How to stay relevant as an artist in an ever-changing music industry
So your biography is written, your press shots have been approved, and your social media accounts are good to go. But being a producer of DJ in 2018 is about so much more than just building your fanbase, and the hardest part – for even the world’s biggest superstars – comes in learning how to maintain their core support, especially when they may wish to experiment with different sounds or head towards a different musical direction than the ones they first became famed for.
A music journey
The first issue experienced by so many artists arises from the ever-problematic ‘musical journey’, an arch a producer will experience over the course of the career that will see them flirting with various genres, sub-genres, loops, kicks, hooks, and melodies, as they sometimes look to shy away from that ‘one big hit’ that rocketed them into the mainstream consciousness, or simply seek to refresh their sound to challenge themselves as a musician. “How far can I push the boundaries here?” The answer to such a question is one where the answer sits between somewhat blurred lines and raises the debate of ‘originality vs popularity.’
Those who succeed in this game are widely praised – and often criticised – for adventure, and artistic diversity. When the late, great, Swedish superstar Avicii turned up to Ultra Music Festival in 2013, he 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 a decade. 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(sic) 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”. And yet, even the very best are not 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. But the case of the latter is perhaps the most interesting.
The Tiësto effect
Upon moving from his iconic trance sound in the late nineties, Tiësto certainly experienced his fair share of haters, but rather than pander to the criticism and make a swift return, he stuck to his guns, and used the trend of several sub-genres of dance music to elevate his own status. First, teaming up with the hottest name in the EDM circuit, Martin Garrix on their 2015 hit ‘The Only Way Is Up’ before tapping into further highly rated producers, such as KSHMR (‘Secrets’), The Chainsmokers (‘Split (Only U)’), Oliver Heldens (‘Wombass/The Right Song’), and Don Diablo (‘Chemicals’). The latter duo soon shot up DJ Mag’s Top 100, the embodiment of a modern-day popularity vote, rising to Numbers #12 and #11 respectively, whilst Tiësto – on account of his involvement in bass music and future house, both subgenres exceptionally popular with the younger market – managed to stay in the top 5.
Fans want to hear what they will love
After building your fanbase, many artists lose theirs by changing styles too drastically, with many fans becoming disillusioned with the sounds they now hear, and how comparably different they are to the tones they became engrossed by. In Tiësto’s case, if the new music is of a high-enough quality, the point becomes invalid, a claim backed up by Zedd in this 2013 interview with Forbes, where the German producer added: “I’m not here to play what people want to hear, I’m here to play what I want them to hear, music that I made for them. If they don’t like that, there are plenty other DJs out there.”
Understanding which category your own fanbase falls into, is the most pivotal moment in the longevity of any artist’s career in a musical landscape which is always evolving.