Music

The Deadmau5 Trap

How the success of electronic dance music heralds its demise

From the January/February 2013 magazine
Illustration by Meredith Holigroski

From 1999 to 2004, I co-owned an electronic music label called 2wars & A Revolution Records. Every month, a commissioned track would arrive by zip file, and we’d burn it to disc for a Jamaican man in Toronto who mostly pressed reggae dubs. When he disappeared in a waft of weed smoke, we used an outfit in Markham, Ontario, and then, as globalization got the better of us, a company in the Czech Republic. They transformed the file into gorgeous 180-gram slabs of vinyl, and in a flurry of mail-outs we would send the records to stores in the US, the UK, Albania, everywhere. The label specialized in breakbeat, a genre built on hip hop drum loops sampled from the likes of Hamilton Bohannon, a producer and percussionist who once played with Stevie Wonder. Our star was the UK’s DJ Scissorkicks, whose biggest single was “Red Skull,” named for Captain America’s nemesis.

At the time, I imagined that embedding icy digital in the plush warmth of vinyl explained something essential about my universe. The whomp of a massive bass line was tethered to my heartbeat. Nothing spoke more to the joy of being alive than walking into a party and having a subwoofer rearrange my innards. If the future was here (just unevenly distributed, as the sci-fi writer William Gibson contended), then my slinking through warehouse raves in Montreal and London, UK, was the perfect evocation of the moment.

Hurtling toward the new century and then into it: the constant horse clops of 4/4 house music. Hands in the air, eyes deadened by ecstasy, I hit the scene at its tail end, when frat boys and tween ravers and leathermen and lesbians would form subcultural silos in abandoned sweatshops until noon on Sunday. Just as the information age kissed the industrial age adieu, my little record label straddled epochs like a colossus—that, and it was a great reason to dust off the breakdance pants.

It was not, however, a great way to make money. In the early 2000s, during a revolution that broke my heart, DJs stopped cutting and spinning vinyl and started using MP3s. File sharing was profit’s death knell; there was no joy in uploading music that would be stolen anyway, so we sold up.

Which, considered in hindsight, makes us fools. Electronic music was able to withstand some of the music industry’s decline, mostly because it didn’t have far to fall, and because it had always been a microcosm of postmodern popular culture: a mirror shattered into a billion scene-specific shards. Trance, techno, deep house, drum ’n’ bass, breakbeat—during the ’90s, those genres, under the idiot catch-all “electronica,” crawled toward the mainstream, delivering artists such as Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy, and the Chemical Brothers to MTV. Meanwhile, DJs like Carl Craig and Tiësto drew tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of fans to legitimate parties organized by veterans of the rave scene. When electronica ran its inevitable course and electronic music was declared dead by the same suits who insisted it was radio friendly in the first place, the records and singles and remixes migrated online with a seamlessness my partner and I mistook for a glitch: electronic music fans were, after all, technologically predisposed to shop online.

Sitting poolside in Miami in the early 2000s, at the Winter Music Conference, the scene’s annual Skull and Bones gathering, we lamented the status quo with the other sunburned, mojito-fried delegates. What we didn’t yet understand was that the continuum—star DJ, huge party, hit track, fanboy frenzy, club night—was a remarkably fecund, if contained, ecosystem. It meant that a city like Toronto could support an establishment like the Guvernment, where 6,000 concertgoers would lose themselves to resident DJ Mark Oliver and a rising wunderkind named Deadmau5.

If anything highlights our mistake in selling 2wars, it must be Deadmau5, a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman, of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Along with his frenemies Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, and David Guetta (the big-name DJs he has pissed off with his glib, profanity-laced pronouncements), all of whom routinely play for millions of people a year, he is the music industry’s last great hope. So huge is the money that Forbes compiles an Electronic Cash Kings list: “Over the past 12 months, the world’s ten highest-paid DJs pulled in $125 million—more than the payroll of the Los Angeles Lakers.” In 2012, Deadmau5, number 6 at $11.5 million (all figures US) worked the Grammys into his schedule; he graced the cover of Rolling Stone in July, going all Sharon Osbourne in the lead story (he called Madonna a “funky grandma”); flew in a private jet; and said “fuck” a lot. He deals in the dopamine dump, the transcendental wahoo!, the forget-your-troubles euphoria that used to be the province of arena rock. But he inhabits the arenas now.

Firmly on the fringes, Zimmerman’s Deadmau5 nonetheless trails only Justin Bieber and Drake as the hottest act in Canadian music. Everyone wants a piece of him. The question becomes: can electronic music, once my home and keep, survive its second boom, which is starting to look like a bubble?

By virtue of being from Niagara Falls, Zimmerman hails from a town near the nexus of North America’s formidable electronic music history. The area’s pedigree derives from its proximity to Detroit, which—along with Chicago, Berlin, and London—has long existed as one of the scene’s nodal points. Under the flickering pilot light of that dying industrial city, DJ-producer pioneers such as Carl Craig helped reinvent techno, melding the esprit of Alvin Toffler’s classic text The Third Wave with Chicago house music, Afro-futurism, and the clinical genius of German stalwarts Kraftwerk. The music flitted over the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario, where Richie Hawtin, working under his own name and his Plastikman moniker, built a legacy on finely honed, minimalist techno.

Zimmerman, who was born in 1981, has been around since the late ’90s. I vaguely remember him from my label days; I was retired by the time he released his inaugural studio album, Get Scraped, in 2005 (he has recorded or mixed a dozen more since). I certainly recall the first time I watched him in his current iteration, at a warehouse party at the SXSW festival in Austin in 2009. It was a scaled-down version of a now legendary noise and light show that would give even the Terminator a migraine. Indeed, it made an impact. Arms circling the neon murk around his lectern–cum–DJ booth, he wore a huge helmet that made him look like a heroin-spent, robotized Mickey Mouse. He took a predominantly rock crowd and slammed them into 4 a.m. with an industrial roar that suggested Nine Inch Nails married to French dance music masters Daft Punk.

It was all there, the scene’s DNA, going back into the mists of prehistory: London house, Detroit techno, Tron, Brian Eno, disco, Elvis, gospel, tribal drums, Tyrannosaurus rex roar, the big bang. I knew I was watching a superstar, but I also felt sure there was no way for a performer of his bent to become one.

Wrong again. In the intervening years, the music industry has continued its tragicomic search for the next big thing, and electronica was exhumed from its post-’90s mausoleum. All of the artists who crossed over to vanquish the mainstream? Still playing big festivals, and take a gander at the numbers: 165,000 at Ultra in Miami, 180,000 at Tomorrowland in Belgium, 250,000-plus at the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, to name but three in 2012. The electronic underground never disappeared; it was hiding in plain sight. Deadmau5 came of age in that interregnum, and has since emerged as the scene’s godfather.

In today’s rejigged industry argot, Deadmau5 is an electronic dance music (EDM) performer who plays tracks at what your dad would have sworn was a “rave,” but is now termed an “event” by the handful of music execs who survived the Fall. By his own estimation, he is nothing more than a “button pusher” (as he called himself in Rolling Stone), dissing the whole spiel thusly on his Tumblr (text revised for comprehensibility): “I’m not going to let people assume there’s a guy on a laptop up there producing new original tracks on the fly. Because none of the ‘top DJs in the world’ to my knowledge do so. Myself included.” This was meant a) to enrage his peers (mission accomplished: Skrillex unfollowed him on Twitter), and b) as a sincere caveat emptor.

During my 2wars tenure, one of the things that kept me up nights was the shift from turntable to laptop, where even the basic DJ skill of matching a set of 4/4 beats on two record players was fast disappearing. But that isn’t really the skill. It’s the ability to take the pulse of a party, of an “event,” of an age, and make that pulse thrum. At this, our hero is indisputably a master.

Last year, Deadmau5 released a record named > album title goes here <. In so doing, he executed his contractual obligations to EMI’s Virgin Records, despite the fact that albums are the cultural equivalent of a sackful of Greek bonds. The non-title is itself an irreverent stab at the industry. Few people, and certainly none of Zimmerman’s fans, think in terms of albums any longer. Neither does Virgin: the Deadmau5 signing is what is known as a 360 deal, touching as it does on all aspects of his career, including live events and sponsorship.

Deadmau5 barely bothers to iPhone it in: > album title goes here <’s pop single, “The Veldt,” is notable because it has no distinguishable features, although the lyrics, vaguely based on a Ray Bradbury book, point to a Weltschmerz of sorts:

Happy life with the machines
Scattered around the room
Look what they made
They made it for me
Happy technology.

Brecht it ain’t. The accompanying music videos (I’m thinking in particular of “Professional Griefers,” co-branded with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and featuring two enormous Deadmau5 fight-bots engaged in a brawl to the death) have so many extras and computer-generated effects that they make everything else on MTV look like a Scandinavian art film. After all, Deadmau5 is, as his website makes plain, an industrial concern. Besides albums and singles (sold through iTunes), there are branded earbuds, “splatter logo glow in the dark” tees, black wristbands, red wristbands, tote bags, coin pouches, grey mouse pads, and, indispensably, a Deadmau5 logo projector key chain light. The e-storefront is extensive, and expensive; a thirteen-year old with a credit card could crash the global financial system in an afternoon.

Indeed, almost all anyone ever talks about when they talk about Deadmau5 is money. That’s because he makes so much of it ($100,000 for an hour’s work, according to some reports). For those who came of age at acoustic open mike nights in campus bars, meaning nearly every music writer in the English-speaking world, his music sounds particularly dead—a vector for channelling corporate logos into developing minds loosened by narcotics.

Which is to entirely miss the point: Deadmau5 is rolling in it because the music is so dead, so manufactured. It sounds like Apple’s packaging smells: the gentle whiff of plastic and welded electronics assembled in a sterile Foxconn factory by biohazard suit–wearing Chinese. It is fully authentic on account of its inauthenticity.

Sadly, all of this bluster and fakeness tends to erase context. But the entire sweep of electronic music’s history is present in Deadmau5’s oeuvre, turned up to eleven, branded with mouse ears, and sold to a worldwide audience for whom the future is here in large amounts but still not evenly distributed.

Meanwhile, Wall Street salivates. Meet Rob F. X. Sillerman, the man responsible for the $350 concert ticket, who bought up most regional rock promoters in the United States for a reported $1.2 billion in the ’90s. Clear Channel Communications Inc. purchased his SFX for $3.4 billion in 2000, then created Live Nation, merged with Ticketmaster, and formed as detailed an approximation of the dark side as we’ve ever had on earth. Sillerman has defibrillated SFX, and is doing a rinse-and-repeat with EDM: in July 2012, he made Disco Productions of Louisiana his first purchase, and he plans to spend $1 billion more, according to a recent Billboard story.

That Live Nation has never made a cent—not one solitary penny in profit, despite fleecing music fans for nearly a decade—has not stopped it from entering the EDM game. It recently purchased Cream Holdings Limited, an EDM icon for its Creamfields festival, held annually in Cheshire, England, with offshoots in Abu Dhabi, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Sydney, among other locales. Within the next two years, the scene will be almost entirely locked up by the above-mentioned corporations, which have merged before and will no doubt merge again.

Dangerous times, because I’m not sure EDM can bear the scrutiny of an IPO, or the weight of all of these financial expectations. Deadmau5 is largely critic proof, and his records don’t need to sell to keep him on the Forbes list—which, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, he thinks is misrepresentative, considering that so much of the money goes back into touring (private jets!); and is generally bad, because it “makes us look like a bunch of overpaid dicks.” But twenty-five-year-old DJ phenomenon Skrillex—who is basically composing the soundtrack to Michael Bay’s brain (his “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” neatly sums up his roaring dub-step MO and has been rewarded with more than 100 million YouTube views)—presents Deadmau5 with a genuine existential challenge: kids love dangerous-sounding, viciously hard music made by someone who appears to care.

But does Skrillex care? While Deadmau5 tweets and tumbls his dismissals of the scene that has made him a millionaire many times over, Skrillex has won three Grammys and contributed music to a recent Disney picture, achievements that may please his agent but are hardly cool. The scene’s two leading lights are on the verge of scrubbing EDM of its underground lustre. When the backlash against all of this synergizing arrives, and it always arrives, the fiduciary carnage will look like Lehman Brothers in miniature.

This is a shame, because there is wondrously good music being made. Montreal’s MUTEK, an electronic music festival launched in 2000, has been a consistent floodgate for excellent new sounds, while keeping the godfathers in the mix, so to speak. Canadian veterans such as Richie Hawtin and Kid Koala are still playing and producing, while newcomers like TNGHT and Austra get much love on pitchfork.com and other online kingmakers. I could list a hundred DJs who still rearrange my innards, the rush having diminished not at all.

Despite the apparent health of the Deadmau5 brand, his very hugeness works like a dying star, sucking in everything until there’s nothing left but a musical black hole. Electronic music, which survived the downfall of the music industry, may not survive Live Nation and the exploitative Ticketmastering that comes in its wake. Deadmau5 himself knows what all of the attention means, and understands the long-term implications of something like the Forbes list: “It says, ‘Invest in this shit because it’s hot,’ to the idiots with more money than all of us put together. It’s a self-propelling stupidity that’s now influxing big industry money into the previously small EDM market,” he growled on spin.com.

If I were still president of 2wars & A Revolution Records, I’m not sure how I would feel about all of this. Vindicated, probably. But Deadmau5’s nihilistic motto may offer the best prediction for what is to come: “United we fail,” he insists. Kneaded into a great grey lump by twin corporate masters, EDM doesn’t stand a chance. They called it electronica, once. I wonder what they’ll call it next time—if there is a next time.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Metachemical Mike Stannard

    I’m not worried. I survived the fall of electronica, I’ll survive the fall of EDM, still sitting here programming synths and layering drums.

  • Luke McKeehan

    Good piece. But much like the banner ads supporting this blog from Enbridge Northern Gateway, I wish the whole EDM thing was so black & white. Art + money rarely make good music together.

  • jd

    Lost me at: It is fully authentic on account of its inauthenticity.

  • The Beatles

    Newsflash:

    Crap pop musician producing crap pop music. Electronic music somehow in jeopardy.
    In other news Aphex Twin controlling orchestra via midi device.

    Sensationalist garbage.

  • Cortexjoel

    Pop stars don’t last in any genre neither does the hype that surrounds any given style of music for a moment in time. So the current crop of EDM faves may find themselves on the oldies casino circuit 10 years hence or maybe they’ll just have to go back to getting people to dance in the clubs and/or warehouses where it all began.