DJs May Be the New Rock Stars, But Success Has a Price

The pressures of being a superstar DJ don't leave artists much room to grow.

Despite the fact that 2012 may go down as one of the biggest years for American electronic music, with DJs becoming the new, young-money rock stars, we may look back on this year as the moment the genre started to die before it actually began. Take dubstep — one small part of the electronic music scene — which became a fad before it had any long-term future. In the shuffle of too much touring and the pressure to be insanely prolific, artists ultimately had no downtime to innovate. In the case of local breakout star Bassnectar, he seemed to lose his conviction — and, more importantly — to stop having fun.

Electronic music has long been part of the Bay Area music landscape, with a thriving San Francisco club scene and underground parties fueled, for the most part, by the Burning Man community. Bassnectar’s brand of West Coast glitch and hip-hop-inspired dubstep catapulted him into the ranks of superstar American producer/DJs like deadmau5 and Skrillex, the latter winning three Grammys this year. According to Forbes’ list of the Top 10 biggest earners in dance music, Skrillex made $15 million in 2012, deadmau5 made $11.5 million, and, although he’s not on the list, Bassnectar makes anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 per show and plays about 150 shows a year, according to an SF Weekly article. That’s anywhere from $11.2 million to $15 million a year, and it’s all from touring. Like most artists these days, Bassnectar gives his music away for free online.

Part of me is incredibly proud of the 34-year-old Bassnectar (né Lorin Ashton) — he’s paid his dues and he’s become one of the best DJs in American dance music. But he’s been better, too: more experimental, more daring, and more resistant to play to the lowest common denominator (i.e., frat boys, macho bros, teenage candy ravers). Compare his mid-2000s releases, Mesmerizing the Ultra and Underground Communication, to this year’s five releases, among them Vava Voom and the Freestyle EP, and you’ll hear the difference between creativity and mediocrity.

Bassnectar built his following slowly and carefully in the underground scene and at Burning Man. That was where I first heard him, in 2007, and by then, Bassnectar’s sets were already the stuff of legend. His devotees were a typical Burning Man crowd — post-apocalyptic/steampunk, black leather-clad, dreadlocked tribal-hippies sucking on nitrous-oxide-filled balloons — who tensed their bodies to his every bass-throttled beat. And it was tense: The former drummer’s flow — his instinctual ability to insert choppy beats, complex rhythms, and zigzag tempos, and then suddenly drop in a melodic Pixies sample — was like nothing I had heard before in my decade of dancing at raves. After that, I tried to see Bassnectar whenever I had the opportunity.

Fast-forward to 2010, the last year Bassnectar played a set at Burning Man, and the style he’d developed playing locally and nationally had gained mainstream radio play, mostly in the form of dubstep remixes of Top-40 pop songs. The trend soon snowballed: Dubstep found its way into a McDonald’s commercial, provided the soundtrack to dancing babies on YouTube, and formed the beats in nearly every Top-40 single and many hip-hop tracks. And, like mainstream hip-hop, dubstep catapulted out of white suburbs, the mentality of its listeners being “drop the bass” — trance-like builds that culminate into a vibrating climax of overwhelming, wobbly bass.

This is the point when many electronic music fans and critics say everything went wrong and the genre became formulaic, bubblegum dance music for the masses — but it’s not that simple. Bassnectar and Skrillex rose to DJ stardom because they’d been honing their craft for some time — it wasn’t just a trend, it was their art. Among the two, Skrillex took the heat for turning the genre into “brostep,” dance music for neon-clad, upwardly mobile white boys.

It’s been a little over a year since I saw Bassnectar play a sold-out show at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Gone were the Burners, and in their place were the bros with their pacifier-sucking, half-naked girlfriends. But that wasn’t my issue with the show. Bassnectar’s set was almost perfect; he still had the power to bring the crowd up and take it down with his odd mix of tempos and samples, but the music hadn’t progressed. Bassnectar had once used the decks as a political platform, giving Public Enemy-style speeches about the oppression of government and our precious freedom, telling us to be grateful for the right to, well, party. There was none of that at Bill Graham, and no surprises either. My friends and I walked out of the venue, laughing about how old we felt and talking about “that one time” Bassnectar pulled off sampling The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Those were the days.


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