Headbanging in the Arizona sun: EDM's arrival in Phoenix

Electronic dance music continues to gain popularity, and it's more than arrived in Phoenix

It was the third day of the Lost Lakes music festival. Bailey Goldstein, an ASU student, EDM fan and photographer, stood at the head of a crowd of thousands. Camera heavy in hand, Goldstein gazed up at the towering stage in front of him. 

An arch of lights was hanging high, a backdrop flickered to life. Ambient music pulsed from the speakers as Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight of Odesza — accompanied by six men on snare drums — took to the stage. 

The sound was building and building as the pair lead the crowd through a technicolor soundscape. Goldstein watched through the viewfinder. It was his first time shooting a festival and, though the close range of the speakers was already spiking his pulse, capturing Odesza’s set sent his adrenaline levels sailing. 

In a high intensity moment of flashing lights and sharp snares, confetti launched from the stage and flames shot up, sending a heatwave stumbling across the crowd. 

“The second the pyro went off and I was shooting, and I saw that hammer of a shot I just took, I was like ‘this is what I want to do,’” Goldstein, a marketing senior, said. “Every single show I have multiple of those little moments. That’s why I love it. I feel like I wouldn’t continue to go if I didn’t have those.”

For EDM artists, fans and photographers, it’s always been about those little moments, the moments when the stage explodes into color and noise, where a sea of people shake and rattle in unison.  

These moments built a culture bursting at the seams with love and color. Mere seconds of ecstasy keep fans coming back to countless shows, building electronic music into an industry worth nearly $7.3 billion dollars, according to the International Music Summit Business report

Setting the stage

DJs now stand as specks on elaborate stages straight out of a kinetic acid flashback. But before duplex screens and “trippy” visuals, electronic music existed somewhere much less flashy.

No one can pinpoint exactly where EDM began but most agree that the genre was the love-child of disco and early 80s synth-pop. These two elements combined in a number of ways in a number of places, the most notable being Detroit, Chicago and Europe. 

DJs in Chicago spun house music, and in Detroit, artists mixed techno-type beats. But regardless of city or genre, artists typically bumped beats off concrete warehouse walls or grimy stucco basements.

Across the Atlantic, the electronic scene in Britain was just taking off. The combination of a massive heat wave and general anger with social standings, the young people of the U.K. revolted using the power of dance (and heavy drugs), creating a similar acid-house rave craze.

The fascination with electronic music waxed and waned until its entrance into the mainstream in the early 2000s. With more DJs crossing genre lines, dubstep, trap and other emerging gradations garnered international attention. 

Though EDM has a long, dotted and vibrant origin story, most minds do not zero in on the nuances of the genres or the small nightclubs where they were born. The biggest draw of EDM is its enticingly colorful cult following. 

Donning colorful kandi bracelets, fur leg warmers and the occasional nipple pasty, EDM fans celebrate the weird and the wonderful. 

The EDM fan base always existed on the fringe. Chicago and Detroit electronic heralded a largely homosexual and black crowd. European raves welcomed a diverse horde of technicolored outcasts.

Because of these humble beginnings, electronic music sticks to heavy convictions and a certain credence. One of the central pillars of these beliefs in contained in the acronym PLUR, meaning peace, love, unity and respect. 

Though the psychology of the subculture has yet to be thoroughly dissected, people rave for a number of reasons. Some attend festivals to socialize, to take in the music, to brag about it on social media — but most rave to get away.

EDM shows, festivals and communities serve as a rather extreme form of escapism. Though common forms of escapism include movies or vacations, EDM takes this idea to another level. I mean, what better way to escape the day-to-day than tripping on hallucinogens with humanoid ravers under the electric sky?

Escapism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Neither is raving or EDM or drugs (in moderation, of course). But as electronic music dolphin dives into popular culture, some major problems arise in the rave community.  

Growing Problems in Phoenix and Beyond

“I still think it holds true to what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Goldstein said. "It is to love everybody and to accept everybody, black, white, purple, brown, whatever. But I definitely do see the start of a shift in culture. It’s more aggressive. The whole scene is becoming more aggressive. It’s just not the scene that a lot of these people know and love.”

EDM has been facing a daunting and paradoxical time since the genre struck a nerve in mainstream music. As the electronic music scene grows in popularity, it also grows in polarization internally and externally. 

Issues arose from the inside-out. As EDM grew, genres tethered under the general umbrella term floated further and further apart. This created a major schism within the community.

According to an article written by John Flynn at "Dancing Astronaut," the crowd usually divides among “popular” and “post” EDM. Popular EDM typically points to artists who frequently collaborate with pop stars, creating ear-worm tracks that make radio rounds. Post EDM covers all other growing niches and sub-categories.

“Typically, the EDM community online is pretty split depending on what genre you identify yourself with. It sounds silly, but the whole thing sort of reminds me of the different cliques in Mean Girls,” Jodie Scarborough, interdisciplinary senior, avid raver and promoter as well as ASU Twitter personality said. Scarborough attended nearly every Arizona EDM festival this past year.

This dichotomy between fans grows even deeper when newbies fall into the mix. With no rave etiquette and a perspective swimming in misconceptions, first-time ravers often break embedded cultural norms and customs held dear.  

Though there is some room for mistakes, major violations of conduct and certain stereotypes especially irk the die-hard fans. 

The first, rather surprisingly, is drugs. 

It's no secret that club drugs like MDMA run rampant at music festivals and shows, but there is a big distinction between fans that are “there for the music” and those who are there to “trip in the corner.” Despite some overlap, the idea that one cannot enjoy a show or festival without hard psychotropic drugs seems to divide the community as well.

“There is a huge party culture in the EDM community, and a lot of people going to their first event who don't know any of the artists are usually drawn in by those aspects,” Scarborough said. "But the majority of the people that I know in the scene have such a genuine love for the music and actually prefer attending sober."

Despite an emphasis on sobriety for some, the common trope of the raver continues to persist within the minds of many. When thinking of EDM, most imagine something similar to the video that circulated the internet a few months ago. You know, the one where the girl sucks on a pacifier and almost loses her pupils to the inside of her skull. 

With the expansion of a party culture and the rising prominence of mainstream festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella, more people hop on the flashy, seizure-inducing band wagon. People, referred to by some as, "the Brads and the Chads." 

The intersection of bros and true PLUR ravers is not necessarily a bad thing. But fans take issue when squads of fraternity brothers decked out in basketball jerseys get aggressive to mellow house music, show little respect for the nuances of the genre and essentially wreak havoc.

But even with division among the community, fans come together on certain issues. 

Rising ticket prices and repetitive lineups across the country lead many to air their grievances with festivals and events. Tickets to big EDM festivals range from $100 to $500 dollars. 

With the amount of money that goes into attending a major festival, the frustration is warranted.

As Goldstein puts it, "That ticket is $400. You better be having the time of your life."

EDM in AZ

The greater Phoenix area is not typically considered a hotbed for cutting-edge DJs or budding styles of EDM; however, with the rise of electronic music promoter Relentless Beats, the state now boasts over 200 EDM events each year, the most notable being its festivals. 

“One thing that amazes me is how quickly the EDM scene in Phoenix has grown, even in the last four years that I've lived here,” Scarborough said. “I think Relentless Beats has done an excellent job at investing in their production value and really working hard to make each festival feel different than the other, which isn't an easy task, considering they all take place at the same venue.”

Relentless Beats hosts around ten major festivals each year. Lineups in the past included EDM idols like Skrillex, Excision, Zed’s Dead and Rezz.

Prominent EDM artists play across the country but Arizona is home to some unique venues. Most festivals take over Rawhide Event Center, a cowboy-themed amusement park. Wet Electric, another popular EDM event, monopolizes Big Surf water park for a weekend. 

But all Relentless festivals have a certain flare. Phoenix Lights mimics an alien invasion, Boo — a Halloween-themed festival — encourages fans to get gory. Regardless of the theme, thousands flock to shuffle and head-bang in the desert. 

Contrary to its contemporary success, Relentless Beats was not always an EDM powerhouse. The company started small during the late 90s, promoting shows at nightclubs across the Valley.  

Somewhere in the late 2000s, the explosion of Phoenix’s electronic scene signaled a change of pace for event promoters, especially for Thomas Turner, founder of Relentless Beats. 

“I would not categorize (our growth) as rapid, but rather something that has been reflective of the market and people's interest," Turner said. "Relentless Beats has made it our mission to always create the best possible experience, improving upon the one before it. We also believe in being true to the scene."

As for the future, Relentless Beats is broadening their musical horizons according to Turner. The company is currently in the process of developing a new state-of-the-art venue in downtown Phoenix, adding another festival this spring, and starting its first record label, Do Not Duplicate, with its client Bijou.  

Though rivalry is few and far between, other venues in Phoenix and Tempe work with Relentless to curate EDM and house havens for fans across the Valley. 

Shady Park, half restaurant, half venue, hosts a range of small electronic artists. A grove of trees and a small but mighty stage stands as an epicenter of electronica in Tempe. And the fusion of ramen, sushi, pizza and house music quickly became a favorite of EDM fans.

"Shady Park is my home. That's the electronic music mecca for Tempe," Goldstein said. 

Other night clubs are following in stride. Aura and Varsity Tavern, two nightclubs in Tempe, continue to draw crowds by ushering in rising electronic artists.

"They're listening to their audience. They know that we want electronic music, whether that's house, dubstep, drum and bass," said Goldstein. 

And as the Arizona EDM fanbase expands exponentially and more and more clubs add DJs to their rosters, one message persists. 

 "It doesn't matter, we just want a DJ."



Reach the reporter at kiera10riley@gmail.com or follow @kiera_riley on Twitter.

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