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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?

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.