From Basement Raves to Wall-to-Wall LEDs. How Did the Live Electronic Show Get So Mindblowing?
“I remember in the 90s there were literally hanging bedsheets and video projections on it. There were almost no moving lights and a bedsheet and some beat-up ass looking speakers, now we’re looking at the $25 million production of the future.” — Vello, V Squared Labs
Through a prayer and a miracle, you’ve made it into an electronic music festival. All the tickets sold out in one second, with millions of people left on the waiting list — but you’re one of the lucky ones to set foot on the festival grounds thousands of miles from your home. After fighting your way through the security-beefed, gated entrance and acquiring the wristband you’ll be wearing for the next three days, you glance at the map and calculate about an acre to the main stage. You make your way through the blistering heat and festival booths, passing thousands of young people in varying states of intoxication, undress, aggression and nationality, with countering beats throbbing in every direction.
You finally make it to a stage that is ignited, top-to-bottom, with stunning LEDs and 3D projection mapping that coats the set with cosmic colors and shapes that magically react to the beats. The DJ is wearing some kind of audioreactive mask that must have cost thousands of dollars to make. The packed crowd, swelling with the beat, is completely hypnotized, knowing that this, right here, is the hottest thing going on in the entire world right now.
And then you realize, this isn’t even the main stage.
When you go to an electronic music festival or major live act at a club these days, you expect a certain level of, well, mindfuckitude.
“You can compare it to rock,” says Vello Virkhaus, who has created and executed live spectacles for Amon Tobin (including his famous 3D geometric ISAM show), Skrillex and Infected Mushroom through his studio V Squared Labs. “Rock’n'roll used to be socially frowned upon, morally unacceptable, and thinking back, so was rave. Now, 65 percent of the audience has fucking smartphones. From passing out glowsticks and people on ecstasy getting thrown in jail, to people wearing pasties and lingerie…Rave is turning into the Big Top.”
So, it’s not that blown-out ‘experiences’ or jam-packed, hedonistic clubs and shows are anything new. From The Chemical Brothers to Daft Punk, DJs have been turning heads toward the stage for years. But EDM — that is, the new wave of commercial house and electronic music taking over the US — is achieving unprecedented heights in live show attendance, and therefore innovation. The Ultra Music Festival went from 50,000 attendees in 2005 to 165,000 this year, while Tomorrowland achieved a similar spike, selling out 180,000 tickets (with 2 million attempting to buy them) in under a second due, in part, to its spectacular after-festival video in 2011 and main stage craftsmanship. Electric Daisy Carnival Records are charting, and never-before-achieved live show technology is being cooked in the labs as feverishly as the iPhone/Samsung war, all for EDM.
“The minimum range to really do something effectively [for a live show] is $200,000, but that’s pretty tight,” says Vello, whose lab uses its own 3D mapping software that is constantly evolving. “Half a million is a good place to start. ” And course, shows in the multimillions happen every day.
Watch V Squared Labs’ reel of 3D mapping technology
Certainly, the live spectacle and the genre go hand in hand. The wubs, wobbles, and enormous drops are tailor-made to overstimulate you, which hardly amounts to anything in a dark room. But this surge in abject insanity didn’t happen out of nowhere.
“It all started when people saw Daft Punk at Coachella, and all the industry people were there. They saw the visual aspect of the show paired with the music, and that really jump-started everything,” says Disco Donnie, who has been producing electronic music concerts and festival events since the 90s, including the Electric Daisy Carnival (which attracted over 300,000 people this year in the Las Vegas incarnation), and tours with Tiesto and Benny Benassi.
Since then, America’s interest in EDM — which you can read all about here — has led to swelling budgets and greater corporate interest, not to mention more and more nerdy producers who want to be involved in the technological aspects of their shows.
“Afrojack was really the first DJ in four or five years to say anything about visual art or video, saying ‘hey, these are my dope visuals!” says Vello. “There’s been more interest and call-outs since then. Skrillex is really interested in his show and visual aspects. He’ll be in the lab saying fuck YEAH! And every time he sees me he says what’s UP! He’s into the sci-fi and spaceship and pop-inspired stuff from video games.”
Suddenly, the live show element isn’t just some random lighting in the background; it’s integral to the DJ’s identity, a tool used to focus ravers’ attentions toward the man himself, rather than their own movements, a source of Darwinian competition leading to bigger shows, themed festivals with crowds in the hundred thousands, and bigger clubs that accommodate EDM fans, as if each and every show needs to be its own Burning Man.
“Have you seen Pacha [club] in New York?!” Vello exclaims. “They were a dark black cave with crappy plasmas, now you walk in the room over there and it’s like holy shit! Full LED! Wall-to-wall! There visual artists working in residence!”
We used to walk 15 miles for ecstasy…
It’s hard to believe EDM promoters had trouble selling tickets to Americans in the early-mid 2000s, but interest was simply low on a commercial level (not in Europe, of course, where electronic music always thrived, just not to the 3D mapping extent).
For years after the scene sparked in Chicago in the late 70s early 80s, electronic music was relegated to glowsticks in warehouses and illegal settings. Ravers would risk arrest, or at least, some seriously makeshift ideas. And of course, stories like these:
“One of the first venues in New Orleans we used in 1994 was this old warehouse,” relates Disco Donnie. “It had been vacant for years, but it had previously been used as a meat locker and a fish warehouse. Needless to say the place smelled putrid. We rented it because it had these huge freezer units on the roof….[the landlord] had an electrician come and disconnect them so basically we were fucked. The first night we had 600 people, but it was so hot everyone hung out outside…I’m not sure what we were thinking because we had an all ages show with zero security and no insurance. Plus we set up a full bar to sell alcohol. Needless to say the attendance over the month dwindled because of the heat and the smell. We ended up doing about 150 people on our last night, and 30 of those people were a bus load of Japanese tourists. I’m not even sure how they found the place, but they freaking danced and sweated their asses off until 6am.”
While rave culture might still be alive to some extent, the new generation knows EDM as cordoned off, legal, security-heavy, and, arguably, safe. More people (including visual artists) are making a living, and some are becoming stinking rich. For better or for worse, it’s not only the music that has gone extreme, it’s the new reality of the music industry.
“There are all these business factors now, in managing drug use and age limits,” Vello says. “The first thing people do is walk up to me and hand me a logo marketing artists, there’s a big-time sell sell sell. It’s working! People are buying more records! And eventually, electronic music will be more like a circus of itself.”