Are Synthpop & EDM Dying Out?
Today’s Hot 100 chart and a slightly exasperated dance community are pointing to some very unfortunate signs regarding the future of EDM
Five years ago, a circus of synthpop dominated the airwaves like never before. Thanks to a surge in EDM growth, songs like Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” and “Til the World Ends” put the late ‘90’s pop princess back on top. There was also Rihanna with “We Found Love” and her “The Only Girl in the World.” Even rapper Pitbull and R&B crooner Ne-Yo united like Batman and Robin, pumping out a string of Top Ten Miami-party hits like “Give Me Everything” and “Time of Our Lives.” The new trend in uptempo pop also turned behind-the-scene DJs like David Guetta and Calvin Harris into household names. That was five years ago. Today EDM isn’t even bubbling in the mainstream.
So what the hell happened? Did the EDM bubble pop?
Blood on the dance floor
Well, a recent article published in the Miami Herald on the opening week of Ultra Music Festival, one of the largest electronic music festivals in the world, revealed some very troubling news about the genre and its economy. A number of EDM clubs in Miami, where Ultra is held and where the livid party scene encourages EDM culture, have closed in the last couple of months. South Beach’s Cameo and Grand Central in Downtown are no longer, while SFX Entertainment, which bought a few major festivals and websites, have gone down under, even declaring bankruptcy. According to the story, Icon has seen a sharp drop in VIP liquor sales and has a hard time packing the dance floor now. It’s not just happening in Miami either. TomorrowWorld, held in the far outskirts of Atlanta, cancelled 2016’s fest because of the previous year’s travesty. A few revelations from Jordan Levin’s report exposed elements of dangerous oversaturation of the EDM sound. “The oversaturation and commercialization is the death of anything relevant in terms of artistry,” says Carmel Ophir, a EDM promoter and former club owner of the now-defunct Vagabond. The story also exposed the burdensome high costs for shows that festival attendees have experienced over and over again. “I still like the music,” Annie Tomlinson, an Ultra attendee and EDM fan, said. “But it’s not worth it for the money anymore. It’s so hyped up and I’ve already experienced it.” A massive burnout with casual and regular fest attendees is being reported, leading many DJs to play smaller rooms and younger audiences preferring intimate bars and lounges for nightlife choices. Meanwhile, DJ fees are growing for EDM’s elite artists. Acts like Diplo, Skrillex and Tiesto are now reaching past $200,000, reaching $500,000 for Harris – EDM’s hottest new star.
Even Sweedish DJ Avicii, one of EDM’s glowing stars and one of its youngest, shocked the music world when he mentioned he was bowing out from touring and a possible semi-retirement. Even after dropping one of the greatest EDM albums in this decade (True), he wants peace of mind. Suffering from acute pancreatitis, due to excessive drinking, and after having his gallbladder and appendix removed, Avicii — born Tim Bergling — felt that moving away from the rigiorous EDM scene was best for his life. An article republished by Billboard wrote that “Avicii looks tired. Tired, but happy.” Inside the article, he opened up about the serenity he’s now experiencing. “I was nervous when I made the announcement,” Avicii, 26, told The Hollywood Reporter, “mainly that I would look ungrateful. But I’ve gotten so many supportive texts from friends in the industry, other DJs, other artists. The fan response has been incredible. And even the press response has been incredible. So yeah, its been a lot better than I expected.”
Avicii still called the decision of retiring so soon as being the hardest decision he’s made in his life. After the announcement, Laidback Luke wrote in an editorial to Billboard about his feelings regarding Avicii’s health and the decision to retire. “Tim and his team have been kind enough to book me at his Ushuaïa Hotel parties in Ibiza, most recently in August 2015. He looked terrible. He gave me a very sincere but oh-so-tired smile when he saw me. Soon after, he was onstage playing his amazing music — and that’s when it dawned on me. This wonderful and talented kid might not overcome his struggles. At that moment, I envisioned my friend, now 26, joining the infamous ’27 club’ of music and film stars who died at that age. It sounds horrible but it’s the truth, and I can’t take back the overwhelming sense of frustration I felt.”
The charts tell the other side of the story
Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a sharp decline of EDM/dance/synthpop content hitting my desk for review, and even for my listening pleasure. I will still see a good crop of indiepop landing on my radar, and there’s even been a light surge of neo-disco, proving that organic disco or elements of house music, haven’t left us. Thanks to Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning Random Access Memories and its worshipful embrace of Studio 54 glamour, a barrage of classic disco sounds made its way to the forefront. Out came Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Pharrell’s throwback R&B G I R L disc, and then there was the funk-disco sounds of Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” which recently scored Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. The trend continued in the UK with Jimmy Sommerville’s full-blown disco tribute LP Homage and Olly Murs’ “Wrapped Up.” Nile Rodgers’ old-school disco group Chic inked a deal with Warner Bros., leading to a deluxe single of “I’ll Be There” and “Back in the Old School.” Although the idea of a new album was announced and has since been placed on the backburner, Rodgers and Chic are still making their rounds on the road as the opening act for Duran Duran, another Warner Bros. signed act. The indie disco from Escort and Tortured Soul are also stoking the effervescent fires of the disco flame. Garage-house duo Disclousure, one of the mightiest in the EDM game today, are also bending their EDM sounds to make room for unique amalgams of R&B, house and soul. They’ve won critical praise because of it. Despite their pairings with glowing pop/soul crooner Sam Smith (“Latch,” “Omen”) giving them some pop chart visibility, Disclosure mostly remains in the shadows to the real world. For example, their latest, the Lorde-featured “Magnets,” has already hit number eight on the dance charts, but failed to chart on the Hot 100.
The most recent pop-conjured album releases of Tegan & Sara (Heartthrob), Chairlift (Moth) and the bird and the bee (Recreational Love), and to a greater degree, acts like Clean Bandit, Jess Glynne — all very disco-tilted and sweetly embracing the feelgood sonics of the Eighties, may not be selling millions of units like the mainstream synthpop did four years ago, but the continuum of this product proves that classic disco will always be with us, one way or another. The genre isn’t dying, and there’s not a lack of it being produced. What is happening is that the consensus of the masses along with pop radio has moved on from those sounds, and are settling for Taylor Swift’s adventurous pop and Adele’s torch songs. Even Rihanna has moved far away from the synthpop sound, going back to her reggaeton roots with “Work” and for a trippy ballad-like PBR&B edge. Remember, trends and styles peak and they fade and they come back. Every generation experiences this type of back-and-forth phenomenon.
Zara Larrson & MNEK | “Never Forget You”
Today’s Top 20 hardly lacks the omnipresence of uptempo synthpop of five years ago. DNCE’s “Cake By the Ocean” may be dancefloor friendly, but it’s more organic disco and funk. Except for the expected DJ remix circling around the Soundcloud universe, it hardly relies on EDM. Zara Larrson & MNEK’s “Never Forget You” is making its climb up the charts, settling for a peak at number 15, but the EDM track is actually half-ballad. Mike Posner, who disappeared from the recording scene, broke his hiatus by dropping “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” It borrows heavily from Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” so Pozer is just repeating the hit formula of last year with the hopes of cashing big. SO far, he’s been lucky — it’s sitting at number nine. These songs, along with The Chainsmokers “Rose” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” are still very much midtempo EDM. The high-energy pulse of dancey EDM is no longer the typical format of choice, it seems, and is starting to show signs of waining power on the charts. It’s as if the only way a dance track is going to jolt into the Top 40, it has to mask itself as being part-ballad and play around with the Drake/Weeknd euphoric swag now dominating rhythmic airplay.
As for the EDM scene, it’s going through a liquidation phase. Smart fans may have just had their “a-ha” moment. Just save the festival money and simply enjoy the music from home. Until a new star arrives and a new extravagant light show and production is launched, it’s probably best to get into conserve mode. As for synthpop, it might not be dead. It’s probably just in hibernation. This happened for disco, and it could very well be the case for synthpop’s future.
UPDATE: Pitchfork magazine recently published a helpful timeline covering EDM’s “bubble burst.” It covers some of the points previously mentioned, among others. Check it out by clicking here.
J Matthew Cobb is the managing editor of HiFi Magazine.