Can EDM be bigger-tent music? Kaskade goes for it

by August Brown

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

26 July 2012

All the attention on annual dance-festival events in unconventional outdoor spaces, like Electric Daisy, New York’s Electric Zoo and L.A.’s HARD series, is warranted. But their success might be obscuring an even more telling development in the evolution of electronic dance music (or EDM) as a live music market.

LOS ANGELES — Last month, the producer and DJ Kaskade headlined the opening night of one of the biggest annual concerts in America — the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The San Clemente, Calif., artist born Ryan Raddon was one of the most anticipated stars at the sold-out festival, which itself proved a testament to the growing influence of dance music across American pop culture.

But even as Raddon played his seductive electronica in front of an estimated 115,000 fans, some decked out in furry neon boots and angel wings, he was already mulling an even bigger milestone — his headlining show at L.A.’s Staples Center on July 27. The event, which sold out a month in advance (tickets were initially $20 and $55 but are now going for up to $700 on StubHub), makes him the first solo electronic musician to headline the venue, which usually hosts huge mainstream pop and rock acts like Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Usher.

“It’s going to be an emotional moment,” Raddon, 41, said of the Staples gig from his suite in Vegas’ Cosmopolitan resort last month. “I remember where it all came from — playing Avalon, playing to 150 people at King King in Hollywood. I can’t tell you how many club shows I’ve done where there was a stripper behind me.”

All the attention on annual dance-festival events in unconventional outdoor spaces, like Electric Daisy, New York’s Electric Zoo and L.A.’s HARD series, is warranted. But their success might be obscuring an even more telling development in the evolution of electronic dance music (or EDM) as a live music market.

The recent sold-out headlining set by Swedish House Mafia at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Deadmau5’s set at Toronto’s Rogers Centre and the successful group tour of Tiesto, Dada Life, Diplo and Porter Robinson at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., last year all suggest that the leading figures of this music are moving out of commandeered festival spaces and off-the-grid venues. They’re dipping toes into the biggest major-market arenas operated by huge event-promoter conglomerates like AEG and Live Nation. Kaskade’s Staples date is part of a 50-plus-date national tour with many sets planned for similarly scaled arenas in major cities.

These shows portend a new future for the once-marginal culture of live dance music. But they also raise a question — how to preserve a wild, free-form style of music in venues with seat numbers, luxury boxes and $15 beers?

It’s fitting that Kaskade would be among the first EDM artists to try a national solo tour booked in the largest and most mainstream arenas in major cities. In a genre that has historically been synonymous with drug use, late nights and unscrupulous local promoters, Kaskade is a noted teetotaler, married father of three and, along with the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, perhaps the most famous Mormon in music.

His viceless lifestyle — not necessarily shared by his fans but certainly not an obstacle for them — might be living proof that the EDM genre has legs at the most risk-averse tiers of live music.

Kaskade, in particular, is a telling test case for the integration of EDM into the existing live music infrastructure.

Over nine albums, he’s shifted from orthodox house- and trance-inspired tracks into populist anthems rooted in melody, sultry chorus hooks and often performances by female guest vocalists. Other producers like David Guetta have introduced dance sounds and structures into Top 40 pop, but Kaskade’s latest double-album set, “Fire & Ice,” proved his potential to take the genre to mainstream listeners without changing its fundamental aesthetics.

“It’s less about size than it is about content,” Raddon said. “The difference is that I’m fundamentally a songwriter. When I wrote ‘4 AM,’ I imagined flying over L.A. in a kind of sleepless glide. Now I have a chance to truly show the images that inspired the songs. So much electronica is about instruments and rhythm. I just hope we’ve written a good book by the end of a set.”

The DJ’s live shows have followed a similar trajectory. In his decade-long career, Raddon performed in the club trenches long before it became the defining sound and biggest economic story in recent live music. Starting in Chicago and San Francisco nightclubs (cities where he was raised and began his career), he transcended the club circuit into festival-headliner status and remade the scene in his wake. Industry-watchers credit his monthly 2011 gig at the Cosmopolitan’s Marquee nightclub with igniting Las Vegas’ trend toward high-paid DJs packing small rooms as a new model for resorts like the Wynn and clubs like L.A.’s 750-capacity Playhouse (where tickets for a recent Afrojack set ran around $100).

Huge dance shows in L.A. and elsewhere in the U.S. aren’t novel. Coachella has long hosted A-list dance headliners in its Sahara Tent, and Electric Daisy’s previous incarnation at L.A.’s Coliseum outdrew Coachella on a day-to-day basis. But the arena-sized venues now hosting solo EDM artists are a new frontier. If Kaskade can prove that this genre works in traditional arenas like Staples Center (which has a maximum capacity of around 18,000), San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, he may raise the ceiling on what a dance artist can aspire to in live solo tours.

“From my angle looking down, this is absolutely a legitimate business,” said Michael Rapino, the chief executive of Live Nation, to a panel at EDMBiz, a conference at the Cosmopolitan preceding Electric Daisy that focused on the dance music economy. “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.”

Given Live Nation’s recent acquisitions of several well-known dance promoters, including Gary Richards’ HARD Events, and its promotion of James Barton of the UK firm Cream Holdings Limited to president of the new Live Nation Electronic Music division, it’s clear that major promotion firms are looking to capitalize on the organic rise of EDM festival culture.

But if arena shows prove viable for the top tier of these artists, it could herald a self-contained system, where one promotion company can push a new artist from opening slots through club headline dates, big festival bills and, for the right acts, arena gigs all under its umbrella.

After a teenager’s drug death at the 2010 Electric Daisy in L.A., the arrest of Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella in connection to a Coliseum bribery scandal and Raddon’s own chaotic impromptu Hollywood Boulevard set last July that started a near-riot, the corporatization of EDM might improve the genre’s image among government officials, even if longtime fans worry about losing the genre’s self-sufficient spirit.

Not that there aren’t risks in putting EDM artists in arenas as well. The premise is unproved — Tiesto’s Club Life: College Invasion tour was an outdoor, group-package date with several other A-list and rising artists. Neither Skrillex nor the recently disbanded Swedish House Mafia has booked a full national solo tour of similarly scaled arenas, though Deadmau5’s 2011 six-night stint at New York’s Roseland Ballroom suggests he might be next to try.

The young Swedish producer Avicii, who had a monster hit with the Etta James-sampling single “Le7els,” had to reschedule and downsize a planned arena tour after ticket sales were reportedly far below expectations. David Brady, the owner of Spin Artist Agency, which books Avicii, addressed those concerns at an EDMBiz panel. “Avicii has grown faster than any artist in the EDM sphere,” he said. “Playing these venues was a challenge. EDM is a new format for the buildings we want, and we needed them to understand our needs.” Even Rapino acknowledged that promoters and artists, dazzled by the prospect of headlining arena tours, “can get ahead of themselves.”

The Avicii tour also sent a chill through some upper-tier EDM artists looking to make similar moves. “I did pause a moment after hearing about that,” Raddon said “Tim (Bergling, who performs as Avicii) is a great artist, but (that tour) did cause me to scratch my head a bit. But then, I’d be in a tailspin if I were 22 and had a hit record and making more money than I’d ever dreamed of. People see the fervor around the genre and are all ‘Now’s the time!’”

The experience of an EDM show is also vulnerable in an arena setting. Nothing kills the vibe of a dance show like subpar ticket sales in a big venue, implying no one else came to the party. And even with a full house, taking in a sweaty dance show in a numbered, sectioned seat could derail the night out.

“Seats for EDM is hit or miss,” said Phil Blaine, the head of business development at Insomniac, the company that puts on Electric Daisy, at an EDMBiz panel. “The natural habitat is open space. Once you get into seats with letters and numbers, that’s not what Insomniac is all about.”

There are upsides — arenas are used to accommodating huge lighting rigs, allowing for more elaborate stage productions, like those the Toronto-based Deadmau5 used at this year’s Grammys telecast (and given that the second night of Electric Daisy was canceled because of windstorms, they’re less prone to nature’s hazards as well). The consistency of working with national promoters at established large venues streamlines a booking process that, until recently, was highly regional and fractalized.

But the overwhelming advance success of Kaskade’s tour suggests that EDM’s growth — and growing pains — requires the perspective of an old clubland warrior.

“I spoke to a youth group of 250 kids recently and gave them the whole long story,” Raddon said. “As soon as I was done, a kid asked, ‘How do I make it big?’ I was like, ‘Dang, you just totally missed the point.’”

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