Here's the truth behind five huge misconceptions about electronic music, its festivals, and its culture.

It's no secret that just as EDM has hordes of diehard fanatics; it has an equal or even greater number of detractors. All too often is electronic music considered a newfangled mess of grating noises only meant for millennials of questionable taste. 

For those in the know, however, electronic music is a magnificent sonic spectrum with a rich history - and arguably more diversity than "regular" music itself. Though a music fan might be able to name about a dozen genres of music they enjoy, any well-listened EDM head will be able to name a dozen micro-genres of a brand of EDM they might not even enjoy. 

Along those same lines, if one were to ask the uninitiated about EDM festivals, chances are they would described debaucherous, orgiastic, drug-fueled raves filled with pill-poppers and drug sniffers galore. They might also deride DJs for being glorified button pushers, totally devoid of skill or musical talent. 

Of course, both assertions are objectively silly and are born from ignorance at best. Read on to examine five of EDM's biggest myths and misconceptions to discover the truth that lies beneath. 

1. "EDM" is a single genre of music and it all sounds the same.

Stop right there! First of all, the term “EDM,” or electronic dance music, is about as specific and meaningful as the term “analog instrumental music.” Literally speaking, EDM refers to music that is created primarily from electronic sounds. In practice, “EDM” is an umbrella term, a supergenre of sorts. Those who use it are doing so either for sake of ease, or due to their own ignorance. Anyone who has their own love affair with EDM will internally cringe when they use the term in public, both because of the loaded connotations and its nebulousness.

A brief summary of EDM's subgenres

A brief summary of EDM's subgenres

In reality, electronic music is as wide and varying as “non-electronic” music. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to consider EDM the obverse of “regular” music. Just as there is rock, jazz, hip hop, acoustic, classical, country, punk, etc., etc., EDM is a really massive collection of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-sub-genres. In fact, the heavy splintering and "nicheifying" of different style of electronic music is part and parcel to the ethos of EDM itself; those listeners with a trained ear will be able to pick out the subtleties in sound, tempo, beat, etc. that separate house from tech house, deep house, acid house, electro house, or any of the multitude of other sub-house tracks, for example.

2. EDM is “millennial” music.

First, if everyone could please stop using the term millennial, that would be great.

Second, even though your first taste of “true” EDM may have been Skrillex's "Bangarang" in 2012, electronic music is not even close to new. At its most reductive, audio pioneers have been using purely electronic sounds to create experimental music since the 1800s or earlier. The earliest electronic instrument, the Clavecin Électrique, was an electric keyboard created in 1759 France. Patented in 1897 America, the Telharmonium is considered the world's first synthesizer; it was a massive electric organ that could transmit it’s purely electromagnetic sound through phone lines and out of speaker horns. Sounds familiar, right?

Fast-forward nearly a century and a few technological revolutions later, and the Minimoog synthesizer was born. It is no overstatement to claim that this instrument revolutionized the entire world. With its small size, the Minimoog allowed almost any musician to begin experimenting with synthesized sounds. Previous synths were large enough to fill entire rooms and were incredibly expensive to boot. 

Minimoog

1971 Minimoog Model-D

By the '70s, Chicago artists began developing what would become known as house music. By the '80s, synths were as ubiquitous in music as guitars. By the '90s, techno and drum-and-bass were everywhere, from movie trailers to FM radio. By the early 2000s, electronic music was absorbed and obfuscated by pop ballads, while the music industry laid waste to taste and style. Thankfully, by the early 2010s, EDM broke free of its electropop curse (mostly), and pure electronic music was well on its way towards widespread acceptance. Keep in mind that this timeline completely disregards the rise of dance music in Europe, which predates America by at least a few decades.

3. DJs and producers are the same thing.

Traditionally, disk jockeys were individuals who spun vinyl records on at least two turntables connected to a central mixer. These days, most professional DJs spin on at least two CDJs, which are essentially digitized versions of old school turntables. The CDJs are linked to a mixer, which allows even more control over the sound. DJs will mix, chop, scratch, layer, sample, cue, beat match, and pitch match multiple audio files at will. Essentially, DJs are live remixers.

CDJ and mixer

CDJ-2000s flank the DJM mixer

Producers, on the other hand, are the sound nerds and music geeks who engineer the strange, wubby bass sounds or scintillating vocals, and compose the full tracks themselves. Producing can be as simple as chopping samples and twisting them into something completely new, or as complex as literally engineering the sounds from scratch à la Tipper. Most often, producers use the incredibly complex software, Ableton, to create their sounds.

ableton

Ableton 10

4. DJs “just press play.”

This misconception is born purely from those who deride electronic music and DJs out of ignorance or just plain negativity. Anyone who has spent meaningful time trying to understand electronic music, the art of DJing, or simply glanced at DJ gear will know that being a DJ is as complicated as it gets. Even the simplest DJ techniques take great timing and skill.

Taking a look at the insane expanse of modern DJ and music production gear, the complexity of live electronic music becomes abundantly clear. Even the most basic DJ controller has at least four channels for music, and each channel can be controlled through its high, mid, and low-frequency sounds. The tempo of each track can be adjusted at will (and must be, to correctly beat match), cue points picked and played whenever, and faders control the relative volume of each channel. DJs must also control a mixer, which is the piece of gear with the plethora of knobs and faders that mixes the channels together.

dj setup

MIDI boards, mixers, turntables, etc.

This is, of course, a vast oversimplification that barely scratches the surface. many respectable DJs headlining festivals these days play with CDJs, mixers, MIDI controllers, and even Ableton Live - all at once, and in front of thousands of rabid fans. Bassnectar, for example, plays his sets on custom, unreleased MIDI controllers and two laptops, both running individual instances of Ableton.

bassnectar booth

Bassnectar's Booth

In reality, DJing is essentially playing with music in the ultimate sandbox environment, where the only limitations are the length of the track and the attention of the audience. The complexity is insane, and there are no limits.

5. EDM is synonymous with drug culture.

To its detractors, one of the strongest connotations of EDM and the music festival scene is drug culture. Perhaps born from the somewhat misunderstood rave scene in the '90s, it’s easy to fall into the thought pattern of associating EDM with club drugs: molly, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine, LSD... the list goes on. 

In reality, though there is an undercurrent of drug use within the music festival scene, it is in no way necessary or even expected to partake in narcotics to enjoy the music. In fact, drug use at electronic music festivals is remarkably similar to other music genres, with alcohol and marijuana being the majority of drug consumed. According to TickPick's study of over a thousand festival attendees, over 75% consumed alcohol, and over 38% consumed marijuana at fests, while only 13% have consumed MDMA. Overall, drug use at EDM festivals is remarkably similar to all other genres of music festival. 

If one were to canvas festivalgoers on the biggest misconceptions about festivals and EDM, the immediate answer would often be the unimportance of drugs. In fact, there is a strong subculture of EDM fans and attendees who do not partake in illicit narcotics and attend festivals stone sober. A growing number of festival-sponsored groups are launched specifically for those looking to party sober. Electric Forest, for example, has Camp Traction, whose “primary purpose is to provide an empowering home base for those who would like to participate in a clean and sober experience.” Camp Traction is unaffiliated with any organized recovery group, and while virtually all tiers of Electric Forest camping have an upcharge, Camp Traction costs a whopping $0

If you ask people why they love EDM and the electronic music scene, the answer is never about drugs. Almost without fail, those who chase EDM culture do so because of the strong prevalence of love and acceptance. In a society that has become increasingly hostile and bleak, music festivals and electronic music are a bastion of acceptance for people of all ages, races, and creeds. EDM's biggest unifying factor is peoples’ love for the music and love for one another. Though EDM is stigmatized by drug use, in reality, it provides the strongest feelings of belonging that many will ever experience.

Brian Baker is a writer and photographer based out of St. Louis. You can find his portfolio here.

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