This popular new dubstep’s all about externalized aggression and rage, and it’s made audiences across the country fill large clubs and stadiums to get sonically pummeled and dance their asses off. As the Spin cover notes, the past year’s seen a radical increase in the number of EDM festivals, like New York’s Electric Zoo, Miami’s Ultra Music and the Electric Daisy Carnival, which brought 230,000 people to Las Vegas this year.
It’s not just festivals, though. Exponentially more dubstep and EDM artists are touring the country in a way only rock, country and hip-hop artists have in the past. A national circuit’s blown wide open, and tickets are selling out in record times, like when Skrillex played the Electric Factory back in October.
Dubstep purists might scoff at the new generation, but there’s no denying its potency and popularity. The changes aren’t only of an aural aesthetic, either.
“The biggest change I’ve seen since the 1990s is with stage-driven performances and hard-ticket DJs,” says Rodeghiero. “The difference is between concerts designed to sell tickets at pre-sale—like live rock shows—versus club environments, where tickets are primarily sold at the door. Now, we can have DJs selling out theaters and halls with full-on production, which wasn’t possible a few years ago.”
While EDM artists in the past were banished to small clubs, now they’re selling out venues historically reserved for radio-friendly mainstream acts like the Foo Fighters, Britney Spears or Kanye West. The demand’s increased radically, especially among college audiences. This Thursday night in State College, Trckd is hosting the first large-scale EDM show on the Penn State campus with Avicii. The Swedish DJ sold out the Philadelphia Navy Yard in June (see photo slideshow at philadelphiaweekly.com), and returned for a headlining set at Susquehanna Bank Center in August. The Penn State bozos may not get their football coach back, but they’re in for a rave they won’t forget any time soon.
In November alone, there are a number of dubstep/EDM events happening across Philly. On the 19th, Dub Set are set to take the stage at Starlight Ballroom. A few nights later, on the biggest party day of the year, Thanksgiving eve, Israeli electronic act Infected Mushroom will rock the TLA. Then, on Nov. 25, Trckd co-presents Dancegiving at the Electric Factory, as the EDM festival that premiered last year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., makes its first Philadelphia stop. Once electro-house artist Wolfgang Gartner wraps up his headlining set that night in Philly—the only other stop on this year’s Dancegiving tour—he’ll zip down to headline the main stage the next night in Florida after a set by Diplo.
Those are the touring acts making their way through town. Philly has several critical dubstep players on the come up, and the real unsung hero of the scene is Starkey.
Born Paul Geissinger, Starkey’s an Allentown native who’s lived in Philly since he was 18. He completed his graduate studies in music production at Temple. You’re more likely to read about the 30-year-old dubstepper in British mags like The Wire or NME than you are in the local press—he also performs more in Europe than in Philly—but he’s been swinging fierce since the mid-2000s. His albums, like Ear Drums and Black Holes and his two-volume Space Traitor series, represent some of the finest American dubstep music made so far. He slightly modifies dubstep’s signature sound by mixing in vocal melodies and more pop-friendly tropes, but he has a deep relationship with the music’s early days.
In the early 2000s, Starkey studied for a year in London, at the same time the dubstep and grime scenes were emerging. A couple years after returning to Philly, he hooked up with Philadelphian (and DJ Nights columnist for City Paper ) Dev79, who was also knee-deep in the London scene and was already hosting events and doing radio shows under the Seclusiasis banner. The two began organizing two-floor dubstep and grime parties called IN and FM at La Tazza on Second and Chestnut streets. One night in 2006, they brought genre-pioneer Jammer over from London for a few shows in Philly and New York City.
“Everyone had a blast,” Starkey says of the Philly show. “In New York, people were just standing around, but here, everyone went nuts. We’d been playing this music at parties for almost two years, so everyone here knew it. Philly was hype to it, but the New York audiences weren’t prepared. We were already playing records nobody [had] ever heard, steadily getting our hands on whatever we could and ordering records from the U.K. by the box. They were hard to get, but we did it.”
While Seclusiasis continues to host DIY-type dubstep events in Philly, it’s also an internationally regarded record label that has dropped records by its two founders, as well as dubsteppers like DNABEATS and Distal. The two also run Slit Jockey Records, which was initially launched to curate music from London’s grime scene. On the sonic tip, Starkey and Dev79 are articulating their own sound, which they call “Street Bass.”
“When we started our parties, we wrote the words ‘Street Bass’ really big on the fliers,” says Starkey. “It encapsulates what we think’s going on in Philadelphia—street music with heavy bass. Philly’s always been in the shadows of other places, but, honestly, I don’t think there’s much going on in New York. People here are willing to take chances that people in other places aren’t.”
“The U.K.’s the epicenter, so the whole world looks there for electronic music,” says Dev79. “But this music really resonates in Philly. Like London, we have a grey, darker, harsher vibe.”
“It’s a party,” says Rodeghiero, attempting to explain why these dubstep/EDM events are bringing in bigger, younger audiences. “There aren’t any ballads, and there are no slow songs. The performer’s goal’s to keep the [beats per minute] changing, moving and flowing ... they gotta keep it hot or they lose people.”
Losing people. It’s what indie rock music, which for many years has been the go-to musical vehicle for youthful, rebellious kicks, might be doing. The shoot-first-ask-questions-never glory days of Mudhoney and Sonic Youth—who pushed the boundaries of sound while carving out a new, exciting cultural world—are long gone. And as second generation bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices now offer little more than a nostalgic experience, cashing in on the reunion tour racket, indie rock’s more openly becoming an old-timer’s market.
The anthems of popular bands like Montreal’s Arcade Fire—who broke down the indie/mainstream barrier this year by being the first indie label artist to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year with their very rural-sounding The Suburbs —exemplify the less amplified, less defiant and extra-sappy path the music’s taken. The band’s highly celebrated debut, 2004’s Funeral , certainly paved the way for the current crew of oh-so-precious indie-rockers now plaguing radio and cloudwaves.
In a recent New York Daily News column, “Stop Being So Sensitive! Burly Men Become Girly Men, Turning Pop Music Into A Wuss-Case Scenario,” writer Jim Farber argues the rise of indie bands and artists like Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and the National have signified that the “wimps inherit(ed) the earth.”
Despite the problematic gender issues implied by Faber’s choice of language, he’s right. While the tunes are conducive to sipping wine by a cozy fireplace, they lack the fire and guts needed to keep younger audiences satiated. The last thing little hell-raisers wanna do on Friday night is watch some old dude whine/cough into a microphone while playing an acoustic guitar. And no matter how many mandolins, ukeleles, banjos or violins the band incorporates to create a indie-rock-as-orchestra vibe, the music’s still boring. One of the main reasons young concert-goers are pledging allegiance to dubstep ragers like Skrillex is they want music that’s more aggressive.
They need energy , and they want fun . They need spectacle . They need an event, and as indie-rock gets cozier with the WXPN and NPR set, the kids are finding fresh ways to get their kicks.