Drugs and the World of EDM

“You have technicians here making noise. No one is a musician. They’re not artists because nobody can play the guitar.”—“Rock n’ Roll (Will Take You To The Mountain)” by Skrillex (2011)

Calvin Harris received a remarkable distinction last week. According to Forbes, the popular electronic music producer became the highest-paid DJ in the world, earning more than $66 million in one year—surpassing notorious high earners like Jay-Z ($60M), Kobe Bryant ($65M), and Justin Timberlake ($57M).

He is not alone. Harris and the rest of the top 10 DJs dubbed the Electronic Cash Kings of 2014 collectively made over $268 million last year. You could multiply the efforts of Pharrell Williams (who raked in a mere $22 million) ten times and still not measure up.

Electronic Dance Music, or EDM, is feverishly hot today—so much so, it may well represent the new disco era. In the 1970s, electronic music provided an escape from the realities of war, recession, and social strife that marked the decade before—struggles that all but nullified the gains of the era (sexual freedom, for instance). Today’s EDM has done exactly the same for young people who—in addition to dealing with war, recession, and social strife—are angry at the paradoxical state of a complex, information-driven world that has left us in want. We communicate more than ever, but we don’t connect. No unlimited talk and text plan is sufficient to fill the void in a person’s soul.

And so, people dance—all night long. Not to mention, party.

Drugs are part and parcel of the music business, and a very critical component of the EDM business, but it’s easy to dismiss the dynamics of this particular relationship. For many musicians, drugs are a prerequisite for developing creativity and sentience. (Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, and Whitney Houston come to mind). With EDM, however, the relationship is the opposite: EDM inspires fans to do drugs, which in turn increases creativity and sentience in the crowd.

Therein lies the tension.

For professionals like Harris, EDM is still an art form, first and foremost. These DJs bear no resemblance to the average disc jockey, say, mixing for a wedding party. Successful electronic music producers are card-carrying members of the underground, and many would probably prefer to keep it that way. They can’t help that their beats are universally appealing. For many EDM artists, the recent popularity of the genre must feel a little like the awkward new kid being crowned Homecoming King. It’s probably flattering, but slightly inauthentic. No self-respecting DJ is motivated by popularity. (One possible exception: Paris Hilton. But even that’s debatable.)

Nevertheless, EDM’s popularity is just a reflection of man’s instinctual urge to groove.

If art imitates life, then Saturday Night Live’s classic skit, “The Roxbury Guys,” surely illustrates this. Hardly anyone can withstand head bobbing in unison to “What is Love” by Haddaway. EDM inspires a sense of timelessness with its endless loops and pulsating rhythms. For many fans and festival partygoers, the effect is more than an escape; it’s spiritual transcendence.

For others, however—maybe the great majority of EDM fans—the music is secondary to the party. Drugs are the primary motivating factor for participation, and this changes everything for an artist.

Drugs are ruining EDM, and not only as a matter of individual health and safety (a sobering topic in and of itself). Drugs at EDM festivals ensure that Calvin Harris is virtually indistinguishable from a remix DJ at a wedding party. Sure, he showed everyone a good time, but the event wasn’t really about him or his skills and talents and creative capacity. Electronic music producers are constantly berated for their lack of talent. (Skrillex made reference to the notion with a humorous audio clip at the end of one of his most popular songs.) So-called fans don’t expect EDM artists like Harris to display talent. They expect DJs to show up and press play, so they can get the party started.

In this way, superstar DJs are taken less seriously than musicians in other genres. It might not matter for a broad sweep of high-profile EDM producers, many of whom are evidently cashing checks at the end of the day. But it’s noteworthy because it’s about respect.

And when drugs play such a pivotal role, you won’t get much.

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