DJs Are Not Rock Stars: 4 Lessons From Europe’s Dance Explosion

Phil Morse | Read time: 5 mins
commercialisation of dance music EDM
Last updated 16 November, 2017


Mixmag, UK, June 1998, and Rolling Stone, USA, June 2012: With dance culture and drugs gripping the States right now, just as they gripped the UK a decade and a half ago, today we look at what’s likely to happen next.

Dance (or “EDM” to give it its US-centric title) is big business stateside, with deadmau5 on the cover of the new edition of Rolling Stone merely underlining the fact. Simon Cowell wants to bring us “DJ Factor”. Forbes profiles top DJs. Even the Wall Street Journal talks of the “dumbing down of dance” (the Wall Street Journal!). Yup, in the biggest music market in the world, “EDM” is currently the biggest thing.

But for us here in Europe, there’s more than a slight feeling of “seen it all before”. Compare the covers of Mixmag, UK, June 1998, to Rolling Stone, USA, June 2012. Drugs and dance culture shoved in the faces of everyone who walks past a newsstand.

Having DJed and promoted through the dance explosion of 1997-2001 in the UK and Europe, a few home truth seem obvious to me in all this debate about whether DJs are rock stars, whether they’re really DJs or faking it, and whether the whole scene going overground is a good thing or not. Here’s my take on some of today’s talking points:

1. EDM is the flavour of the month. Who can blame the artists for riding that?

What you’re seeing in the States (and, of course, this is reflected in the charts over here in Europe too, pop now being a truly global phenomenon) is pop music appropriating dance for its own ends. EDM is this year’s flavour of pop – but in becoming so, both pop and electronic music are being changed. Is Skrillex popular indie or credible pop? Are Swedish House Mafia pop or dance? What about Calvin Harris when he pairs up with Rihanna? Black Eyed Peas take Dutch house dirty riffs and turn them into three-minute radio singles. Everyone else copies. So what’s actually happening here?

Skrillex Grammys
Skrillex accepts one of his three Grammys as EDM drops any pretence of being underground stateside any more.

The truth is that these artists cannot embrace all of this, cannot engage with the events they’re now playing at, profit from the scene they find themselves at the heart of, without changing, without immediately become part of the system. Whatever they were before, they’re now pop acts.

Back in the late 90s, acts like Daft Punk, Prodigy, Underworld and Chemical Brothers, and DJs like Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong and Paul Van Dyk were smashing it here in Europe. They were high in the charts, and playing packed out festivals. Sound familiar? Here’s Oakenfold, in a telling quote from the time:

“Whether it’s raising my hands or pointing to someone in the crowd and smiling, it means the world. I am an entertainer. I am a professional.”

As Alex Petridis, writing in the Guardian a few years later, pointed out: “[Oakenfold said these words] with the sort of high seriousness that comes when raising your hands can earn you £750,000 a year.”

2. Performers have always been derided for leaving the DJ box

Whether it’s by each other, by the press, or by the cynics in the crowd, dance music’s performers have always got stick when they try to become more than DJs. Dance is inherently not a live medium. Electronic dance music performed “live” is a contradiction in terms. There rarely much live about it, apart from programming and timing – yup, this is the realm of the DJ, not the rock star, not the live performance. Going down the road of expecting EDM “performers” to replace rock stars is a 12-foot brick-walled dead end. And why would we want them to? Dance was a reaction against rock, not a replacement for it.

Back in 1997, the Prodigy, Orbital, Faithless, Daft Punk and so on tried their hardest to cross over by becoming more visual on stage. in an attempt to become more than human beings jumping around to triggered Midi sequences. But then, as now, the very medium of electronic dance music sits uneasily on the big stage. Dance music is not to be gawped at, it’s to be danced to. It’s not them and us. It’s just us.

Prodigy live: Dance has always tried to break out of the DJ booth, with a mixed degree of success.

“David Guetta has two iPods and a mixer and he just plays tracks – like, ‘Here’s one with Akon, check it out!’,” says deadmau5 to Rolling Stone, 2012.

“Even Skrillex isn’t doing anything too technical. He has a laptop and a Midi recorder, and he’s just playing his shit … People are, thank God, smartening up about who does what – but there’s still button-pushers getting paid half a million.”

Not that deadmau5 is delusional enough to place himself far apart from any of this: “And not to say I’m not a button-pusher. I’m just pushing a lot more buttons.” he adds.

3. Marketing is driving this, and some people are making a lot of money – for now

DJs moan about the heart being ripped from their beloved scene, about marketing men and hype replacing genuine emotion and talent, about everything being commoditised. And to an extent it’s true. On the face of it, that’s exactly what’s happening stateside (Electric Daisy Carnival, the Ultra Music Festival and so on all reporting record numbers and huge profits for their organisers), just like it did here in Europe (business-driven clubs like Cream and Gatecrasher turning into superclub brands and festival franchises, with Coca Cola and other multinationals firmly on board).

But here’s the thing: What happened next was it burned out. Whether because mainstream dance culture was, then and now, essentially a drug-fuelled movement (look at the covers above for the parallels) and thus necessarily temporary (few can take E every weekend for more than a couple of years), or because this rampant commercialism robbed it of its cool, it dropped from the forefront and pop moved on.

Meanwhile though, a handful of people got very rich from working the system. It’s happening stateside right now.

4. “Underground will live forever, baby, we’re just like roaches, never dyin’ always livin’… “

The lyrics are from Roaches by Trancesetters, a late 90s underground house classic (I post it below purely because it’s ace 🙂 ). They are a fairly universal rallying call for anyone who’s ever enjoyed electronic music in a dark, sweaty room with cheap beer, loud speakers and a DJ a few feet away with his face down and his head bobbing.

The truth is, just as here in Europe, dance culture will survive its media darling phase. Sure it’ll burn out, probably become untrendy, even be legislated against (a few sad but inevitable-by-statistics E deaths and you’ll find the pendulum of tolerance swings against you – already happening in the California rave scene, so I’m told).


But after all the moneymen have reinvested their gains in other rising trends, and the artists have ridden the wave and returned to their roots (with music that, once again, will no longer be bothering the charts) – after all that, dance culture will survive. Richie Hawtin calls it “cross pollination.” “I’m optimistic,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “This new generation of producers are getting a new generation of people into the sound of electronic music.”

People were dancing to repetitive beats in darkened rooms long before all of this, and they’ll be doing it for long afterwards.

So from a personal angle, I’d say if you’re in the US and feeling uneasy about all of this, maybe try and enjoy EDM’s dominance for what it is, and to take from it what you can. Because it probably won’t happen again in our lifetimes.

Are you a US reader? Are you enjoying or hating the current surge of popularity for dance? Do you aspire to be part of it? Do you admire the artists? Or maybe like me, you’re a European, who either did or didn’t live through that phase of our culture, 15 years (and longer) ago. Am I right, or is it different today? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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