Music or Noise? Musicians on the Criticism of EDM

When my sister heard Skrillex for the first time in a packed sweaty crowd at Bonnaroo, a stray lantern floated into a tree, promptly lighting it on fire as two guys tried acid for the first time and passed out right beside her. To this day whenever “Bangarang” comes on my sister gets a crazed look in her eye and mumbles, “Dubstep…Scary…Fire…” Whether or not you enjoy the vein-pulsing and highly experimental sounds of EDM, you can’t ignore the way it ignites whatever conversation, amphitheatre, (or even tree) it touches.

Bonaroo, FestPop
Photo Credit: Bonaroo

Although my sister’s visceral reaction to the sound of EDM merely reflects her peculiar atmosphere and experience, there are artists and tycoons who disparage the EDM phenomena. Although it is hard to argue with a 6.2 billion dollar industry that attracts listeners from all over the world. Most recently the criticism has come from legendary rock artist Tom Petty. In an interview with, the very talented and experienced Tom Petty sounds like Drunk Uncle from SNL as he comments about the EDM craze in Vegas:

Watch people play records? That’s stupid. You couldn’t pay me to go. I’m not oversimplifying it. That’s what’s going on. I don’t think it would be any fun without the drugs. It’s a drug party. You take that many kids to Vegas in the summer, what could go wrong? I knew it as soon as I saw the ad. I went, “Ooh, dead people.” Do you need the money so bad that you’ll put some kid’s life at risk?

Can a multibillion dollar industry function on the simple idea of a “drug party” setup? Absolutely. But when that community includes innovative artists trying to find a new way of expressing their generation’s highs and lows, Petty’s observation becomes more muddled. EDC founder Pasquale Rotella wisely responded to this criticism saying:

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about records, DJs and dance music, including Tom Petty. We’re living in a very electronic era with constantly evolving forms of entertainment, which may be a daunting thing for a classic rocker in search of contemporary social relevancy as he starts promoting new music. But I would think that someone who played shows with Dylan and the Dead — someone who lived through and actively contributed to the counterculture era of the ’60s and ’70s — wouldn’t be so quick to drink the overhyped media Kool-Aid about our festival experience. If he wants to come to EDC Vegas next year and see what it’s really about, we’ve got a ticket with his name on it. If he doesn’t want to wait that long, Nocturnal Wonderland is right around the corner. My Mama Irene would be stoked to meet him! Who knows? He might just have a “Change of Heart.

Photo Credit: Chad Wadsworth

Music that lasts has nearly always struggled against society and preexisting expectations. And even compared to today, drug use in the ‘60s and ‘70s is pretty legendary. But Petty is addressing a very real issue—can festival-goers experience an EDM show without doing some kind of psychedelic or enhancement? The answer seems obvious, and the fact remains that festivals are exactly what people who attend make them. Music inspires and can enhance all kinds of situations: driving through the desert, cleaning your room, crying over an ex, or making out in the backseat. Just like Woodstock, contemporary music festivals can potentially provide some people the opportunity to smoke and lose their minds for a few hours. But that does not mean that EDM as a genre is responsible for this kind of behavior. In fact, in a smaller subculture, EDM has also inspired Christian ministry through “raves” that mimic the drops and sways of a typical EDM concert. Like most events we attend in our lives, the experience we have with the music is what we make it.

In its very definition EDM is a dance-centered style (consider “electronic dance music”). Obviously it does not rely on the club setup, but its connection to the DJ phenomena connects it to a live show in a way many other genres of music does not. Unlike a band that relies on their physical prowess to produce music at a show, a DJ could potentially play for hours more with their equipment. This does not mean less talent is engaged in an EDM show, but it does allow for more showtime for the audience. When Daft Punk played at Coachella in 2006, the genre shifted to include an individuality and definitive personality to the DJ creating the music being played. EDM has only grown and further developed since that experience.

Criticism over the festival experience and subculture also expands into a misunderstanding of what the music is trying to achieve. Earlier in the year in an interview with Howard Stern, Skrillex responded to the criticism, noting:

I guess naturally because it’s so new, but it’s the cool thing about it. There hasn’t been a genre or platform in music in a long time that’s been so criticized. Because it’s new and people don’t understand it, it makes people look old when they criticize it. The thing about electronic music, as far as the culture goes and the way the kids connect with the music, it’s a lot like a Phishshow or Grateful Dead show; we’re constantly producing and making new stuff every single day on the road, and they want to hear all the new records. It’s almost like what a radio DJ does.

Electronic music is not a new idea. From Synthpop to Disco, electronic-inspired tunes only allowed other artists to push the limits of what had already been done. In the last decade, it has gone on to expand to a broader and more experimental focus, which is exciting for the artists as well as the listeners. Creating an evolving sound should encourage the music industry to embrace change, not coddle every moderately attractive teen with a guitar. Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino even described EDM as, “the new rock ‘n’ roll.” Each generation of musicians knowingly or unknowingly passes down the baton of challenging the conventional ideas of what music is and what it is capable of. Elvis was considered an agent of the devil and Boby Dylan a rabble-rouser. Hopefully current and future EDM artists will take a cue from Tom Petty’s lyrics and “won’t back down.”

Written by FestPop Editor

Lauren Rogers

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