How can an artist maintain their popularity and stay true to themselves?
As the rise of electronic dance music has seen the live show elevated to a new status, the days of underground clubs with nothing more than a brooding sound system and bass-heavy beat have given way to full-on circus-style shows, laden with confetti cannons. But with fans flocking to festivals from far and near, and spending eye-watering amounts to do so, the question must be asked of dance music’s paramount topic; How can an artist maintain their popularity and remain original and stay true to themselves?
Those who succeed in this game are widely praised – and often criticised – for adventure, and artist diversity. When Avicii turned up to Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in 2013, the Swede was undoubtedly at the peak of his powers. Bringing a fresh melodic sound like no other heard before, here was the poster boy for the tipping point of an EDM bubble which showed no signs of bursting. Never had electronic music been at such forefront of mainstream media coverage, and in the ‘Levels’ producer, a face had been found for a man capable of dominating the genre for many years to come. What followed was nothing short of iconic, with Bergling deciding to debut a genre-change to the biggest dance festival in world music, leaving the Miami crowd open-mouthed, as he played track after track of a country & western-infused unreleased new album, in place of his singalong anthems like “Silhouettes” and “I Could Be The One”. The fuss the fiasco caused is legendary.
Dance website Dancing Astronaut labeled the set “too advanced for dance music“, whilst Avicii himself issued an official statement in the aftermath that read:
“Wow looks like I stirred up some controversy with my set Friday night at UMF. Seeing a lot of people who don’t understand. I really wanted to switch things up and do something fun and different, as I always strive for, and this album is about experimentation and about showing the endless possibilities of house and electronic music. My album is certainly not “country”, and people have gotten hung up on an instrument we used for the live cover of a song. People will soon see what it’s all about.”
This is, of course, not the first (or last) example of artistic vision falling flat within dance music. UK duo Disclosure were roundly criticized in 2015 for using their slot at Ushuaïa to play their new, previously unheard, album, during BBC Radio One‘s Ibiza weekend, as opposed to the classics from their 2013 album “Settle”. No artist in the industry is immune to criticism. Alesso‘s 2017 Ultra set was panned in certain areas of fan support for the heavy-trap sound he aired on the American mainstage, whilst even Tiësto – widely regarded as the biggest name in the industry – has fallen foul of critics who long for him to return to the original trance sound he was so famed for before commercial release “Kaleidoscope” in 2009.
The flip side of the coin is that in sticking with what they know, artists appease fans, and the sounds they originally fell in love with. If, as an example, fans who enjoy the deep soothing tropical house sounds of Kygo attend his show, they’d end up pretty disappointed to pay money and watch him perform a BROHUG-style set full of filthy drops. More often than not, fans are happy to sing along to “Don’t You Worry Child” for the 5 millionth time, because it’s both what they know, and what they love. But from this point of view, where does an artistic career stagnate due to pleasing crowds? Eric Prydz, as an example, now refuses to play “Call On Me” in his live sets. His breakthrough hit, a fast-food junk meal of high energy EDM, has given way to the now À la carte delicacies he now serves up to crowds from his techno and progressive aliases, Cirez D and Pryda.
In 2018, the thirst of the fan has never been more dehydrated for fresh content, and artists can only risk their own complacency once a winning formula is found. The balance between originality and popularity is clearly an almost impossible-seesaw for dance artists to balance, as they juggle the never-ending demand of fans seeking a mix between singalong anthems, and innovative new content. In 2018, the ravers of Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, and all other notable festivals and huge arena events, expect a mindblowing production full of the combo, but in reality, may have to settle for a slight lean towards one or the other. With dance music growing by the second, artists will – and should always seek to remix old classics and add different touches to their shows to keep it fresh. So long as that doesn’t come at the expense of fan favorite anthems, the line between staying relevant, and popular, as a live performer, is one that can be easily balanced.