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The Mainstream DJ Trap

Let me preface this article by saying that I do not consider myself an EDM snob, by any means. Someone such as myself, whose iTunes library includes musical selections such as Hot Cheetos and Takis by the Y.N. Rich Kidz, anything from Third Eye Blind, and Hey Now as sung by Hilary Duff from The Lizzie Maguire Movie Original Soundtrack, cannot possibly be a music snob of any kind. Do I giggle every time my 30-something office neighbor, who happens to be a lawyer, tells me that he thinks Zedd is the greatest DJ in the history of the planet? Absolutely. But it’s in no way because I don’t think Zedd makes good jams. Zedd makes GREAT jams - PLUS, his erotically charged photos with BFF-slash-fellow-DJ Porter Robinson, can always brighten even my darkest days (Google it).

However, as I discovered last Summer, there is a very big difference between being a successful DJ within the EDM community, and being a successful DJ within mainstream society. What’s the difference? Two things: 1) Money and 2) Freedom.

So here’s the deal: In the EDM world, when a DJ becomes “mainstream” by definition (David Guetta, Afrojack, Avicii, and Zedd, for example) they then start to draw a very different crowd than the up-and-comers. This crowd is made up of two kinds of people: 1) Bad Kids - or EDM-enthusiasts, who legitimately eat sleep and breathe the music and the culture in their daily lives, and 2) Everyone Else - people who have been told by the radio/the media that Avicii is the Justin Timberlake of house music, and although they’ve never been to an EDM festival before, hey, if Avicii’s goin - so are they!

Well kids, this is exactly why when you go to a festival like EZOO, which is easily accessible to the surrounding areas being that it’s in NYC, the DJs who never fail ya, in fact do fail ya, in a very big way. Did I pay $400 to come to Electric Zoo to hear Zedd play Clarity or to hear Afrojack play that same freaking Take Over Control intro mix, or for every single DJ to 'unexpectedly' insert show us what you got when that motherfuckin' beat DROPS right before a huge drop that you hear comin' a mile away? NOPE.

So why do these DJs do this? Why do they basically phone it in, play their greatest hits with a side of mix, and then get a massive round of applause from the crowd as if they’ve just witnessed Skrillex compose Cinema from scratch?  You’d think with all the hardcore EDM lovers that these DJs would really try and give the crowd something new, something fresh, something special. But they don’t. In fact, they intentionally stay within a very basic wheelhouse of tracks that we’ve all heard 9 billion times. Why?

Because kids, a festival is where a mainstream DJ has the potential to score tens of thousands of brand new fans from the non-Bad Kids demo and lock them in for life. All they have to do is play that one song, that one song that the radio-loving general population actually knows, the song they paid a small fortune to hear in-person. You can usually tell who these people are too, because once they hear “their” song, they jump up and down and say that was the best 3 minutes of their life, and since they’re so revved up, for the rest of the set, these people are riding on a high made of overused tracks and predictable drop dreams. Ear crack.

Now this is not meant to bash the crowd for liking “mainstream” EDM, or bash any of these DJs for their skills. I believe that all of these DJs are genuinely skilled at what they do, which is why they are so successful...HOWEVER, a festival is a bit of a trap for a “mainstream” DJ these days.

At their own personal shows where only diehard fans got tickets, DJs can play whatever their little hearts desire at the moment - and most of them do. But when they’re on a stage, sharing a lineup with a trillion other DJs, with a crowd full of people who JUST came to hear that one “hit” they know from the radio, said DJ is obligated to play it. If they don’t, they can kiss those new fans/followers/ticketbuyers/merch-buyers goodbye. Therefore, the overall quality of their set becomes dumbed down, simple, so that it doesn’t scare off those whose ears are not developed for the most epic of beats just yet.

Where does that leave us Bad Kids? As I discovered at EZoo, it leaves us in the hands of the up-and-coming DJs who are musically unbound. They don’t have anyone to answer to but themselves, and as opposed to the mainstreamers who are working on building a household name, the up-and-comers are just trying to stand out.

Imagine an NFL team.  You have the old-timer: the guy who’s been there the longest, and is also probably paid the most. He rose to fame quickly, made his mark in the industry, and now he’s just becoming an expensive intermediate player, as his stamina, energy and overall enthusiasm start to dwindle. Then you have the rookie: the brand new, end-zone dancing, out-of-nowhere superstar player, who has the energy of a gazelle and the hubris of Kanye West.

The old-timer has his contract, his endorsement deals, his sports car, and his brand name. He’s gonna play for you, but not like the rookie will, because the rookie has EVERYTHING to prove, whereas the old-timer has already proven himself, and he’s ready to cash in that game check and head on home.

Last year at Electric Zoo this caused me to walk away from almost every single mainstage act that I had been dying to see, disappointed and B-O-R-E-D. I must’ve said it 20 times that weekend: “I am so fucking BORED. Let me guess: Eat Sleep Rave Repeat, into Atom, into Animals, into Tsunami? YEP. That’s what I thought. I can’t listen to this over and over again…"

I wandered away from the DJs who I originally planned to see, and somehow found my way into the trap tent...where I proceeded to have the best time of my entire life. I remember screaming over the up-and-comers unbelievable beats, “I’m not leaving this tent for the rest of the festival. I don’t wanna see Tiesto, I don’t wanna see any more mainstage DJs. I’m staying right HERE.”  I didn’t want to move from that tent because I was finally excited again. For once, I couldn’t predict what track was coming next. There were all kinds of genres, sounds, styles, tracks being thrown in and I suddenly remembered why I fell in love with EDM in the first place: The Element of Surprise.

So, how do you gain true success, in both reputation and net worth, without falling into the “mainstream” trap? For a DJ on the rise, it’s a very delicate balance. But this is where someone like Laidback Luke can be used as an example. He doesn’t get Top 40 radio-play, but he has A-list name recognition in the EDM world, and can sell out any show in a heartbeat. He straddles the line very well, and gets to play huge festivals while still having the freedom to drop the fucking Circle of Life from The Lion King in the middle of his set if he so chooses.

Again, no disrespect to Zedd or Afrojack or Avicii - they are hugely successful. But to me, a DJ set should be like a box of chocolates: You should never know what you’re gonna get.


Lex Houser
Lex Houser

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