The Digital Divide of Country and Electronic Dance Music

The content herein is a modified version of an article I originally published in 2013 on the music culture website Do Androids Dance (DAD). DAD was later dismantled and reintegrated with its parent company, Complex, including my original article.

Complex reached over 90 million unique users per month in 2013,[4] across its owned and operated and partner sites, socials and YouTube channels.[5]

In August 2014, Complex ranked #3 in the United States in a ComScore survey of unique visitors between the ages of 18 and 34 with 20.3 million in that demographic per month.[29]

In 2013, Complex launched the dance music site Do Androids Dance[22] and Green Label, a branded content site presented by Mountain Dew. That year, Complex also acquired the sneakerhead culture magazine and website Sole Collector.[24]

Wikipedia

In America, Country and EDM Can Coexist Without Comparison

Comparisons are ultimately about relationships. When determining the merit and relevance of these relationships, context is everything.

Comparing the historic and long-lived American success of mainstream country music to EDM (electronic-dance-music) seems like cannon fodder for web pages. Or… is it a fair comparison?

In retrospect, it would have been easier to cast these ideas off as heresy rather than explore the validity.

The short-term optics and parallels between country and EDM and the American “pop” mainstream might be more comparable than once thought.

But the distinctions between the two must consider whether the massive growth in EDM demonstrates a lasting and sustainable future for decades to come.

What must be highlighted are the contradictory measurements of success that define country’s mainstream prosperity. Additionally, both genres’ unique structures of industry and creation, which equate to very distinct and divergent identities, must be contrasted.

If there is one thing apparent about EDM’s success up to this point, it has had little to do with America’s mainstream radio broadcasting.

EDM listeners have little interest in American broadcast radio

Country’s traditional measurements of success in previous time periods have been based upon hard copy record sales and radio play, unlike EDM. While there may be a push of youth into the pop-country market, the traditionally older audiences of country are being pushed away, and understandably so. This division could become troublesome for the future of a formerly undivided market.

Country is built on lifestyle and cultural sediments.

It appears that country genres, in the midst of an anemic sales market, are closer to an identity crisis than to a push for mainstream dominance.

Reports of east coast radio stations moving from EDM to country doesn’t say a whole lot. One could speculate that EDM listeners have very little active interest in American broadcast radio, therefore making pop-country radio a more profitable market place.

The contrast here is that EDM on American radio has been relatively rare since its mainstream inception, and most EDM listeners have no intention of switching mediums just to hear repeated, advertisement-based propaganda. Most EDM listeners are using mobile streaming from SoundCloud, Spotify, and Internet radio, supplemented with digital downloads. EDM fans are active listeners, and are heavily invested in choosing the material they consume, rather than having it chosen for them.

The New World Order: country WAS Built to Last. Is it Still Built to Last?

It’s hard not to agree with the statement, “country music in America is built to last”. The next question in order must be “is it still built to last?”

Pre-Internet, and generally for the last century, content and distribution was scarce. Consumer attention was abundant; the tools for creators were slim. The barriers to market entry were high, while information was exponentially more scarce and less accessible.

The overwhelming majority of country music success was built in decades pre-Internet, where traditional record labels flourished. The music industry used to be a sellers market, with the cost of substitutes being high and the quantity of substitutes being low.

In a physical world, with limited shelf space, scarcity makes things more valuable. The music industry has always been about selling hard goods—up until digital sales turned everything inside out. In the history of CD sales, 2013 was the worst year ever. In a digital world, high accessibility leads to exponential visibility, brand familiarity, and higher potential revenue.

The key comparison here is that EDM was built on, and for, a highly mobilized world. Old habits and excessive caution could mark the beginning of the end for those who cannot adapt. What remains certain is that independent creators will continue to innovate, and continue to push forward into the unknown.

The democratization of content, discovery, and creation challenges the traditional top-to-bottom hierarchies of nearly all mainstream music industries.

The Internet not only fuels independent innovation, but also influences corporate strategy and decision-making processes. *2019 Update*: Can somebody please explain to me why Trader Joe’s has a podcast?

The Internet is erasing the division between consumers and creators and this has the music industry desperately scraping to find ways to remain relevant. As previously reported, record labels and production companies have done this through acquisitions and stake holds in previously independent entities, such as SoundCloud. Big industry is no longer the gatekeeper, and EDM has proven that. Examples of this paradigm shift are the massive successes of self-built americanized-dubstep sensation, Skrillex, and the virally explosive mainstream introduction of “electronic trap” via the “Harlem Shake.”

The world is not flat and EDM is not geocentric

The lack of a kingdom to rule for EDM is not based upon its inability to create one. EDM relies on globalized and hyperactive lines of communication and creation. These new tech fueled capabilities redefine the rigid infrastructures, which create overhead expense, and inefficiency.

As quoted from a recent Billboard article featuring some random white dude, “…He (Diplo) was in Ibiza, Spain, with Skrillex, where they set up a makeshift hotel room studio… This is how a modern hit gets made, Diplo-style: not in big-money studios, but on the move, in hotel suites, private jets, SUVs — bits and pieces pasted together with collaborators all over the world.”

EDM is the pinnacle of lean business.

While industrial hubs create infrastructure and jobs, true success in business is about utilizing efficiency, and maximizing margins. The rise of EDM never required geographically based industrial hubs. This provides a case model of efficiency that exceeds all genres and movements that have come before. EDM holds a model of elasticity through flat organization and democratized distribution, which gives it an immense advantage in a world that is rapidly evolving. Fundamentally, its popular use of cloud services like SoundCloud and BandCamp is not only the future of musical movements, but also of business and commerce as a whole. EDM has not only mobilized beyond the geographical production of music, but continues to influence innovative and resources through symbiotic relationships with parallel industries.

The Making of a Country Hit

Country as a mainstay has been based upon simple principles: creating hits, and when the conditions are perfect, blockbusters. To quote DAD, “the deciding factor of excellence must go to the style of music that has consistently best lent itself to commercially friendly songs for a longer period of time with a more sustainable level of success.” To determine the value of this statement, we must examine the realities of how “pop” hits are made.

As Chris Anderson notes in his book The Long Tail, when it comes to creating hits there are two basic options: (1) search far and wide for rare, unpredictable genius, or (2) use lowest-common-denominator formulas to manufacture something to sell.

If you Want to Grasp Country Music’s Standard of Success, Look No Further than Luke Bryan

Luke Bryan’s 2013 album Crash My Party sold more albums in its first week than any male country artist in the last nine years.

Bryan’s August 2013 single “That’s My Kind of Night” reached #1 on the Hot Country Songs listings in its third week and #2 in Airplay for October 2013. While being a massive win for the country industry as a whole, homegrown country star Zac Brown regarded it as “…the worst song I’ve ever heard.” If the model by which we are judging value and success stems from creating hits, then country certainly holds the belt.

The two most important words in EDM are “new” and “free.”

When winners and losers are based upon sales, the automatic assumption is that if something sold poorly, it was of low quality. While this may be true in some cases, it makes comparisons slim within the shift that has led artists to give away music for free. When looking at key examples of American success based upon this model, one could point to recently Grammy-nominated artist Pretty Lights. While going into the depths of the value in delivering content for free isn’t the purpose of this article, you can read more about the ideas and successes that have underlined this new model.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a crusade against the sale of music, I’m simply defining the very different ways in which success is measured and sold between the twilight zones of EDM and country. As the previous article-in-question states, “mainstream music is a corporate democracy, a game defined by choice creating a clearly defined winner and loser.” There’s certainly some truth to this statement.

What needs to be pointed out is that an industry’s measurement of success by sale doesn’t define excellence. It also does not define what is in the best interest of fans, aspiring artists, or long-term sustainable profits. When comparing the limited amounts of visible country releases, to a wide variety of free EDM substitutes, the “choices” presented by the mainstream industry are merely an illusion,

More choice is more, for better or worse

The EDM hierarchy does have its valid criticisms, you won’t find country music divided into numerous and often times confusing subgenres. Even as someone spending the last decade immersed in electronic music subculture, I often find myself hopelessly surrounded by sounds that seem indefinable. As a listener of a wide range of electronic music it can be frustrating to sift and sort through the massive amounts of music-released daily, with value often times scattered few and far between.

There is a reason that EDM is so segregated and that is because the content often evolves faster than our ability to classify and organize it. As referenced, “EDM is very much temporal, in other words it is constantly happening and changing through time.”

While I agree this is problematic for gaining new audiences, strong sub genres provide niche content for retaining subscribers. In many ways, the very existence of music and culture curators is to guide listeners through these genres and present findings. Ironically, we don’t need writers and publications to sift, sort, and deliver us music over the web if all the options were obviously available over mainstream channels.

EDM Rarely Conforms to Mainstream Audiences, Success Never Required It

EDM has never been accountable to anyone, and as a whole, it never wanted to be. No one ever knew things would get this big; ideals and expectations were not based around it being so. Why should any of that change now?

One of the greatest statements made by the rise of electronic music was the freedom from image, freedom from perfection, and abstaining from the scrutiny and destructive nature of the public eye. EDM has been overwhelmingly free from the tyranny of the public eye, and up until recently the ever so tainted corporate money.

Over its short history, EDM has been dynamically creative, but also mindlessly not-so-creative. These dynamics are in large part because of the fact that creators pursued their own sovereign visions, beyond the dogma of big label money and influence, but also because they were able to appeal to mainstream audiences without needing big-label recognition.

If you want to press play on a multi million-dollar light cube with an LED mouse head, you can do that. If you want to throw cake at your fans, fans will eat it. If you want to create an entire orchestrated masterpiece, utilizing historically accurate live instrumentation, featuring members from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, you can do that, too.

If you want to do absolutely nothing on stage, mainstream audiences won’t stop you. However, there is more depth to EDM than stage presence, and regurgitated cookie cutter acts who just happen to be really, really, really, really good looking. At the end of the day, you can just be you, because unlike country, the music travels further than the face.

A Marketer’s Field of Dreams

The coining of the term EDM has been a marketer’s dream. From packaging to selling everything electronic, an essential pathway has been created into all things mainstream. This point of comparison to coined genres like country is in fact very relevant, but only in the mainstream realms. While scattered fan bases may be a hindrance to effectively defining market segments and directing content, for those who really dig deep to find music they love, they wouldn’t have it any other way.