In 1970, a group of advertising executives found themselves in a screening of a (then brand-new) film of the groundbreaking concert event, Woodstock. The documentary showed the excitement, exhilaration, and frenzied atmosphere of the festival. As the legend has it, one ad-man asked the room a specific question. “What don’t you see in this film? What’s missing?” Of course, there were hippies visible with necklaces made from flowers, the men wore beards, and the some of the women wore nothing at all. What was not readily visible in this crowd of over five hundred thousand people was a can of beer. Certainly, there was liquor (and whatever other substances concert-goers use), but there was not one beer can on the ground at the end of the festival. This realization presented a huge marketing opportunity. From then on, large-scale events were no longer just “at the Stage in Central Park,” they were “The Budweiser Summer Concert Tour Series – at the Stage in Central Park.”
In 2013, it seems almost otherworldly to imagine any event not sponsored by more than five or six different companies, including alcoholic beverages. “Meet me at the Heineken tent,” is a common Ultra mantra, ingraining itself into the very fabric of the event. The main stage is no longer the only required destination, it nearly takes second place to the ubiquitous green awning. What does all this corporate signage have to do with your concert-going experience? Does a Red Bull sign really take away from the heart-thumping bass that makes you sway your body along with your friends? No, the average fan of Electronic Dance Music doesn’t – and probably even shouldn’t – take issue with these advertisements. The increasing prevalence of brand integration with a pop culture phenomenon is a sign of where Electronic Dance Music (referred to by many as EDM) is headed.
EDM started as techno music, then evolved into electro, which evolved into house, which evolved into countless sub categories such as trance, dubstep, and the current craze, trap music. EDM started in people’s basements, in rented out warehouses, at block parties. DJs and Producers were their own entrepreneurs, making flyers and throwing parties not for the money – but for the party. For example. producer/DJ/record label owner Wesley Pentz (a.k.a. Diplo) who threw his first Hollertronix party in 2003 in the basement of a Chinese food restaurant in Philadelphia. This party, which attracted backpackers, goths, hipsters, and rave kids was the furthest thing from corporate. In 2009, Diplo was the face of a Blackberry smartphone campaign.
A massive event like Ultra is susceptible to corporatization simply because the genre of EDM suffers from uncontrollable popularity. The young demographic flocks to these sorts of events, and it is obvious that “big names” try to capitalize on the new craze. For example, at last year’s Ultra, while introducing Avicii, Madonna garnered backlash from producer deadmau5 for asking the crowd “If anyone’s seen Molly,” a reference to a party drug that many festival goers take. Many hardcore EDM fans saw this moment as a death toll for the genre. The Material Girl promoting drug use to a crowd of 150,000.
Music cannot be sustainable if it does not make money. In short, people will not buy records if they do not like the music. Avicii’s genre-defining mega-hit “Levels” proved that, if a song is catchy, and has a good hook, you will hear it everywhere. Massive events like Ultra are massive for exactly that reason. People like the music. So when you turn on the television and you see Avicii promoting Budweiser Platinum at a cool, dimly lit party while “Levels” plays in the background, remember, the music doesn’t sound any different. It just looks different.