Electronic dance business moving from field to arenas
This post has been updated, as indicated below.
LAS VEGAS -- This July, Electric Daisy headliner Kaskade will do something unprecedented in Los Angeles. He's booked to play Staples Center, the first electric dance music (EDM) act to headline at that marquee venue for top pop, rock and country acts -- and the home of the Kings and Lakers.
It's a landmark in the genre's march toward mainstream ubiquity and large-scale commercial viability, but the logistics present their own set of problems -- how do you move music meant for fields of body-painted teenagers and trippy installation art into seated sports arenas?
Two events at this week's EDMBiz conference here tried to answer that question. The first, on Wednesday afternoon, focused on a conversation with Live Nation Chief Executive Michael Rapino and dealt with the concert-promotion behemoth's efforts to incorporate EDM artists into its stable of venues and promotion contracts, and how the existing live-music infrastructure represents potential and challenges for dance acts.
Another, held Thursday afternoon, gathered a panel of booking agents, promoters and ticketers to assess the genre's transition from joyfully commandeering public spaces to being invited into the mainstream heart of the live-music business.
Rapino's interview provided an admirable candor at a conference where the genre cliche of "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect" seemed to color everyone's take on the scene.
"Our plan is simple: EDM is here to stay. If you're 19 years old, this is your rock 'n' roll. From my angle looking down, this is absolutely a legitimate business," Rapino said. But he admitted that in the current rush of EDM artists selling out major venues such as Madison Square Garden, "people can get ahead of themselves."
"We did 30,000 shows last year, and 20,000 weren't at our venues. We start with what's right for our audience, and I don't think we have the venues that make sense for this yet. But we're well prepared to go find iconic locations," he said.
Live Nation has been expanding its in-house EDM portfolio, adding promoter James Barton and his company, Cream (which puts on the popular British electronica festival Creamfields), to its stable, and promoting Barton to president of Live Nation Electronic Music.
Rapino said that "I'd do a deal with Pasquale [Rotella] any day if I could afford him," to laughs from the room. "But we're not walking in here and saying, 'We're the new Insomniac.' It's not that we missed it. It's that the space in general is moving into the mainstream, and if you're going to be a promoter in 2015, you'd better know how to put on a great electronic show."
And yes, that might just come at the expense of rock 'n' roll.
"This is affecting the next generation of kids. Globally, this is the genre of the future, and all other genres will get squeezed. You'll see an erosion of rock 'n' roll for sure. ... If you're playing a mainstream festival, you don't want to be the rock guy when everyone else is talking about Swedish House Mafia."
One rationale for his new hiring blitz was the admission that Cream was, as Rapino put it, "kicking our ass." And, he said, the managerial infrastructure of EDM has long had to contend with ad hoc venues and promoters, so its managers are "years ahead. They're holistic about their brands and the experience, and they're very aggressively making their own space."
At the start of the live EDM explosion, Live Nation was dealing with an economic crisis and resorted to methods such as across-the-board price slashing and Groupon that Rapino said he would like to avoid moving forward.
Live EDM may be a solution to its economic woes, and though old rave hands will lament the corporatization, it may bring some professionalism and consistency to the EDM promotion arena. Live Nation's work with Ticketmaster yields troves of customer data, and Rapino said that EDM's tribalism and interpersonal connection is a key way to improve relationships.
"The avid fan is the tastemaker, and we've done nothing for them," he said. "Twenty percent of fans buy 10 or more concert tickets a year. We have to be rewarding them and offering them incentives. Everyone loves to criticize Ticketmaster, but the real asset of Ticketmaster is that it's the third-largest e-commerce site in America. They're giving us their name, address, email, location and credit card information. We should be showing up at their door saying, 'Hey, you bought 20 concert tickets last year. Here's the VIP treatment.'"
At the "Arena House: Taking EDM on the Road" panel, panelists had a variety of takes on the best way to accommodate the surge of interest in live EDM.
"Avicii has grown faster than any artist in the EDM sphere," said David Brady, the owner of Spin Talent Agency. "Playing these venues was a challenge. EDM is a new format for the buildings we want, and we needed them to understand our needs. We can't play convention centers and be affordable."
The fact that EDM is making the awkward transition between self-contained nightclubs and mega-festival fields is a constant challenge: "Half our job is juggling festivals and club dates," said Jake Schneider, owner of the booking firm Madison House. For his client Bassnectar, he said, the production aspect is a particular concern in negotiating new spaces. "I mean, the guy's name is Bassnectar," he said, to rousing laughs. "We need low-end, and we can't be flexible on that."
That need for micro-managing sonics has particular challenges in the mega-arena space. "We focus on atmosphere and events. As our artists grow, the venues grow, and we need to make kids feel OK in the KFC Yum Brand Center," Schneider said.
Phil Blaine, the head of business development at Insomniac, agreed that the spatial challenges were the fundamental struggles in bringing EDM to wide audiences. "Seats for EDM is hit or miss," he said. "The natural habitat is open space. Once you get into seats with letters and numbers, that's not what Insomniac is all about."
But the challenge remains -- as EDM takes advantage of the mainstream commercial space, how will it adapt to the rock- and pop-concert infrastructure? The panelists had high hopes for how it will translate: "Red Rocks is the most epic party in the world," Schneider said, speaking of the Denver-area amphitheatre. "The kids waving totems and freaky stuff, it's the epitome of a party to me."
[For the record, 11:25 a.m. June 8: the title on this post has been changed.]
Photo: Ryan Raddon, better known as DJ Kaskade, closes the Sahara tent and the second night of week two of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio on April 21. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
-- August Brown