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New Music

Dance Music’s Creative Crisis: It’s Not Just Streaming

Deadmau5 catches at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Canada

Damon Krukowski’s sobering analysis of how little recording artists make from streaming their music under current royalty rates — to wit, he says that his former band, Galaxie 500, would need to rack up 13 million streams to make the same profit they did selling just 1,000 7-inches, back in 1988 — has generated plenty of reactions, both positive and negative. Among the critical responses is the hoary argument that musicians need to suck it up and adapt with the times — specifically, by taking their show on the road. If the only money left on the table is to go to touring acts, then musicians just need to get off the couch and go play some shows, right?

Former Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston has written a cogent takedown of this attitude, but one point in particular sticks out: “Playing live only really ‘works’ as a revenue model (let alone a constant one) for certain types of acts.”

I’m so glad she brought that point up, because it crystallizes a lot of what’s wrong with electronic dance music in 2012.

Setting aside the audience, there are two fundamental roles in dance music: The producer and the performer (whether DJ, live act, or some hybrid of the two). Many electronic-music artists, certainly most working ones, occupy both roles. There are notable exceptions — particularly DJs like Ben UFO and Jackmaster, who have made a point of focusing their efforts solely on DJing — but DJs who don’t also produce original music are few and far between. (On the local level, of course, it’s possible to find many talented DJs who don’t put out records, but they rarely become known outside of their city or region, and they rarely end up making a career of it.) There must also be some electronic-music producers who never play in public, whether as DJs or live performers, but I’m having trouble coming up with any current names. As a rule, artists who want to have careers in electronic music have to do double duty as producers and performers. But that’s a recent development, and it has had deleterious effects on electronic dance music as a whole.

Many recording artists simply aren’t born performers, and vice versa. Some producers would be content to stay in their studios making music — whether that’s for listeners to buy, or other DJs to play out. (Electronic dance music’s economics are complicated by the fact that much of its output isn’t really meant to be purchased by home listeners; its main market is DJs.) They may not have the skills or interest to be DJs themselves, or to develop a dynamic, compelling live set. Production and performance entail totally different skill sets, and it sucks that a producer who is fantastically talented at one thing — turning out amazing productions — has to stretch her/himself thin by also taking up DJing or live performance.

But an artist who only makes records is increasingly unlikely to be able to make a living at it. Without even wading into the debate over streaming royalties, it is commonly accepted that the bottom has dropped out of the market for dance-music recordings. Labels that used to be able to count on selling 10,000 or more copies of a new single or EP may now sell 1,000 copies; labels that used to sell in the low thousands are now selling in the low hundreds.

There are many reasons that dance-music records sell less now than they used to. Piracy is a big one. Another is the “unbundling” of EP tracks. With digital music, consumers no longer have to fork over $10 for a two-track single; they may buy just one MP3. And while digital music might seem cheaper to distribute than vinyl — after all, there’s no physical pressing, no sleeves to print, no postage costs — it’s still not free; labels still have to cover graphic design, promotion, mastering of the digital file, and their own overhead. So once the digital retailer has taken its cut (as high as 40%) and the label has recouped its costs, the amount that’s left over for the artist is very small indeed, when we’re talking about single MP3s priced at $1.99.

So musicians who want to make a living need to tour. But here’s where the Catch-22 kicks in.

For producer/DJs to get consistent bookings, they need to keep up a steady flood of new productions in order to keep their name circulating in the public. So they end up releasing tons of mediocre shit, just as talented producers deliver sub-standard DJ sets. And, since they’re gigging every weekend and then recovering from jetlag and hangovers from Monday through Wednesday, there’s precious little time to actually sit down in the studio and get real work done. Making good music takes time, and time is an increasingly scarce resource for touring DJs and live performers.

Meanwhile, the market clogs up with mediocre, sound-alike productions. If people want to buy them, of course, that’s their prerogative. But the marketplace gets cluttered. Listeners burn out. It gets harder and harder to find original, exciting music in the big online retailers. Purchasers’ dollars get divided up between an increasingly larger pool of releases, and labels and artists sell even fewer recordings. So Johnston is right: The admonition to “just go out on tour,” a red herring for the indie scene, is an even less adequate solution for electronic dance music. The tightening loop between the studio and the stage is a vicious circle, and it’s strangling dance music’s creative potential.