What is Happening to Producer Identity as Dance Music Explodes in Popularity?

Something that’s been killing me a lot lately is this apparent disconnect that exists between some DJ/Producers and their own identity or their own music.  It’s a really weird thing to hear described this way if you’re not already familiar with what I’m talking about, but it’s actually something I’ve been seeing for a little while that is becoming more and more prevalent. Essentially, this is the case where a producer doesn’t really play the type of music they produce when you go to see them.

It’s a topic that my most musically-inclined friends and I discuss all the time.  I understand that there are a lot of reasons to play outside your own genre for certain situations but I’m talking about a very specific type of problem that is different from playing to your time slot, to a small nightclub, or to a crowd who doesn’t really know dance music.  This is like when you get big, REALLY big, and you are booked on the main stage at EDC or any other massive, or as a headliner at a Top 100 Nightclub and you choose to break with your own style to play some set full of the typical festival house music (The infamous Beatport top 100) because you are trying to play what is most popular at the moment.

Not familiar with what I’m talking about?  A dear friend of mine showed me an older interview that Above and Beyond sat down for with the Huffington Post, in which, Jono Grant elegantly described the exact problem I’m getting at in reference to the question of how Above and Beyond deals with the downsides and the challenges of the sudden pop-culture status that Dance Music has achieved:

Jono Grant (JG): As you get bigger and as you’re selling out shows, there are people coming to your shows and demanding hits. We try to balance that a lot, because I think it’s important that you don’t just become a jukebox. There’s a lot of temptation, as you get bigger and there’s more money on the table, there’s a lot of temptation for artists to chase after that and dilute what you’re doing. I’m proud that we’re not doing that, because I see a lot of people drifting off and not knowing where they’re going.

JG: If you drive through the strip in Vegas and you look up on on the screens and you see the number of DJs playing, how long can that be sustained? And when people are playing the same records, how can people choose between DJs? That’s what I’m questioning, particularly in Vegas, because it has the potential to be an amazing dance music scene, but when a lot of people go there, they dumb down what they do and stick to the hits, which is kind of sad. If you’re an artist, you got to where you are because of what you’re doing. You’d be best off not just playing a gig if you have to severely change what you’re doing.

The main thing is that people will want something more, and they’ll move on to some new things. Personally, I’m very optimistic about dance music because I think it will get smart again. It’s been dumbed down a little bit over the past year, but we try to operate around that and focus on what we’re doing.

There is a very subtle, but absolutely integral, difference between this type of behavior and the quintessential ability of a smart DJ to play to their audience and it all hinges on the venue.  Why?

It is quite simple. Bookings these days mostly come from the popularity of the music that artists produce. When you are booked at the most popular venues in the world,

You are the headliner because of your musical identity as a producer.

I don’t mean to say that this is some sort of ego trip and you get to just play whatever you want without a care for what the crowd wants.  It’s exactly the opposite of that altogether. When you’re on the main stage at a massive festival, it is a very safe bet that that crowd came specifically to see you.  They know who you are, they’ve heard your singles and your albums, they like your style, and they came to hear your music.

What I have seen happen over and over this year and last year is that I will go to see a DJ set from a Producer whose records I own and love, and they will intersperse a handful of their biggest hits with the most popular tracks from the Beatport Top 100 with complete disregard for mismatching genres or what that is doing to the overall arc of their set and, in all honesty, it just sounds like garbage.  When I say mismatching genres, I’m talking about seeing a producer who has made trance for the last 15 years dropping these really popular hard house bass-drop-3-instrument bangers like they’re Hardwell or Afrojack or even trap music in between a couple of their beautiful trance tracks and I’m just standing there, feeling a bit disgusted, very bored, and wondering what the **** is going on.

I’m not here to trash talk a list of specific Producers but there are easily half a dozen of them that went on my mental “skip” list after I saw recent sets from them in 2013 because they’ve totally lost their identities. It would take a whole lot to convince me to spend my time seeing them again. It is absolutely heartbreaking, really, to stand in the crowd and plead so badly to feel that emotional connection between you (the fan), the music you love, and the producer who made it.

I look at it like this: when you are the headliner, your fans came to see your music.

Please, when hundreds or thousands of passionate fans gather in one place for one night to share the experience of your music together, don’t play us the same crap we’re going to hear from an iTunes playlist on our local electronic radio show.


Tony Apfelbeck
I grew up listening to BT, Armin Van Buuren, Paul Oakenfold, Paul Van Dyk and Tiësto. Trance and House music are my religion and I've got church every Friday and Saturday night.
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