The third annual IMS Engage on Wednesday, April 15 opened with disappointing if not unsurprising news: Sebastian Ingrosso, scheduled to appear in conversation with music icon Quincy Jones, had cancelled to be replaced by Pete Tong. It wasn't much of a loss for the crowd—Tong is infinitely better at conducting an interview than most—but there was no question that the former Swedish House Mafioso had bailed in light of the recent controversy around his comments to the New York Times.
If anyone thought this news portended a day of other intrigue and gossip-worthy banter, they would be wrong. Although the conference had upgraded from the dark lower floor conference room of the W Hollywood to a sunlit top floor former-nightclub with a 180 degree view of the Hollywood Hills and east LA, the excitement that this younger sibling of the heavyweight IMS Ibiza conference once brought to the intra-Coachella week has waned.
While the original IMS is a series of panels and keynotes organized like a typical conference, IMS Engage has made its hallmarks the pairing of unlikely musical masterminds, put on a stage to talk to each other in front of a crowd. While this has worked to some extent in its previous years, (Skrillex and Jeff Rosenthal of Summit Series in 2013, Diddy and Guy Gerber in 2014), there is little to guarantee a good time when such "conversations" aren't structured. It can end up being a bunch of rich dudes rambling, with an emphasis on dude.
IMS Engage 2015 featured exactly as many women panelists as IMS Engage 2014: zero. In its three years, IMS Engage has had only one woman on its stage, former Swedish House and current Ingrosso manager Amy Thomson. Inevitably, the conference ends up being a sausage fest/industry circle jerk, only nobody ever finishes (at least on stage).
Despite the overall banality, the day's first panel was probably the best. Def Jam/Warner Bros veteran Lyor Cohen was paired with Jake Udell, manager of Krewella and ZHU. Udell approached Cohen with the right attitude of a more junior player: enthusiastic and reverent. In turn, Cohen treated Udell as if he was his neighbor's kid. The only questions Cohen asked Udell were "do you like living in Los Angeles?" and "how far away do you live from your parents?"
Prompted by Udell, Cohen did cheat some insight on industry gossip, explaining how he was thwarted on signing tropical house crossover-bait Kygo to his 300 label. "I hiked to Norway—he doesn't live in Oslo, by the way. I flew to some other place. I ate a lot of smoked fish at the parents house and I thought I had it done."
Cohen said he doesn't do bidding wars and thus bowed out of the Kygo game, but stopped short of saying what everyone on in the room was thinking: that Kygo's management botched that deal. "You can have it," Cohen added. "You and your bosses and your boss's bosses. Go ahead with that."
After some banter between nightclub princes Jason Strauss, House Tao Group, Las Vegas and Dave Grutman, House LIV, Miami, the room was treated to the most polite exchange of thoughts between two of the kindest producers that ever graced the Kingdom of Dance, Kaskade and Stuart Price. The only moment of quasi-contention in their chat arose when Kaskade expressed his apparent distaste for the genre-fication of future house. "I hate that word," he admitted. "There's no such thing as future house house. We've been in the future since 1982!" Fair enough.
Those expecting the typically outspoken Seth Troxler to throw some verbal hand grenades (or at least notable quotables) were left high and dry. The Trox admitted to being nervous as he sat down with erstwhile rapper and cultural critic Chuck D of Public Enemy, who ended up dominating their conversation with meandering diatribes on capitalism and the government. D blessed us with such anti-establishment portmanteaus as "corplantation" and "industurbation," which were warmly received by an audience of people who could afford the $220 entry fee (or were deemed powerful enough to be admitted gratis) inside a posh Hollywood hotel. All very well and good, but what did this have to do with dance music?
Uncharacteristically mum for the majority of the conversation, Troxler did manage to defend himself against D's assessment of his music. "My music is very different from what you may know as EDM Culture. We fucking bring it. Underground culture has been pumping up this balloon for over 30 years. Now people are coming in, not bringing it, and how close are those people to popping the balloon?"
It would have been the perfect lead in to a conversation with Ingrosso (albeit probably not alongside the man who is tied with Alison Krauss for having more Grammys than any person alive). But that didn't happen. Nor could it have ever happened. The big conversations—the tension between underground and mainstream, the future of festivals, the bursting of the EDM cash cow—were kept at bay throughout the conference, much to the dismay of the crowd, the majority of whom had trickled out to the poolside bars before the end of Jones and Tong's panel.
The most shameful act of the day went barely noticed as the IMS Engage Visionaries Contest winner, Valerie Lee of Dancing Astronaut, was shortchanged her few minutes of recognition due to a technical malfunction during the announcement of her award. On top of that, her name was omitted entirely in the program booklet where her photo appeared. While these are surely unintentional slights, the fact that the only woman to be included at IMS Engage was effectively dismissed is a message the industry should be wiser than to send.
Dance music has more conferences per capita than most other genres. ADE, IMS, EDMbiz, EMC, and a slew of other acronyms fill the calendars of the industry elite while those aspiring to break in finance the events' production through hefty fees. Sometimes these conferences offer insight, foster opportunity, and advance conversations. But more often than not, they become platforms for the elite to promote themselves through unfocused discourse, while the lunch breaks and cocktail hours become the most worthwhile components.
IMS is a fantastic organization run by some really smart people who do a great job of presenting a comfortable and accessible event. While it is probably easier said than done, the onus is on all industry leaders to challenge themselves and their peers to advance the cause of dance music, not just navel gaze and back slap. The LA version of IMS Engage had some good luck in its earlier years but it needs to tweak the formula and push things forward.
To borrow a line from Chuck D during his appearance, IMS might want to "make sure your ass is so dope that you're better than the drug they're on at the gig." Indeed.