistry. But fundamentally, Jacobson's take that it all comes down to fundamentals -- good songs produced with care, and validated by media litmus tests -- felt persuasive in the end. 

[For the record, 11:25 a.m. June 8: the title on this post has been changed.]

 

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Photo: Fans dance and toss around a beach ball during Swedish House Mafia's set during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

-- August Brown

 
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