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Black Sky Thinking

Landfill Futures: Is The EDM Bubble About To Burst?
Scott Wilson , September 2nd, 2013 07:48

Hubris in the 1980s video game industry ended with millions of E.T. games buried in the desert. With the latest wave of corporate tie-ins and a Deadmau5/Space Invaders hook-up, asks Scott Wilson, is the apparently booming US EDM industry heading for a similarly spectacular fall?

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In 1982, US video game company Atari released a title so famously bad that it sent them on an irreversible path to financial ruin. A tie-in with the summer's biggest blockbuster, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, it was rushed to market to take advantage of the lucrative Christmas season, despite the film not possessing any plot elements that would translate into making a particularly exciting game. Its brief six-week development period and remarkably low quality ensured that the unsold copies – all five million of them, if you believe the accounts – supposedly found themselves buried in a landfill site in the New Mexico desert. Although it took many years for Atari to finally die off as a home console manufacturer, the E.T. incident was very much the beginning of the end.

This tale has since become one of the great examples of American commercial hubris. The shoddy E.T. tie-in was not the first example of this curiously modern type of cross-media synergy, but it was one of the most catastrophic. As the fledgling US video games industry grew from 1977 to 1983, swelled by the popularity of Atari's 2600 console, investors clamoured to make what they could from this growing cultural phenomenon. Many more consoles popped up to compete with Atari's 2600, and scores of third-party developers unleashed a stream of low-quality titles onto the market, with the charge led by Activision, a studio founded by a team of disgruntled ex-Atari employees. Even the food company Quaker started its own ill-fated video games division, US Games, to capitalise - it was responsible for fourteen games, several of which, including Piece O'Cake, Picnic and Eggomania, seemed to possess an obvious obsession with its parent company's own commercial concerns. By the time E.T. arrived in the wake of a similarly dismal Pac-Man port, consumer confidence had eroded significantly enough that the nascent US video game industry collapsed catastrophically, with revenues that had peaked at over $3 billion in 1983 falling to $100 million in 1985.

Just as America found itself in thrall to video gaming in the early 1980s, now it finds itself throwing its increasingly poverty-stricken earnings at a newer and considerably more insidious industry, EDM. Electronic Dance Music is perhaps the most depressingly inevitable end point for dance music culture, presented in the language of corporate America and representing the latest chapter in the country's whitewashing of its own black musical history. Its fans largely know nothing of Larry Levan or Juan Atkins; for them, electronic music began with Skrillex and Avicii, and exists in a state of hermetically sealed perpetuity, doomed to forever remain solely within its narrowly defined boundaries of sound. In the recently published updated edition of his seminal dance music history Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds describes EDM as "digital maximalism", a cocktail of maxed-out sidechain compression and the complexity of progressive rock and stadium metal that pays no attention to the past. As Reynolds puts it: "Digital maximalism is the ultrabrite, NutraSweet, Taurine-amped soundtrack to a lifestyle and a life-stance that could be called NOW!ism."

Over the past three years, EDM raves have ballooned in size. One such event, the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, saw over 300,000 people attend in 2012, and estimates put the net worth of the EDM industry at $4 billion per year, with Live Nation currently at the forefront of promoting these large-scale events. All the while, the more money that streams into the EDM industry, the closer it begins to resemble the US video game industry of the 80s - and if Live Nation is EDM's equivalent of Atari, then SFX Entertainment is its Activision. Run by media mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman in its current form since June 2012, SFX is a revived incarnation of a company he originally sold to Clear Channel in 2000, an asset which eventually became Live Nation. Sillerman's aim now, as it was then, is to acquire regional promoters with the aim of bringing them under one umbrella: to create the ultimate EDM money-making machine which controls all aspects of events promotion, musical content delivery and merchandising. As Spin's Philip Sherburne put it recently, "a vertically integrated marketing behemoth"; or, in seeking opportunities with commercial sponsors for his events, "an advertising company that just happens to put on concerts."

Sillerman's investment in the past year has been vast. In June 2012 he stated an intention to spend $1 billion in acquisitions within one year, something that has seen him buy a number of regional US promoters, online music store Beatport and Dutch event producer ID&T. Sillerman is about to launch SFX on the stock market, and a recent report from Billboard suggests that he is set to earn $175 million, thanks to "Wall Street enthusiasm for stocks that tap into youth culture and consumer Internet trends". If ever there was a shaky foundation for the valuation of a company, then youth culture and consumer Internet trends – which can be notoriously fickle at best – are certainly it. Billboard also note that many of Sillerman's recent acquisitions are currently running at a loss, and that the first US edition of ID&T's $16 million TomorrowLand festival is experiencing slow ticket sales. With events costing ever-increasing amounts to stage and for fans to attend, the EDM industry seems to be reaching a similar tipping point to the US video games industry of the 80s, where hubristic overconfidence, a sudden influx of cash and stagnation of ideas toppled an entire industry.

Further parallels with the 80s US video games industry can be found in Reynolds' idea of "NOW!ism". Due to the finite lifespan of console hardware, games are doomed never to advance beyond a certain point, and brick walls will inevitably be met head-on when developers' ideas outweigh the technology. There is generally very little true progression within individual console generations, with the greatest forward leaps made when new hardware arrives. Licensed properties are a cheap and easy way to bring back that sense of spectacle that becomes dull with age, and nowhere was this more evident than with Atari's E.T debacle. EDM, like a video games console, is a fundamentally closed system; there is no house, techno or dubstep, simply the genre of EDM, into which everything is homogenised, and within which nothing can advance. Of course, it's probably not in the financial interests of people like Sillerman for the music within the EDM industry to evolve, lest it upset those "consumer Internet trends".

Within this self-contained ecosystem of music denoted by its sameness, EDM DJs need onstage gimmicks to stand out. Huge stage shows incorporating flashy visuals and pyrotechnics are used to attract attention around the comparatively tiny head of the DJ witnessed from the back of a vast arena. As competition grows fiercer, and more money is thrown at making the spectacle larger, the cost of tickets for punters to attend these shows increases in turn, and the outcome of financial collapse seems increasingly likely. Atari's primitive E.T. game may look laughable in the face of Swedish House Mafia's seizure-inducing visuals, but the principle is the same - promotion of the spectacle in order to disguise fundamentally mediocre content.

One of those comparatively tiny heads, Joel Zimmerman (pictured, top), wears a giant cartoon mouse mask to distinguish himself from the crowd. Under the name Deadmau5 he is one of EDM's biggest stars and has also become one of its staunchest critics, commenting on its inherent beigeness and criticising ticket prices. In his latest manoeuvre, he's pulled a complete about-turn to become one of its most outspoken hypocrites. Zimmerman recently signed a "co-brand license agreement" – facilitated by Live Nation – with Taito, the Japanese video game company responsible for Space Invaders, to create "a lifestyle brand crossing a myriad of categories launching in the high-end and specialty markets."   At this point it's unclear what exactly this gross form of synergy will bring upon the world. The best we can hope for is perhaps an innovative Rez-inspired take on Space Invaders, soundtracked by Zimmerman's music - but the resulting tie-in will most likely take the form of gaudy plastic merchandise, t-shirts and masks incorporating the iconic alien invaders, and Zimmerman's juvenile rodent head atop the floating vacuum of EDM space. While we may still be a few years away from a lack of consumer confidence in EDM's output, this type of corporate synergy seems totally at odds with EDM culture's mantra of PLUR, or peace, love, unity and respect. Just as Atari's E.T. tie-in was less about the craft of video games and more about cashing in, so Deadmau5's team up with a brand that has nothing to do with music and more with the possibilities of slapping their properties on 40oz soda containers represents a key moment for this nascent industry.

The music of EDM may be, as Rory Gibb described it in this column last year, "crap trance riffs and recycled one-note basslines stomping on a human face, forever," but to its fans, who seem to enjoy it, it's a way of life, and denigration of its music in favour of branding opportunities is surely the merciful sounding of the death knell for all of us. If the reaction to this tie-in is received even half as badly as Atari's E.T. game was, some future civilisation may one day open up the ground to uncover an unmarked mass grave, littered with a million identical effigies of Deadmau5 and Space Invaders. For a hermetically closed-off musical culture that seems to exist with no connection to the past or future, it seems fitting that EDM's most enduring legacy would be an absurd array of buried plastic detritus, completely divorced from any semblance of rational meaning.


Sep 2, 2013 12:13pm

Were Atari on shit drugs too?

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Sep 2, 2013 12:27pm

yeah, cos the computer games industry really died didn't it, no one buys computer games anymore do they....

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Sep 2, 2013 1:14pm

EDm is a fad...I think that's what you were aiming for. It's the new Nu Metal, hyper inflated testosterone music for people to set light to portaloos to.

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Fielding Melish
Sep 2, 2013 3:22pm

Very interesting article, reminds me more than a little of, not so much the video game industry, the US 'disco boom' of the late 70s wherein the hyper-expectations of consumerist desire for what was, in essence, becoming increasingly generic product led to a giant crash landing. The only difference being, I think, that EDM, while clearly a cash cow on a certain level, really doesn't have anything close to the cultural significance that disco had at the time ( in terms of movies, fashion, or even the ubiquitous nature of the music; I live in America, and while I'm well aware of EDM and it's bigger artists, I'm of an age where it is scarcely a blip on my radar, apart from the occasional movie trailer or something ). It does strike me as being the favored music of cologne-saturated frat boys and their dates, so I wouldn't expect an increase in appreciation for the subtler strains of techno to be on the rise any time soon. It's music to get fucked up to, the end. I will say that, reading all of the different forms of advertising double-speak and meaningless catch phrases, I, myself, feel a bit like throwing up.

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Haustronaut
Sep 2, 2013 5:15pm

One thing that outsiders fail to understand about house music (edm is a corporate title) is that it started in the gay black and Hispanic culture of Chicago in the early 80's as a way to express freedom and love. This was where disco went. The warehouse parties. The music is the culmination of ALL genres of music. From jazz, rock, r&b, reggae, country, hip hop, classical, etc. We evoke the essence of these genres and extract them to a new form. We do this because there are no boundaries no rules except for the intent of love. This is the only true requirement. I do understand that many "artists" (I'll use this term loosely) are cookie cutting from popular formats and these artists actually lose the fans because of this. See skrillex for example, he took a different approach to the regular and popular styles and literally reinvented dub step to the praise of millions. Deadmau5 as well. The issue isn't in the music, the issue isn't the culture, the issue is the corporate infiltration of what is essentially an escapist culture. House music is the place where everyone is welcome. There are no judgments or negative energies. Unlike most other forms of popular music which America seems to use to divide us. We the people.

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Ben Green
Sep 2, 2013 8:25pm

Simon Reynolds goes on to describe the NOW!ness of EDM as a refreshing change to pious and
chilling (my words) "retromania". Seems fair to point that out.

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CB
Sep 2, 2013 8:34pm

The EDM bubble mostly seems to be expanding into pop, trap and many assorted subgenres. Not as narrow as disco and nothing much on the horizon to replace it.
Music is simply advertising now - something that gets your attention just long enough to sell you some other (non-digital) shit.
This really hits it:
 SFX "an advertising company that just happens to put on concerts." Zimmerman recently signed a "co-brand license agreement"..."a lifestyle brand crossing a myriad of categories launching in the high-end and specialty markets."
EDM = Event Driven Marketing? but at least it's an event.

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Dick Whittington
Sep 2, 2013 9:24pm

In reply to Haustronaut:

hahahahaha - you are a card!

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The Good Doctor
Sep 2, 2013 10:04pm

Firstly..EDM, IDM..are Americans afraid of the word 'Dance'? Is it too much a reminder of Disco, which 'sucked' so much in the 1970s?

Secondly, I'm no expert on EDM, but is there much difference between this and the rise of Superclubs like Cream, Ministry of Sound, Gatecrasher, Hed Kandi etc with their overpaid superstar DJs, endless compilation CDs, festivals, branding etc, and the uber-corporate Ibiza uberclubs? Is EDM any worse than Handbag house or all that Donk shite?

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Sep 3, 2013 1:06am

In reply to Haustronaut:

I have to admit, this made me laugh out loud. Yes, America 'divides' people by music. Is there nothing that people won't blame 'America' for? Get on with your lives.

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Wellington Bellis
Sep 3, 2013 10:16am

In reply to The Good Doctor:

You're right. The yanks have always been at least 5 years behind everybody else when it comes to dance music fads.

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Jerome
Sep 3, 2013 5:55pm

Haven't we already seen this happen before with the whole 'Superstar DJ' bubble bursting at the turn of the millennium? Europe has already been through this nonsense, but as always America are late to the party. Atari's, 'Superstar DJs', 'EDM', etc. Same shit, different day.

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Andre
Sep 3, 2013 7:39pm

Interesting analogy but poorly argued. Atari's ET game ultimately failed because consumers didnt like it. EDM and the promoters that host this music are pulling in huge crowds because the audiences like the music and are having fun. That's where the Atari analogy falls apart.

So the question really becomes: what's the appeal? Imo, the kids simply want to have fun and the continued build-ups n drops make the music like a roller-coaster ride. I'm not defending the (current) one-dimensional nature of EDM, but to kid from the sticks, what are the alternatives? More thuggish materialistic hip-hop? Some earnest-for-the-sake-being-earnest chin-stroking indie-rock?

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DudeNoDude
Sep 3, 2013 8:43pm

EDM... Electronic Dance MERCHANDISE

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DudeNoDude
Sep 3, 2013 9:20pm

In reply to DudeNoDude:

SOIREE, didn't finish my thoughts....

EDM... Electronic Dance MERCHANDISE
as was the AMUSEMENT park, IN the day---WITH all the lights--the glitter, the rides, music blasting all around, games of chance, THE BARKERS, stuffed animals, THE CANDY, the younguns' hanging out---hooking up---in packs...wandering or dancing aimlessly...TRIPPIN'

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Alberto Roman
Sep 4, 2013 12:02am

Best article I've read in a few months. Seems like the author took the feelings I couldn't describe and put them into words.

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William Brown
Sep 4, 2013 1:42am

I work with in the industry, I love the music, but you can see everything is a copy of a copy of a copy...but
Most dance music has been. If you club, it's nice to a song you know or like done in a different way.
UltimTely the tools to produce have very low entry barriers, and their advancements are only speeding up.
As the Joker would say, why not introduce chaos and let the chips fall where they may. Ultimately paying or
Not the fans will decide. The whole music industry is a mess (do we need to mention copywrites in EDM??. Bahaha). Fuck off, why so serious?.....

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Sep 4, 2013 1:01pm

In reply to William Brown:

What is your job in "the industry"? Coke gopher?

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cooptrol
Sep 5, 2013 12:28pm

This commodification of electronic dance music has happened before, in the late 90s, with most names coming from Europe, which guaranteed a minimun quality of the music nevertheless. At the time it was labeled "electronica", and grew as profitable as it could given that time's size of global industries. When it reached its maximum point of hype saturation, it was mercifully put to rest by the "minimal techno" phenomena. Its likely that this new EDM escalation will reach a point of imminent downfall, and will be substituted by some kind of anti-EDM reactionary and stoic movement. No worries.

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Hidden Midden
Sep 6, 2013 8:00am

In reply to Ben Green:

I'm old enough to remember times when (the then equivalent of) NOW!ism was hailed as a good thing, first in 1977, "the Year Zero", and again in 1988.

The suspicion towards NOW!ism reflects envious disdain for the Millennials by original ravers, now settled down with kids and wallowing in nostalgia for the days/daze of Fantazia and Tribal Gathering.

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James
Sep 17, 2013 1:55pm

In reply to CB:

Absolutely spot on.

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SomeGuy
Sep 18, 2013 6:05pm

2 things :

- "Digital maximalism is the ultrabrite, NutraSweet, Taurine-amped soundtrack to a lifestyle and a life-stance that could be called NOW!ism"
Slighly off-topic, but contrary to popular belief, Taurine is not a stimulant, it's actually an amino-acid with ANXIOLYTIC properties. The reason it's added in so-called "energy drinks" is to counterbalance the jitterness and nervousness that comes from the caffeine and other stimulating substances in energy drinks. It also protects the liver ( energy drinks can be used by some people to over-drink alcohol without crashing )

- The link between music and sponsoring is nothing new, and is expected to increase , not to diminish in the future, mostly because, since piracy has eradicated a substantial portion of record companies and artists alike, musicians are being hammered right and left that the only way to make a living is to "cross-promote" a.k.a get sponsors or sell related merchandise. Sad, but that's what it is.

Last point, like other people said here, the link with the video games is pretty farfetched...

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Man WithNoPlan
Sep 29, 2013 3:17am

I just wonder, what will be the next fad corporations grab a hold of after this whole EDM shit dies out ... Just a matter of time.

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