Culture

Ten Years After: A Look Back at 2011, the Year EDM Broke Into the Mainstream

Where were you when EDM went mainstream?
Where were you when EDM went mainstream? Photo by Ian Witlen
In 2011, Ultra Music Festival said goodbye to Bicentennial Park, its home for the prior six years. With Pérez Art Museum Miami and Museum Park's looming construction, organizers announced that the festival was moving back to Bayfront Park for its 2012 edition. Despite Bayfront Park's smaller footprint, organizers promised a bigger, better experience, with increased capacity and square footage — something they achieved by shutting down Biscayne Boulevard's northbound lanes.

That wasn't the only change. Ultra's lineup, previously equally weighted across live acts and DJs, nearly doubled in size, favoring the communal DJ experiences of stalwarts and future superstars. A decade ago, that change in direction served as the harbinger of the EDM boom that fueled the music industry in the mid-2010s.

Americans were ready for a new era, having had the rug pulled out from under financial systems they'd trusted and the doom of the Great Recession having taken hold. Waves of millennials were entering adulthood, learning to focus on creating memories as currency. Millennials, we now know, were the first generation to have word-of-mouth recommendations through social networks at their fingertips and were twice as likely as their parents to value experiences over material things.

This same generation was primed for electronic music consumption.


In the '90s and early 2000s, pop acts from Madonna to 'N Sync made use of plenty of electronic-influenced production in their songs. Even the preferred hip-hop style at the time, crunk, featured heavy synths and drum machines. Then, in 2004, the Grammys established the award for Best Dance/Electronic Album, with Basement Jaxx receiving the first award in 2005. And Fatboy Slim’s infectious, punky, disco quirk made its way to the top of the charts, bolstered by a floating, dancing Christopher Walken. All this as the thriving, vibrant underground of the electronic music scene waited in the wings.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, ahead of Electric Daisy Carnival’s 2011 festival, Pasquale Rotella and his team at Insomniac had a decision to make. After the uproar that followed the 2010 event at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it was time for EDC to make a move. Political pressure aside, the festival had outgrown the space.

“I looked at different locations near LA, but I was really attracted to Vegas even though it didn’t have a track record of successful festivals at the time,” Rotella recalls. “Festivals had gone there and had died. It was very risky, especially with dance music, because dance music had not thrived in Vegas yet. At that time, Vegas was about bottles and models and hip-hop and commercial music. Still, it was a risk I was willing to take.”

Insomniac took the leap, even launching an Orlando franchise of EDC that same year.
click to enlarge The crowd at LIV during Laidback Luke's Super You & Me event during WMC 2011. - PHOTO BY LEX HERNANDEZ
The crowd at LIV during Laidback Luke's Super You & Me event during WMC 2011.
Photo by Lex Hernandez
American clubs reacted as well, evolving from dance floor-centric spaces into DJ-focused havens where house-music lovers and club rats could share a singular experience. In Miami, LIV was among many of these venues that entered nightlife charts for the first time in 2011, debuting in DJ Mag's Top 100 Clubs list alongside venues like Marquee Las Vegas.


The big names had remained the same for years, but their music was less and less the gold standard for new DJs and producers. Instead, that symbol of success became something more widely consumed: radio play. The edges of electronic music had been college-radio favorites for decades. It was these producers crossing over into pop that caught — and kept — radio promoters’ attention.

Paavo Siljamäki, Jono Grant, and Tony McGuinness launched their Above & Beyond project in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2011, with the release of their now-historic album, Group Therapy, along with two Essential Mix nods, that they found their footing. Admittedly, they began their career trying to build their own legacy in the footsteps of the artists they thought did it right: Ferry Corsten, Paul Van Dyk, and Matt Darey. But in '11, they truly began paving their own way. In their case, it didn’t involve pop celebrities but a change in sound.

“We stopped being ashamed of copying other people or trying to fit in with our peers and to mimic stuff that's been going on. I'm not a Rolling Stones fan, but you know, their first two albums were just pastiche of real R&B,” McGuinness says. “As an artist, you start out as a sheep, and if you're going to be any good and going to make any difference in the world, you have to end up being a wolf.”
click to enlarge Ultra tickets were hard to come by as EDM gained mainstream attention. - PHOTO BY IAN WITLEN
Ultra tickets were hard to come by as EDM gained mainstream attention.
Photo by Ian Witlen
Dutch DJ Fedde Le Grand, who scored a hit in 2011 with “So Much Love,” offers a similar sentiment.

“I showed the scene and myself that there was a place for a less-formatted music style,” Le Grand says. “As awesome and exciting as the time was, you could also see that the music and performances were getting more formatted and, unfortunately, less creative. ['So Much Love'] broke me free of the norm and gave me my own place in the scene.”

Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 chart for 2011 showed the beginnings of the EDM era peeking out. “Give Me Everything,” an Afrojack and Pitbull-assisted hit; Rihanna's Calvin Harris-produced track “We Found Love"; and David Guetta's “Where Them Girls At," featuring Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj — all showed off producers’ ability to multitask, releasing music under their own accord as well as with others. Even Madonna famously joined Avicii on-stage at Ultra the following year, among a laundry list of collaborative special guests.

“It became about money. Up until 2011, a lot of the stuff that was happening was just a natural synergy between what was going on with [Winter Music Confrence], what was going on with the nightclubs during that week,” says Billy Kelly, cofounder of WMC. “Even [Ultra] became a little bit more monetized right around 2010, when these artists were blowing up on a national level. It wasn't hard to get an audience because they were being played on the radio.”

It was easier to book them, too. DJ sets required less turnover, and shorter, one-hour set times allowed festivals to book more artists.
click to enlarge Skrillex at Ultra Music Festival 2011. - PHOTO BY IAN WITLEN
Skrillex at Ultra Music Festival 2011.
Photo by Ian Witlen
“It wasn't affecting the ticket sales," Kelly explains. "People were willing to listen to multiple DJs spin back-to-back for the same ticket price that they were willing to see a live performance.”

After the partnership between WMC and Ultra soured in 2010 (Ultra would later acquire WMC, in 2018), Ultra launched Miami Music Week — in 2011. With it came an explosion of new events, interest, and visibility.

“What you had was a distinct group of people coming to the first week, still very supportive of WMC, and then a whole other group of more EDM people coming on the last week of March because they were guaranteed big bucks for the festivals,” Kelly explains.

It wasn't just the events that blossomed in 2011. That year also delivered some of EDM's most memorable tracks, from Avicii's breakthrough, “Levels,” to Bingo Players' “Cry (Just A Little)” and Skrillex's remix of Benny Benassi's “Cinema,” a record that recently celebrated its own decade with a re-release.

“It was a part of what a bunch of DJs, including me, were trying to do, which was to produce tracks that could be played on mainstream radio featuring singers that came from a different musical scene,” Benassi says. “They could be pop singers, rappers, R&B, soul or rock voices, as long as their voices worked. That’s how my approach was changing. That was the challenge.”

Dance music began to get bigger, bolder. And the rooted terms techno, trance, and house weren’t enough to sell the full package of what was transpiring. Thus, the term "EDM" — or electronic dance music — began making its way into the vernacular in 2011.
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