Talking with Matt Adell, Part Two

An EDM pioneer on the state of the dance scene today

August 26, 2014

As noted yesterday, former Chicagoan Matt Adell has had a singular career in the new music industry. The one constant: his love for and support of electronic dance music throughout its development in the U.S.

In part two of our interview today, Adell talks about the current state of EDM, its massive and ever-growing popularity, and the changes wrought by corporatization, chiefly via SFX Entertainment—the new company launched by Robert F.X. Sillerman, who many say destroyed radio in this country when he created Clear Channel, and who recently bought Chicago EDM promoters React Presents.

J.D.: We left off talking about the recent sale of Beatport, where you were CEO, to SFX, and that brings us to something I’m really interested in: your perspective on where EDM is today, as a business and as a culture. I can square you being CEO at Beatport with the kid I met so long ago, proselytizing about life-changing raves. But a word that you used to use a lot was “community,” and the electronic dance scene today is a very different one.

M.A.: Well, my number-one headline at the broadest scope is “dance music changed my life.” I think it’s changed millions of people’s lives, and the more people that can be touched by it, the better. I genuinely believe that.

J.D.: But what about the encroaching bro-ism, sexism, and racism—all of those things that it was never about, in the days before the leap from underground raves to stadium shows and massive EDM festivals?

M.A.: Those are the things that our larger society is about, right? And what’s happening is that dance music is coming into the larger society. In fact, I think rather than look at it as larger society invading dance music, it’s dance music that is invading larger society. There are more small, cool things for me to go see here, DJs in L.A., than ever before. Literally, I just don’t go anywhere where there is a line; that’s not my cup of tea.

But just as punk rock got digested by the Man, if you will, it didn’t prevent lots of great music from still being made. In some cases, by major labels, but in most cases, on the independents. There are still plenty of different kinds of raves, for lack of a better word, that people can go to if you don’t search for the word “festival” on Google, and avoid that word. The festivals aren’t just part of an electronic dance music tradition, they’re part of a state fair tradition, they’re part of a circus tradition, that Europe and North America have both supported for generations.

J.D.: Sure, and it was surprisingly late coming to America, before Coachella and Lollapalooza Mach II and those kind of big corporate events with rave tents.

M.A.: I mean, we’ve had circuses in North America, and state fairs, and now we have EDM at them. And so with the bro-ism, the sexism, I would say that I don’t think EDM has any greater problems with those things than society as a whole, especially among that generation. Let’s not forget that you and I are 40-something men talking about people in their late teens and early 20s. But those things come with bigger crowds. And I say this at work—actually, it was part of my closing speech at Beatport—I know we’re all concerned about the rave scene growing, but dance music changes lives, and can we think of anyone who need their lives changed more?

J.D.: That’s very idealistic. But I recall the early raves in Chicago in the Reactor days, at the roller rink on Clark Street and the go-cart track in Hixton, Wisconsin, and much like the early punk days or the early hip-hop days, there was a real sense of community there. If someone was having a bad time on some substance, others would take care of them, and if someone was pawing someone of the opposite sex, someone would step in. There was sex, there were drugs, there was wanton hedonism, but there was also a mutual respect. And it seemed to be that part and parcel of the ’90s American rave scene was, “We’re going to build a community along a certain set of values: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, plenty of support for one another.” That seems to be absent in the corporate festival scene.

M.A.: I don’t disagree, but I would argue that it’s broader: A very large crowd has a hard time behaving that way. In my travels, and going to clubs and smaller parties and after-parties, that core PLUR—peace, love, unity, respect—that sort of vibe is still there.

J.D.: But that’s the underground, not the mainstream.

M.A.: Our culture—and I hate to sound like an old man—but I think our culture has gotten much more disconnected. Remember that the community you and I are talking about from the past predates widespread use of the Internet, and so physical companionship was social networking; that’s what you had. And when we talk about Internet communities, what we’re really talking about, if we want to use those words appropriately, is a shared interest group, and that’s not really the same thing.

J.D.: That’s not a community, in the sense of people taking care of one another.

M.A.: I think there is a community on the scene in Berlin, and in the clubs there. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that communities can be global; to some extent, they have to be local. There are regions and pockets that have a lot of this; Denver is a great example. When I got to Denver, I was blown away when I realized they never stopped raving, like old school-style raving. They never stopped, there was never a pause. And it was really because of those three guys who founded Beatport, because they also owned a club separately from Beatport, and are DJs.  That vibe, that community vibe, was very much present there, and it was a benefit from being a smaller town.

J.D.: But you said you don’t think anything was lost by the dance scene getting as big as it’s become.

M.A.: I’ll say it slightly differently: A lot was lost as the market for the scene decayed, after the ’90s. But I wouldn’t place a value judgment on that because what I see is, even though I see a bunch of bros, I’m face to face constantly and in the crowd with kids who are having transformative moments in their lives. All the freakin’ time! And it might be different than the kinds of transformative moments I had, or that I would want for my kids now, but I see it all the time. So yeah, I still think it’s worth it.

J.D.: You said yesterday that there are things you said as a young man in Reactor that you wouldn’t want to say to now, and I think you were talking in part about the celebration of the psychedelic experience. It is a big part of the EDM scene, except that now you have raves happening in Soldier Field or Union Park, sites owned the city, with hundreds of off-duty cops being paid extra for security. And that seems really weird to me! These big spaces also conflict with that Timothy Leary idea about controlling “set and setting,” to say nothing of these events now being taken public on Wall Street as SFX tries to dominate the live EDM market worldwide.

M.A.: It is fascinating. You know, I know next to nothing about the live music business, other than going to a lot of shows, and I know little about Wall Street, because I’ve never engaged at that level. But what you’ve just described is a rational thing to wonder about. However, I would say EDM is a moment, it’s a genre, and what we’re really experiencing is the end of the guitar and the beginning of the laptop as the most important new musical creative medium. And the market and the business around that, and the way those artists are going to reach their fans, is transformative and really different.

J.D.: Really? I look at Skrillex, and I just see the EDM version of Journey or Poison. I mean, it’s the same thing: corporate crap. He’s using different tools, but it’s still a sort of tawdry cult of pandering entertainment and celebrity.

M.A.: That’s entirely possible. What I meant was the business route to him reaching his audience, and he’s a great example, is that he reached and cultivated his fan base in a pretty unique, non-major label sort of way.

J.D.: Well, major labels basically don’t exist anymore.

M.A.: That’s another interesting thing: There’s no one left to invest in dance music; I laugh every time people want to talk about how the music business is in great shape. The live business is in great shape, but the recorded music business is 20-percent of what it once was, and that’s where everyone’s profits, including the artist’s, came from in the past. What I mean is that this new breed of artists are reaching fans and developing their businesses and their careers very differently than traditional acts.

You were asking about big companies coming in. Live Nation has been throwing big events like this for a long time. In Europe, Camel cigarettes used to sponsor the Love Parade. So in fact, there is nothing new about this. Heineken has been the sponsor of giant stadium events for 20 years in Amsterdam, throwing these amazing large-scale parties. So, people have been doing that.

One of the things that I think is interesting about young people, and this is different from our generation, they literally don’t even know what the term “selling out” means. And if we can get Heineken to pay for someone to have a transformative epiphany, who absolutely might not have had access to that some other way, then I can live with that.

But I’m agreeing with your premise. I look back all the time to the Grateful Dead; we all knew what was going on. I was at those shows at Soldier Field, and everyone knew what was going on then and there. Grateful Dead shows were all-ages if I recall—I know I saw kids there—and I never felt unsafe. But I would bet that there were more people on psychedelic drugs at that Dead show at Soldier Field than the React Presents guys could ever get in there. I think also something really significant that’s changed is the drugs themselves. I’m no expert, but I think there’s a really interesting story to be told there. When you hear about large groups of people dying in one place, there’s two reasons for it: environment—meaning no shade, no water—or they were all taking some bad, adulterated drug. There are pills now, and kids don’t know what they’re taking, and that’s really scary. They’re playing Russian roulette with a Colombian drug lord.

J.D.: I would say that another difference between the current festival rave scene and the Grateful Dead is that the Deadheads remained very much a community, at least until the last few years. Toward the end, there was encroaching bro-ism, and that morphed later into something like the Dave Matthews crowd. But for most of the long, strange trip with the Dead, if you were having a difficult time on your particular trip, there were people who were going to help you, and sexual assaults weren’t tolerated, nor was racism or any prejudice, really. I don’t know if Robert Sillerman and SFX are providing that kind of idealistic, nurturing environment.

M.A.: That is absolutely provided at all European festivals. In Europe there’s an organization called DanceSafe that is available at lots of different festivals and clubs all over Europe, and they test your drugs for you on site. They scrape a little off, test it on site, and tell you what you’re about to take in that pill. I’m not suggesting that it’s a good idea for the U.S., and I certainly can’t imagine it ever happening...

J.D.: Well, that doesn’t square with taking your company public on Wall Street, advertising: “We’ll test your drugs before you swallow them!”

M.A.: I won’t speak to it, but—I don’t know if you’ve looked up in the [SFX] filings—there’s a doctor on the board of the company, and there are safety statements and safety disclosures. As a public company, they have to be really up front about where their risks are and what they’re doing about it. And I will tell you, from my experience, if 100,000 people go into Soldier Field for an experience like this, those guys in New York are equipped to run it, safely and with care.

J.D.: That’s one argument: With a global public corporation like SFX buying out the smaller promoters, like React Presents in Chicago, things are going to be safer and better-run. Whereas React was putting on shows at an unsafe venue, the Congress Theatre…

M.A.: And that’s not going to happen anymore. And this is the one time I’ll speak directly of the executive team at SFX. Beatport was the third company that SFX bought; the first two companies that they bought were ID&T and Disco Donnie, and those were the greatest, most awesome, old-school, know-how-it’s-done, keep-people-safe and throw-wild-parties people in the world. And from the very first meetings I went to, it was, "How do we make sure people are safe and having a great time without being intrusive?" and "Can we give away water?" which I believe is happening at almost every event in the world now where there is not a preexisting water contract. Water is free.

These aren’t stupid people—which I know you’re not suggesting—and they see these risks, too. But Bob [Sillerman] lived through rock ’n’ roll, and I think they see that as a challenge. And interestingly, almost all of the executives have kids in college who are massive EDM fans. All the main executives there, all their kids are at these events. They’re not disconnected from it; their daughter is there!

But it is freakin’ weird. The whole thing is weird, but to me that’s just a reflection of how freakin’ weird capitalism has gotten! Everything gets eaten and digested by bigger things, and I would say this isn’t even a very good reflection of capitalism unchecked. Look at other things, like GM. But it is interesting. People invest in alcohol companies that have a risk associated with them, tobacco companies that have a risk associated with them. Dennis McNally, who used to be the publicist for the Grateful Dead, used to equate having these experiences with risky skiing: It’s a big risk that adults can take.

For me personally—and I am willing to sound like a fuddy-duddy here—I don’t believe these experiences are for anyone under 21. In the rave scene, it was all people of our age when we first got started, and then younger kids started coming in. I remember the first time I was dancing next to a speaker and I looked over and there was a 17-year-old, and I’m 21, and that feel like it’s a huge difference at that age. Even at 21, I looked over and thought, “This is wrong. I can’t do that with this young person.” They can; more power to them. But that’s when we all retreated to the clubs. That’s when Shelter really took off, and all the events were happening in clubs then. That also, frankly, made it more of a community, and that’s another interesting point worth bringing up. Young people are terrible at community at that age, or at being responsible. By definition, the brain is not responsible at 17. So, 25,000 17-year-olds is really different from 25,000 21-year-olds.

J.D.: What about Sillerman’s track record? What he built with Clear Channel and what it did to radio in America, he certainly sped up its death—its blandification, its loss of soul. As someone who’s loved this music his whole life, you don’t see that looming for EDM?

M.A.: I don’t see it looming with SFX in particular, or Bob in particular, mostly because, frankly, I think if Bob’s sole focus was to make tons of money, he’d be doing something else. There is a labor of love here. Bob really believes, and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, that rock ’n’ roll changed the lives of African-Americans and women for the better and permanently. And obviously we’re not done with those evolutions, but he believes that rock ’n’ roll helped forward those people, and he believes that young people will make the same of this, and I do, too.

At the other end of it, does everything become different when it becomes a big business? Yes. So go to a smaller club.

J.D.: But geez, that Billboard cover of Sillerman holding the world in his hands in the form of a disco globe with a “F---You” kerchief in the pocket of his leather jacket... I mean, what is that about?

M.A.: He’s his own man, that’s all I can say. But there have been a lot of other people entering into this market with huge amounts of money as well. I think that if it’s Bob or someone else, it kind of doesn’t matter.

J.D.: If it wasn’t him and SFX, it’d be somebody else?

M.A.: I know that’s such a cliché, and you can’t saying that about everything in life, but the desire for electronic dance music and the market explosion was already happening. And before Sillerman was involved, there were people asking, “What is the market size of this business?” Because it happened sort of on the sidelines from traditional business, and it got huge. I think it was Electric Daisy Carnival that really highlighted that in North America. You know, money does what money does.

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