Why the Corporate Takeover of EDM Was Inevitable: The Straight Bros are On Board

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You're not likely to hear many heavy-handed conversations about business at Ultra Music Festival this weekend, but if you do, it will more than likely be about billionaire Robert F.X. Sillerman's plans to buy up just about everything related to electronic dance music and consolidate it all under SFX Entertainment. Our sister blog Crossfade has chronicled his hostile takeover of the scene. His possessions now include nightclubs (like Miami's LIV), a string of well known EDM promotion companies, and Beatport, the EDM scene's answer to iTunes.

While Sillerman's business strategy might strike some as odd (what is it they say about putting all of your eggs in a single basket?), the formal corporate takeover and consolidation of EDM has been a long time coming.

Anyone present at Chicago's infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979 would surely be surprised to see the current state of dance music in America. Over the half decade leading up to that night, disco music — which was once almost exclusively the soundtrack to underground clubs that catered primarily to black, Latin and gay audiences — had gone mainstream even without masking its gay and minority roots (hello, Village People and Sylvester).

Of course, this didn't tend to sit well with your basic straight white guy. So, desperate to sell tickets, the Chicago White Socks arranged for local shock jock Steve Dahl to promote an anti-disco night which would feature him burning disco records. What followed was a testosterone-fueled display of violent aggression that Chicago police in full-riot gear had to break up.

"It was your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead," wrote music critic Dave Marsh in a column following the events in Rolling Stone. "White males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they're the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security."

The riot hastened the demise of disco as a popular genre, but disco never died. It simply sashayed back into the gay and black clubs from whence it came, got a little mechanically-assisted work done, and reemerged as house music in Chicago. Influences of house and other electronic music like Kraftwerk (straight white Germans that they are, the band often found themselves at black and gay clubs to preview their music) begat Techno music in Detroit.

And dance music carried on with little notice from the general American public. To give you an idea of how much dance music equaled "gay music" in America for so long, up until recently Billboard's "Hot Dance Club Songs" might as well have been called the "Gay Club Chart." Madonna holds the record for most number one singles with 43 on a chart originally titled "Disco Action." Drag performers RuPaul and Kevin Aviance both have multiple number one hits. Even musically challenged gay porn star Colton Ford has placed on the chart.

Sure, electronic dance music wasn't just the province of American gays. Various underground genres had attracted audiences of all types. In Europe, the cultural space occupied by techno music is almost akin to the space in which we hold indie rock in America. And of course, the music had popped back up in the mainstream from time to time before today's current EDM trend, either as an influence on pop music or directly with the masculine beats of '90s big beat artists like Daft Punk and the Crystal Method.

But something funny happened recently. Dance music got a big shot of testosterone. The music of Skrillex, a former lead singer of a Warped Tour band, is the most obvious example. With hard and crunchy rock-inspired riffs and those dramatic drops, his music speaks to that inner rage of all teenage boys that rock music used to fulfill. Most of the beats produced by other headliners on the Ultra main stage this weekend also carry that hard-edged masculine zeal. "Electronic Rock Music" might be a more apt name for some act. 

Amazingly, EDM has discovered how to sell itself to straight, white, American teenage boys. The very same lot that, had they lived decades earlier, might have been burning disco music in Comisky Park. This time around, unmistakably, the movement is fronted largely by white guys, and you'd be hard pressed to find any gay subtext aside from the shirtless bros bumping into each other in the crowds. 

And anytime you figure out to sell things to straight, white, American teenage boys (and older men who share their mentality), you've got yourself a business. Potentially a big one. Just check out the box office receipts on any given summer weekend. Because American business is still so largely controlled by white guys, its not a mistake they know how to expertly cater to the teenage whims they once, and often still, have. 

So don't be surprised that corporate types like Sillerman (tellingly, a guy who got his start promoting rock concerts) continue buying up anything in the EDM scene they can. EDM is now nothing but big beats, and bigger business.

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