After two years of $1 million festival shows, No. 1 singles and sold out arenas, the Swedish House Mafia played their massive 60,000-strong send-off at Milton Keynes Bowl on Saturday. Tom Rollins wonders if the Mafia’s split is the first sign that the glutted pig of Electronic Dance Music is eating itself.

When the Swedish House Mafia – Sebastian Ingrosso, Axwell and Steve Angello – vowed to stop people “raping house music”, it was said without irony. EDM’s very own supergroup (who once said they were “gonna fuck this club like a pussy”) don’t really do irony. “All this chewing-gum child shit will destroy the house scene,” they said. “It happened before in 1998 with the filtered house disco stuff.”
 
Since moving seamlessly from credible electro house underground act to Spinal Tap stadium superstardom, Swedish House Mafia have done their fair share of chewing-gum, destruction and shit. Maybe it was them destroying the house scene, rather than Thomas Bangalter, Cassius and Armand van Helden?
 
On Saturday, in the beat that tens of thousands of people came together to dance, the Swedish House Mafia finally said hej då to the UK. Hej då Swedish House Mafia!
 
The self-anointed saviours of house music are splitting up. An industry source I spoke to said that in the end it wasn’t a day-in-day-out diet of rum and cocaine, artistic differences or titanic egos that broke up the mob.
 
It’s not immediately whether it was the four-way contract between Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso, Steve Angello and management that killed the party. But that – twinned with their mass commerciality, having come from the electro house underground – means it’s quite likely each Swede will come back on their own, and maybe try and restore a bit of soul to proceedings. In the end, EDM’s boom-and-bust economics destroyed one of its most powerful brands.
 
It might not be the rock’n’roll excess story worthy of a few books but it’s turning into a familiar story in the world of EDM.
 
The New York Times’ Ben Sisario reported how corporate sponsors like Live Nation and A.E.G. Live were cashing in on EDM’s popularity. Since then EDM has become very big business indeed.
 
In the US this behemoth music biz has recently started to transfer into music sales. According to the newest Nielsen Soundscan report into music sales, US singles sales have increased by 65% in the first half of 2012, compared to the same period of time the year before.
 
“I think that you guys in Europe have felt the backlash sooner than we have,” Steve Knopper, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine and author of Appetite for Self-Destruction: Rise and Fall of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, tells me from his Colorado home. “US radio stations have really started to play this music. And that’s still new for us. We haven’t hit the point of scepticism yet. We probably will soon but on the mass scale it’s really just starting to catch on.”
 
Steve acknowledges that the US may be lagging behind Britain and Europe when it comes to dance music. While he has written for Rolling Stone about the financial side of EDM – “dance music’s new boom” – the magazine has followed the rise of Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia with fascination. In their June issue they hailed Nicolas Jaar, Seth Troxler, Madeon and Soul Clap as “EDM’s next wave”. Including Nicolas Jaar and Skrillex in the same beat might get groans over here. It’s hard to see any similarity. But in America it’s all in the name of EDM.
 
Our industry source believes it’s because EDM has come from the US mainstream, not the underground. “Mainstream Americans just don’t have the same 35-year history that we’ve got, and therefore the appreciation to divide it into sub-genres,” he said. Instead commercial European DJs like David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia and co. started playing mainstream clubs that would have played R’n’B and club hip-hop in the past.
 
That appreciation is seen on the Wikipedia page for EDM. You start to get the picture. “Electronic dance music is electronic music produced primarily for the purposes of music within a nightclub setting, or in an environment that is centred upon dance-based entertainment.” Dance-based entertainment? I call that clubbing.
 
Everyone knows what clubbing is and what dance music is. So the real question is: what’s so different about EDM that it demands a new name and more hype than’s good for anyone?
 
I asked SHM fans getting ready for a weekend in Milton Keynes. Danielle Pepperell, a 23-year-old from Essex, said: “EDM is a more precise term. When I think of dance music I think of dated music that doesn't appeal to me but EDM does so there is a big difference...the drops just make a tune!
 
“When I think of dance music I just think of the 90s,” she said. “But when I think of EDM I think: up-to-date new age mash-up between different genres dance, house, bassline, etcetera…”
 
It’s hard to see EDM as precise when it somehow manages to mix up dubstep in Skrillex, hip-pop house in David Guetta and electro house in Deadmau5 and the Mafia and it still come out with only three letters.
 
And that’s not it. Talk to an American clubber and EDM suddenly takes in bass, dubstep, techno, minimal – even psy-trance (a terrifying possibility). But maybe that’s its strength – EDM is precise because it can mean just about anything. And for fans like Danielle, it’s a distinct scene, separate from “dated” dance music genres like house and techno that somehow don’t seem as relevant today.
 
“What we’re calling EDM is today’s pop music,” our industry source said. “It doesn’t really have a great deal to do with the underground club culture that Europeans have grown up on in the last 25 years. It’s just a club beat rather than a R’n’B beat – it’s pop music.”
 
Now a scene created in the States and re-packaged for European dance audiences has grown into the new pop.
 
After Swedish House Mafia were the first dance act to sell out the 20,000-capacity Madison Square Garden last December, after Coachella attracted 80,000 punters on a dance-heavy bill and Electric Daisy Carnival a whopping 300,000 people (nearly double last year’s Glastonbury), EDM is more than catching on – it’s a right old phenomenon.
 
“It is a corporate cashcow, course it is,” Steve Knopper says. But he’s keen to remind me that EDM started like any indie, grass-roots scene. “Just like rock’n’roll in the late-60s, hip-hop in the 90s. Once it graduates from that grass-roots underground level to a mass phenomenon that people like and want to pay for then of course corporations get involved.”
 
And involved they are. In May Live Nation bought out British-owned promoters Creamfields for $21 million. Now outsiders like supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and media mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman are looking to get in on the party. In this new climate DJs stood to earn $1 million per performance at some of the US’s summer dance festivals (and $10 million for a Vegas residency), according to the New York Times. That’s twice the live fee of an established band like Metallica.
 
While Steve still sees EDM as a grass-roots scene that’s attracted investment because of its popularity, he’s noticing the little giveaway signs that mass marketized overkill can have on music and its artists. “I do think there is a cynical element that’s creeping in a little bit.” Steve tells me about a video of DJ Steve Aoki lobbing cakes at his audiences. “As soon as the song he’s mixing reaches his peak, he’ll pick up the cake and fling it into the face of someone in the audience. And there’s this one video where there’s a girl in a bikini that gets a cake in her face…full-on cake in the face!” Steve seems a little mystified by Aoki’s face-cake. It’s getting a bit Spinal Tap, I say. “When I watch those videos I feel like there’s an element of 80s hair metal,” he agrees.
 
For DJs, maybe worse than cake and Wall Street dollars are the allegations against Swedish House Mafia after a 13-minute video of Steve Angello spending more time on his fag than his decks emerged recently. Chicago house fixture DJ Sneak slammed the Mafia, kicking off a press mud-throwing between DJs, journos and promoters. But the 65,000 people on their way to Milton Keynes aren’t bothered. “The kids will come no matter what, and when you get to that phase that’s when it gets a little worrisome,” says Steve.
 
The dance music pendulum that toed-and-froed between underground scenes surrounding Trax Records in Chicago to Fac51 in Manchester has swung back again. Now American dance audiences are the tastemakers. People want to get drunk, neck beans and listen to EDM. You’re not going to find slick production but you will find big bass, long build-ups into over-the-top drops and thousands and thousands of people moshing right in front of it all.
 
“The Americans are really into big production and massive LED screens and kids with their Dads credit cards with 1000 dollar tables and vodka bottles,” our industry source said. “They’re just not as cool,” he laughed. “Not as discerning as we are. Despite the history.”
 
As long as the crowds keep coming and they’re still having fun, there’s no reason why EDM can’t move past the Swedish House Mafia split. But its soul is rotten.
 
Long before EDM buckles under the weight of a million sub-genres and genre classifications, it will end up eating itself, hungry for bigger money, bigger audiences and always bigger drops – like a glutted pig, 1920s socialist cartoon of a top-hatted sow covered in Steve Aoki’s cake at a mahogany dinner-table. EMD is an unsustainable dance music market for the age of boom-and-bust – not a genre or a scene or a feeling – and it won’t last.
 
“Clubbing has always been about togetherness and inclusiveness,” our industry source said. “And once the American kids get hold of that, I don’t think they’ll let go.” EDM might have been re-packaged and re-sold to us by the Americans, but it’s them who will benefit from this. For the first time, ever, dance music is now an American success – on the mainstream and in the charts.
 
Hopefully in the near future that means we can all start talking about house, techno and electro – the day not just the Swedish House Mafia, but the day the EDM dies.


Tom Rollins

 


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