By Jesse Houk
The success of Electronic Dance Music is undeniable. The kids love it for the heavy bass and the big drops, radio stations love it because the tunes are largely based on simple and catchy hooks, the world loves it because EDM lyrics don’t require a vast knowledge of the English language, and record labels swear by it because their production costs of manufacturing EDM records is practically zero. It is so cheap and easy to make that anyone can learn to do it, and with the potential rewards of DJ-superstardom and world tours, thousands of new kids are starting to sample their own beats every single day. The playing field of making music is leveled, and everyone on the business side of the music industry has an interest in keeping this trend alive as long as possible.
Over the past few years, the company SFX has emerged as the biggest name in all things EDM. Under the leadership of industry veteran Robert Sillerman, SFX has purchased many key brands in the festival scene such as Made Events and ID&T, and recently the company purchased Beatport, the world’s leading online retailer of EDM. If you want a piece of all this glittery EDM action, you’re in luck, because as of October of last year, SFX is a publicly traded company. The stage appears to be set for SFX to completely dominate the market in EDM, and music in general. After all, pop stars are doing mostly EDM these days, DJs are treated as pop stars, and Sillerman has more stakes in rave related businesses than Mark Zuckerberg has in tech startups.
Last week, Sillerman announced that SFX would team up with Clear Channel and make the newly acquired retailer Beatport a key player in their combined marketing strategy.
Beatport compiles its own chart of what are allegedly (sales figures are not published) the best selling songs each week, and this chart will be the foundation for a new ‘countdown’ radio show, set for implementation on Clear Channel radio stations. There will also be a national DJ talent search under the new Beatport flag. The takeover of Beatport by SFX was not without the accompanying round of firings and reorganization, but SFX ensured that these layoffs were only in the company’s best interest, and that their sole goal is to bring EDM to the masses more than ever before.
The only potential problem with this carefully crafted strategy of EDM marketing is that Beatport, as the chosen vessel, is more than just a retailer. Beatport has the characteristics of a social network in that its users supply the majority of its content, and provide the brunt of the site’s promotion. The people that work the hardest to promote the site (often unknowingly), are the aspiring producers who want to show their friends that they belong to this cool DJ ‘cult’ called Beatport. DJs can write their own profiles on Beatport, create their top 10 charts of favorite songs and share those charts across other platforms. The coolness factor of the site still makes linking to it feel like you invited your friends to walk into Virgin Records with you, and show them your own music in one of the bins, right next to the music of renowned artists.
Until recently, it was fairly difficult to get a record onto iTunes without help of an established label, but uploading your own music to Beatport was easy, and did not require a record deal, so thousands of beginning producers flocked to Beatport and showed the world that they, too, had a record out. On top of that, iTunes is not ‘sexy’, whereas a presence on Beatport tells all your friends that you are taking DJing very seriously. What has further set Beatport apart from the Goliath that is iTunes (iTunes also sells a lot of EDM), is that Beatport was founded on an essence of counter-culture, underground House and Techno, to deliberately stand in contrast to the mainstream Top 40 Dance offerings on iTunes. Beatport was successful in communicating their ‘for DJs, by DJs’ philosophy, inspiring anyone who wants to be ‘different’ and ‘underground’ and ‘cool’ to affiliate with the website and, more importantly, promote it.
With EDM breaking into the mainstream, and artists like Will.I.Am and Pitbull successfully reaping the benefits from this trend, these more commercial aspects of Dance Music started to inevitably penetrate the Beatport charts as well, to a point where the larger part of Beatport’s revenue is currently derived from these mainstream hits. Until now, most Beatport users (including myself) who are not into the commercial side of things are still not deterred by these recent developments. I personally stick around partially out of habit and convenience, and partially because Beatport is still making a good effort to promote the more underground sounding elements of Dance Music as well.
I have been a DJ since long before Beatport’s inception, and I have always been a big fan of their business. The feeling I get when I visit Beatport nowadays, looking for underground music, is that the commercial EDM dominating their main chart is simply an inevitable result of this genre’s mainstream exposure; it is something I can still ignore while I make my way to the well maintained underground sections, as opposed to a defining character of the overall site. My affiliation thus remains with Beatport -for now- despite the new influx of commercial music. It still feels like a community that is steered by like-minded fans of underground music, rather than a corporate storefront telling me that the new David Guetta single is all the rage. After the recent layoffs and reorganization at Beatport, it remains to be seen how many of those likeminded people are left to cater to DJs like myself, but this will undoubtedly become clear in the coming months.
EDM as a genre has matured, and with the maturing of any musical style comes the generic formula to safely create such music. Just like in the late 70s every disco hit sounded like a carbon copy of the previous hit, and just like in the late 80s all hair-bands competed for making the loudest version of the same song, EDM is currently undergoing the same fate. Every producer who aims for a Top 10 record is pressured into using the same beats, the same synth stabs and the same oh-wee-oh chorus as whoever had the last big hit. And whoever actually comes up with a fresh and successful idea (Avicii mixing up EDM with Folk) can be sure that this idea will be copied for at least an entire year (latest Pitbull single anyone?)
As annoying as this may sound to long time followers of Electronic Music who are used to an ever-evolving genre, this is exactly the point where a music genre needs to be in order for corporations to jump on board. After all, SFX and Clear Channel are not in the volatile business of trend setting, yet really good at the much more reliable approach of trend following. And it is exactly at this intersection of trend setting and trend following that Beatport is about to enter its identity crisis.
SFX bought Beatport for its heavy traffic and market dominance in the DJ scene, realizing that its community and its credibility are at the core of the site’s success, but will SFX be successful at managing the website in the same organic way that its original owners did so well? The site may currently get the brunt of its revenue from the sale of commercial EDM hits, but the majority of the site’s users (i.e. those who also provide the most promotion for the site) are heavily into sub genres that usually don’t crack the Top 10. If those users lose interest and stop promoting the site, the site’s entire foundation is at risk. Unless SFX plans to continue nurturing the less commercial elements of Beatport, the fundamental appeal that sets the site apart from iTunes will be lost. According to several sources however, SFX is planning to do exactly the opposite, and get rid of the elements within Beatport that don’t prove commercially viable, instead focusing heavily on the Top 20 hits, and festival ticket sales.
These developments bring to mind the life and death of MySpace. Just like Beatport, MySpace also thrived on the ‘for us, by us’ image. Both sites grew up on user generated content, and both were the first to be massively successful in their field. But we all remember what happened to MySpace and how a once engaged community of millions of daily users became a ghost town in a matter of months, once the users realized it was no longer ‘their’ playground.
The corporate takeover of Beatport bears many signs that history will repeat itself in a similar manner, especially if SFX and Clear Channel make the same mistake that Rupert Murdoch’s team made with MySpace, and mistake traffic for loyalty. DJs simply want to link to someplace cool when it comes to their own music, and over the past years that place has been Beatport. But if another ‘cooler’ platform comes along (the way Facebook happened to MySpace), DJs –as fickle as we are- will jump ship without a second thought, especially when we are already somewhat unsatisfied with our current hangout.
The brunt of the organic promotion that made Beatport successful comes from artists who will probably never even crack the Top 100, but who are simply proud to affiliate with the brand, because Beatport has worked very hard in their first 5 years to convince those ‘bedroom producers’ that the site is just as much theirs as it belongs to the CEO or the artists who are constantly in the Top 10. That promise implies another promise that if you only stick to the Beatport family, the Top 20 will one day be fair game for you as well. SFX is very much aware of this psychology and plans to elevate it onto a national stage in front of a mainstream audience, complete with a national DJ talent show. In this move, SFX makes one critical assumption, which is that the ‘bedroom DJ’ that is currently part of the Beatport cult, is motivated by the same elements as the kid that signs up for American Idol.
This assumption is a multi-million dollar gamble.
If the reward of national radio exposure and DJing at a major festival proves to be a juicy enough carrot on the SFX stick, then this new direction for Beatport will be a huge success and all forces in the music industry will continue to invest heavily in keeping EDM on the current generic level as long as possible. SFX’s Sillerman appears to be convinced that the same appetite for fame that drives the American Idol franchise will drive DJs and producers to take Beatport to new heights.
I am 42 years old, and often wonder how long I have left before I lose touch with what drives young artists. Sillerman is 64 and undoubtedly spends more time researching teenage behavior than I do, but for the sake of his company, I hope he is aware that the community currently driving Beatport is fundamentally different in their view on music than the average American Idol contestant. There are essential differences between pop-culture and DJ-culture. The Beatport community is built on a desire to upload, find, and share music that is the opposite of generic, and not conform to Clear Channel standards. How Sillerman will consolidate these two very opposing mindsets within the same website will most likely determine the fate of the entire EDM genre, and in that undertaking I wish him the best of luck.
About the author:
Jesse Houk (aka The Scumfrog) is a Dutch-American DJ/remixer/producer/artist, mostly known for his underground flavored remixes of artists like Kylie Minogue, Missy Elliott, New Order and Annie Lennox, and his collaborations writing/producing techno oriented works with David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper and Sting. He released four full-length albums as a solo artist (Extended Engagement 2003, Simmer 2004, A Place Where We Belong 2011 and In Case We’re All Still Here 2013). As a DJ, he has toured the world many times over, and since 2009, he hosts a weekly radio show/podcast Glam Scum International.
Tune into his weekly radio podcast, Glam Scum International