Strictly Business: The Economics of EDM


AFTER SEPTEMBER 1, ID&T’s caution seems especially wise. At 11:24 that morning, the publicists for Electric Zoo—Made Events’ annual Labor Day weekend bash in New York City’s Randalls Island, near Harlem—sent the press a link to an official statement: Sunday was canceled. The third and final day of its fifth year was called off due to a pair of deaths the night before. A 20-year-old woman, Olivia Rotondo of Providence, R.I., and 23-year-old Jeffrey Russ of Rochester N.Y., had ingested too much Molly. There have been five other deaths since the American dance-festival season began in March. Some of those deaths have been traced to tainted or faked drugs—bath salts were being sold as Molly, a powdered, snorted form of MDMA, which in pill form is generally called Ecstasy.

This was bad news anyway, but especially so for a style that is both the music industry’s cash cow and punching bag. There’s long been a backlash inherent in the EDM craze; the music’s funkless exuberance is the most blankly formulaic pop style in ages, and the culture’s gushing-over-thinking worldview is unsustainable at any level. No one rides a long serotonin high without crashing into the dirt eventually. Dance cognoscenti see it as a clown-school version of the more refined peaks and drops they dote on. The rock establishment can’t figure out how this music makes so much money and sells so few recordings, even in a drastically downsized sales age. The press reports, yet again, from Vegas.

But Vegas is only the gaudiest example; it’s not the status quo. For one thing, the audiences at many EDM festivals, contra The New Yorker, are quite racially mixed—though the non-whites are predominantly Hispanic, Asian, and South Asian, rather than African-American. For another, even age-restricted festivals like Electric Zoo are built for exertion, not the creature comforts of Vegas. Attending Friday and Saturday evenings of this year, I saw a significant loss of energy from EZoo 2013 and last year’s edition, and at the time I put it down to general exhaustion. There are a lot of festivals out there now—more all the time—and lots of fans hit as many as possible. By the time Labor Day comes around, everyone’s tired. Also, you are aware that MDMA depletes your serotonin and leaves you bone-tired if you use too much of it, right?

This is not to scold anybody. Death is no joking matter, especially when it’s unnecessary. No one in the dance biz was laughing, either. Electric Zoo’s third day, canceled by the mayor’s office, in one of the biggest markets for this surging music—music that has had one mainstream watershed after another this year, from Daft Punk to Avicii—sent a message that made long-timers’ blood run cold, long-timers who were around the first time everything got shut down and a thriving business ground to a halt. It’s particularly bad timing for SFX, whose impending IPO needs to be filed, according to Billboard, by October 16.