Electric Daisy Carnival hit by wind, but genre dances on
LAS VEGAS -- This weekend’s Electric Daisy Carnival provided a living metaphor for the enormous changes and challenges sweeping through electronic dance music right now.
Around 1 a.m. Sunday, furious desert winds blew through the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s field, threatening to topple temporary stages, metal lighting towers and pyrotechnic equipment. The event’s promoter Insomniac and Las Vegas public safety officials halted entry to the stadium and sent the estimated 90,000 rave fans off the infield and into the bleachers.
Nearly two hours later, with sets from headliner DJs Avicii and Tiësto uncertain, organizers announced that fans would have to leave the stadium or, if they wanted to stay, they’d have to remain in the bleachers. They canceled subsequent sets and said that at the fest’s closing time of 5:30 a.m., everybody would be sent home. Organizers said in a statement that they did so out of “an abundance of caution and with fan safety in mind.”
If you were writing a script about the unprecedented, metastasizing growth of electronic dance music in pop culture today, the director would cut this plot twist and call it a heavy-handed coincidence. But America’s biggest live concert event in the most exciting genre in popular music today was indeed thwarted by literal winds of change.
That was the unfortunate but resonant coda to the second night of Electric Daisy, a three-day festival of electronic dance music that’s become a magical mystery tour of installation art and fan outfits often made of little more than tactically applied electrical tape.
EDC has become one of the most popular music festivals in America -- pulling 115,000 fans on opening night this year -- and it’s cemented dance music culture as the lingua franca of today’s under-30s.
This year, the festival was preceded by the inaugural EDMBiz conference at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where titans of the pop music and EDM industries assembled to assess the genre’s incredible growth and potential pitfalls.
The dangers to dance music are not just from natural hazards. Pasquale Rotella, the founder of Electric Daisy promoter Insomniac, was arrested earlier this year in connection with an ongoing corruption scandal involving payments to an event manager at Electric Daisy’s former home, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Rotella has denied all wrongdoing). A teenager’s drug-related death at the 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival revived the old concerns about dance music’s relationship with narcotics, and outcry from civic leaders prompted the fest’s move to Vegas.
From June 5 to June 7, the EDMBiz conference focused on the players that make dance music the financial juggernaut it is today.
Atlantic Records’ chief executive, Craig Kallman, and Live Nation’s, Michael Rapino, each discussed the changes in the EDM economy, while scene-players such as WME’s Joel Zimmerman and Steve Goodgold of Windish Agency asked fundamental questions about what comes next. Can this music be incorporated into existing industry infrastructure, or does it need its own space? Is there a future for it in terms of record sales, or is it just a live phenomenon? Has the bubble already overinflated by moving young artists into arenas too quickly?
A closing artist panel, with headliner Kaskade, Steve Angello of Swedish House Mafia and minimal-electronica legend Richie Hawtin, among others, highlighted the range of opinions that artists have on EDM’s rise. Each had a mix of awe, nostalgia, hope and nervousness for the future. Hawtin even said point-blank, “I don’t want this to go to the masses.”
Those attending another panel on festival production got testy when an audience member asked Rotella, who rarely gives interviews, about his legal troubles. He sidestepped the question, and fellow promoters from Goldenvoice and Burning Man defended him. But no one had a satisfying answer about what those troubles meant for EDM’s move into mainstream spaces.
It’s anyone’s guess how all this growth and interest in the genre will eventually play out. But conference opinion was unequivocal in affirming that, as Rapino put it, “EDM is here to stay. If you’re 19 years old, this is your rock ’n’ roll.”
EDM’s self-congratulatory earnestness could feel clichéd, but only the most calcified of cynics could look out at Electric Daisy’s sea of undulating LED light displays at 4 a.m. and not feel that this was what it meant to be young right now. Fans slathered in neon glow-ropes and furry boots that seemed fashioned from psychedelic alpaca hides danced without a hint of self-consciousness.
That sense of heady potential carried over into the music. A large-scale EDM event isn’t so much a concert as it is a club night rounded up several decimal places. DJs play a mix of their own production work and tracks from their peers, and the goal is less about attention-commanding than atmosphere-creating.
Plenty of contemporary hits such as Calvin Harris’ “Feel So Close” made repeat appearances across sets. But a headliner such as Kaskade could lean almost entirely on his own work, which here meant a mix of erotic, breathy female vocals and big sweeps of ambient synthesizers. His popularity, as a Mormon family man in a genre still rebutting its image of druggy hedonism, might be the best evidence that the scene has been fundamentally made new.
But it also proved that EDM has colonized the pop sphere.
A producer such as the Dutch-born Afrojack can make hits for Pitbull and Ne-Yo like the crackling “Give Me Everything,” while uncorking orthodox tracks such as “Can’t Stop Me” at EDC. In this space, a silvery gut-punch like Alesso’s house hit “Dynamite” feels as big and beloved as anything on top 40. And given the presence of pop-friendly performers such as will.i.am and David Guetta at EDC, the distinction feels increasingly meaningless.
Yet there’s no way to spin Saturday’s turmoil as anything but a huge disappointment for fans. The biggest name in the genre (Tiësto) and one of its major new stars (Avicii) didn’t play their sets, and fans turned back by police lost a third of a festival that, when you add in hotel, food, booze and travel, can cost a ticket holder more than $1,000.
Sunday night’s set was expected to go on as planned, and few could debate the wisdom of Electric Daisy for protecting fans, its reputation and its own bottom line. But EDC was also defending a genre that might be the future of global music.
If EDC needed a reminder that such potential needs real caretaking, its organizers got it from the hot desert winds that have blown so many Vegas dreams asunder. Sometimes the right call is to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to blow over.
-- August Brown
Photo: Fire billows from an art installation during the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas on June 9, 2012. John Locher / Las Vegas Review-Journal/Associated Press.