How EDM became young India’s poison of choice

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on March 10, 2018
One nation, one beat: A scene from Electric Daisy Carnival, a popular EDM (electronic dance music) festival in Las Vegas. EDC is coming to India later this year. Image courtesy: aLIVE

One nation, one beat: A scene from Electric Daisy Carnival, a popular EDM (electronic dance music) festival in Las Vegas. EDC is coming to India later this year. Image courtesy: aLIVE

Mellow-meister: Sahej Bakshi aka Dualist Inquiry

House style rules: DJ and producer Anish Sood

A rootless, dehumanised, micro-capitalist genre is now filling stadiums in Indore and Hyderabad. Here’s how it happened

Last month, BollyEDM/bass music exponent Nucleya packed in 10,000 people at Mumbai’s National Sports Club of India (NSCI) stadium for the launch of his second album, Raja Baja, laying down a marker of sorts for his contemporaries in the home-brewed electronic dance music, or EDM, scene. Around the same time, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), another hallowed Mumbai institution, opened its doors to EDM for the first time, with a two-day event featuring mellowtronica producer Dualist Enquiry and house and techno DJ-producer Anish Sood. Meanwhile, Only Much Louder announced that they’re bringing down Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), one of the biggest EDM festivals in the world, later this year. It will feature Indian acts alongside global stars such as Alesso and Afrojack. Add in the continuing dominance of Sunburn and Supersonic, the two biggest home-grown electronic music festivals, and the fact that 60 of the world’s top 100 DJs (according to DJ Mag) have toured India in the last three-and-a-half years, and it’s hard not to think that the country is having a bit of an EDM moment. Over the past few years, thousands of Indian fans have flocked to music festivals and stadium tours to see superstar DJs and producers like David Guetta, Skrillex, Diplo and Steve Aoki dish out uber-maximalist audio-visual extravaganzas at a scale that rock and underground electronica fans can only dream of. How did this happen? How did a movement born in the conference rooms of the US’s massive music conglomerates lay down such strong roots in cities like Indore and Hyderabad?

We’ll get back to that question in a bit, but first, a quick recap. EDM goes back to the 1980s, after the explosive death of the disco movement. In Chicago, largely gay and black producers started channelling their love for disco through the filters of Italo, Kraftwerk and early hip-hop to create a new form of music, named ‘house’ after the iconic Warehouse club. Simultaneously, Detroit’s Europhilic gay black community was experimenting with the ideas of Afrofuturism to create a sound that married disco’s electric funk with the post-industrial landscapes of Detroit to create techno. Largely ignored by white America, these sounds increasingly gained popularity in the UK, where they mutated into what would become rave music. The futuristic ideas inherent in this technology-based music making, combining with ecstasy’s blissed-out egalitarianism and focus on community, transformed the UK dance music scene into an open, welcoming space where people across social and economic strata could come together, rage out and feel part of one big family. This cross-pollination led to a host of electronic musics — from breakbeat and the hardcore continuum to trance and hip-hop — that quickly spread across Europe to become the sound of a new generation. Following the time-honoured path of black American music making it into white America’s mainstream via the UK (think blues to rock ‘n’ roll), rave made its way back to American shores in the ’90s and gained a fair following for a few years. But despite the occasional appearance in the top-40 charts, EDM never exploded like it did in the UK and rest of Europe, in large part due to the negative druggy ‘rave’ associations.

There were high points: house acts KLF and Deelite’s chart success in the early ’90s, the rockist electro of Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers in the late ’90s and the impact of Europe’s superclubs and superstar DJs like Paul Van Dyk and Armin Van Buuren in the early 2000s. But it could never muster enough momentum to compete with hip-hop and the resurgence of rock in its nu metal and indie avatars.

That changed in the late 2000s as rave entrepreneurs started repackaging their large-scale, multimedia events as ‘festivals’, dropping the druggy associations to realign with the much more respectable tradition of music festivals in the US. While some, like Hard Festivals, founded by ’90s rave pioneer Gary Richards, tried to move away from the carnivalesque associations by banning paraphernalia like glow sticks and LED gloves, others such as EDC continued with the idea of dance music as an audio-visual extravaganza while trying to cut down the drug use. They were helped along by Daft Punk’s iconic 2006 Coachella performance inside a giant glowing pyramid, as well as by a beleaguered music industry’s belated realisation that future revenues would come from low-overhead touring DJs rather than album-oriented rock bands. By 2010, when EDC took over the LA Memorial Coliseum to signal electronic music’s delayed crossover into the mainstream, these festivals — now branded as EDM festivals — were cyber-futuristic wonderlands competing with each other to provide audiences with the latest in techno-visual eye candy and immersive multimedia experiences. Two decades after the birth in its own gay black and latino communities, American airwaves were finally ruled by EDM, albeit in a typically whitewashed, commercialised form (black EDM DJs are notably absent today).

But while it’s tempting to look at EDM just as a re-branded, extra-white version of rave, there are essential differences. The first is the sheer scale of these events, with attendance as well as production budgets bypassing even the heyday of UK and European raves. Music critic Simon Reynolds, who authored the definitive book on rave culture titled Energy Flash, characterised the movement’s outlaw entrepreneurial spirit as ‘micro-capitalism’. With its illegal free parties, pirate radio and contempt for the bureaucratic and musically conservative major label industry, rave situated itself firmly in an aesthetic, if not necessarily counter-cultural, underground. EDM, on the other hand, is macro-capitalism, driven along by those very same major labels, massive youth brands and a new breed of heavily corporatised event promoters. One of them, SFX International, even got itself listed on NASDAQ in 2013, though it eventually ended up filing for bankruptcy earlier this year.

The music is different too. While EDM is a catch-all term for all dance music made with computers, it has become closely affiliated to the brand of overblown, cheesy, hyper-dense progressive/big-room sounds popularised by Guetta, deadmau5, Aoki and Skrillex. While it draws elements from house, techno and hardcore, EDM is divorced from their cultural and political contexts, as also their experiments with atmosphere, the dehumanisation of music and techno-futurism. Instead, you have the soar — ramped-up major key choruses and hooks that reduce everything else in the song to set-up and filler — and the drop. This isn’t music to listen to at home, or to contemplate as a piece of art. It embodies what Reynolds calls ‘digital maximalism’. “Cutting across many genres, from electro-house to nu-skool dubstep, AKA brostep, to the audio-visual bombast of acts like Skrillex and Deadmau5, there’s a shared aversion to the very things that characterised analogue-era dance styles: recessive depth to the mix, slow-burning understatement,” he wrote in 2012 for The Guardian. “Every empty space in the audio spectrum is filled up, maxed out. Monster Energy Drink for the ears.”

Reynolds sees in this music the reflection of a lifestyle and a life-stance that could be called NOW!ism. He thinks it’s a positive thing, kids throwing off the shackles of nostalgia and heritage to focus only on the Now, much like punk rock did in 1977 and rave in 1991. But unlike punk or rave, EDM has no futuristic innovations, no radical edge to its hedonism, no PLUR innocence and idealism. The NOW!ism of EDM is characterised by consumerist amnesia rather than rave’s headlong tumble into the future-present. It takes pop music’s overriding characteristics — hook, melody, accessibility — and turns them up to speed-freak frenzy. Or, as Kenneth Lobo, Mumbai-based music writer and founder of music consultancy firm Sound Curry, puts it, “EDM, in many ways, is the same as Bollywood music. The tunes have plenty of (predictable) drama. You have multiple opportunities to lose your shit as every track is condensing what a DJ might otherwise build through an entire set: a journey. It fits the profile of the current generation of heightened zombie consumer culture: the EDM track as the swipe-high.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the reason behind EDM’s massive popularity in India. While scene veterans variously credit its popularity to Sunburn and its sister events in small towns, Guetta’s sold-out India tour in 2012 and the aspirational marketing of international EDM festivals like Tomorrowland, the central reason remains its rootlessness, its easy accessibility and very neoliberal emphasis on brand-powered consumerist excess as lifestyle.

“A kid in Indore doesn’t need to understand the lyrics, the history of the band, the context of the scene,” says OML (Only Much Louder) founder and CEO Vijay Nair. “He just needs to enjoy the hook. EDM has simplified rock and roll’s verse-chorus-verse to just the hook.”

This accessibility is helped along by visiting artistes adding Bollywood elements to their sets in India, such as Laid Back Luke’s ‘Chitiyan Kalaiyan’ remix or Deadmau5’s collaboration with Daler Mehndi. Even Nucleya’s success can be attributed to his ability to weave in Indian instruments and samples into the traditional EDM formula, even as EDM production techniques have made their way into a host of film songs. As Arjun Shah of music and entertainment start-up Shark & Ink puts it, “It’s got all the qualities that make it appealing to the masses. There’s words, there’s cheese, there’s singalongs. It’s the closest thing to pop, and Bollypop/Indipop as well.”

While critics will, and do, scoff at EDM’s cheesiness and mass-market populism, it’s hard to deny that it is introducing many Indians to a new aspirational lifestyle and to the idea of collective, over-the-top fun in the same way rave did in Europe and the US. Many of the people at the Nucleya launch had never been to a gig before, just like Sunburn and Supersonic were many people’s first experience of the possibilities of electronica.

Kids who would have avoided anything called a rave, are partying it up at its re-branded counterparts. And when EDM finally evolves into, or is replaced by, a more innovative, forward-thinking electronica scene — as is inevitable in the cyclical nature of music scenes — these kids will be at its core. That can only be a good thing. Nair says it best, “EDM and festivals like EDC have amplified the fun to a whole other extent. The way it’s designed, how everything blends together, it’s a huge celebration of everything. And I think, for any 18-year-old kid, that’s an incredible experience to have.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance writer living in Mumbai

Published on September 16, 2016

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