What Is a DJ's Role in Today's Dance Music Festivals?
Today’s top DJs are having an existential crisis about what the hell they should be doing on stage.
It's no secret that festivals have a crucial place in today's dance music culture. These super-sized events aren't just an entry-level gateway for new fans; they're also a powerful platform for the spread of new ideas and sounds, and a glimpse into where the culture is heading. Plus, they are a reliable stream of revenue for both independent promoters and major corporations.
But as festivals continue to grow in scale and importance, their most central attraction—celebrity DJs— are experiencing an existential crisis. Specifically, about what the hell they should be doing when they're up on stage. In recent interviews with the New York Times, MTV, and other outlets, several top DJs seem to be in disagreement, or at least hold vastly different views, on what their role at a dance festival should be.
In a New York Times feature last week, Swedish House Mafia alums Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso provided a treasure trove of fun facts about their post-SHM career as duo Axwell /\ Ingrosso. (My personal fave: that Axwell likes to mutter "turnt up, turnt up" to himself before he gets on stage.) While the dance music media honed in on Axwell's comment that "underground dance music [is] amateur," what the interview really focused on was the Swedish duo's live show.
"The most important thing is not what we play, but the personality and how we interact with the crowd," said Ingrosso. In one fell swoop, he summed up the mentality of DJs like Avicii and Steve Aoki, who have been criticized for playing predictable or possibly pre-recorded sets, to coordinate with the deployment of pyrotechnics (or baked goods).
As Axwell and Ingrosso explain, their coveted 90 minutes on a main stage surrounded by a blur of fireworks, lasers, and LEDs is like a "victory lap" after years of grunt work in the studio. So what if the extent of their effort is doing Jesus hands and twiddling a few knobs? "They don't know what we do before the shows," said Axwell, "A guy with a guitar might know how to play the guitar, but does he know how to produce a whole song?"
This is, perhaps, the official recasting notice for the role of the DJ from skilled track selector to adulated player of big hits, downplaying the importance of improvisation and surprise in sets in favor of familiarity and spectacle.
It's easy to imagine seasoned DJs like Paul Van Dyk and John Digweed gnashing their teeth over these comments. Last week, they both spoke out against the current crop of top DJs playing the same tired hits over and over again at festivals.
"If you're the biggest DJ in the world, you're in a position where you can play stuff that people don't know and blow people's minds," Digweed said to MTV. "But if you just chose to play stuff they know just to get a reaction, that's just being lazy."
He proudly confessed that his set at Ultra, where he played on Carl Cox's stage, was based on tracks he'd downloaded that same afternoon. Playing a record no one knows and hearing them go crazy is a "better buzz," he added.
Similarly, Van Dyk told MTV: "I think it is our responsibility as DJs to dig through all those thousands and thousands of tracks that come out each week and pick out the ones that actually mean something."
Both Digweed and Van Dyk are a half generation older than Axwell and Ingrosso, having first found success in the 90s and reached the mainstream zenith of their careers during the first electronic wave of the early 00s, a decade before the EDM craze washed over America and ebbed on shores abroad. In the last five years, Van Dyk has largely stayed out of the festival circuit, while Digweed has maintained a low key presence on side stages only. In other words, both of them have effectively opted out of the EDM festival bonanza that Axwell and Ingrosso are leading the charge on.
Digweed and Van Dyk's comments are therefore emblematic of an older school of DJing—one that puts the dynamics of the dancefloor as utmost priority. The explosion of dance music into the mainstream has changed the nature of its performance. Festivals now blithely take on the characteristics of pop and rock shows. While Digweed and Van Dyk used to play sets that stretched for hours, Axwell and Ingrosso's sets usually hit about an hour and a half. Dance music academic and cultural critic Luis-Manuel Garcia called this process the "concertization" of electronic music.
"A newer breed of EDM musicians have mostly abandoned the performance practices of the DJ booth to adopt those of a pop or rock stage artist: short, high-intensity musical sets that are paced like a rock concert, larger-than-life stage personae and a seemingly endless investment in visual spectacle to accompany the sensory overload of 'brain-melting' sound," Garcia wrote in a feature for Resident Advisor. He could have easily been talking about Axwell /\ Ingrosso's main stage finale at Ultra.
Seth Troxler—who straddles both worlds by championing underground dance music while appearing on the Ultra lineup—was violently opposed to the current crop of superstar DJs and their rock star antics. "I've seen Steve Aoki play at these festivals, and he kept turning the music off, jumping around onstage, saying 'This is my new single! Out next week!' and playing the next song," he told THUMP. "You are not a fucking DJ. You are an overpaid, untalented, cake-throwing cunt." (Aoki has since discontinued his caking practices, but a recent interview with Troxler confirms that they have still not buried the hatchet.)
"There's music, but it's not just about the music," Troxler concluded. "It's about experimentation, and the environment in which you experience music."
He's right. Regardless of venue, much of the spirit of dance music lies in experimentation and spontaneity. Recently, Skrillex and Four Tet played a back-to-back set in a sweaty London pub, where they delighted both the audience and chorus of spectating DJs (Ben UFO, Pearson Sound, Floating Points, Caribou and Pangaea were all in attendance) by slamming together EDM hits with grime classics. In a way, the art of experimentation was used to close the gap between the underground and mainstream.
In an age when the "underground" is discoverable online and mainstream festivals feature a stages named for or programmed with elements of the underground, perhaps these boundaries don't exist like we think they do. After all, Skrillex and Four Tet used the same song to end their show that the Times noted Axwell /\ Ingrosso dropped into their set—Toto's 1982 soft rock classic, "Africa."
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