The Mainstream and the DISASTER for ‘Mainstreamism’ in Dance Music
What is Mainstream?
The more that dance music creeps into the mainstream, the more we hear about this false polarization between what is “good” music and what is “mainstream.” The reason I say “false” is because the most basic truth about American Music culture, to me, is that the popularity of music doesn’t determine its quality. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying to think that I mean that there is some sort of negative correlation between quality and popularity. Rather, it is that these two values are completely unrelated to each other. Music that is in the spotlight is simply well-known, and that is all that we can say about it intrinsically from the information that it is popular.
This is the phenomenon of marketing and art. What we have is this intangible interplay that goes on between those who make money by marketing art and those who create it. The ones who are in charge of marketing an idea often decide what will be popular with a lot of market research and advertising theory done with great scrutiny. This allows them to frequently predict what the next popular “thing” will be and then choose how to assist it to achieving pop-culture status. If you’re curious about how cultural trends are born and spread, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating book on the spread of social changes called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference that makes for a very informative read.
So we have marketing and we have dance music. On the one hand, the people who stand to make a great deal of money from dance music also invest a great deal of money in determining what the next big sound is going to be. On the other hand, artists who hope to get a track signed to a label approach songwriting in a lot of different ways but above-all, artists strive for innovation and uniqueness. This is where we run into the issue of criticism within dance music fandom. Accusations of all forms rain down on artists who are in the spotlight for “selling out” or “producing the same crap” or conversely for not producing the same crap! (The trance heads – myself include – have wanted Tiësto back in trance music for how long now?). In a recent interview I did, Alex MORPH told me he got a great deal of criticism for producing a track (Bang!) that broke out of his traditional trance sound.
“The ‘fans’ want everything and nothing all at the same time and what can we do to make sense of this societal mess?”
Let’s look at the criticism of the mainstream because it’s easiest to understand. It’s happened in every genre that’s ever found itself in the spotlight, but dance music is the newcomer in the USA and we all pretend like we’ve never seen this before. What happened to rock n’ roll music in the 70’s? What happened to punk rock music from the 80’s to the 90’s? What happened to hip-hop music between the 80’s, 90’s and today? It’s quite simple. Those who market art understand that what is “cool” is also what is “unique”. Music that forms under the guise of counter-culture in this pattern will always be assimilated into the mainstream by the forces of marketing because it’s “cool”. That’s it in the simplest form. Of course there are subtleties with each genre but it is the process of seeking what is “cool” and marketing it to the businesses of pop culture as the next “hip” thing that creates pop culture.
The criticism develops out of the personal relationship of us, as fans, with the art. As fan(atics) of music we love it with all of our soul. It gently rings our heartstrings and immerses us in emotion, it sweeps us away and allows us to escape the day-to-day, but above all, we have a very personal experience with music. Now the conflict arises when we, the fans, are over saturated with the music we love as a result of pop-culture. Those who have known the genre longest feel like the newcomers don’t love it as deeply because they didn’t find it before the radio did, those who have been singing a particular song since before it was released feel like those who are singing it two years later are inferior for not knowing its beauty sooner, those who (like myself) are in the club scene 2-3 nights a week and make a habit of consuming this music out of sheer passion often get tired of hearing a song like Zedd’s – ‘Clarity’ on endless repeat because we have heard it so much that we’re emotionally numb to that original, pure, experience we first had when we fell in love with it.
These fans of all walks come to the ‘problem’ of the mainstream from different sides. Some feel nostalgia for the sounds they originally fell in love with, some of us crave a breath of fresh air from the same thing that we are hearing in DJ sets every week. What we all have in common, however, is a passion for this music. That is what is most important.
We must realize that artists are forever working with their art and experimenting with new styles because this is what will intrigue them. Artists always seek to improve or change their art because music is their skill and they wish to broaden it. Those who end up in the mainstream of popular culture are frequently just like those who remain in the underground, but as Brett Kernan put it, “Mainstream EDM will always seem sluggish and stagnant. Within that designated space, change is slow… ” and that is because the mainstream is created by those with the power of marketing. It is a space that is ruled by business and not by art: thus, innovation is risky and emulation is rampant.
What we will also find, however, is that this constant lamentation of the state of EDM based on the mainstream has little to do with the reality of the music that we love. If the mainstream isn’t satisfactory to us, then why do we keep lending it credence through our words? Electronic music is so diverse and so globally widespread that anyone can find representation in their particular niche and that is why it is moving through popular culture like wildfire.
One unique aspect of our music is that it is made in all places and by all people and what that means is that we will always find diversity in electronic music because all people are diverse. So let’s forget all of the rhetoric regarding “the mainstream” and “the state of EDM”. What we must remember is that the “state” of EDM has nothing to do with those who market it because art is not a business. We are the crowd and we love what we love, not what we are told to love. We can always find something that speaks to our souls in the music of dance music artists. Whether they occupy the spotlight of the marketing of popular culture or not has nothing to do with the passion that we feel.
So, why do we even bother worrying about the mainstream?
All the mainstream does is generate the revenue for businesses to invest in our genre and put on amazing festivals all summer long. If you think those festivals are full of nothing but mainstream music, let me tell you right now that you are sorely mistaken. There are all manner of artists on the fringe of what is mainstream playing amazing music on the stages at music festivals all around the world as a direct result of the revenue that the mainstream generates. In my book, that’s actually moving the genre forward.
So let’s take a step back from our own personal reaction to hearing one of our favorite songs hit the radio and remember that dance music is about all of us coming together as individuals and sharing our love for the music together. It’s a positive force in our lives and it will be a positive force in pop-culture. Dance music is about overcoming adversity, it’s about love, and it’s about a shared human experience. However widespread that becomes, it will never be a bad thing. Let’s remember to embrace the mainstream for the things it is providing to our genre even while we often search outside it for the songs that really make our hearts sing.
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