Learning to Love EDM

Embracing the genre that took over dance music

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When techno-loving Beatport alumni Liz Miller was first offered a position as General Manager of Atlantic Record’s relaunched Big Beat dance music imprint in 2010, the industry veteran said no. She continued to say no for nearly three months, while continuing her job doing digital marketing and PR for Richie Hawtin’s Minus label in Berlin, until an unexpected conversation at the city’s famously underground Bar 25 convinced her that taking the helm of a major label subsidiary eager to be a part of the then brand new EDM explosion was a career decision worth exploring.

“I always credit Lee Curtiss, although I’m sure there were other people as well,” recalls Miller over Skype from her Manhattan office. “He said, ‘You should do it, because otherwise they will hire someone else, and we don’t know who that person is. We need somebody we know in that position of power.’”

Miller’s conundrum was a common one in today’s dance music landscape, where many industry insiders with decades of experience in the underground are suddenly faced with unprecedented growth in terms of audience, as well as unexpected changes in the sound they’ve championed for so long. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of industry professionals going about their days doing their best to deliver EDM to the masses, while privately longing for the sound and spirit of raves past. And, in some cases, after a few cocktails, they start loathing the mainstream monster that 20-plus years of nurturing dance music has helped to create.

For obvious reasons, most of these folks don’t like to speak on the record, for fair concern of biting the hand that feeds them. This friction between the older underground and newer mainstream style has therefore mostly been witnessed via public “beefs” driven by senior dance music acts who fail to find anything nice to say about their younger, trendier and, let’s just say it, more successful peers. For every DJ Sneak versus Steve Angello twitter feud, or Guy Called Gerald against Deadmau5 blog blowout, there’s an internet full of fans, both long term and newbie, willing to argue one side or the other with additional vitriol.

In Millers case, she is open and honest about the current situation. Perhaps her being named the Most Powerful Woman In EDM, has empowered her to speak some degree of truth about the situation.

“For some [underground artists], yeah, it’s a little over-entitled,” she admits. “Electronic music is a very broad genre. The types that have made it to the mainstream, if you can’t recognize the difference between that and what you’re making, you’ve kinda missed the point.

“There are certain people in our genre, I won’t name names, but really underground, left-of-center stuff, who will likely never sell a million album. You will likely never top the iTunes dance chart. And that’s OK. You’re still good.”

While there will always be some sour grapes when a subculture goes mainstream, Miller makes an astute point in suggesting that a deeper division between the two sides of EDM might be a partial remedy. It’s a move already witnessed at places like Coachella, where in 2013, a new Yuma tent was introduced to showcase the club-friendly talents of DJs like Seth Troxler, Four Tet and Jamie Jones—along with Miller’s former boss, Hawtin—in a more intimate setting, while the far more bombastic, and much larger Sahara Tent next door hosted EDM titans like Hardwell and Knife Party.

“I’ve noticed in casual conversations, and even professional conversation, that people are starting to differentiate between EDM and house music,” she explains. “It’s becoming more common than not in my conversations.”

At the same time, another major festivals, Electric Daisy Carnival, moved in the opposite direction, scheduling Hawtin and Carl Cox to play the Sunday evening main stage in 2013 to mixed reaction from an audience more attuned to Calvin Harris’ style of vocal dance pop than the latest in minimalist house and techno coming out of Berlin and Ibiza.

Fortunately for Hawtin, he had already performed and hosted a stage on Friday night of that same EDC weekend, branded with his own Enter. event concept. Again arguing that segregation of sounds might be the tidiest way forward. How the issue will ultimately play out will likely be seen, in part, in what results from Hawtin’s move from his own CLONK booking agency to the roster of William Morris Enterprise, one of the world’s largest talent agencies and an indisputable player in the EDM juggernaut.

“He’s not going to be David Guetta, and I don’t think he wants to be,” Miller observes regarding her old boss. “But it’s still very much about the touring, it’s about the experience. I think there’s a lot of room for someone like Rich, if he continues to do as well as he does in a one-on-one live setting.”

As for her own path, which started by throwing raves in Denver in the late ‘90s, before helping to launch Beatport in 2003—where for a while she was begrudgingly responsible for “trance, breaks and progressive house”—moving to Berlin, then London, then back to Berlin to work with Hawtin (and Troxler, and Magda, and Marc Houle…) and finally to the helm of a major label dance music enterprise, Miller is confident that as the tides of EDM inevitably turn, what will remain is a more diverse and robust dance music scene than ever before. One that now has the experience of the big time, and a fan base with some degree of history under its belt.

“Kids who were wearing Avicii shirts are now wearing Disclosure shirts,” she points out. “They now recognize that they were living in the outskirts of the genre. The pop side of it.”

She also sees Big Beat as more than capable of surviving whatever changes might be afoot; thanks to a growingly diverse roster that includes the biggest of the big EDM stars, David Guetta and Skrillex, along with plenty of underground-born acts, such as Hot Creations, Metronomy and Max Elto.

“Big Beat would be considered an EDM label by the casual observer, but I think we have a pretty broad range of artist on the roster,” Miller says.

Perhaps, most importantly, she recognizes that, for all the melodrama surrounding the EDM vs. underground debate, and the inevitable conflict felt by those whose try to make a professional career out of their passion, only to find that passion compromised by market forces, there’s ways to balance the two.

When asked to reflect on a particularly hurtful moment she experienced when making her move from underground expert to EDM industrialist, she recalls with emotion in her voice. “[Richie Hawtin] said to me one time, when I showed up at a Minus party, ‘What are you doing here?’

“Of course he was joking, but I do kinda feel like that. There’s that little voice in my own mind that sometimes feels that way, now that I’m not connected in the same ways that I used to be. Then I remember that they’re still my family and that music is more to me. The music and the times that I’ve had, in Berlin in particular, and in Denver in the rave scene, that’s the complete composition of who I am. The people who are part of that scene are still my closest friends.”

It also means finding different benefits in working for a major label machine whose direction is now intertwined with her immediate destiny.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a job. There are people here who I consider close friends, almost family too, and that’s going to happen when you work closely with people. And they have passions as well. They may be into different styles of the genre, but that doesn’t change the history that made me who I am, and what I’m passionate about.”